Archive for July, 2010

I think there must be a loss of self-respect before suicide can even be thought of … Dwight, Bk 1, Ch 9, p. 121

I’ve only followed the devices and desires of my own heart …. Demelza, Bk 2, Ch 14, p 341

In this novel Francis Poldark (Clive Francis) attempts to kill himself

Dear friends and readers,

Those who read my blog regularly will know this spring I fell in love with the 1975-76 mini-series Poldark, and have been watching them slowly ever since. I’m half-way through the first half of season 2 (1977-78).

About half-way through watching season 1 of the 1970s Poldark films, I began reading Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark (novel 1 of the cycle), and liked the novels so I went onto Demelza (novel 2). Two weeks ago I found I could readJeremy Poldark (novel 3), anywhere: I’d open it up, and enter into it utterly, and forget where I was, on a train station surrounded by people, in the heat, in the car, didn’t matter. The world of these novels is fully formed and ever so gradually being filled out, added to. This time I’d like to suggest the quality of the book’s text (supple, alive), describe its tightly shaped structure, and then suggest some of its themes. Mainly I’ve transcribed pieces of three sets of scenes, two from the opening, two in the middle, and one at the close of the book. I suggest the key to making a historical novel come alive is not to feed the reader too much information, but tell only what you need as you go, and trust the reader to understand it the way he or she understands anything said about our world today simply.

For an outline of the plot, see comment.

So, this blog takes us back to the third novel of the series which is dramatized in Season 1 (Parts 8-11 or so).

First, the quality of the text. All the descriptions, occasional close readings (of which I’ve done very little), and commentary can’t show why a novel is good or bad. It’s its text that matters. Matthew Arnold’s touchstone theory.

As in Novel 2 (Demelza), Novel 3 (Jeremy Poldark) opens where the previous novel left off. Graham does not rehearse the previous book (as for example Trollope, Balzac, or Oliphant do in theirs) but writes each book as a kind of continuation and development from the previous; the novels do not quite stand on their own.

Demelza left off on the wild night of Ross’s at first joining in to help and then trying to control and stop a mass stealing of goods by crowds of starving and harassed people from two richly-loaded colonialist government and merchant ships (complete with slaves aboard, which slaves escape and are heard of no more) which came into the harbor. Half-maddened with grief and disappointment (from his failed ventures to build a community like some benevolent patriarch), Ross worked from both sides: helped “his” people stealing and the people trying to flee, but began to draw the line at the outbreaks of violent killings which started. We saw him go home that night, invite the militia to stay with him, and then care for his wife and dying baby, Julia; the baby die, the mass funeral and Demelza’s beginning a slow convalescence.

As book 3 opens, we see a group of thugs come to visit Jud Paynter, Ross’s fired servant. They want him to lie about Ross on the stand and are prepare to buy, beat, or bully him into doing this. We switch to Ross’s home and find a rethinking meditation passage by Ross as he is facing a trial for instigating this mass stealing. Of course his actions are a direct threat to the private property system (of which he is himself a beneficiary after all).

The scenes of pressure and bribery as dramatized in the series

Several incidents follow where we slowly gather that behind this lies the powerful people who have destroyed his mining company, and especially the spite and desire for revenge by George Warleggan who is spreading vicious rumors (sexual too) about him. We have to pick this up: we see George ostensibly come to visit Elizabeth and Francis Poldark, with a gift of a pony for their son, but Francis surmises why George has come and what he is doing. So too Dr Enys when he talks to Demelza before going off to doctoring people with typhoid.

The two scenes I’ve scanned in. The first shows Ross and Demelza walking about their garden. They are bankrupt in the way landlords were then. He owes far far more than he brings in each year and has to live on his land — but somehow he does still have the land and they live like the impoverished landlords – as does Francis Poldark who is now very sympathetic to Demelza. Francis has tried to talk to Ross whose pride is very stiff and his anger still too. Francis is the same: both upper class males who will not bend. They break instead.

The point of this scene is to show and anticipate how Ross will make things much worse for himself by not cooperating with friends, accepting their aid, the advice of the lawyer to lie on the stand or present a falsifying version of what happened that night. Also that he and she can’t accept the death of the child, Julia. I skip some of it with ellipses (as like many novels it goes on building up, lingeringly to make its effect)

They walked round in silence. The garden was motion­less under the lowering clouds, leaf and flower taking on the warmer, firmer substance of permanent things. Ross thought, there are no permanent things, only fleeting moments of warmth and companionship, precious stationary seconds in a flicker of troubled days.
The clouds broke in a shower-and drove them in, and he stood a minute in the window of the parlour watching the big drops pattering on the-leaves of the lilac tree, sunning them dark. When rain came suddenly Demelza still had the instinct to go and see if Julia were sleeping outside.
She thought of saying this to Ross but checked herself. The child’s name was hardly ever mentioned. Sometimes she still suspected that Julia was a bar between them, that though he tried his utmost not to, the memory of her courting infection to help at Trenwith still rankled.
She said: ‘Is it not time you went to see Mr Notary Pearce again?’
He grunted. ‘The man frets me. The less I see of him the better.’
She said quietly: ‘It is my life, you know, as well as yours that’s at hazard … Ross, I shall have nothing. I shall be a beggar again. I shall be an unfledged miner’s wench-‘
‘You’ll be a handsome young woman in your first twenties with a small estate and a load of debts. The best of your life will be ahead of you … – –
‘Stuff. You’d surely marry again. If I were gone there’d be men humming round here from all over the county. It isn’t flattery, but the sober truth. You could take your pick of a dozen.’
‘I should never marry again. Never!”

The scene ends with her trying to maneuver him into going upstairs with her before dinner; but he will not (no sex you see), and her saying:

‘Perhaps in time it will seem different. Mayhap we shall have other children.’
He moved away from her. ‘I do not think any child would be grateful for having-a gallows bird for a father … I wonder if dinner is ready.’ (Chapter 2, pp. 26-27)

The second is Dr Enys on his way to his patients. What I like here is Graham’s scepticism towards medicine. In reality the novelist is thinking of mid-20th century medicine as much as later 18th:

When Dwight parted from Demelza he rode down the steep narrow track to Sawle village, into the bubble of the stream and the clatter of the tin stamps. It was a short enough time since he had come to this district, a callow young physician with radical ideas about medicine; but it seemed a decade in his life. In that time he had earned the confidence and affection of the people he worked among, had inexcusably broken his Hippocratic oath, and since then had painfully re-established himself – entirely in the eyes of the country­side, who laid the blame on the girl, very ‘partially in his own, which at all times were self-critical and self-exacting.
He had learned a great deal: that humanity was infinitely variable and infinitely contradictory, so that all treatment consisted of patient experiment and trial and error; that the surgeon and the physician were often mere onlookers at battles fought under their eyes; that no outward aid was one quarter as powerful as the ordinary recuperative power of the body, and that drugs and potions were sometimes as likely to hinder as to help.
If he had been a self-satisfied man he might have found some comfort in having come this’ far, for many of the surgeons and apothecaries he met had learned nothing like this in a lifetime and were never likely to. He avoided members of his own profession, for he found himself constantly at loggerheads with them. His only comfort was that they were often as much at variance among themselves, having only one element in common, an absolute and unquestioning confidence that their own method was infal­lible – a confidence that seemed in no way shaken when one of their patients died. If a sick man collapsed under treatment that was the fault of the sick man, not of the method.
What Dr Thomas Choake believed Dwight was not sure. Since their early quarrel they had seen little of each other; but as they practised over much the same territory … (Chapter Two, pp. 27-28)

Thus book begins with Ross’s continuing half-depression, his anger and the trial; Enys’s uncertainy, Francis wanting to do better. Those who have seen the series know Ross gets off (Episodes 9-12): declared not guilty though in fact he partly was. The trial is mid-point in the book.

Francis is even more deeply troubled in this book; in the film Verity brought in wherever possible

Despite Ross’s love for Demelza and how her presence in the court pressured and led him to present himself more positively and how her conversation with the judge the night before gave the judge a tiny edge of leniency, they are still not getting along once they get home. He cannot reconcile himself to what he has become socially — his failed position. His cousin, Francis, is near suicidal over his. They are failed gentry. It’s here Demelza takes to fishing to supply food for the house. These scenes of her going out to sea punctuate the text. They are controlled persuasive experiences of a kind of sublimity home-style (as from her point of view).

