Archive for March, 2010

Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Met

Dear friends and readers,

A profoundly moving and effective theatrical experience has been made out of Ambrose Thomas’s later 19th century French opera, Hamlet, itself as a script a concise free adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play. In its concision it reminds me of Verdi’s Otello: both eliminate characters, incidents and simplify the plot-design and some of the characters.

Unfortunately, the Met is not generous with stills or photos of its casts, so I am unable to present one of the more touching or remarkably acted moments by Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet in the new production of Ambroise Thomas’s opera of the same name which the admiral, Izzy and I saw today at our local HD moviehouse. Nor can I offer a photo of one of the spectacle like scenes as staged by Patrice Courier and Moishe Leiser. So you are just going to have to take my word for this and accept the few promotional stills I found online.

The opera as staged: it is not Shakespeare’s Hamlet at all. Hardly any Shakespeare phrases make it over into the opera. “Etre or ne pas etre” is a rare example, and after that the rest of the soliloquy vanishes but for the phrases about fear of what’s to come, and a desire for oblivion. The hard stuff about how if you desire to live, you have to cope with human politics, nastiness and so on is all omitted. Shakespeare’s Gertrude is a complicit woman indifferent to most things but her convenience, and she wishes Hamlet would just accept what’s happened (“Death is common … why seems it so particular with thee?”); Thomas’s is a sentimentally conceived remorseful, guilty woman coerced by Claudius. Horatio and Polonius (who is an accomplice in Thomas’s play) have hardly anything to do. There’s no “Absent there from felicity for a while” (one of my favorite lines) nor “the rest is silence.” Ophelia goes mad simply for love of Hamlet who has rejected her — it’s a lot more enigmatic and variously motivated in Shakespeare. The women depicted are turned into objects men see, only as they relate to them: a girl goes mad for love of one, a mother driven wild for guilt towards another. In Shakespeare they are presences in their own right that do not yield their own burden of existence. And so it goes.

From the little talk we had with our neighbors (there was some, this is a friendly relaxed group), I discovered hardly anyone knew Shakespeare’s play except in vague general outlines. I knew I was in no Joe Papp public theater crowd, but was somewhat surprised to see how little recognition the people around me had when I mentioned this or that phrase or character as Shakespeare wrote the play. So to the crowd these losses were nothing for real. The conductor, Louis Langree when interviewed by Renee Fleming said the original opera had an ending where Hamlet lived on and became king! It was dropped said he, for fear of “Anglo-Saxon displeasure.” In the 18th century Lear ended happily, but this was 19th century. For my part had Hamlet not died, the play would lose so much of its meaning (in Shakespeare Fortinbras takes over showing how little has been learned or will change), and its final effect depends on having at least three bodies on stage: Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius. It was not at all denounced (as one review feared); the audience didn’t know the original play sufficiently. And around us they did enjoy what they saw, very much.

Nonetheless, the production partakes of some of the depth of Shakespeare’s portraits, his adult perception of the painfulness of each individual’s experience of other people which is conveyed more than anyone by the domination throughout of by Keenlyside’s subtle nuanced acting. In an interview in the intermission with Renee Fleming (a marvelous hostess), Keenlyside said it’s a text-driven opera. The story, sentiments, characters are what makes it. He has a strong British or London accent and said he doesn’t read music well. Since he did not have to tell us this, this presentation of himself is part of a persona of some sort, and he sure seems to get all the tones right and speaks an elegance of tone and eloquently intelligent glance amid a well-acted deep confusion and distress.

Keenlyside made the opera (as the actor who plays Shakespeare’s Hamlet makes or breaks the play); he was so perfect for the role physically, perhaps because he’s near 50, with all the gravitas of such an age in his skin (yet looks younger), that for me this could be my image of Hamlet from now on. Marlis Peterson as Ophelia manages to be lyrical, to shake her body traumatically as she goes mad carrying wild flowers about. James Morris is a quietly believable conscience-ridden Claudius. There were so many revealing close-ups of their faces working, and from striking angles.

The production also contains several of Shakespeare’s finest scenes, e.g., the play within the play does as half-camp pantomime, Claudius’s prayer and Hamlet not killing him, Hamlet berating his mother, the graveyard setting. And it has new brilliant scenes implied by Shakespeare too, e.g., a long mad scene, very hard to do as not probable, by Marlis Peterson; scenes where blood is used prominently to the point of soaking, so that Hamlet pours it all over himself after the play within the play is over and while he stands on the banquet table; Ophelia too releases blood all over herself from her handy knife so she too is suffused with blood by the time she dies.

Marlis Peterson as Ophelia shuddering with thwarted desire

As Gertrude, Jennifer Larmore was directed to be an exaggeratedly near-hysterical adulterous; Hamlet’s ghost father is a statuesque powder-white and goes round in a wrapped sheet holding a sword. The first ghost scene as the three men look out at the audience just before the ghost walks on is among the opera’s most compelling moments.

The music is not great. There are no tunes or strains that bowl you over with their beauty nor are any endlessly echoing in your ears afterwards, memorable. It is beatifully sung, lovely in the mad scene of Ophelia, anguished for Hamlet, melancholy for Claudius. The admiral (Jim) said it was a vehicle for a baritone, with one aria (the mad scene) for the coloratura soprano.

This may be paradoxical to say: while it was an work which communicated through spectacle, it was also beautifully simple in the setting. The spectacle was in the actors’ performance, the costumes, gestures, interaction of bodies, simple archetypal props and costumes. The set was just a back wall behind which the actors came and went. I loved this. I do find man of the fussy sets so tawdy and they don’t persuade me at all. It has to be superlatively well done and (yes) have a simplicity about it before I can suspend my disbelief.

I found myself near tears in the scene just after the grave-diggers leave the stage and Hamlet has not yet realized the newly-dug hole is for a dead Ophelia. He has a worn grey great-coat on, worn white T-shirt, his face weary, lined as he sings of his sense of isolation and despair, reaching out for he knows not what. The next scene is Laertes’s return, and after that the body and funeral and Hamlet’s ghost-father demanding Hamlet act, which he just manages to do.

Near end

It’s in this gap of time, the quiet singing stasis just before the final crash and ritual pageant reasserts itself, the experience hits the tragic nadir and deep exhilaration as we feel this treasured presence with all his gifts struggle intensely, and in that struggle give us the sense of something precious one could have known lost for ever. Not pity and the wildly sardonic close of Shakespeare, but rather uplift through empathetic admiration. He is so relieved to go (one of the substitute lines makes him long for oblivion)

If you didn’t see it this time round, don’t miss it next year, partly because only an actor of the calibre of feeling of Seenlyside (reminding me of Hans Matheson in Zhivago) can pull it off. This Hamlet and the now 40 year old Rosencavalier (with Renee Fleming) were the two expansive experiences this year at the HD Met opera.

There was an appearance of the general manager taken in the caravan behind the Met theatre. He had in back of him a bank of TV screens. He is there as they operate these long-distance close-up cameras. He expressed joy at the huge number of people reached this year, and told of how next year there will be 11 HD operas broadcast around the earth, with 5 new productions. Again for my part I love these movie versions; I get much more out of them. I recognize the singers now. They must and will change the way these things are directed (are doing so even now) and eventually influence who gets to sing as it’s natural to want performers who look the parts.


Read Full Post »

Yuri (Hans Matheson) looking out from the army train (2002 Dr Zhivago)

What he sees: countryside



Dear friends and readers,

About a week ago, I finished listening to Philip Madoc read aloud the whole of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, probably as translated by Manya Harari and Max Hayward. I would like to share a few of the postings I wrote over the course of the four weeks it took me (in my car) to listen to this masterpiece. It may seem a perverse way to talk about the novel, but I’m going to see it in terms of the two movies, and suggest Davies’s Dr Zhivago is far truer to the text than David Lean’s, but that neither presents the real structure: it’s not dependent on a love story, but the chaos, senselessness and displacement of individual lives in our era. And neither shows the final retreat, nihilism and justified elitism of Pasternak-Zhivago’s perception of experience. (I do like the movies, both of them, but their visions are quite different as I suggest in an earlier blog.)

I also listened to it in terms of a group of novels and studies of political novels I read last year and this. I spent a couple of months last spring reading Victorian political novels (by Trollope, George Meredith, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry Kingsley, Benjamin Disraeli, among others), listened to all four novels of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, read aloud effectively (I read Vols 1-3 of 4 in the 1980s), and then rewatched Christopher Morahan and Ken Taylor’s film adaptation, Jewel in the Crown. This early winter on Trollope19thCStudies we said we’d try Hugo, and I did read more than half of Hugo’s Les Miserables as translated by Norman Denny. Well, Dr Zhivago as read aloud by Philiip Madoc has given me a further sense of what the political novel has become in our time. It’s a retreat, a disillusionment, a descendent to some extent of James’s Princess Casamassima (also read on Trollope19thCStudies, a few years ago now) where the political hero also dies, is thrown on an ash-heap — partly because he is so noble of soul.


It opens on two scenes: the funeral of Yuri’s mother after a life of high society all the while her husband spends their fortune on his mistresses and drink; then his suicide on a train. I now see Lean chose to begin with the first incident, and Davies with the second.

Lean’s opener (1965 Dr Zhivago)

Davies then took us to the funeral and Yuri’s adoption, while Lean skipped the suicide and went on to the next chapter (3) where we meet Lara and her mother, seamtress and their desperate world. I can see that Lara indeed has a companion, Olga, who Anne-Marie Duff played (cut by Lean).

The book at this point has no political point of view that is clear — only deeply ethical in the way of 19th century novels. By contrast, Hugo’s politics are interwoven from the moment his book opens. In the smaller scenes I am reminded of fiction by Gogol and Goncharev – not Chekhov who gives us a more quiet set of people.

In these early scenes in Moscow there’s plenty of snow, up to the incident where the Czar’s dragoons break up a demonstration and proceed ruthlessly to murder people, when a politics perforce enters the narrative, but, tellingly, here not one comment from the narrator. Not one. In comparison with Hugo, this is denuded of political commentary altogether; in comparison with Paul Scott and Trollope ditto. It has vivid characters who are leading troubled confused lives.

Mother and daughter (Celia, Anna Gromyko; Lara, Keira Knightley)

At Lara’s mother’s attempted suicide and all the reactions to it, we see the influence of Zola and the European naturalists — Germinal for example. It’s quite different though (from both Hugo and Trollope too): Hugo has simple large lines and Trollope is developing multi-plot stories. Zhivago seems to emerge like some volcano slowly erupting in bits.

The beauty so far is in the language — I don’t know what is the translated text here but Madoc reads it stunningly well. I can see that imagery is in the old-fashioned way (like poetry) is one way of holding his novel together to give it meaning beyond the characters and stories. I do love the snow and the imagery and feel of it.