To stay with my attempt to give a sense of the quality of the text, I turn to a particular kind of writing used occasionally by Graham: letters.

There is an intriguing dialogue about letter-writing as conversation and substitution for a presence — the way emails can be. The education theme is in the Poldark novels, for like a good historical novelist imitating novels of the era we are told when Demelza settles into Ross’s house (at age 13 or so) she is encouraged to improve her reading skills by Prudie and then (naturally) given the run of the master’s library where she reads away. This is very common in 18th century novels for virtuous heroines. Perhaps it was true in life for gentlewomen who wanted to read and learn. Alas, we are not told what Demelza reads.

In Jeremy Poldark, much older now there’s a touching scene between her and Verity when Verity comes to be with Demelza for Ross’s court case: Verity’s letters form part of the narrative of Demelza, and she writes a good letter. Demelza says she is glad to see Verity because her own letters are not good; she has so much to say, but it never gets past her head into her quill. She laments her lack of a teacher and says she could learn to read on her own but her writing remains slow and awkward

“They greeted one other like old lovers, kissing with a depth of affection that trouble brought to the surface, each aware of the other’s love for Ross and of a uniting purpose.
‘Verity! Oh, I’m that glad to see you; it’s been an age ­and no one to talk to as I talk to you.’ Demelza wanted to board the stage at once, but Verity knew they had a quarter of an hour’s wait, so steered her cousin-in-law into the inn. “‘They sat in a comer by the door and talked in earnest confidential tones. Verity thought Demelza looked years older than at their last meeting, and thinner and paler . . .
‘I wish I could write like you,’ Demelza said. ‘Letters that tell something. I can’t write, no more’n Prudie Paynter, and never shall. It is there, there in my mind, but when I pick up the quill it all puffs away like steam out of the spout of a kettle.'” (p 57)

Something did jar in a letter by Verity to Ross after the trial. It’s a good letter and forms a chapter (as other of her letters have), but here the problem is Graham knows she would capitalize many of the first letters. But there were no rules for such things. Since in Graham’s previous letters by her (in Demelza), he hadn’t tried that, there was no problem; he writes her letters in good modern English ever so slightly inflected to feel Cornish during the rest of the book — she’s an educated woman so no mispellings.

But this time he tried some caps. Well there weren’t enough — or he did it too carefully so only the emphatic words had caps. It’s true people writing at the time capitalized their first letters in words and that in general it was emphatic words that had caps. But anyone who has read 18th century letters as printed in books and seen in manuscripts knows caps are everywhere, many more than simply emphatic.

Suddenly the letter looked “cooked” — and the fiction had that slightly stilted feel that is so fatal for historical fiction.

I’ve been reading genuine 18th century novels this week for my project towards a paper on lesser known gothic sources for Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and have struck with how Demelza resembles 18th century virtuous heroines in more ways than how she was educated — except in her freedom over sex with Ross before marriage (this happens only very rarely to virtuous heroines and then they are severely punished). For example, Demelza “conciliates by civility” and “engages by gentleness” (p. 183). These phrases could come straight from 18th century books. And such behavior works well for her in the Poldark novels: she’s liked and can gain what she wants. Now in many 18th century novels such qualifies often hurt the heroine. What hurts Demelza in this mid-20th century book are economic and social conditions as they hurt Ross; she gets beyond her lower class background (perhaps improbable).


Ross very troubled

Again on the quality of the novel: scenes combine marital adjustments over sex, the problems of poverty, bankruptcy, making do, whether they should resort to allowing smuggling on their property to help make ends meet, the eerie power of human memory over events.

So the persuasive depiction of a married couple at odds, in near estrangement is intertwined with Demelza going to various people to try to get Ross freed or declared not guilty and the trouble that results as a part of this.

One scene stays in mind because it’s so much truer to experience than most of such scenes I’ve come across. Ross has reason to believe Sir Hugh Bodrugan has been trying to get his wife, Demelza to go to bed with Bodrugan since she came for help over the trial. We are not playing silly games about flirting conversations here. He does think she said no, and now would prefer she not go visit him to help with his cow. She says she will because she’s promised but gets angry at the implication she might have been willing to go to bed with Bodrugan, and she sees in his lack of trust in her his looking down on her as a lower class and therefore someone with less strength or integrity: ” Especially … a common miner’s daughter.” He hits back: “that’s for you to demonstrate.” That she is much better than he could suppose. To which she says: “You’re detestable – saying things like that.”

This is an adult reasonable couple. He is not making a mountain from a molehill, and she is not demanding ludicrously unlikely demonstrations of
trust and respect on his part. They are both human beings with complicated impulses. He is wrong for his snide remark, cruel, but she doesn’t throw him out of her bedroom and he doesn’t forbid her to keep her appointment. She goes not to offend; they need every friend, and in the incident Graham finds time hilariously to end up not only 18th century medicine but our own. I sometimes think I’d have done as well to light a pyre and pray as any help I’ve gotten from a doctor; it’s what she does for the cow.

It’s not just in Victorian novels one finds a curiously screwed up overwrought exaggeration of how people behave without the actual possible threat of an illicit fuck (so to speak), but I’ve found it in other novels, admittedly mostly by men: fictional wives who refuse to assuage their husband’s sexual anxiety and insist questioning her or doubting her is an intense insult. One such is in the LeCarre’s Constant Gardenerand there the husband has the mortification others really believe him cuckolded, yet she will not adamantly reassure him or stop her working (she works with him) relationship with a handsome doctor by telling her husband the doctor is homosexual. LeCarre says it’s the principle that counts. She should not have to reassure her husband. If he doesn’t believe her, that’s means he would control her and that prevent her from doing what she wants. Girls in my classes defend the wife. What’s at stake is liberty as well as respect.

I find this fascinating and even important: Ross exemplifies modern ideas about men and behavior which have changed. As I wrote the blog on Demelza, Ross is no Tom Jones; he is very like the hero of Andrew Davies’ To Serve them all my Days in outlook, determination, seriousness, earnestness, pride and sexuality is not a game to him — nor for us. Davies’s source book for his mini-series for that is just post-WW1. But our ideas of women really for a popular author have changed little: wife, mother, female friend, the same private ideals hold firm and it doesn’t matter that the world has changed a great deal. The costume drama even provides an escape for her that it does not for the hero. He must be engaged with the world as it was then directly or will not be respected by the reader.

Nevertheless, for me very powerful is the delineation of Ross and Demelza’s slow estrangement. We are made to feel they will somehow reach one another for we know she loves him, accepts everything about him, wants to serve him, though at the same time is strongly her own person, has pride, and will do what she thinks right and go after what she wants. He too in her mind and behavior is showing love, devotion, loyalty, but he does not articulate it. A bad thing is they are gradually not making love except when the physical need comes on. With real delicacy Graham brings out and back how Ross does still love Elizabeth, respect her in ways that are class inflected and would become her lover were she to let him. Francis is himself a noble figure, destroyed by his own weaknesses, and intensely wounded when Elizabeth has no love for him at all — his father, Charles, in the film series, had no respect. The love Elizabeth understands is for someone strong and also someone she grew up with and learned to love that way.

The scenes at the second Christmas are very real: they feel alive as we watch the two couples and Dwight Enys and the parents-in-law attempt to be cheerful and almost fail, but getting together was much better than not. It’s the contemporary understanding of Christmas today filtered through a period earlier than ours.

Like an 18th century fiction Ross Poldark dreamed of being the center of a kind of benevolent community; doesn’t and can’t happen. To the contrary, as the novel goes on, he and Demelza must pawn and then sell their possessions not to pay their debt but simply keep up with the interest.


Trencomb, the smuggler, bargaining with Ross as to how much Ross will receive

Demelza objecting to the scheme as dangerous

The second half of the book brings out with strong vividness and develops indirectly (he is still off stage much of the time) the character of George Warleggan, and in his wake (as Elizabeth eventually marries George after Francis’s death), the character of Elizabeth, Francis’s wife, Ross’s ex-beloved. Ross and George are arch-rivals; Elizabeth has married Francis, and George brings presents (a pony Francis cannot afford) to make up to Elizabeth. Francis identifies with his cousin despite their quarrels and is the first to accost George, accuse him of paying off people and setting Ross up at the trial to be hung.