So in the first section of the book, Davies is closer to the book than Lean — Lean’s movie is visionary and original out of the landscape vision (as are his Dickens’ movies and Close Encounters); not that Davies lacks landscape. The politicization in 1958 terms (anti-communist) is imposed. Yuri is profoundly sympathetic to the socialist movement at first and we are told never lost his connection with its principles. There is religion of the Dostoevsky variety (talk about Christ from the abject-slave mentality) and a send-up of Tolstoi’s absurdity in Kreutzer’s Sonata, only it’s enigmatic what Pasternak finds silly.

On the absence of commentary from the implied author: I wonder if Pasternak had faith he could get this published. Like many a woman across the centuries, his text might not see the light of day and if it did, would be criticized. Surely that would affect how he shaped and how much work towards reaching his readers he put into it. Hugo knew he was a star at the time of Les Miserables, and Trollope a successful working commercial storyteller.

Thus far it reads very like a domestic realism novel. I am wondering if in 1958 simply because it came out of Russian and seemed to be the tradition of (capitalist) European western novels, it was overread — or if Pasternak, fearful of the authorities (rightly, for his Lara, the real one, was put in camps for decades because she was his mistress), curbed any tendency for commentary that could get him in trouble.


The camera in Davies’s film of the next part (the early teenagehood of the protagonists Yuri, Lara, Tonia) keeps returning to the outside of Tonya’s parents’ house where Yuri grew up. Much attention paid to to their first Christmas party, The one they wore their first beautiful evening clothes for in Davies’s film.

Tonia and Yuri (Alexandra Maria Lara, 2002 Zhivago)

IN the book Pasternak uses the coming death of Anna, Tonya’s mother, and her memories to allow in a flooding in of her pasts, and thus previous worlds in Russia. Personating her, he provides a brilliant meditation on her refusal to involve herself in bogus litigation fights with her family members which make only lawyers rich summed up Bleak House — of course a relative protests. It reads like a nineteenth century novel thus far, a humane one by a modern consciousness.

The shooting of Komarofsky by Lara at the party. Very powerful in the book the way several points of view are kept up: we are with Yuri most of the time and only hear of Lara – this is a repeat of Lara’s mother’s suicide, again something not experienced directly but heard about and encountered by Yuri.

The trauma of Lara’s sexual life with Komarofsky is presented indirectly in the novel: we hear of her wretchedness to think of how she had been kissing his hands, how she needs to get away, and how a friend offers a position as a governess she knows of in a family. Governessing is suddenly not imprisonment but safety. Alas, it’s not enough of a life and Lara wants marriage with Pasha and needs money. So here Lean’s reticent matches the original text while Davies makes forward strides in attempting to show women’s sexuality (even if from the male, his, point of view).

Thus as far as my sense of Lara in the book, the scene where she shoots Komarofsky whose roots are so complex is slithered over in both films. So too Pasha’s own intense distress the first night of their marriage to discover she is no virgin, but a longtime mistress of Komarofsky; again the matter presented in suggestive vague words which assume you understand what is happening.

This indirection goes along with the (as I am hypothesizing) the self-censorship and really unusual silence of the narrator I know Lubbock and others have shown how so many authors of the later 19th through mid-20th century seem not to be in their fiction; at the same time, we feel them continually shaping it and know what is their stance. Not here.

Something important is going on here: this silence and indirection. The boy in front, the “front” or cover story is a curtain behind which what matters happens. The book opens with the funeral he goes to: what matters is the attempted suicide of one mother and the death of the other. This emphasis of the book is lost.

I find myself comforted by the implicit outlook strongly critical of social arrangements. Madoc has a beautiful voice. I like Lara, can feel for Pasha, and see how Yuri is a traditional hero. I did see a section where the ideas of what is art and beauty were debated.


The two marriages are elided over in the book and what is emphasized is Zhivago and Lara’s experience of war. He dragged away from his family, she having to cope with and deciding to follow Pasha when he (foolishly and poignantly) deluded, hurt, flees her for death.

Yuri (Omar Shariff) and Lara (Julie Christie) as nurse and doctor at the front

Soon we come to where Zhivago and Lara are nurse and doctor together in a great country house which has been altered to serve as a hospital. They are falling in love but resisting it — he keeping an awareness of his affection for her the center of his conscious thought and nothing else; we don’t see in her mind at this point. Both leave or attempt to in order to return to their respective “lives” (as it’s called), he with Tonya and Shasha in Moscow, she to Yuriatrin, the village where she had manage to build a life for herself by teaching, with the plan of picking up her daughter from a friend she left her with on the way.


The book has flaws. Pasternak does have these passages about the Bible and Christianity from Zhivago where Zhivago allegorizes the Bible or the Christian story to infer ideas not in the Bible. One is a long section on the Jews. From a train Zhivago sees a group of Russian cossacks and villagers humiliating an elderly Jewish man and preventing his family from getting needed supplies; it’s ugly. They tell Zhivago they are just having some harmless fun. Then he observes the Czar at a huge rally where everyone is ever so awed and applaud, all the while if you just looked at the man you saw a diffident stupid man who had such terrific power over the lives of others.

Then we get this meditation against the nonsense of accusing jews of not being patriotic (used against them) but then interesting, he goes on against nationalism, and says how pernicious this can be to have a group identity, how dangerous too. All this though is based on the Bible — it’s not there.

His book could be used to be anti-communist when it is rather a Voltairian vision of the political world shot through Russian art themes (references to say Pushkin, Tolstoi) and specific obsessions of Pasternak’s own as a poet and man troubled about the existence of God — Lara won’t look at this or that lest it disturb her belief in God. Nothing of Chekhov or Turgenev or Gogol.

I’m drawn by old-fashioned in depth characterization and effective scenes — and what some might call misanthropy. One group of power hungry people replace another is Boshevism is shown to feel like whatever may be the ideals pronounced (which Yuri like someone at the beginning of the French revolution supports).

The book is peculiar; it shows the kinds of jumps and starts and sudden gaps and turns I’ve seen in books where the author is not sure of him or herself, not sure it will be published, or what will be the public’s response. As I’ve said, there is an odd absence of some commentary from the narrator where you might expect it. If it is to be interpreted politically, I’d say it’s in these sudden zigzags within and between chapters and the feeling of intense constraint. Here is an implied author who doesn’t believe his book will reach an audience quite, who has no confidence in what the response of his audience will be, and who is afraid of someone powerful reading his book taking offence.

Angela Livingstone’s Pasternak argues these gaps are deliberate, artistic, a way of making the book 20th century, but this may be the special pleading of the academic determined to turn flaws into strengths of the author she has chosen to spend time on. She argues the zigzags and lack of coherence and curious repressions of the narrator are deliberate. So I’m not wrong: they are there. She says they are there because this is not a late European 19th century novel, but a 20th century one: about dislocations of lives amid anonymous non-there societies. Remember Mrs Thatcher: there is no society, only individuals and families. The vision in Zhivago is one I saw in Haneke’s White Ribbon: little groups of people turn into themselves and connections more tenuous, not there than ever; within identities in public at a great distance from realities.

Hugos Les Miserables has this terrific belief that all the people in it are united and that personality is not shattered and fragmentary, though Marius is Hugo himself. As I toted my groceries home amid the left-over and filthy snow, after having listened to another bout of Dr Zhivago, I thought to myself how modern the novel really is, and its distance from Les Miserables.

While both Lean and Davies “read” into the book, I’d say Davies is much closer. One thing does come across by the dramatic scenes. A horror and hatred of warwhich is in the book. Pasternak insists we look at what modern machinery does to male bodies, how hideously people are deformed, the terrible horrific pains they endure. This is a war using weapons no human body can withstand.

The same sense of deep pain is registered in Tonia’s childbirth — for once and maybe since then more times the excruciating experience is put down. It should be said Tonia gets no pain medication, but women didn’t until there was some effective stuff so not until the 1930s for middle class women and up in modern places. Pain physical and emotional, these realities of life we can’t escape are Pasternak’s subjects.

He insists on the irrationality of human beings carrying on such wars on. Now he can get away with this by not having politics, since for the wealthy and powerful the war will eventually or for now (they hope) protect their status, property. Davies in his movie adds statement for the soldiers to say they should go home because to fight for the Czar is to fight for people they ought to be fighting. That is not Pasternak but Davies.

The characters are believable up to a point. Like most novels, they also fall into types too. As I often like the good characters with decent morality and hearts, I like Lara and Yuri very much. She is presented as altruistic, unambitious, susceptible to bullying and temptation (as in the Komarofsky incident), Yuri as someone with high ideals in culture, art, and humanity. I am expected to think Pasha is dead, but having seen the movie I know better. I wonder if Pasternak originally intended to kill Pasha off, but changed his mind.

The descriptions are superb, the landscapes, and atmosphere of places, but there is not enough of it. See my above paragraph.
The book may have been exploited and used by the continual counter-revolutionary groups of our society, but in itself it’s really just another great novel in the European tradition, owing much to the English and German traditions, more in the quiet realistic psychology Trollope-Gaskell-Eliot-Mann vein than to the fantastical and highly mannnered type of Dickens or Thackeray. Pasternak would not be the first author to censor himself not believe in his book quite.

I like the narrator’s tone but this may be a function of Madoc’s resonant kindly voice.


Yuri makes it back to the train

The book comes into his own when the family leaves Moscow and goes on that train ride deep into the countryside. It’s here neither film can do justice to the text. (I never did figure how when watching either movie what was the point of bringing the family to the countryside except that now Yuri can bump into Lara and the affair really begin.) The text is filled with long inward meditations by Yuri said to be what he put in his diary, sketches of remarkable characters who reveal what revolutions do to people — dislocation, the freeing of fierce animosities, the chance, rare, for some that someone can rise and fulfill his gifts, but for others total destruction of the life they had with none to take its place; poetic meditations on the countryside, private domestic life; how people make do.

Getting away is what counts

This upper class family is taken by the servants on the estate of Tonia’s grandfather; Tonia is warned to be careful or she’ll be attacked as she is a target for resentment now. The servants don’t know what to do with them and give them a hut. All the people living on the estate are breaking various laws set up by the new powerful people and they get food and other things through network coteries just as in the old way.

Tonya not knowing Yuri has begun an affair with Lara in the nearby town

Both film makers try and perhaps Lean is actually more successful here in a few silent scenes of Shariff meditating. The films could do justice to this section, but they don’t. Michael Haneke could (do see The White Ribbon); Bergman and Rohmer get as much depth as any book. Both Davies and Lean are hampered by their unwillingness to go for fully unusual filmic techniques; no voice-overs, no narrators, and keeping to naturalism in both films. It’s lacks in the film-makers not the inadequacy of the filmic medium.

In a way the book lacks the deep political understanding of Scott’s Raj Quartet, or maybe it’s not so hopeful there’s something to be explained. Scott also derives his narratives strongly out of totally thoroughly conceived characters; his book is beautifully put together and he has many women speakers, marginalized people. He also really goes into politics, quite explicitly. If Paul Scott’s masterwork is not enough valued, it’s prejudice against a white man daring to talk of India, and that he presents the British point of view equally. The complaints remind me of those against Styron’s Nat Turner.

I find myself frustrated when suddenly Zhivago switches to wholly unknown characters, gives a full sketch or feel and then moves on to another and the first never heard of again, frustrated by the lack of political analysis. As I suggestd above, Livingstone says the zigzags and gaps are deliberate, a sign of20th century disorder, disorientation, loss.

There is also hardly anything from women. Only a few long meditations from their consciousness. We go into Lara’s subjectivity only as she is understood by Yuri or presented at a distance by the narrator or other male. Hardly anything at all inward from Tonia. Is she supposed to be not that intelligent? Her last letter is so heart-wrenching but it’s all outward. This is a real loss.

The greatness and power is when we are in Yuri’s mind, feeling and thinking with him. The great sardonic ironies of warfare are brought before us, the terrible tragedies. Pasternak is clearly interested in Jews, but as it as an outsider, assimilated Jew (and not so secular either as I had thought) and he discusses “their situation” (as disempowered, mocked, rejected and yet exclusive themselves is partly how he sees it (also complains they didn’t Christianize themselves — this is not ironic). Then I am very moved and feel implicated in a way I never quite do in any of the Raj novels. They do seem historical in comparison. The way Yuri sees the world I recognize — especially it’s meaninglessness in the fleeting events and how he turns from all politicians (you see Scott does not, he studies them with earnestness).

I’m thinking partly that Zhivago is somewhat overrated because it was 1) suppressed; 2) was useful to the establishment and appealed to Lean for the same reasons. On the latter it’s being published in Italy is important only I don’t know enough: I know the Italians succumbed to US pressure to take all power from leftist groups and that the publishers of the time went for books like Il Gattopardo (very great, a masterpiece, but reactionary deeply when it comes to social and political arrangements). More also needs to be known about the first Italian translation and how it spread and turns up in English and under whose auspices. By contrast, Paul Scott’s cycle only gradually gained recognition and the film adaptation of Staying On was important in the marketing of them, and ditto the BBC mini-series.

The novel IS NOT a love story; the love stories are very much tertiary material. Both movies are centrally about sex, love and personal corruption, with Davies adding some sensible politics and Lean landscape.


Sometimes this novel just soars. When Komarofsky comes to “rescue” Lara from Yuri (as he, Komarofsky sees it), and we hear Lara and Yuri’s reaction, we are into its typically supreme moments. All Komaroksky’s “wise” realpolitick talk is turned into irrelevant nonsense by the attitude of mind of these two: Lara who is wholly unambitious, and won’t recognize all that ambition seeks as important or even quite real; Yuri who looks upon this talk as general labels hiding the particular people who are after their interests, and it’s that we see in Komarofsky’s sudden warnings and how he got a job, that matters.

Their going off to the homestead he lived in with Tonia and his father-in-law is a kind of Tristan and Isolde tryst in reverse. The medieval icons were fleeing for love and for a hidden life; these two flee death for as long as they can hold out from it. The medieval couple went to a garden of paradise; these two go to a wasteland and broken down destroyed houses, one filled with wretched memories for Yuri. Yuri does love Tonia (her letter is heart-breaking as she bids adieu to him, not knowing it will reach him), and Lara is faithful to Pasha.

A bit of unrealism: two small children are said to be there, but hardly make their presences felt. They would be a real continual burden in life.

But it’s this angle of askance on politics I think that makes the book more contemporary than say Paul Scott’s and certainly the Victorians and Hugo.

Dr Zhivago: The conclusion in which nothing appears to be concluded

I’m into the antepenultimate (third from the last) CD of Philip Madoc reading Dr Zhivago and I’ve found something unexpected here too; This last third of the novel, not short (there are 18 disks, so 3 out of 18) is _wholly left ouf of both movies_. A stunner. We move in both movies from Yuri’s decision to let Lara go with Komarofsky to Moscow and within five minutes of being told they both suffered (and this indicated), in Davies’s move Yuri’s death, Lara’s flght from Komarosky and being arrested, and the flight of Lara’s child to a seamstress friend; in Lean’s back to Alec Guiness as Yuri’s brother interviewing Lara’s daughter and then allowing her to return to the lines of workers walking in the streets to a new job.

Yuri arriving in Moscow

Looking for Tonya; Meredith might be said to be kind to his hero by killing him off before he reaches this nadir

This part of the book is strongly significant, its the climax, the final round, and it is utterly unheroic. Yuri deteriorates some would say: he goes to pieces for a while; just sits in the cold house and writes; Long disquistions about writing, really about words; but he feels he is dying and gets himself to try for Moscow, and we hear of him joining with a friend. He meets Pasha who tells of his damned existence and kills himself (before he is killed). Arrives as a beggar. To make a long story short, Yuri can keep no job; he is let go; he is not doing what’s wanted. His talents, are you kidding? who can they help rise? They are laughed at, eventually he becomes a sort of beggar in an attic and marries (still personally liked, and a male attractive) the girl downstairs; they have children; he cleans houses for a meagre living. He grows very irritable but hurts no one, though he gives his wife a hard time (who is in danger of losing her place at the post office — what an irony there when i think of modern US life). In James’s words, a “perfectly equipped failure” to the world — and derided and mocked — which is why it all grates..

Meredith kills his hero swiftly after a sudden success (Beauchamp’s Career); Trollope gives them decent ends outwardly (Phineas Redux); Disraeli makes them huge successes. James has his Hyacinth Robinson offer himself up as a replacement body. (“What are we going to do with all those corpses, old man?” asks Gatsby at the close of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.) Paul Scott – well here in the last part of the fourth volume (Raj Quartet) we have Hari Kumar but he carries on as a journalist if minor, anonymous, poor, with his dignity and usefulness somewhat intact (if hopeless), Merrick murdered by a sword up his anus; Guy, well he takes notes on it all (!), Barbie died mad, Sarah fades away …

So Zhivago is closest to Scott’s Raj Quartet, only Raj Quartet only gives us a glimpse of Hari Kumar, does not stay with him for the long haul.

Zhivago is pure gem now, a masterpiece to see this New Economic Policy from below as experienced. As to romance, that wild tender love of Yuri and Lara (what did make existence worth if for a time, they held to it): he marries again, more children. His love for Tonia and family thwarted (broken up), and she unaware, thinking herself unloved. Just a passing moment in the book. No message that can be melodramatic, or uplift or high grief (Hamlet like).

Yuri never did rape anyone nor kill unless to protect himself and in the misery and heat of the battles he is pushed into.


I finished this book last night: it ends in bleak devastation, insistent on the horrors of war, and Yuri’s death is a gift to him — rather like Hamlet except dying on that tram is so horrific (given what I’ve read about Pasternak’s experience on trams). When the two academics read into Yuri’s writing “signs of intense hope,” we are to remember how Yuri regarded them as hopelessly fatuous.

Lean comes nowhere near this; erases it for order. Davies approaches but doesn’t want to put off audiences to this extent, have them look steadily at what counterrevolution and power-mad in effect imbeciles have done.


To conclude, most unlike Trollope, Disraeli, Paul Scott, but like George Meredith (by the end of his novel), this is an apparently apolitical novel. The hero must retreat because the forceful people and groups of the world are so corrupt, conscienceless, and/or stupid, decent action is impossible. His death made me remember Hyacinth Robinson’s in Princess Cassamassima.

Pasternak’s hero ends in the position of many today.

Journalizing 7/10/10: I’ve since this written a blog on how the two films speak to one another through parallel opening and closing and other kinds in intertextuality: how intertexuality in films works.

And I think it a good idea to link in my first blog comparing the two films: Dr Zhivago improved: the boldness of Andrew Davies.


Read Full Post »

Lovelace’s (Sean Bean) first attempt to rape Clarissa (Saskia Wickham) (1991 BBC Clarissa)

Dear friends and readers,

The Admiral and I will be gone for a few days, to Albuquerque, New Mexico (we’ll see Santa Fe!), where there is an 18th century conference at which I’ll give my paper-talk, “What right have you to detain me here?”: Rape in Clarissa.

A powerful picture by Edgar Degas:

Egar Degas (1834-1917), “Interior (The Rape)” (1868-69)

Here we see a typical common rape, most of the time still not registered or recorded. It often happens when a woman is in a relationship with a man, the kind of circumstances which can preclude a woman from going to court. The image is powerful because it is intimate, because of the posture of the man up again the wall, waiting, quietly predatory, reminding me of the depiction of Peter Quint in the recent 2009 Turn of the Screw film adaptation by Sandy Welch. The woman too turned away, vulnerable. That we know nothing of their story, who they are is part of the power and meaning.

The impressionists are too often liked as simply landscape artists. They were rebels; they broke with hierarchy, with painting to flatter patrons. Here’s a companion piece to “The Rape” by Manet, famous, the barmaid.


Journalizing, 3/26/2010: I’ve now put “‘What right have you to detain me here?’: Rape in Clarissa up on my site.


My next posting will be on Boris Pasternak’s great and utterly contemporary novel, Dr Zhivago (see my blog on the two film adaptations thus far).

A toute a l’heure,

Read Full Post »

Johnson in his later 30s (by George Zobel)

Dear friends and readers,

For about 10 weeks on EighteenthCenturyWorlds at Yahoo, a few of us read and two or three discussed David Nokes’s readable and mostly (to me) very enjoyable biography of Samuel Johnson (published around the time of Johnson’s tercentenary and just before Nokes’s death). To do this was to return to the origin of the listserv community, which started when a group of us wanted to read Johnson and Boswell on a list intended only for novels.

I felt sad when I shut it, sorry to leave Nokes’s congenial companionship and Johnson’s presence. It’s one of these biographies which attempts to marginalize Boswell. It also has a couple of serious flaws: e.g, Nokes detests Johnson’s wife and thus imagines Johnson learned to have a strong distaste for her too, and this shapes his presentation.

Nevertheless, the book is a genuine work of art as biography in the sense that Nokes’s presence interacts with Johnson’s, and you come away with a feel for the man as Nokes sees him. Nokes’s perspective is that of Johnson as a man who saw himself as having failed: Johnson disappointed himself. I think the parable of the talents rather cruel myself, and Nokes’s is a book filled with a quiet compassion. Johnson wanted Boswell to write his autobiography for him (so to speak), and when I got to the end of Nokes’s book I thought Nokes had demonstrated the truth of Georges Gusdorf’s idea why people engage in life-writing: Johnson wanted to have written down what he believed and wished himself “to be and have been,” to confess or display this privileged content that felt thwarted, to confess his recognition of himself and his losses (paraphrased from “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” in Autobiography, ed. Olney).