They have now sold much of their livestock, her brooches, clothes, furniture, not to invest, but stave off debt collectors. And comes to Ross an offer of 50 pounds from a double-dealing but desperate smuggling businessman, Mr Trencrom: if Ross will let Nampara Cove be used for smuggling, he can have a cut. In front of Demelza a powerful scene (comic too) of Ross haggling with the smuggler and getting 200 pounds a load. (After each one we see the community has more to eat, more money is better off.) But she is adamant against it: he has just escaped hanging for his part in the starvation riots and looting on the beach.

There follows this scene:

She … that nothing is worth letting these rough people into “our land”
He said sharply: ‘Two hundred pounds is excuse enough for that. I want no other.’
‘It’ll not buy you out of prison.’
‘I shall not be in there, thank you.’
‘You’ll have small choice if the landing is surprised.’
‘Nonsense. It’s a risk, I know — but not as big as I owe to Trencrom. It would be possible in fact to plead ignorance. We might not be believed, but there would no proof to the contrary.’
She put her hand on the mantelshelf. ‘I can’t stand it again! All the worrying anxious time of the trial — ­before; not sleeping, like a cloud all day. Picturing this that. Transported, hanged, rotting in gaol. The day at Bodmin – all I did – or tried to do! It isn’t fair! Not so soon. It isn’t fair to yourself … or to anyone!’
He looked at her again and perceived that she was upset. He said more gently: ‘Now you’re seeing bogeys the dark. There’s nothing to be scared of in a li­ttle free trading. I was only afraid lest I had set my price ­high. That’s why I came down fifty. Today, on top of news of the Warleggans … Mr Trenwith … was an angel in disguise.’
‘The devil!’ she said vehemently. ‘No less.’
‘Perhaps I should lie meek under this latest of George encroachments, but it’s not in me to do so. Besides … you may have forgotten it, but we have recently sold all our stock, your brooch and horse, the clock and the newer furnishings of the house. Not, mark you, to cancel our debts, but to postpone them for a mere twelve months. We’re not out of the wood if we sit together in bucolic bliss and weave daisy chains. I’m more likely to go to prison that way than any other.’
She said: ‘I can’t help it! I want your child to be free from fear.”‘
Ross put down his glass. ‘”What?’
There was a tap at the door and Jane Gimlett came in. ‘Please, will you be wanting supper at the usual time? I put the pie on to hot up just in case, like.’
‘The usual time,’ said Demelza.
‘And the ham? There’s a fair cutting on it yet, though tis getting fat’
‘Put it on,’ said Demelza. ‘The scones has come out nice, ‘m. I thought I’d leave, you know.’
She went out. One missed the ticking of the clock in here. A new piece wood, not quite dry, was hissing on the fire. Little bubbles moisture were forming at one end of it, trying to escape the flames.
Ross said: ‘When did you know?’ ‘September.’ He made a gesture. ‘Good God … ! Not to tell me … !’
‘You didn’t want it.’
‘You said you didn’t want another child – after Julia.’
‘Nor did I – nor do I –‘ He picked up his glass, set it down again without drinking. After a minute he added: ‘To grow into our hearts, and then to die. But if one is coming – that’s different.’
‘How different?’
‘Well … it’s different.’
‘I wish I could believe that.’
‘Why should you not? It’s the truth.’ He turned. ‘I don’t know what to say — how to say it … I just don’t understand you. You’ve been closer about it even than last time. When do you expect — the birth?’
He frowned, trying to shut out his memories.
‘I know tis the same month,’ she said desperately. I could’ve wished for any other. But that’s the way things are I shouldn’t be amazed if it’s born the same day, three years after. It’s been the same so far – the visit to Trenwith and ­all. But all history don’t repeat itself. I don’t believe it can. Anyway, I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry? What for?’
‘That it’s happened. That it has got to come. That you have this extra burden which you don’t want.’
He came and stood beside her at the fireplace. ‘Now stop crying and be sensible.’
‘I’m not crying.’
‘Well, wanting to, then. Is this what’s been on your all winter?’
‘Not on my back,’ she said.
‘As you like. Ever since September you’ve been drawn from me – poking up your head now and then [like a] sheep from behind a fence. I couldn’t reach you. Is ­child the cause of all of it?’ ‘If I have, then it may be.’
‘Because you thought I didn’t want it?’
‘Tis only what you said.’
He said in exasperation: ‘God damn it, you should know I’m not used to dealing with women! You search them to find some special secret feminine grievance to gna­w on for months on end, and then produce it coolly on the to explain all the irrational hedging and dodging of an entire winter-‘
‘I didn’t search the earth for it!’
Well, I thought you could distinguish between a theoret­ical case and a practical one – evidently that isn’t so.’
‘I wasn’t well educated –‘
‘No more was I. Look.’ He thumped the flat of his hand the mantelshelf. ‘Look. If you ask me, do I want more children, I’ll say, no. We’re nearly paupers, the world’s awry and we’ve lost Julia. Correct? That’s a theoretical case. If you say you’re having another child, do I dislike the prospect, I’d say, yes, for all these reasons I still dislike the prospect; but a prospect is not a child, and a child can be welcomed for all that. D’you understand what I mean?’
‘No,’ she said.
He stared at his tobacco jar on the shelf, his first protest … his mind leaping forward to what this news tailed. And all the memories of Julia it revived. The storm her birth, the two christening parties, the drunken Paynters that day Demelza was out, the high hopes, the love – and the storm at her death. It had come in a cycle, had conformed to a pattern, like a Greek tragedy prepared by a cynic It was to happen again. History had to repeat itself in the early stages whatever the later might bring. He glanced down at her. What did it mean for her? weeks of discomfort, agony at the end, then months of emitting care. All that had gone to Julia and much more; yet it had all been lost. What right had he to claim a monopoly of grief? … He’d never done that, and yet … He said more gently: ‘I’ve noticed no stoutness so far.’
She said: ‘By April I shall look like Mr Trencrom.’ It was the first time they had laughed together for a long time; but her laughter was still dangerously near tears, his a quite voluntary surrender of his irritation. He put his hand on her shoulder, trying to express something that he couldn’t yet say. Strange, the meaning of contacts! His firm clasp of this arm was entirely permissible familiar, pleasurable, the touch of a known and loved ­person, however exasperating. His clasp of another arm at Christmas [Elizabeth’s] had had electricity in the touch. Was it because he loved Elizabeth more – or because he knew her less?
Demelza said: ‘If you’ll care what is going to happen us … then you must have more care in what you undertake.’
‘I shall have care in everything I undertake – believe me I’ve every possible intention of keeping on the right side ­the law.’ He released her shoulder. ‘Or at any rate the blin­dside … Thank God at least that we have a capable physician [Enys] in the neighbourhood.’
‘I’d still rather have Mrs Zacky,’ said Demelza (pp. 258-62, Book 2, Chapter 6).

Fascinating to me how he’s insulted she didn’t tell him for so long – yet all the while she carries on with the dangerous fishing to bring in stuff for them to eat. That he liked.

The effect of landscape and memories of what happened in them: Ross goes to inspect the mine before deciding finally to sell: it was here that Enys and Keren came to grief over their love-making when found out by Mark Daniels:

It was pleasant enough sitting here among the whispering grass,and he scarcely moved for half an hour. There was some community of spirit between the man and the scene. Strange ideas were milling in his head, at least two of them, having taken shape from his conversation with Mr Trencrom. All of them derived from the events of yesterday and of them were moving him to one end. At length he got up and walked slowly, half aimlessly, back to Reath Cottage, he’d open the door and went in. It was dark, as it always could be except in the mornings; Mark had built it facing the wrong way. People wouldn’t pass the place after dusk; they said Keren still hung there sometimes with her broken little face out of the window. The earth floor was covered with brambles and gorse, and rank white grass, predatory and unhealthy, sprouted among the stones. An old stool stood in the comer, some faggots lay by the fireplace. He went out into the open again, deriding himself for being glad to go … (p265, Book 2, chapter 7).