In order to call attention to Samuel Johnson: A Life, then, and offer some detailed analysis, what follows is a little of what I wrote over those weeks. The reader could use what follows as an accompaniment, a companion to his or her reading of Nokes. Or you could read it as a retelling and commentary.

Week 1, Chapters 1-3:

I’m delighted to be able to say there are new things of interest (at least to me) in Nokes’s book. I’ve read and remember reading a few straight biographies of Johnson: Boswell, Thrale Piozzi, Clifford, Bate, Wain; but otherwise while many of the essays written about Johnson once upon a time, and still today to some extent, are strongly biographical and I’ve read some of the older ones (Johnson Agonistes comes to mind; Holmes on Johnson and Savage), plus introductions to books of Johnson’s works, and other books on other people which biographical sketches of Johnson, still my repertoire of straight biographies is small.

First, Nokes is more than readable, he’s nearly as light in feel as John Wain. He can’t be quite that light as he has some darkly meditative thoughts implied as he goes along, but I’d recommend this to non-scholars as I would not Nokes’s book on Gay or Swift. He has learned how to write for an average reader. His Jane Austen is by the way worth reading and readable and somewhat different in outlook from most in the way of this.

When Nokes opens on Johnson’s Dictionary, he is situating Johnson’s letter to Chesterfield, and the way he does that makes it much more understandable. It’s not just an extraordinarily unworldly angry letter of high eloquence. Nokes imagines where Johnson was sitting, and it was not clear what the world’s reaction would be, and as far as I can tell from Nokes Johnson had not yet got his pension. No wonder he exploded at this man taking credit. Then the incident fans out as what Nokes wants to explain, who the man was who wrote this letter. The biography may be considered as an explanation of the bitterness of this letter.

Chapter 1 is the early childhood and young manhood in Lichfield.

View of Lichfield, early to mid-19th century engraving

What’s new here: Nokes brings home out how terrible Johnson looked (we know that) but also how Johnson paraded it in his Annals in the 1770s (ah, he is using Johnson’s Annals a lot). In telling of his infant life, he patronizes his parents. Yes. Fast forward a little in this chapter; Nokes brings out how Michael Johnson was probably a gifted sane and decent man; how he rose from nothing to be a bookseller, how he did go bankrupt but kept people’s real respect, and how the father and son probably fought fiercely (see especially p. 33). Thus many years later Johnson standing out in the rain to make up for his unwillingness to stand and sell with his father comes out as Johnson understanding how hurt his father had been. Johnson’s pride had been so exacerbated by watching his father’s failure and also his pride in his older son.

Johnson’s bullying emerges early on. It was how he learned to cope: “his intelligence and bulk” could compensate by domineering at school and home. I’ll connect the brother here. I’ve read little about Nathaniel. Nokes brings out the tragedy of his younger brother/son’s life. Johnson does not come out well here at all. Nathaniel never managed to escape; he had no time at university; Johnson said of him he committed some crime but we don’t know what that was. He was not the kind of sober man who makes a posture needed for bookselling; he did have a plan to go to Georgia in the US but needed money. An irritated comment from a letter by Michael shows something of the brothers from Michael’s point of view; “As to my Brothers assisting me I had but little reason to expect it … when he would scarce eer use me with common civility … ” To make a long story (even in a short life) short, he never got to America, and something happened that broke his spirit (“something essential in Nathaniel’s life had been extinguished and in early March he died”), It’s over for him by p. 52.

Johnson’s times away from home: very important. First to his mother’s nephew, Cornelius Ford. Johnson came for the fall and stayed until May (Whitsun). Ford was his first adult companion of the heart, 31 to Johnson’s 16. Very interesting to me, Nokes finds some glimpses of homosexual love in one poem to Ford (p. 19 of my version).

When Johnson returned home, he found he was not allowed to return to school. So pupils could be thrown out. I hadn’t thought of that. Of course. Hunter refused to have him back. Johnson was very open with his scorn for teachers who had nothing to teach him and repeatedly they can’t take it. So he worked with his father in the bookshop (binding). Then he is taken up by Gilbert Walmseley and again find himself in an environment where he can thrive and be appreciated, and a bond is forced (despite Walmsely being a whig).

The Oxford story is known by all: what Nokes adds is Johnson began optimistically; he was eager and so happy to be there, but hid it under a carapace of apparent indifference. Nokes persuades you of how hard Johnson worked in his room, how he loved his 100 or so books. And then it’s all over for him. He runs out of money. He was eager, idealistic at times, loving his work (or wanting to), and at the same time so discouraged and he had to leave. It was horrible for him. Heart-breaking how gifts don’t matter in the least πŸ™‚ Well he is a person who has no connections that can be used to wrench a position and no money and he spends this desperate after period.

John Radner suggested Johnson’s depression afterwards was brought on by religious guilt. I remembered still that Peter Gay wrote in his The Modern Pagans that Johnson read deeply in the Latins, this connected him to the French enlightenment, and also was in conflict with the kind of faith his mother and environment pushed at him (so to speak). The terror of death continues to strike me and I have an unconventional view of it; I wonder if he did have fears he would “cease to be”. He studied Shakespeare too.

Finally he is taken up by an old school friend, Edmund Hector and goes to Birmingham. There he begins his career in journalism. Nokes adds how mortified Johnson was in comparison with his hopes and that’s why his translation of Lobo is not what it ought to be. Nokes depicts Birmingham at the time, what it looked like and how it was regarded (snobbery).

Elizabeth Johnson when a much younger woman

There he meets Tetty Porter. Nokes adds and makes a strong case that Johnson married her for the money. 600 pounds. This apparently has been denied all along by many but it makes sense to me especially it the context Nokes creates for us. And then alas lost most of it with his school venture which got nowhere after again high hopes and plans. Now a fault I notice: Nokes doesn’t like Tetty. He talks of her as someone who got a “hold on Johnson,” and how she played up to him with “her fleshy figure, large eyes, and pouting lips.” These are Nokes’s words. Well, yuk of course. On the other hand, he presents their early jockeying for position coolly; I don’t like Johnson here at all — the way he was determined to be master on the ride back from the wedding.

Ah, no one, not a soul came to the wedding. All against it. I admire our young couple for holding out and doing what they wanted to.

Week 2, Chapters 4-6:

There’s a continual depth of thought and a lot of sheer information gotten in in a very small space. For example, the rich depiction of London, of Johnson’s lack of status and means there, and the real subtlety of his approach to Johnson and Tetty’s relationship. Nokes has it in for Tetty, but he does make her real, and Johnson’s keeping away from her and guilt too also brought out. Johnson’s earliest attempts at a literary career, the places he lived, the texts he produced (the poem London done justice to from origination and achievement), his earliest professional relationships, all got in and very readable. Even something of what we may surmize of his sex life, and not omitting the Richard Savage phase.

Still Nokes has no basis for saying Tetty refused Johnson sex or they didn’t have a strong sexual relationship. That he didn’t live with her all the time is nothing; it cost to live with her (bigger quarters) and sexual intercourse doesn’t take a lot of time. It seems to me his portrait is way off the mark. She was not a dreadful woman. Nokes is Neanderthalian on Tetty’s drinking. Why shouldn’t she have? He is disgusted by Johnson’s sexual choice. Much that he says of her spending has no documentary basis.

As to Johnson’s sexual faithfulness I doubt it strongly. It was not socially acceptable to write down his encounters with prostitutes – of which the London streets were full. So we don’t get any thing of Savage’s sex life too. One root cause for his terrible guilt was his sexual life – and that’s just a terrible shame, for if he did find solace and companionship there (and empathized as may be guessed by Misella in the Ramblers) how horrible that he hated himself for it and dreamed he’d go to some terrible hell — if he did. As I suggested, there is reason to infer that he also thought annihilation awaited him (preferred it in Hamlet’s way).

He was no catch and none of the women we find him involved with romantically (Hill Boothby, Mrs Desmoulins who he had sexual relationships with) was attractive to us, or rich, or even very smart. Who would go for companionate marriage with him anyway? He didn’t keep a steady clean house, had no visible means of steady support, was often strongly depressed, half hysterical at night. Not good husband material I’d say even if a great writer, good man, and genius.

He really makes Johnson’s play, Irene important to Johnson: he has Johnson using it to shush his wife in hopes of a big sum of money, of hoping for a career through it. He presents the episode fully weaving it in with the rest of the man’s life. I discern early now a train which suggests Nokes sees Johnson as slowly feeling himself a failure in his own eyes: first the play career flops; then his Vanity of Human Wishes doesn’t sell, and he writes no more long poems; this after the failure at Oxford (it was since he left), the failure to run a school. Then we get how the Rambler sold so poorly.

An idealized “Roman” portrait of Johnson by Reynolds

The hard life of the literary man is before us, and the resort to the Dictionary a strong hope — again the bitterness at Chesterfield is made understandable.

I really enjoyed his account of The Rambler itself. I love these meditations and they can’t be quoted from too often for my taste :), and to end this week’s posting, I loved this aphorism by Johnson: “Credulity, obstinacy and folly are hourly making havoc in the world.”

Weeks 3-4, Chapters 6-10:

Nokes is now allowing his distaste for Tetty Johnson to present a somewhat false view of Johnson’s relationship with her. As this was central to his whole life, it misshapes other comments and views. What he keeps doing is sticking in wholly gratuitious and unproved assertions, sometimes graced with a perhaps. “No one siehd to malign the dear departed, but he must secretly be relieved.” Yes, and perhaps he owned five dogs and must secretly have detested them.

Nokes has shown an intense masculine distaste for this woman from the time he describes her first entrance on his stage. He can’t stand she’s not intellectually equal to Johnson; senses her frivolity and common place allegiance to the nonsense status struggles (expensive) of imagined social life (see Lacan). He has Johnson eager to remarry; there was a love for Hill Boothby and they didn’t marry and now this becomes mysterious. When things start to become mysterious in a well researched biography something has gone awry.

Johnson showed intense hysteria and grief when Tetty Johnson died, and it seems to me the causes were complex and we don’t know enough because we don’t know enough about his sex life. I feel his famous compassionate and unusual portrait of Misella comes from experience of prostitutes. Now I’m not writing any biography just an email but this is the sort of thing Nokes’s determination here obscures.

I did love the chapter on Frank Barber, in effect Johnson’s son, the little black boy he brought up and who lived all his life with him, and to whom he left his estate. You do have to imagine these people using fictional techniques because so little is told and I’m willing to imagine with him. I’m not against this sort of thing, but then to move Barber into a central figure for Johnson, replacing Tetty goes overboard.