Graham has the gift of making a situation and remarks that echo what we hear today and know wryly, ironically, amusingly to be what people say, and feelingly what they feel at the same time as historicizing just enough.


Coping with bills as Demelza pours wine and brings in supper

The last portion of the Jeremy Poldark shows Ross coming to terms and living with much beyond Demelza’s new pregnancy. First, his new awareness that Jud Paynter and Francis Poldark both betrayed him.

Jud first: he played a dual (mole) role of taking money from someone to testify on the stand that Ross was the leader in the starvation/looting riot over the two ships which entered Nampara harbor. He learns this because in a long semi-comic sequence, Jud is accosted late at night finally by George Warleggan’s henchman (we never know this for sure as we never know for sure as yet that it was Warleggan behind all the pamphlets circulating badmouthing Ross and the attempt paid for by bribes and pressure to get the judges and others to declare Ross guilty. Someone hits him over the head with a strong rod of iron and we think he’s dead, and Prudie holds a funeral with the 15 shillings in gold she unexpectedly finds hidden away in Jud’s bags.

Graham cheats by having Jud come back. In the midst of the revelry the body disappears and it seems that he was just very groggy and unconscious for 2 days. But he has been found out — what was the money for. Now Ross and Enys guess why Jud had become so careful at night and when he’d meet anyone on the road he’d behave liked a hunted animal or ask for company.

Worse, he has to accept that Francis Poldark also betrayed him. The 600 hundred pounds Francis now wants to invest in yet another venture together was payment by Warleggan for giving away who was behind the previous attempt to break the monopoly. This goes very hard with Ross. In a scene in a tavern Ross comes across Warleggen and needled by the man, he loses it and they have a knock-out fight — done in the film, where they break a bannister and strain and nearly break one another’s arms, legs, and heads. It’s not bloodthirsty and is real. The owner of the tavern is frantic for them to pay for this. He is proud and angry and feels no pity for Francis’s guilt in not spending this money even on new windows for Trenwith. He doesn’t care if Francis feels a failure or Elizabeth doesn’t love him or any of it.

What brings them together is the christening after the birth of Jeremy Poldark. Both Francis and Ross have not been decent to Verity but gradually slowly came round to accept her marriage — partly seeing Blamey is okay. Blamey comes to the taven and in the moment of the all seeing one another (just a small family affair this time) Francis forgives Blamey in language that alludes to Francis needing forgiveness from Ross: “This is the last moment to wipe out the past.” if they don’t, they will not get together again. And so they all do. They need one another.

This theme of the inexorableness of human nature is seen in the subplot where Verity welcomes her step-daughter and stepson. The daughter is just awful: mean, grudge holding and when she sees Verity trying so hard, she just gets meaner. It’s stopped when the stepson arrives and we see he is willing to make do with this new step mother and try to forget what was. There is a beautiful moment of Verity and the stepson having tea while the daughter goes out the room. She has not herself reconciled her heart to the new arrangement but her presence is modified by her brother’s more generous stance.

Demelza fishing

And of course Demelza. She has told Ross and still they have not mentally come together. She still sneaks out to fish while he goes about his business. IN the mini-series we see this remarkable number of hours where the tide gets too rough for her to row back as she’s 9 months pregnant and she almost turns under. In fact only fortitude (I’m linking threads) keeps her rowing and rowing, she is so weary and at a loss because she half-thinks Ross does not like or value her and she’s a burden and life so hard. Shall we give up or die. She doesn’t give up, and manages to get back to shore just as the labor gets very bad. We see her reach the beach and not until 4 chapters later (held off by Verity’s meeting with her stepchildren and the reconciliation of Blamey with Ross and Francis) do we know she’s survived and had a healthy boy.

The description of the place and shore is not overdone, just right. I’ve been thinking about how Graham is so deft where so many historical novelists are wooden. I’ve mentioned his control; he is also patient. He need not tell you everything you need to know now, just enough to make you experience what you are intended too. So too in this powerful chapter of Demelza almost giving in to the labor of birth and getting back to shore in a big storm of the coast of Nampara cove.

A lot happens on Nampara cove. She is our heroine holding this Poldark family together in the last scene. We get to see the judge not only understood when she approached him and tried and was in the court when we hear of how he has sent her good wishes as well as help. The Poldarks, like for her forgiveness and humility. And goodness. She tells Verity “I’ve only followed the devices and desires of my own heart.”

The closing scene is of Ross returning home, now with a new baby to take care of in an intense way, just what he dreaded, another venture and not much money, spending all he has and this time Francis, kept afloat by the cut in smuggling. One has to live by chance.

He came more slowly to the garden in front of the house.
At the door he stopped to sniff the lilac which in a day or two would be in full bloom. Human beings were blind, crazy creatures, he thought, forever walking the tightrope of the present condemned to ever changing shifts and expedients to maintain the balance of existence, not knowing even as far ahead as tomorrow what the actions of today would bring. How could one plan a year ahead, how influence the imponderables?
A butterfly settled on the lilac and stayed a moment with poised trembling wings. Not by a hairbreadth would a single external circumstance move to accommodate him and his schemes – he knew that. As well ask, on the butterfly’ behalf, for the postponement of sunset or tomorrow’s gale. That was as it might be. Within the scope of his own endeavour he accepted the challenge. He might at some later date look back on this day as marking the beginning of his prosperity or the last move towards his ultimate ruin. The tightrope was there. No one could see beyond the next step.
Within the house there were movements, and from where he stood he saw Demelza come into the parlour carrying some things of Jeremy’s which she spread before the fire. Her face was preoccupied, thoughtful, intent, bu’ not on what she was doing. He realized that all the struggle and anxiety of the next few months would not be his alone She would bear her share of the burden. She was bearing it already. He went in to join her (Book 2, Ch 14, p. 344).

A touching, moving close. Jeremy Poldark is a shorter, beautifully shaped, in some ways artistically superior novel to the first two in the series.

Edward Dowden (1843-1913), Beach Landing (south east England, circas 1890s).

Smuggling remained common on the coasts of the UK throughout the 18th & 19th century, known as “free traders,” they helped many peoples in many districts to survive (see Mary Waugh, Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall)


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One of the puppets: the muslim abductor of Melisendra (also represented a puppet, a lovely romance lady in a medieval-like pink dress), from Master Pedro’s Puppet Show (at Castleton festival)

Lonny Smith, Maris Wicker, Love Noir: the music of Lenny, Kurt and Harold (cabaret at Capitol Fringe)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve got five summer music occasions to record. All were marvelous in themselves — if made somewhat difficult to enjoy by the excessive heat we had to endure this year.

We returned twice to Castleton Festival. You may remember we went there three time last summer: for Britten’s Turn of the Screw, Rape of Lucretia, and The Beggar’s Opera. The fabulously rich Loren Maazel (remember our tax rates) has a kind of home which seems to come out of film adaptations, complete with beautiful gardens and a manor house at the center. High minded, generous, he’s built an opera house, concert hall, open plaza for music making and with some philanthropic organizations, supports a month and one half effort to bring together students, teachers, professionals to make music and present their efforts to the public.

The first time was early in July: for Puccini’s Il trittico: brilliant, entertaining and long (over 5 and one half hours) production of 3 one-act operas; Il Tabarro, Gianni Schicci, and Suor Angelica.

I had never seen any of these three operas before; I was told that often only 2 of the 3 are done. Not only did they do all three, but the production design was ambitious and the presentation of the operas effective: singing, acting, thematic projections, all wonderful.

Puccini has now gone up some more in my estimation. I’ve loved Boheme, and think Madame Butterfly used to be underrated — not any more since it’s post-colonial (the word was not in use but is appropriate) expose of the cruelty of the upper class whites, and strong emotional support for the heroine coerced to giving up her baby son relevant to us today. His music in these thrills me and I usually cry.

Now I see he can have political content. I’ll describe the operas, last first and first last.