However, once Tetty is gone from the scene, Nokes finds himself comfortable again and the book becomes very good. I liked his literary critical essay (that’s what it is) of the Dictionary itself very much (pp. 154-56). I’ve not read much literary critical analysis of the entries for the dictionary. He says (as one might guess anyway) the unusual words and occasional passionate lapses into an egoistic or personal take on a word are too emphasized, and goes on to discuss Johnson’s entry for the word “put” — not an easy word to deal with I’m do (like “do”) and shows us how the entry for this word as “little auxiliary verb” becomes “a self-contained narraitve of human hopes and fears.”

Chapter 10: how difficult it was to face the reality that now that this dictionary is done, one cannot fold up shop and rest on the laurels. First, the laurels were thin on the ground and money used up. He had to live on, and we see his disillusion and coping with the need to make money, the hard life of an author continues. “Nothing is concluded” is a good chapter title.

On the literary criticism parts: Nokes says the Idlers are thin; I know they are short but among his most memorable writing in the journalistic kind is here. All the trouble over the Shakespeare edition is narrated and explained well and frankly. I liked the discussion of Rasselas but there’s nothing new (so to speak). He does connect it to Johnson’s life of course.

Nokes sees into Johnson in a way that acknowledges his vulnerabilities: for example, Johnson finds it hard to get close to Lucy until well after Tetty’s death and after his mother’s, “feeling only then that he would not be spurned or laughed at.” (p. 175)

Like Nokes, I find Johnson’s indifference to his material surroundings very appealing, especially the three-legged chair. (I believe there is one in Dr Johnson’s house, but wouldn’t want to vouch for my memory not fantasizing.)

Chapter 10 he is still seeking — a really fulfilling companion, meaning, coping with the unenthusiastic reception of Rasselas. Again we have this theme that to Johnson his life might have seemed a failure — given the world’s response to him and his work. All this is BB – Before Boswell as well as BHTF — Before Hester Thrale Piozzi.

Francis Barber was not happy in his school. I ‘m not surprised, imagine the prejudice against him. He goes to sea but finds it much worse (well that’s a lesson I’ve seen others have) and Johnson lacks the connections to help him get discharged.

I ended on the realistic imagining of what war is like that underlies Johnson’s fierce polemics against war. They apparently would fall on dear ears today too.

Hester Thrale Piozzi (much later, 1793, by Dance)

Although not yet in the book (not even the greenroom), Nokes talks of Johnson as “loving” Hester Thrale Piozzi in language that suggests far more than friendship-love. When Nokes talks of Johnson’s essential sanity despite the huge depressions (the two can exist together), he alludes to a very few papers showing an unbalanced mind. Surely this is a reference to those famous letters by Johnson to Hester in French and the business about locking Johnson in and masochism before Hester Thrale Piozzi. Not that this is not mentioned by others, but Nokes seems to buy a little into Johnson as Jacobite. He held himself in readiness in 1745 we are told (p. 104)

Weeks 5-6, Chapters 11-14:

I found Nokes’s comment that from the moment Johnson’s mother’s died, “his wish to have his own life commemorated came to be a minor obsession” (p. 183). I am wondering if John Radner agrees with that. To me it helps explain why Johnson latched into Boswell in an intense way and encouraged him to keep his diaries and was very cooperative with this young man who was in many ways so different from him. Again Nokes has Johnson thinking about how a biography about him need s “another man” (not himself), sufficiently close, as he had been to Savage, and yet sufficiently detached to write from his own point of view” (p. 186).

I was very moved by Johnson’s writing on behalf of the prisoners of war and decrying the mistreatment of these people.

“there is no legal provision; we see their distress, and are certain of its cause; we know they are poor and naked, and poor and naked without a crmie … let animosity and hostility cease together; and no man be longer deemed an enemy, than while his sword is drawn against us.”

Nokes says: “it is testimony to his word that, two centuries later, they are reprinted in French, in the official journal of the International Red Cross.” I wonder if the Red Cross people know they have a French translation of a text by Samuel Johnson on their bannerheads.

Johnson against slavery on basic grounds: “No man is by nature the property of another” (p. 191)

I mentioned how much I liked the pictures of Johnson in his lodgings and at the taverns, and working and travelling as a writer for money — Nokes is identifying here and connecting his own life probably. Nokes is breaking down that hierarchy of values that Boswell continually supports. Once again, there Johnson is in these tiny shabby thoroughly lived in quarters, and a group of young male Africans, friends of Frank Barber’s, by his fireplace. Suddenly a world of friendships, connections, feelings which never come near Boswell’s book is in front of me.

Alas, I wish Nokes could make comparable vignettes with women of the streets wherever it happened and if it happened in Johnson’s rooms too.

Oliver Goldsmith by Reynolds

A very different Goldsmith is put before us, not Boswell’s clown. Thomas Percy is done justice to.

On Johnson’s depression: I was probably originally drawn to Johnson as someone who suffers from depression too. That’s why I find his Ramblers, Idlers and Adventurers so strengthening and comforting. So when Nokes write that one Easter Johnson “poured out the wretched feelings of loneliness that assailed him” (p. 194), I ask myself is it that a person feels lonely because he or she is depressed, or is it the loneliness that some lives end up ending that makes for depression or at least reinforces it. I think this an important question. Depression can make you feel empty and without self-esteem, certainly without confidence. Johnson’s well known procrastination (in these chapters on his Shakespeare) can come from that: his bullying presentation of himself a kind of overcompensation for keeping his feelings of inferiority well out of public view. (By empty I don’t mean hungry — joke alert.)

I have little to say about the ghost business that Johnson credited ( pp. 195-201) beyond that it shows Nokes again building up a picture of the London and other worlds Johnson lived in.

I liked how Nokes treated Johnson’s travelling with Reynolds to get away from ridicule and pressure to finish his book (pp 201-2), and sympathize very much with Johnson getting drunk and saying “Sir Joshua I think it is now time to go to bed.” I wonder if Johnson was a good-natured man when drunk — drinking brings out aspects of ourselves usually repressed and it’s impossible to predict which (like driving does). How Johnson was disappointed when he saw Lucy and realizes his dreams of her had glorified her in his mind.

How awful to be promised a pension and then not have it be paid. Everyone making fun of him and meanwhile he’s not got the money. Very lucky indeed to have had a few friends really do it for him — like people today helping someone get a job. In the US no one can get a job without connections today (even bagging groceries at the supermarket requires a relative/friend in place).

I am hoping the pension begins to be paid for I’ve read so often of 17th century people promised payment by government flunkies and powerful men too who starve (Aphra Behn comes to mind). Charles II knew whereof he spoke when he said (if he did) Let not poor Nelly starve.

I find I underlined this utterance by Johnson “Men will submit to any rule, by which they may be exempted from the tyranny of caprice and of chance.” You see before you why people in academia do what they do to get tenure.

In Chapter 12, Nokes is concerned to distance himself and his portrait of Johnson from Boswell’s — as Boswell is now on the scene and no one can escape using Boswell’s texts. He is also concerned to show Johnson’s sexual experiences as far as we can more candidly because it’s now he is seen by Mrs Thrale, turns up in her house, and before you know has moved in.

This time I will repeat what’s common knowledge for the numbers are important: “In total, Boswell spent just 426 days with Johnson during the last 21 years of Johnson’s life, of which 101 were on their tour of the Hebrides” — far far less than Tetty Johnson, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Frank Barber. For Johnson’s first 54 years we have 180 or so letters; after that, 1300; from his marriage 1 letter; from his love for Hester, 366 (Nokes, p 210).

The huge difference in knowledge for a famous writer is not uncommon. For Trollope until he begins writing Barchester Towers, we have a handfull of letters (that that includes the writing of 4 previous novels where there is suddenly correspondence); for afterwards two volumes of 700 pages each fills N. John Hall’s edition. Trollope destroyed all his letters and all those that came to him — or tried to. But after he became famous others saved them. Ditto situation for Margaret Oliphant only she began to write much earlier, because she became desperate much earlier, her husband having died of consumption, leaving her with 3 children. She also did not destroy her letters or those sent to her. Yet the proportions are the same.

Boswell at age 25, by George Williston (1765)

Boswell’s presence shapes our sense of Johnson from here on in, even in Nokes’s book — though he is careful to show how this is happening. So suddenly we get these famous anti-feminist, anti-women comments: well that summer of 1763 Boswell as a “boon companion” of Johnson. The sayings have “an authentic ring” but we should remember there were probably others and they were not written down (let’s say) and they are a function also of “Boswell’s preening sense of self-esteem at the company he kept.” At one point (I can’t find it just now) Nokes says Boswell did not have such a perfect memory.

I might as well confess my slant now: I am no Boswell lover; he amuses but it’d be fair to say I don’t like him. I take one long sequence of scenes in his first London journal to in effect describe a gang-rape of a girl in the streets where Boswell is exulting.

In these later years Johnson has the experience many of us have: seeing other people change or aspects of their personalities emerge which are very dismaying to us. So Lucy Porter turns out to love property and money; she inherits a lot from a brother and proceeds to build a big fancy house; Johnson gradually stops going to see her (in an earlier chapter Nokes says Johnson was dismayed by her in an earlier visit too). It is interesting how a man like Johnson might find himself awed by a younger man. Such is the power of social capital: Johnson recognizes Langton has it.

As to sexual exeriences, in Johnson’s diary he uses the code “M” and Nokes persuades me these are him recording his times of masturbation. Why someone would record this sort of thing is a puzzle to me, but then why do I write so much? Each of us has to cope with being alive as best we can and I feel Nokes suggests (but does not say directly) such records for Johnson come out of “loneliness”. Well, like Dr Jekyll in RLS’s Jekyll and Hyde, Johnson was very guilty and berated himself intensely for “sinful images” — and acts too. That these includes more than Ms is probable but what we can’t know. Nokes (who is careful to tell the truth in his way) says Johnson prays to avoid idleness and prays for Tetty,and cries over her. On p. 224 there is a reference to a Lucy who Johnson pays small sums to — a prostitute-companion? Nokes doesn’t say this, it’s my guess.

During this time Johnson finally gets his act together, finishes his Shakespeare and publishes it. He actually had written it much of it before. He is not made happy by the response πŸ™‚ — the same kinds of obtuseness that met his other work is found again, and he is needled for his pension.

The big moment for meeting Mrs Thrale was Thursday, January 1765. Hester was 24 and already married to Thrale and had that daughter Queeney. She still hoped to make Thrale love her. Forget it, he was dull and mercenary, cold; his daughter turned out to be a real monster. I won’t take that one back, a mean spiteful horror is what she was, resentful of her mother precisely because her mother had a loving heart and much better brain and (yes) wanted the girl to love higher things (like books); the girl got back. Alas, all Hester’s surviving children took after her husband. She devoted decades of her life to them. Later in life, her adopted son turned out to be a cold unsympathetic leech too.