The rigorous cruelty of Suor Angelica’s family to her, the nunnery’s complicit reinforcement, all drive the nun mad by the end, she kills herself but not before she has this delusionary vision. It makes Diderot’s Nun into a book about cheerful kind people — only that of course Diderot’s critique is explicit, unmistakable and Puccini’s only implicit. It’s was there though and felt in this production.

Gianni Schicci was done in modern Suburban dresses, New Jersey circa 1950 (or maybe a TV image) and became an overt funny satire on modern bougeois hypocrisies and greed.

I did not know the famous beautiful song (O mio babbino caro — sung by Kiri Te Kanawa in the Merchant-Ivory Jhabvala Room with a View) not only comes from this opera, but is made fun of in it. The whole context is ironic even if the heroine sincerely buys into this romantic love.

And I liked that the central character is found in Dante and Puccini makes it explicit he rejects Dante’s rejection of this fixer.

Puccini’s Gianni Schicci (Castleton Festival)

Jim tells me that the central story actually occurred: there really was a rich dying man whose relatives were desperate because they weren’t sure he made his will out in their favor, and they paid Gianni Schicci to pretend to be him and produce a fake will. I think he gave himself the fortune — or the relative who hired him, and Dante puts him in the 30th circle of hell, way down where it’s freezing, as a forger.

Il Tabarro is verismo, with the husband murdering the lover of his erring wife, very well done here, particularly the man who sung the husband and acted the part of a jealous desperate man powerfully.

The three operas were linked by this production: all swirling about death: including horror at death (the scream of the wife in La Tabarro when she sees the corpse of her love is memorable for a while afterwards); death offering peace in death, oblivion (the nun), or terror at hell and mad suicidal impulses (the nun again); and not-that-comic exploitation out of greed and cheating (wills), and how we react to corpses too (once we get over it, we are not all that fussy as seen in the way the old man’s body is treated in Gianni Schicci).

Today we went to a double bill: Igor Stravinsky’s dark dance piece, A Soldier’s Tale (about an hour and ten minutes long) and the very amusing operatic dramatization of an incident from Don Quixote by Manuel De Falla, Master Pedro’s Puppet Show

The opera theater at Castleton

The Soldier (from another production, Castleton is very stingy about releasing pictures)

A Soldier’s Tale is a dark anti-war, anti-capital, anti-modern anonymous world fable. A soldier tries to return to his village, and on the way is tricked, hounded, harassed, and repeatedly bullied and intimidated into going through soldier-like routines. There was no singing, rather shouting orders, much percussion, electric lights, props which look like the silver tables you see people on in hospitals. This part went on too long, and began to feel like revelling in one-on-one violence.

The high point was a dance: in the first part one of the harassers is said to be the devil; in the second the soldier returns to his village and there meets a sleeping princess, who he awakens from what seems an abject neurotic disturbed trance, and they dance a modern dance. It seems like they will become lovers and know some happiness, but at the last moment, he disappears and she turns back to become curled up on her table again, like a fetus.

The idea seemed to be that one does not get over such traumatic wounds as the world inflicts on people. It was vigorous, and people applauded the hard work of the four people on stage, but in comparison with the strong applause, clapping, laughter and sounds of delight at Master Pedro’s Puppet Show one could see the audience was respectful, edified, but put off by the Stravinsky’s angular austerity.

Picasso, Don Quixote (again I was only able to find but one photo of one puppet online and that not the most important)

What was remarkable was for once Don Quixote was not presented as a noble idealist seeking a profound dream, but a destructive madman. At the same time he was not presented reductively, as a silly despised figure: the man playing Don Quixote himself thinks he is behaving with stern uprightness, is passionate, well-meaning, if crazy. In other words, the production was faithful to the tone and spirit of Cervantes’ text.

The audience first sees two Spanish looking men sit down to watch a puppet show and gradually it’s revealed one of them is taking a romance lady girl puppet dreadfully seriously. When she runs away with her puppet husband from the puppet abductor, the madman gets so excited he destroys the theater, many of the puppets, and Master Pedro’s livelihood. Tyler Nelson (tenor) as Master Pedro sung and acted effectively as did Paul LaRosa (baritone) as Quixote, Richard Pittsinger as the young boy as the narrator of the show.

The fun was probably in watching the set get torn down. Seeing the actors wreak havoc on the puppets and puppeteers, a kind of primitive reveling in breaking down the illusion so at the end the flimsy shell is gone and we see through to all the workings supporting the puppets. The Dulcinea puppet was protected by a turned-over table.

Other Puppets from the Puppet Kitchen

We did come in time for part of the pre-performance talk: it was by the puppeteers who call themselves The Puppet Kitchen, in which they talked of why people respond to puppets. We laugh at their limitations, and enjoy the imitation. It’s primitive: put eyes on the face and to us it comes alive. In fiction and films we enjoy and will endow non-animate objects with human qualities. It goes deeper than this: I’ve seen a withdrawn child brought out by a psychologist who the child would not interact with or talk to, suddenly bring out a hand puppet, and the child gradually talk to, play with, even become animate with the puppet. The puppet seems harmless, rather like a small animal the child (by virtue of size too) can feel safe with.

They would not tell anything of the plot first so that hampered their talk. The usual stupidities about “spoiling” our enjoyment masked a desire to say as little as possible of their trade. This instinct for secresy may be thought to protect their property; in fact few are anxious to become puppeteers; it’s a hard way to make a living. The lack of pictures of their work just prevents them from becoming known. (Cutting off their noses to spite their faces.)

We stayed this evening to hear the final all Beethoven concert. This enabled us to eat out in Griffin Tavern, excellent restaurant in Flint Hill specializing in British food, lovely meal, effective wine, yummy desert. We also got to talk to more people by staying, fellow Alexandrians and others. The concert was probably excellent but I was tired. As it was the last evening of the festival, I thought to end on Beethoven’s heroica for the summer was right. Lorin Maazel got rounds and rounds of strong applause and he looked happy. He wants this festival to continue and be part of his legacy.

The other two good times were had at the Capitol Fringe. On Friday night we went to a moving as well as deft, ironic, wry Cabaret of “Love Noir” sungs drawn from American musicals mostly by Lonny Smith and Maris Wicker:

the songbooks of Leonard Bernstein (best known for writing the music for the classic Broadway shows West Side Story, On the Town and Wonderful Town), Kurt Weill (composer of “Mack the Knife” and “Sing Low”), and Harold Arlen (composer of the score for The Wizard of Oz including the classic American standard “Over the Rainbow”). The songs chosen for this 60-minute show range from beloved classics such as “If I Only Had a Heart” from Wizard of Oz and “Something’s Coming” and “Cool” from West Side Story to lesser known selections including “Dissertations on the State of Bliss

It should have been unqualifiedly wonderful as the two people sang beautifully, I usually come near tears for “Over the Rainbow” and love the saturnine ironies of “Mack the Knife” and subversive plays on real love in some of the other songs. Bernstein is exhilarating.

Alas, the small brick inside room of a old condemned building was not air-conditioned for real; the two machines were pushing cool air in streams which quickly dissipated and I (and others) were bathed in sweat by the end. The Festival really has to put all its shows in large airy or air-conditioned places.

You might say we wished we were having a good time, and honored the two singers the more for carrying on gallantly in such conditions. It feels ungrateful to criticize them for awkwardnesses or lack of eye contact and the occasional off-note.

The fifth musical performance (sixth opera) was another 20th century opera, Thomas Passatieri’s Padrevia performed by Opera Alterna. This was a powerful one hour production of a Boccaccio story.

It’s the story of a young woman, Gismondo (Daniele Lorio) who is kept in the house and not allowed to socialize or see anyone by her father, Tancred (Tad Czyzewski) who secretly nourishes an incestuous passion for her. She meets (as the only half-eligible male around) the gardener (Siddhartha Misra), they gradually become lovers. The father suspects, then catches them in the act, has the gardener killed, and his heart cut out and brought to his daughter. She bathes herself in the blood, drinks it and a vile poison; Tancred comes and finds her, and lays his body over hers in an anguished agon of sexual desire and despair.

As I watched her keening over that horrifying heart, I realized I had seen one just like it earlier in the festival: in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Annabella’s heart is carved out and placed before her brutal husband (remember it’s called a “woman’s tragedy” and the accent was on sister, daughter, wife and female servant abuse). The Renaissance was as brutal as our era, and lacking guns and exquisite technologically precise weapons, they resorted to direct savage cruelty. The torn-out heart, beheaded head, gouged eyes are motifs found in Renaissance plays. Shakespeare both uses (Lear) and makes fun (Cymbeline) of them.

The set was simple, singing superb, theatrics effective, and the story and archetypal characters carried it

Daniele Lorio (a promotional photo)

At this performance we met an old friend, an older man with a long white beard I’ve seen repeatedly at the Washington Shakespeare Theater and other plays (Stage Door) Jim and I go to. An intelligent man he told us of his adventures this time and for years back. We shared experiences. He had bought a season ticket for $300 and on some days saw 4 productions. He thought that perhaps 40% were superior, and told us about the Washington Shakespeare new theater in Arlington and we may just go as their line-up of older and new classics is really pleasing.

We are not yet done with our summer music: in less than two weeks we go to Wolf Trap for a picnic outdoors and inside the theater, Britten’s dark fantasy Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The use of extreme states of mind, high violence, primal archetypes, and wild generic fantastical modes makes modern operas astonishing experiences. Consider how few go to these, how people instead may be found in huge numbers in front of banal tediously repetitive programs on TV.

A small note of pleasure: on the porch or portico outside the opera theater in Castleton amid the lush greenery, oneiric lake, and picturesque staged levels of Maazel’s Pemberley-like grounds were a number of tiny kittens, some sleeping, others eating the food and water left in scatted places, and still others coming up to people to nudge and be petted.

Latest photos of Clarissa-Marianne and Ian aka Little Snuffy, our full-grown cat-friends whom we return home to each day and night


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Medea (Melissa Fenton), Euripides’s Medea, Englished

Annabella (Jessica Shearer Wilson), ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Dear Friends and Readers,

We know it’s summer. Weeks of 90 plus degree heat, many days “feeling like” over 100 (because of high humidity), a glaring sun that burns my skin if I am so foolish as to get into my non-air-conditioned car between 11 and 4, sweat trickling down from my breasts to my waist under my ever-so-thin or halter-like tops. So we didn’t need the Capitol Fringe to make it official; nonetheless, its revival for a sixth year marks the season as high summer.

This year we bought for 7 events and have thus far gone to 5. Two have been outstanding. John Ford’s <‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore was acted with intense bravura and the terrific energy needed to carry this wild tragedy into half-hysterical farce, the mode of many a Jacobean play. I’ve taught 3 not Shakespearean ones, Middleton’s Women Beware Women and The Changeling (there’s a film! with Hugh Grant before he was type-cast as comic), Webster’s Duchess of Malfi; and seen (in NY) Women Beware Women (with Patti Lapone in the frighteningly evil woman’s role, now featuring Harriet Walter in London), Tourner’s Revenger’s Tragedy (by our own local Washington Shakespeare Company at Clarke theater) and gone to dramatic readings (Webster’s White Devil) and watched others on TV. So I have some knowledge and a comparative basis.

What distinguished this one was some strong acting (top performances by Wilson as Annabella, Evan Crump as Giovanni, Terence Ashelford as Vasques and Prairie Griffith as the Nurse):

Nurse and Vasques

As Annabella’s nurse, Griffiths really spoke the lines naturally and she was very very funny; as the man ready at the drop of a coin to kill anyone especially for his boss (a typical Jacobean type), Ashelford combined cynicism and loyalty in the right amounts.

Also high brutal savagery with short swords, clever symbolic costumes & stage business.

Here’s the story. And the point: this is the one play in the whole of the utter transgressive, taboo-breaking corpus that makes incest central. It’s there in a number of plays: Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy where a brother sells his sister’s sexual services to the king and then goes mad with jealousy; in The Duchess of Malfi where a brother cannot bear for his sister to marry; in Hamlet, but Laurence Olivier has been unusual in stressing that. It opens with atheism, carries on with adulterous betrayals between male friends.

What made this one unexpected was how it dwelt on the abuse of Annabella. She is really drawn in by Giovanni, then subject to a coerced marriage, then beat up continually and ferociously by her husband, it feels far in excess of his jealous rage over her pregnancy. It became a study in wife, daughter, sister abuse. The nurse too: when she hears her eyes are to be gouged out after she has faithfully meant to help her mistress by telling some truths, she gets a Lear-like look. It’s the immediate betrayal in the scene that gets you.

They also seemed to realize Giovanni was a sort of Hamlet figure breaking through oppression if half-crazed, not caring enough for his sister, only his sexual appetite:

Ere I’d endure this sight, to see my love
Clipped by another[marriage], I would dare confusion,
And stand by the horror of ten thousand deaths.

Giovanni with Annabella

They got Annabella’s guilt right:

Brother, dear brother, know what I have been,
And know that now ther’s but a dining-time
‘Twixt us and our confusion . . .

[Remember the atheistic doubt as this line longs for death]

Perhaps they might have gone a little slower and allowed us to savour Annabella’s final soliloquy:

Pleasures, farewell, and all ye thriftless minutes Wherein false joys have spun a weary life!
To these my fortunes now 1 take my leave.
Thou, precious Time, that swiftly rid’st in post
Over the world, to finish up the race
Of my last fate, here stay thy restless course,
And bear to ages that are yet unborn
A wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy.

The other woman’s tragedy we saw was one whose central story everyone knows some version of, Euripides’ Medea (in an uncredited English translation). I really thought Michael Burke’s production (he did lights, staging, directing) near perfect.

Again I have some knowledge: I’ve taught the play several times in Paul Roche’s excellent translation, read enough on Euripides to understand what a radical and woman-sympathizer he can be, and recently on WWTTA we read and discussed Liz Lochhead’s translation, from a production of which this photo of Fiona Shaw as Medea and Jonathan Cake as Jason comes:

One of the “interpretations” by Burke of the Euripides play was to put the accent on tenderness (yes) and love. Medea loves her children passionately and kills them out of madness and a desire to protect them and keep them to herself as much as revenge. In the original she also wants to strike hard at Jason and (the line in Euripides runs) and in Paul Roche’s translation (which I’ve taught three times) it is Englished: “now you’ll take me seriously.”

It’s hard to get people to take things seriously. In this production the line is “now you’ll not mock me.” Not as good I think :).

Jason was also played as a man still in love with Medea, at least wanting to go to bed with her. There’s a scene where they come close to kissing and that would be a prelude to love-making but both suddenly draw back. I’ve never seen it done that way before. If you will look at our groupsite page, you will see that there is something of this in Shaw’s posture.

It’s a kind of motif I’m seeing in films recently: the crashingly arguing couple get close and nearly fall to love-making (Joe Wright’s 2002 P&P does it for the famous rejected proposal between Darcy and Elizabeth, in this one in the rain).

In Burke’s production, Jason was also doing this marriage as the socially networking thing to do for him and her, if she’d only see it this way. At one point (funny) she says to him, so you’re saying you can now give me references. I laughed aloud at that one. The play became contemporary; I could see Jason nagging her to get her interview act together, find “headhunter” and smooch and crony away.

He was despicable, contemptible and the final scene of her maddened with grief, and him enraged at her, full of pity for himself was just right. The feathers are the blood she’s spilt for him:

The chorus was dressed terrifically: like nightmare comedia d’art figures, also in crazy feathers. They wore details suggestive of animals, of weird madness in asylums, of kupie dolls:

Izzy felt it became too noisy at points and missed hearing some of the lines. She had some justice there, but the use of colorful electricity and wild lights had an electrifying effect when the noises (musical effects on a tape) became savage:

I wish I could speak as highly about the other 3 events we’ve seen. The audience for Dizzy Miss Lizzy’s Roadside Review was large (crowded in), testimony to how good they were last year.

The problem is it’s very hard to come up with a brilliant new show inside a year, especially when you are working for money or going to school elsewhere and underfunded. For me and some of the people around me they worked hard but they were mostly noise and antics signifying not much. The applause was very mild.