People do know the story of how Johson at first was taken by Mrs Thrale and she by him. Meanwhile as after the dictionary life went on, and he does write more and comes under pressure. He wants to visit people and it doesn’t come off. He is pressured to become a government spy and resists. Good for him. More masturbation and now Nokes brings in the heavy drinking. It seems that Johnson did drink alcohol pretty heavily for some years; he tried to stop himself but for a long time couldn’t. It was solace, why not? It did get in the way of reading and doing projects. Chemical experiments come in to relieve his mental tensions.

But all no go and in the midst of one terrible clutch of depression, the Thrales come upon him, the man is shocked and Hester takes Johnson in. This story has often been told.

Nokes again reiterates his idea that Johnson was drawn to Boswell as a potential biographer. I do feel in the text that Nokes is one of those who prefers Hester Thrale Piozzi’s “take” on Johnson and the Johnson that spent time with her to Boswell’s Johnson. For Nokes the important relationship is with Hester.

I did like this chapter for all the comments drawn from Johnson’s Shakespeare’s edition which are scattered throughout as Nokes weaves the story of the publication and response in. The editor’s princples, the noble (it is) preface, the deeply felt readings.

Chapter 13: Johnson ceases referring to Tetty for 4 years. She has at last been replaced by Hester. He fits into the Thrale house, grateful to be with him. Cleaner shirts for example,

He is become a respected and known figure by this time — by those who count, like Reynolds too. He writes secretly a set of lectures for a friend not up to it (Chambers); this fills him with pride. Lyttleton suggests he writing a literary biography of English literature.

The book becomes very thick with detail. One continual “tick” I notice is Nokes continually throwing cold water on the tightness of Johnson’s relationship with Boswell even if Boswell has become a main source.

So, for example, on p 238, we are told “Back in London at the end of September, he saw Boswell, though less often than the guileful presentation of conversations in the Life would make appear.

I found Nokes’s discussion of Johnson’s The False Alarm interesting partly because I’ve read very little of Johnson’s straight political pamphlets. On the slavery issue, a new book by a Seymour Dresher, who has written this way before again argues that it is fatuous to say slavery was on the decline and would have withered away without the bloodbath of the American civil war. Slavery is profitable and people don’t let go of their property without murderous ferocity. This historian points out that slavery quickly reappeared in the 20th century in the vast slave labor camps, extermination camps, and sex trafficking (which means snatching of people).

Life carries on in Chapter 14: among other signal events in this one is the sudden crash of Thrales’s business and Johnson and Hester Thrale’s heroic attempts to help salvage it. We see how deeply Johnson became emotionally and perhaps physically (if not conventionally physically — I do not mean they were lovers) involved. They also had periods of relative estrangement too (see p. 262). The chapter goes into other notorious details from Johnson’s and Hester Thrale’s private papers, the fetters, the padlock. Other women companions have been mentioned earlier.

It seems that Johnson (not unusual) had a strong liking for female companionship. Nokes simply says Johnson also had a strong masochistic streak, and does not try to invent scenes from the details we have in the French letters and other diary writings and letters.

Boswell is now being recognized as Johnson’s probably biographer. In the earlier chapter we saw Johnson attempt to thwart some of Boswell’s staged scenes (Boswell would deliberately invite people to be with Johnson, as Wilkes, to get copy.) By the end of the chapter Johnson is on his way to meet Boswell for their tour of the Hebrides.

Things are looking up, he’s happier because he’s with the Thrales — or at least can seem so for longer periods.

Weeks 7-8, Chapters 15-16: travelling about

Map of Hebrides at time of Johnson and Boswell’s trip

I have been bold enough to substitute a different title for Nokes’s: this is a chapter where our hero travels about. Not only is there an excellent analysis of Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, but Nokes also takes us through the evidence for a perhaps happier tour with the Thrales in Wales, and a time on the continent where the “four” (Johnson, Mr and Mrs Thrale and Queeney) made it to Paris and Versailles.

On the section of the tour and experience with Boswell in the Hebrides and book itself: I think Nokes’s sense of Johnson’s mood more accurate than any other account I’ve read. Johnson was ambivalent, but I’m not sure whether Nokes exaggerates Johnson’s distance from Boswell, for example, while Johnson’s “attitude was always cordial, there was little real warmth of affection.” It’s probably a little unfair to say Boswell’s journal leaves us with an image of “the two of them, arm in arm, as the Laurel and Hardy of a joint enterprise,” but I agree to read some popular accounts of this time you gather the particular reader took Boswell’s account this way. I haven’t the time to go back to my notes and postings on the twin tour books, only remember how I thought Boswell was determined to make the Scottish world and society appealing in his book.

I thought Nokes’s sentence here spot on: “The third element by whch [Johnson] invoked a sense of distance between the reality he saw before him adn a mythic world of dreams was his use of classical comparisons” (p. 271). I am myself drawn to Johnson’s instinctive response to Macpherson: it was a lie, a bunch of lies the man told, and the man was a real bully, threatening Johnson physically. Talk about thug academic politics πŸ™‚

I have read his letters to Hester and concur with Nokes’s comments that Johnson wrote out to her what was in his innermost mind. Myself I love the poems that he wrote during this trip (which Nokes doesn’t include but I will):

“Ponti profundis clausa recessibus” Englished, presumably by J Fleeman, the editor of a St Martin’s edition of Johnson’s poetry:

Enclosed in the deep recesses of the sea,
howling with gales beset by rocks,
how welcome, misty Skye, do you
open your green bay to the weary traveller.
Care, I do believe, is exiled from these regions;
gentle peace surely dwells in these places:
no anger, no sorrow plans traps
for the hours of rest.
But it is no help to a sick mind
to hide in a hollow crag or wander
through trackless mountains
or count the roaring waves from a rock.
Human virtue is not sufficient unto itself,
nor is the power granted each man
to secure for himself an untroubled mind,
as the over-proud Stoic sect deceitfully boasts.
Thou, almighty King, govern, sole arbiter,
the onrush of the stormy heart
and, when Thou raise them,
the waves of the mind surge up
and, when Thou calm them,
they fall back.

The statements Nokes makes that the journal is dry, without emotion, no emotion, about the Journey to the Western Islands are unfair and misrepresentative. I’ve always thought Johnson has a good time — his movements into and out of depression are just par for the course for him (that’s how I see it, his depression was what he fought daily). I did say I think Johnson’s book a magnificent anthropolgical meditative book.

I remember when reading Johnson and Boswell’s books together that Johnson was reading Boswell’s account and that part of the experience was this dual shared reading and writing. Nokes is over-anxious at times to separate Johnson from Boswell.

Maybe what I liked best about this chapter was its equal emphasis on Johnson’s other two trips. I don’t know where I read them, but I have read excerpts of the Wales and Paris diaries, and like Nokes, I came away with a sparkling sense of the enjoyment he felt and wished he had worked these up into books. They would perhaps have been more entertaining and just as deep and far-reaching in their general application — for _Journey to the Western Islands_ is a great anthropologial and philosophical meditative book.

Take Johnson’s response to Versailles: “a mean town”! “Mean shops against the wall.” I don’t doubt it for an instant. He was not interested in the palace, but the menagerie (of animals”),. Johnson’s quick sense of humor and pragmaticism emerges again and again.

Not that he’s not alive to historical beauty (as he was in Aberdeen and the cathedral towns of Scotland). His “paean” of praise to Cambrai cathedral is just right; the choice of general words and eel is just such as Austen’s style projects: “very elegant and splendid” is the church at Compiege, “very beautiful” and “splendid choir” at Cambria, “very high and gran” nave.”

I underlined Johnson’s comment to Hester to “get the children ‘into Habits of loving a Book by every possible means’, for, he remarked with injudicious candour, “You do not know but it may one Day save them from Suicide” (p. 280). My only objection is, Why injudicious? If Johnson had not said it, and Hester written it down, it could not have survived to cheer and teach us today.

The account of the fiercely contested election was good too, though Johnson was happier travelling about. I have concluded from essays and books on Hester (as Nokes does here) that she enjoyed these times: “We lead a wild Life.” (p. 286)

Each time Johnson exhibits these intense worries over a coming childbirth of Hester and Nokes records it, my feelings for Johnson go up yet stronger.

At its close we see how Johnson had a good time by getting away: it can be refreshing when you are with congenial people (Hester, and pace Nokes, Boswell). He was not above being chuffed when Antoinette asked after Queeney. Nokes concludes:

His was a life ‘turned upside down,’ he thought; having been ‘fixed to a post’ when he was young, he was now ‘roving the world. I am wholly unsettled,’ he wrote. ‘I am a kind of ship with a wide sail, and without an anchor.’

There is sadness in that last clause: no life’s partner, no close relative (for he and Lucy really didn’t understand one another), no child. Well, these things are overrated, a lottery (especially a child where the genes mix by total chance). Too bad there weren’t buses and trains while Johnson was alive; they are fun too, especially a bus from the top on a bright windy day passing Portsmouth harbour (I admit I had my younger daughter with me that day, but I was trying to provide cheer for both of us, hard work but I did it).

Weeks 9-10, Chapters 16-17

John Opie’s Johnson

Basically Nokes retells Johnson’s life during the period when the idea for the huge collection of poets was adumbrated in both London and Edinburgh and a group of publishers conceived of the scheme of having the poets introduced by little lives by Johnson, by then famous. It was a selling ploy. In the event Johnson took much longer because he wrote real lives, not just sketchy introductions and his book was published separately.

We learn about the politics of this and also Johnson’s declining health, his relationship with Boswell and Hester Thrale (poor women kept getting pregnant, watching babies die, under pressure to have a son, until that horror of a husband died), and Thrale’s own demise. He ate himself to death it was said. Mrs Boswell is beginning to decline too — too many pregnancies with consumption did it.

Hester herself sees early on that her eldest daughter was a monster of resentment, narrow cold prestige oriented, spiteful: she wrote in her book there is “something strangely perverse” in Queeney’s temper; she was “full of bitteness and Aversion to all who instruct her.” p. 301. This is not as unusual as people like to suggest or one would think given out little is written about this kind of person in real life (in fiction versions of them turn up frequently)

I felt Nokes’s book winding down too early in Chapter 16. A problem has been that it’s too short, and he has had to leave out too many trails and individuals which he could have done justice to. Goldsmith, Reynolds. Here again we see Johnson’s depression. Nokes wants us (again) to see Johnson keeping his distance from Boswell, trying to escape or elude him. Johnson is quoted more than once scolding Boswell for nagging him to write; or “He shook off Boswell as much as Boswell could be shaken off, and Boswell covered it up, speaking of benig ‘unaccountably neglient’ during this visit” (p. 317). But Nokes’s own text (he admits) shows that Johnson kept himself apart from a lot of people.

Curiously in this super-social book (in our era of pressure to be so super-social), Nokes does produce a portrait of a man who stayed apart far more hours than we realize and who chose that even if it left him subject to depression.

Again I loved the quotations from Johnson and in this chapter some of the analysis of the little lives.

“Are you playing the same trick again, and trying who can keep silence longest?. Remember that all tricks are knavish and childish.” (That ought to be engraved somewhere, say in a hall dedicated to an analysis of human relationships.)

Or: “I live in stark solitude … nobody has called on me this livelong day.” This one made me laugh. I cannot remember the last time someone called on me — well, four weeks before Xmas my neighbor from across the street put an invitation to her party under my doorstop so I called on her (crossed the street) to thank her and say hello.

I love Johnson’s tender heart — brought out by Nokes here: while Johnson is made busy by the squabbling over the poets, he neglects his household, and we are told

“Hodge, his car, alone had fare well, with Johnson gonig out himself to buy oysters from fear, if he left it to the servants, they ‘should take a dislike to the poor creature” (p. 314)

The last chapter is taken up with Johnson’s increasing debilities and dying. Today he’d have medication and operations and probably would have lived on to his 90s. Basically he drowned in his own fluids. The chapter shows hurry: two pages have the same structure repeatedly: “having decided” X we are told, and then again “having decided” Y. I also don’t get the title: “The Town is My Element.” It’s made up an insistent going over the real last letters of Johnson, facing up to them as long, nagging, lonely, melancholy letters of a dying and disappointed man. Nokes’s insistence here and showing how many of these there are made me remember an email letter he was kind enough to write to me (he wrote a couple) on his screenplay and the production of the 1991 BBC Clarisas. He regretted that the fourth volume of the book has been scotched by the executive producer. He would have included far more of the death and dying and later scenes too (second attempt at rape, humilation by women in sponginghouse, attempt to make Clary a prostitute, fights again in family).

Johnson wrote such letters to everyone it seems. He was stuck in his house. His pension paid irregularly (I had not thought of this before but it’s certainly probable), and basically was often deserted or alone — except for Frank. Most people are alone when older — people don’t visit one another all that much except when interest or fun is going. We see the troubles Boswell begin to have and he is not much in this chapter — though Boswell’s Life makes you feel he was around, I remember being aware he was giving testimony from those who were.

There is much more than a man dying, stranded and disappointed. I reread the three letters John referred to (they are in the Oxford Classics Life of Johnson paperback, pp 1343-46). I see in them Johnson’s own disappointment and sense of himself as “going back” (when you do not progress you go back), loneliness, and querulousness, but there is much more too. He reaches out because he’d like to do more and see more yet and it’s not happening.

But here we should remember Nokes: he was ill when writing this book and died soon afterwards. Surely he’s recording himself here too. It’s very sad when you grow old and sometimes puzzling why people aren’t doing more to enjoy themselves and with you (this latter is a natural thought). I remember how Johnson wanted to go to Italy and was even offered the money as a gift. He was not well was part of the reason he didn’t go (as I recall).

One of Johnson’s many plans not carried through: a history of the revival of learning in Europe

I agree too that Johnson continues not to take Boswell’s depression seriously, and that seems to have been his stance all along. He couldn’t get why this younger man who had been born to and gained so much (to Johnson’s way of thinking) would be depressed. Boswell not having the money or wherewithal to move to London makes me empathize with him.

While Nokes does justice to how good for Hester Thrale was her love affair and liaison and marriage to Piozzi, and how cruel her daughters especially (cold, selfish, and Queeney needling, scornful), we also see the marriage from the lonely Johnson’s point of view. In fact Nokes shows she kept apart from him once she moved from the house she shared with Thrale; she did want to get away: she didn’t answer his letters, didn’t invite him to come to her and didn’t visit him — except perhaps once (some ambiguous evidence she came once towards the end).

We see how Johnson did not go gently into that good night. How he fought death, accepted painful procedures and did all he could. How he saw others as ill and dying too — and some of them were. We are none of getting older and I thought of Austen’s Persuasion where her narrow vain father sees everyone but he and his oldest daughter as haggard and decaying from tmie so did not dislike Johnson for seeing this. I see it.

How appropriate he left all to Frank who is there throughout.

The chapter is not made melancholy and we are not led to cry. It’s curiously abrasive and even curt at moments. When Austen lay dying, she laughed and joked in the nervous hilarity of Sanditon (how many teeth have you had out today, one sister has several and you’ve no idea how it deranaged her nerves, but I daresay did her a lot of good), so Nokes may be constrained here from himself — he never mentions himself until the last line of the book.

The epilogue tells of how shocked Hawkins and those who were related to Johnson were that Johnson left everything he could to Frank. How Frank didn’t hold onto the money — alas. The race to publish biographies: Thrale and Hawkins beat out Boswell and the book ends before Boswell’s masterpiece really begins to be written in earnest.

I liked Nokes’s last line: He reminds us that Johnson “once declared that it was the ‘biographical part’ of literature that he most loved; I trust that, in writing this account, I may not wholly have disappointed in that hope.”

So Nokes would like us to learn about life from this biography: he wrote at least three others: Swift, Gay, and Austen; I’ve read the Austen and part of the Gay.

Well I come away remembering some things I like to remember and didn’t know or think of before: how Johnson as a young man was cheerful at Oxford and loved the work, the reading, being there and had enthusiasm and idealism at first (from the work he did); how one night Johnson came back to his lodgings in London and found Frank, his black young servant-friend grown up sitting round the fire with three other young black men; Johnson hurrying out to buy oysters for his cat because while he was so busy with the lives of the poets and its book politics he feared his servants would dislike the cat and mistreat it if they had to forage out for food for it. Johnson worrying each time Hester had to give birth. That kind of thing.

Our cat, Ian

Those interested in a general assessment, some quotations and a little material on Nokes, read on [in the comments].


Read Full Post »

Anthony Trollope’s Small House at Allington, serialized in Cornhill (1862-64, illustrator John Everett Millais)

Anthony Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset, weekly 6 penny parts (1866-67, illustrator George Housman Thomas)

Dear Friends and readers,

As I wrote on Reveries under the Sign of Austen — and [now] occasionally of Trollope, I’m engaged in reviewing a recent collection of essays on Anthony Trollope for an academic peer-edited Victorian journal (The Politics of Gender, ed Morse and Markwick et aliae). As part of my project, I’m reading essays and skimming in books cited by the authors in this collection as well as catching up on reading about Trollope I should have been doing for the last couple of years. I’ve delighted my mind and heart by reading a wonderful biography of and book by the woman Trollope loved, the American woman journalist, Kate Field,

Scharnhost’s biography (which I’ve not yet read),

and I found my notes on a paper about a much superior, one-quarter again as long and (even now) not yet published text of the last Palliser novel,The Duke’s Children

A typically cut page from the as yet published full Duke’s Children

Well, the last two days I have been reading a intelligent well-written and at least in the last fifth, to me surprising study of Anthony Trollope’s 1860s fiction in the context of the periodicals it appeared in during that decade: Mark Turner’s Trollope and the Magazines: Gendered Issues in Mid-Victorian Britain.

Let me first turn to the surprising part of the book, and then contextualize Turner’s argument.

Mark Turner argues that Trollope’s “An Editors Tales” is hiddenly (but clear to those in the “know” especially the men who bought periodicals aimed at men like St Paul’s and the Fortnightly Review) soft core porn. We have been reading Trollope’s short stories on Trollope19thCStudies at Yahoo this year (the second time round), and at least two of us who posted were aware of how much bawdy as well as accompanying misogyny there is in Trollope’s stories. For example, the send-up of tourism in “General Chasse’s Relics” (relics refers to the numinous man’s balls which a harpy-like old maid wants to take a scissors to); “Mrs General Talboys” (an ill-natured depiction of adultery among the demi-monde in the English colony at in Florence); and “A Ride Across Palestine” (a downright story of cross-dressing dramatizing homoerotic intimate gestures between two supposed male tourists).

I had not noticed any increase in the amount or frequency of this kind of thing in An Editor’s Tales (7 stories altogether), but certainly “The Turkish Bath” seemed to suggest a desire for a homosexual encounter on the part of the narrator which was thwarted when the target turned out to be a man trying to get the narrator to publish a manuscript. I remember that Trollope’s wife Rose is said to have declared “Mrs General Talboys” “spiteful,” but quite why (or who the spite was aimed at) she did not say.

Davies’s He Knew He Was Right, a story exploring male sexual anxiety (Louis Trevelyan’s) over an aggressive corrupt male (Colonel Osborne), a Turkish Bath scene

Bill Nighy inimitable as the (in the film) despicable and perhaps impotent fake sexual predator, Colonel Osborne — he is justifying his pursuit of Emily Trevelyan and then turns with a glimmer of sly laughter

My good and perceptive friend, Nick kept being puzzled by how Trollope’s narrator-editor referred to himself as “we.” I took this pronoun be a joke referring to Trollope in his capacity as editor and head of team of contributors; it turns out (according to Turner) Nick was right. Turner says the “we” is meant to nudge other male readers. Anthony Trollope is our comical ever thwarted sexual predator.

I felt then and still do now that Trollope was hinting that he got involved sexually with his contributors — if not actively sexually exploiting them, at least vicariously through an emotional sensual kind of preying on them. There is something peculiar about “Mary Gresley” and “Josephine de Montmorenci:” I took Trollope to be more than hinting to us that he indulges in sex with pretty young women in return for publishing or pretending to publish or pretending to consider publishing or helping with manuscripts. We are told he went round to see Josephine de Montmorenci to see if she was a good candidate; alas, crippled (this is suppose somehow comic at first) and chaperoned by a sister-in-law — who our editor is attracted to (we are told) but alas a husband is not far. “Mary Gresley” has a salivating older editor who meets long nights with her and her manuscripts.

There are other non-predatory sexual explanations for these stories. Now that I’m reading a superb biography by Eileen Fauset about the 19th century woman of letters, Julia Kavanagh

while I realize that while there may be some unkind teasing of George Eliot and G. H. Lewes in the portrait of Josephine de Montmorenci, it’s more likely Trollope had in mind the genuinely crippled Kavanagh who did write aggressive letters and had her mother as her companion-messenger (instead of a sister-in-law as in the story). And “Mary Gresley” may be a kind of rewrite of Jane Eyre, where Trollope uses his grandmother’s name and invents a male wet-dream for himself in an adoring pupil at the same time as showing us the tragedy of what happens when a young woman does marry someone like St John Rivers, does repress herself savagely.