On the other hand, maybe my lack of responsiveness came from my being older, and not getting the references. Have a look at what Izzy wrote

. . . it was still loads of fun, even if I had to explain to mom afterwards that the druidess had been reciting a Beatles song-which pretty much sums of the spirit of the show right there. In the end, the hero even triumphed through the Power of Rock, combined with a healthy dose of the Power . . . actually, on second though, I won’t give it away. We were even invited the sing along with the group number. I recognized several of the performers from the previous year, especially Felicia Curry, who, armed with the sad number, really brought the tent down this time. They’ll be doing another one of their revues in the Signature, but sadly I’ll be in New York by then.

Likewise, Lysistrata: The Musical had all the actors working so hard, meaning so well, and there the politics were just so humane meaning (ultimately), but to me it was crude (constant shouting about penises, vaginas) and filled with humiliations for the men by leeringly Amazonian women. Jim said what I wasn’t liking was Aristophanes: his play is in bad taste. Several of the scenes, one where a wife jumps on top of her husband, he frantic to have sex, and she keeps stopping to add a pillow or blanket is straight from Aristophanes. The audience seemed to like the performance though — they laughed and cheered at different stunts. To me what they were doing to one another on the stage enacted the same norms as the war they were all decrying.

I do want to put in a good word for the one-woman Dorothy Parker evening at Bus Boys and Poets Corner (a large lively restaurant with a large room where poetry readings often take place). Abrams chose her material from Dorothy Parker’s life as well as works. It should have been much better, it was meant to be much better. Abrams was led astray by sticking too closely to the outward (conventionalized) biography and chose her passages to exemplify that. It’s understandable; she wanted the audience to follow the trains of thought.

Alas, that meant she didn’t chose the very best; maybe it was that she didn’t choose her passages bravely enough: no “Big Blonde” for example – Parker’s one undisputed prose fiction mastepiece. By the end of the hour she was posturing energetic grief over what seemed to have been not such a bad life. On the other hand, I know how brave it is for an older woman to get up in front of a crowd and perform. Abrams is at least 50, and until the show started she stood at the back of the large room, a fairly dumpy woman in a dark-colored cocktail dress, mid-height pumps, choker-pearl necklace. She was keeping the fuller memory of Parker alive.

Parker’s poems show a disillusion and weariness Abrams meant to project, as in this one:

A Certain Lady

Oh, I can smile for you, and tilt my head,
And drink your rushing words with eager lips,
I’d paint my mouth for you a fragrant red,
And trace your brows with tutored finger-tips.
When you rehearse your list of loves to me,
Oh, I can laugh and marvel, rapturous-eyed.
And you laugh back, nor can you ever see
The thousand little deaths my heart has died.
And you believe, so well I know my part,
That I am gay as morning, light as snow,
And all the straining things within my heart
You’ll never know.

Oh, I can laugh and listen, when we meet,
And you bring tales of fresh adventurings
Of ladies delicately indiscreet,
Of lingering hands, and gently whispered things.
And you are pleased with me, and strive anew
To sing me sagas of your late delights.
Thus do you want me — marveling, gay, and true —
Nor do you see my staring eyes of nights.
And when, in search of novelty, you stray,
Oh, I can kiss you blithely as you go …
And what goes on, my love, while you’re away,
You’ll never know.

I like Parker’s self-mocking ones. She wants to write epigrams (in the Martial tradition):

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying —
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

I wanted to hear more of the lesser known axioms. “Constant Weader fwowed up” is great. But “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force” needs to be heard too. And which novel or what kind of novel it was.

I do not want to cavil. This is a chance scattered choice of 7 out of so many. Apparently we should have gone to the H.M.S. Pinafore or Gilbert and Sullivan this year. Each year there seems to be one Gilbert and Sullivan. One year we saw one done by junior high school students.

It’s wonderful to see a great deal of fine talent, intelligently-meant art, and groups of people just getting together to enjoy themselves in DC over the course of 3 weeks and to join in. I’m told the NYC Fringe has become commercialized: a place for try-outs for commercial groups. In DC we do have our repertoire companies contributing and trying to widen their audience. There was nothing from what we could see in the lineup as original as last year’s Fifth Musketeer But then a couple of festivals ago, we saw a truly great Marat/Sade.

It’s all to the good. The people doing these plays have to resort to condemned buildings, run-down warehouses. We traipse up long stone narrow stairwells and since the air-conditioning isn’t adequate, there are fan going strong placed strategically (and it’s hoped not intrusively) about.

One night Jim, I, and Izzy went out to a good Chinese restaurant near the old warehouse theater where ‘Tis Pity was done. Another night he and I splurged and ate out in a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, elegant, fine-cooked food, wines (free champagne to get us to spend more) where we were treated with respect and consideration.

If only the people I see at these events, doing them, running them, volunteering were running our society, I know it’d be a better place for us all. They have provided Jim, I and Izzy with nights out we can participate in at a price we can afford.

And when we get home we sometimes have great and enthusiastic talk, exhilarating. We did over Dorothy Parker, Medea and somehow or other got into Catullus and Robert Graves on myths over our spaghetti dinners with wine when we get home too.


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Demelza, contemplative: After a few years marriage to Ross

Dear friends and readers,

Having finished Winston’s Demelza (Novel 2 in Graham Winston’s Poldark series) about a week ago, I started Jeremy Poldark (Novel 3) last night, and was delighted to find myself in yet another superb novel by this man. Even though I’ve now watched more than half-way through the first half of the second season (1977-78) of the mini-series, Poldark, and just loved the first season, I was surprised. I assumed the man would not keep it up. He does.

So here am I writing about the second novel to recommend, describe and say what is so good about this set of historical novels.

Cover photo of the 1996 Pan MacMillan edition of Demelza: the Pan MacMillans are the best imprints

Demelza keeps up the spirit and life of Ross Poldark. Maybe because it’s not so much a sequel, as a continuation. In this sense it’s not quite like most romans fleuves (Trollope’s Palliser novels, Margaret Oliphant’s Carlingford novels, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time) but rather an ongoing huge novel, coming out in installments where each one must have closure for a while.

I wrote my central enjoyment of Ross Poldark came from liking for the central character, his implied author’s tone of mind, and the central left politics and vision of the book. In Demelza I am very fond of the heroine, recognize aspects of my feelings in her (engage with them): she is a lower class woman thrust into an environment where she does not fit easily and she feels (is made to feel) this daily; she is independent-minded (as so many say), acts on her own for her own existence: we do not see her as a wife much, in this book scarcely as a mother (though frequently pregnant three times thus far), but rather Ross’s mistress, sex partner (this is done discreetly), working with and for him for his causes (which I like) and his safety (which is hers), waiting for her revenant-adventurer (primarily she is at home). He reads evenings (though what we are not told, alas, as that would be fun to see which 18th century texts Graham might pick for him) and often drinks, is more solitary than one might expect; she sits by his side, sewing, talking. She walks, rides (sidesaddle), goes boating and fishes.

Unlike many male authors, Graham understands the importance of female friendships but does not quite have a feel for how they work so like the other women in this book Demelza is rarely seen with the women we are told are her friends, but rather with Ross or in connection with him. Her relationship with Verity is developed through Demelza’s enabling Verity to marry, which while it brings them close is not all such women would bond through: here, tellingly perhaps, the film series improves this pair as in Season 1 we have scenes of them as friends discussing their needs, pregnancies, attitudes (the film passes the Bechtel test). They do go shopping together in Demelza, one of its fun scenes. No mother is ever seen, even mentioned for Demelza, only a stepmother her father marries after she goes to live with Ross and with whom Demelza makes no connection. The stepmother is religious and this is presented mostly from the angle of bigotry, over controlling.

For a later reread and an outline of the book, see Demelza: A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World.

Demelza, the novel, opens and closes on Demelza herself. The opening chapters tell of Demelza’s childbirth, the birth of Julia. Far from skipped (common in nvoels), the pregnancy and childbirth are dwelt upon. We are shown that the doctor’s remedy and his interference makes things worse. He bleeds the poor woman and then goes home.

Ross does become indignant and insist the doctor come back, but luckily he keeps away, and Prudie, Ross’s woman servant, and the woman who partly brought Demelza up, and Verity, Ross’s cousin, who has become Demelza’s good friend, assist Mrs Zacky Martin (Jinny’s mother) who suddenly emerges as a woman with knowledge of childbirth.