Turner doesn’t deny the second explanation and, like most people (because Kavanagh is not a household name), he hasn’t thought of the first. His interest is to show that first in the Fortnightly Review and then in St Paul’s Magazine Trollope cultivated a male readership where he could be free to respond to and voice male desires (like not marrying if you are not rich, because it cramps a man’s style), anxieties, and political interests. The “Editor’s Tales” just takes this further into soft-core porn. The joke is the “we” of the narrator is man as sexual predator and the reader is supposed to enjoy a host of analogies, allusions, puns and hidden subtexts which add up to a rather foul sexual play. I had thought that “The Spotted Dog” was another profound tragedy (like “Mary Gresley”), of a noble spirit who, excluded from his milieu for marrying beneath him and living a debauched life, becomes a depressive alcoholic. Rather Julius Mackenzie is having an affair with the landlady of the inn and between him and our narrator develops a homoerotic relationship (perhaps physical). “Mrs Brumby” is not just a vicious bully whom the editor outwits (he does not publish her stuff, and the only person who makes moneyis the lawyer to whom the editor pays 10 pounds), but the portrait of a vagina dentata who emasculates her husband and all men. Diligent looking for puns turns up sexy jokes in The Panjandrum. Manuscripts are “phallic daggers sodomitically piercing” the editor/narrator;” the misogynistic tone I felt (and Nick concurred) is endemic in porn.

But Turner goes much further than this. He reads all the Editor’s tales as soft core porn. “The Spotted Dog” is homosocial-erotic, Mrs Brumby is a story of an vagina dentata who our editor beats out. Diligent looking for puns turns up sexy jokes in The Panjandrum. Manuscripts are “phallic daggers sodomitically piercing” the editor/narrator;” the misogynistic tone I felt (and Nick concurred) is endemic in porn.

Part of Turner’s argument is that in the Victorian period editor’s tales as a title and trope were often a cover for soft-core porn. So “The Adventures of Fred Pickering,” not part of the series, and lacking the narrator-editor with his “we” is not to be read for a subtext of sex and pornography. Nor “General Chasse,” “Mrs General Talboys,” or “A Ride Across Palestine.”

I found two reviews of Turner’s book. Judith Knelman likes the first four-fifths (on which see below) but finds this section preposterous. Barbara Schmidt writes the kind of review that stays on such a level of generality that you never know this content is in Turner’s book. The book I’m reviewing quotes Turner’s thesis, and alludes to it with reverence and delight; for its writers Turner shores up their findings of incest and gender subversion (especially somehow for women). Nick thought the stories were often misogynistic, and projected a kind of cruel conservatism: of “Fred Pickering” he wrote: “in my view its political and ideological heart lie in the fact that Fred and Mary are subject to brutal social control. They therefore have all my sympathies and I find the story extremely poignant.” I asked but it’s hopeless to get an answer from the people on the Trollope listserv as to what do they think. I know the time we read the stories a couple of conservative males disliked any talk of bawdy and seemed to see none.

I have to admit the stories often have an odd atmosphere. A number of them (beyond those already mentioned) hint at affairs Trollope had while traveling and unsavury realities in Trollope’s professional life though why he’d want to give this away in stories was not at all clear. It made me wonder what is Rose Trollope’s function here; it’s said she made fair copies of his manuscripts for him sometimes. Well, was he needling her? getting back for something.

I’m not one who sentimentalizes a marriage where the man stays away for years, and the woman show no intellectual capacities or interests at all, and he writes a supposedly robust comical letter to a woman imagining Rose dead so he can remarry this woman. And he had an open love affair with Kate Field which turns up in novellas as stories with him as old man with a nagging ugly housekeeper (with ugly names too as in The Fixed Period and An Old Man’s Love).

Turner say that the pornographic imagination is a continuum and on the edges of many male respected books today one finds misogynistic passages and pornography. I’ll agree. He says this kind of thing has been in respected literature since the enlightenment in France with its libertine novels. Agreed again. I know this kind of ugly stuff is found in Nabokov, Naipaul (scenes of violent hatred in sex against women), and not infrequently prize- winning male books (Coetzee) and some female ones too. He instances as a good argument which takes pornography into “the fold” of what we can acceptably study, Susan Sontag’s essay, “The Pornographic Imagination.” I’ve read Sontag’s piece not convinced. She does say that it is absurd the way we define and treat as clinical or unacceptable pornography. (She doesn’t say why: she avoids getting into (so to speak) what women in particular find objectionable: cruel violence to women as vicarious thrill.)

I think Turner stretches his interpretation though and like Jill H-S in her Unbecoming Conjunctions (a similar book in some ways looking for sex and wanting to “undermine” assumptions about gender behavior) does not do enough close reading, is often far from the text. More to the point: for me, if he’s right, he makes these stories of exploitation — Trollope is laughing at and taking advantage of pathetic desperate people and inviting us to laugh likewise. Could this be?

Here is Anthony Trollope as painted by Samuel Lawrence in 1864

I prefer Nick Hay’s view that Trollope is self-flagellating when he writes this way about desperate young man, lost geniuses thrown away and unconsciously releasing his own libido in his stories of young women. But maybe not. I have written a book claiming high ethical vision without taking this side of Trollope into account. To me if just some of these stories are autobiographical they present someone prepared to take advantage of his contributors. Is the autobiography a desperate cover-up not only of the years of continual loss and failure from the later 1870s but of Trollope’s sexual life? Maybe. In the final paragraphs of his Autobiography he says his conscience is clear about his sexual encounters. Maybe it should not have been.

I’ve just posted on the real lives of disabled women on Reveries, and had been reading Josephine de Montmorenci” as a story about a disabled, a badly crippled, undergrown (because of the disease she had, writing woman who actually made a life for herself worth living. The tone of the story is not kind, indeed mocking but he does show her hardship and tries to help her. It’s cruel. I do hate how he presents the alcoholic wife as a monster in “The Spotted Dog,” and now it’s degraded from pity and terror to prurient jokes. I prefer to think what Turner finds is an undercurrent in the stories.Turner calls all this playful. Do we have a gender fault-line here? He’s a male. In Politics of Gender the writers often reference Turner on “The Turkish Bath” as if it were undoubtedly correct.

A connected book of essays, The Erotics of Instruction (which contains an essay on He Knew He Was Right by Morse and has similar contributors) comes out boldly to tell of love affairs these women instructors fantasized or had affairs with students (if so, I reprobate this highly); in the case I mentioned boasts she went for Trollope because she had an affair with a Trollopian professor. There is a review of this book which excoriates this attitude as destroying the ethical basis of literary teaching (it partly appears as a remark on the back cover of the book, was it Kincaid?).

All this made me look again at Robert Polhemus’s essay about Lot’s daughters, and incestuous patterns in Trollope (according to him that’s what “Mary Gresley” is about). If that’s what’s going on here, it may be truthful about an important area of life (emotional incest in family life) but can rescue it by suggesting Trollope sees the men taking advantage so it’s about how the powerful can destroy the powerless — poor Mary destroys her writing. In these books, the language of abstraction functions to hide actual content. Tortuous style shows unease: A more powerful or older person with connections or money or who has something the young person doesn’t have (the professor) can persuade the younger one to allow his or her body to be used. I did know women students in graduate school who had affairs with the professors; one girl paid for her own abortions three times. And women allow themselves to be raped (the Polanski case) for jobs as actresses, so to get into print you get into bed?

Is this the way modern fashionable Trollopian academics will bring Trollope into the modern world, make him post-modern. It’s true he is more sexy than people who read him often say but to turn him into punning porn reminds me of Pope’s “Epistle to Arburthnot” (a Horatian satire — Trollope liked Horace) where he says people compensate for his disability by telling him how another writer was short, another ugly, a third a cripple:

“All that disgrac’d my betters, met in me …”

A coda: I noticed something odd in Markwick’s chapter on bawdy in her book, New Men in Trollope. She keeps repeating the same few puns and only refers to one story, “The Turkish Bath;” in Politics of Gender she adds “Ride to Palestine.” I’m thinking here is an area she doesn’t read Trollope: these short stories. Everywhere else she knows the novels by heart, line by line, but here no. Despite the patina of modernity in her new book I discern an old fashioned Victorian, Browning-type: how many times she refers to male sexuality as “healthy” with a kind of heartiness and approval, sex is just great and God’s in heaven and all’s right with the world fundamentally and Trollope knows this. I wonder if she finds the stories not stomachable. (The editor of her Trollope and Women managed to edit out this aspect of her tone of mind.) If so, maybe they are more porn-like than I’ve ever thought.

Far from making Trollope a proto- or any kind of feminist in my eyes, this approach ignites my sense of his deep lacks when it comes to class and gender; he may feel ontologically superior, apart and these powerless people “other” so he and his readership can make jokes of abuse and where people hurt, are miserable and twisted. I remember how in Castle Richmond he argued the Irish should not be fed during the famine (a position one of the contributors to Politics of Gender in her book on Ireland did not seem troubled by).

One has to remember that because others are X and misread according to X, that does not mean the author is the way they admire. This is a problem I’ve had with Austen and others I’ve read with people on line.

I wrote this week on Austen-l, Janeites and WWTTA about Mrs Smith in Persuasion as the portrait of an impoverished disabled woman (from 1995 BBC film)

I’d say there is a strong strain of overt sexual awareness in Trollope (as there is in George Eliot); it’s not censored out and it’s mature and adult. This is one reason he was never given to children as Dickens and Twain were. There’s a deep and until very near the end humane understanding of sexual anxiety in men, jealousy, the vulnerabilty of women, with Emily standing in for a beaten wife in real life in He Knew He Was Right. That sort of thing is not found elsewhere that I know of in Victorian middle class novels.

Now until Until Turner gets to the concluding section (the last fifth of the book), Turner’s book is excellent. It’s even elegantly written, makes plain a point of view not brought out clearly in Politics of Gender. We are studying sociology, history, culture, through close readings of literary, non-fictional and non-literary texts.

He opens by showing new fashionable approaches of old Trollopians as legitimizing his. Then “this study is not only (or even primarily) about Trollope; it is not a traditional single author study … figure that unifies discussion … [older] narrow ones … Trollope as a case study which grounds a theoretical consideration … magazines as cultural form. So Trollope is a link, a way for Turner to bring his perspective and interpretation of the magazines’ readership to the fore. For he is not writing a history of magazines nor even all the magazines with which Trollope associated, he focuses on a select range; he asks what does it mean to read fiction in this context (1860s, periodicals with niche audiences), what do we learn about the novels, the magazines, the cultural life in books of the era.

For those interested, read on [in the comments].


Read Full Post »