Again this is deft historical fiction for we do not feel we are getting a treatise or information but experiencing childbirth as in a novel set today — only conditions are different.

The birth itself is not really described only suggested. She then gets up from bed, the young baby begins to thrive, and she makes it her business to get Verity, Ross’s cousin, together with Captain Blamey (the man Verity loves) — where the previous novel ended. Verity has come to stay during her convalescence and help out.

Then the fiction moves to consider what this world would appear like to a young girl child growing up: a bleak bare place, much withered and dead, things damaged, poverty everywhere, murdered springs and Graham goes into the background of the novel, the larger picture, before a christening brings the other Poldark characters over (so they can be introduced) and a new one: Dr Ennys. In the film series he is a major character from the fifth episode on.

Our point of view now is a combination of Ross and Demelza, back and forth.

The book closes on her too: She returns from nursing Francis, Ross’s male cousin, and Geoffrey Charles, Francis and Elizabeth (Francis’s wife), child, to fall deadly ill herself, together with her and Julia, her and Ross’s first child, born at the opening of the book.

The power of these scenes comes from remaining mostly in Ross’s mind. As Demelza sinks she remembers back to when she first came to this house, a beggar beaten up, and was put in a huge bed to sleep, and we get a reprise, but then we switch to Ross and his thoughts which range wide over the two novels thus far. Deftly we get a certain amount of information about the best care available (not effective) from Dr Ennys’s ministrations. Julia dies, and Ross puts off Demelza’s requests to see Julia for another day.

Talk about “wild nights” (the quotation from Emily Dickinson with which I opened my blog on Elena Ferrante), Demelza ends in a conflagration of wild nights, driven by Ross’s bitterness over his bankruptcy, the death of Julia (while Francis and Elizabeth’s son, Geoffrey Charles will now live on), the spectacle of homeland and kin and worker as desperately poor and continuing to half-starve.

Robin Ellis writes Ross Poldark combined Che Guevara with a Gainsborough movie costume-hero and he is right.

As it becomes clear Demelza will live, we get a frank comment in third person indirect discourse: Ross is not as celebratory or relieved as one might assume or hope he would be. Half-relieved and mostly for her sake. He is cheered and enabled to carry on because her nature is cheerful by instinct, she makes the best of things.

Then two ships laden with wealth are blown into the near coast of Nampara Bay, one gaining money and riches partly by slavery, and the other a government-war supported venture.

Ross encourages all the people round to scavenge the first ship; he leads a desperate mob action. Graham has the storm to describe, the breakup of the ship, the desperation of people on board and then the increasing violence, pillage and exultation of the people stealing.

He himself begins to calm a little and see the damage that is ensuing to individuals, his passions calm but the hard core inside remains so that when the second ship lands and bunches of miners now come out, he offers his home to the officers and left-over crew, and takes them back.

This is not to say that for a moment he regrets what has happened. He rejoices to see people bringing back to their homes stacks of corn, of cloth, of whatever, to see the military officers who grow rich from their “prizes” see their gain shared with others, see the sailors partly mutiny, see a couple of black people flee from slavery (half exhausted, starved, might not have gotten very far).

Captain McNeil watches Ross and we know or surmise this is not going to end here – and from Season 1 I know a court case was rigged up to hang Ross for all this.

IN the meantime we return to his home where that night he shows great tenderness for Demelza remembering her sunny disposition, her real giving of herself, and her selfless wanting to me his mate, and her grief over teh death of their child.

On the next day is the funeral for the small child. A large crowd comes out of respect for Ross (only the Poldarks stayed away — their excuse they are still not well). A funeral ensues which again exacerbates his feelings. He didn’t expect the great crowds and didn’t prepare a feast or wine.

Dawn breaks over ruined beach, dispersed military, destroyed ships, and the people much the same. Now Demelza is well enough to be brought upstairs to their old bedroom and he carries her up there in blankets. She is suppose to be small — as is Angharad Rees.

The two sit at the window looking out and talking of the summer to come. They notice the cot in the room and don’t have what it takes to remove it. She encourages him to try to forget, and to try to accept Verity’s marriage and whatever Francis and Elizabeth Poldark are. Friendship such as it is is needed, and people must not live in hatred.

“They watched the scene on the beach.
‘I shan’t have to finish that frock for Julia now,’ she said. ‘It was that dainty too.’
‘Come,’ he said, ‘you will be catching cold.’
‘No. I am quite warm, Ross. Let me stay a little longer in the sun.

Cornish seascape landscape (from 1977 series)

Moment of triumphing in one another (early years of marriage, Season 2)

And so the book concludes; it opened on Demelza’s giving birth to Julia, her almost dying had she been left to a doctor and being saved/taken decent care of by Zacky Martin’s mother, and the christening (with all its strife and class and family conflicts/humiliations).’

One way to write a historical novel set in the 18th century is to imitate previous ones. Ross Poldark (or Book 1 of the series) ends in a remarkable social scene in a private great house where two heroines (as it were) become indirect rivals (not their choice) in singing using a harp. I thought it partly modeled on (or showed memories of) the scene of Jane Fairfax and Emma Woodhouse’s piano playing in Austen’s Emma.

from 1996 Meridian/A&E Emma: Harriet (Samantha Morton) watched Jane (Olivia Williams) play, with Mr Weston turning the pages

After Demelza’s pregnancy and the successful birth of Julia, several chapters are expended on the two day christening. Graham offers two powerful scenes of social interaction, with characters attacking, protecting, coping with the occasions on class lines. I liked how afterward when Ross was determined to have the second day even though Demelza felt humiliated after the first (her father showed up with her mother and mortified her with his behavior, some of the upper class women were able to use this to sneer openly at her), he went ahead but she did not alter her feelings about it. This a hard rock gritty sense of two personalities living alongside.

Through Ross’s idea to start a copper company of his own (on a huge loan) to get round all the laws and customs impoverishing the many for the sake of the upper British-connected few and his visit to the countryside, and mines and prisons, Graham keeps up his two-pronged (then and now) social criticism. All of these three things are worked finely in Season 1 too.

This is not a book whose strength comes out of dwelling in Demelza’s mind. While it begins with her and she’s an important force in the book, as it opens out (so to speak) to re-assume a wider perspective after the close of the previous book and opening here concentrating on Ross and Demelza’s relationship, their home life, and their relationship with his and her relatives (much on class differences here), it turns into an omniscient narrative much like Book 1.

The powerful scenes are dramatic and concern his interaction with his Poldark family, with him trying hard to set up a copper company to bypass all the regulations impoverishing the locals (by preventing them from operating their own businesses). He has not yet resorted to smuggling in this book; he is as yet very law-biding and I’m one-quarter the way through the second novel. He’s about to visit Jimmy Carter in a horrible prison (put there for poaching).

Demelza’s part of the narrative is central however: the birth, the christening; her attempts to get Captain Blamey for Verity and to his credit suddenly Graham presents Blamey as not altogether desirable as husband material, and Ross weighs in against it; the high point of the ball after Jim Carter has died; her apology to Francis and her sickening and the death of Julia which ends the piece. She is paralleled to Verity and Keren too.

The depiction of Falmouth (to which Demelza travels to find and see Blamey) is very fine, convincing and pleasurable, with the character of Demelza vivid with uncertainty about her plans once she sees him — and on the first visit her coming leads to nothing. She does see how lonely Blamey is but also how twisted, not really perhaps to be trusted because husbands were so powerful.

And there’s developing centrally the romance about the player girl taken by Mark Daniels to be his wife, she’s rescued from her nomadic existence (beautifully portrayed) but is bored and frivolous — this is evocatively done but the sublime scenes of the TV mini-series are not given over to this pair; rather the TV series and writers were too taken up by her as having committed adultery and couldn’t get themselves to see the landscape in romantic ways at all, nor the romance of Mark Daniel.

In the early phases of Demelza a persuasive, believable account of the attempt of the Poldarks (Ross and his cousin, Francis) to set up a mining company through hidden loans, their leaving off a mine (and the misery this causes) and attempts to begin a new mine. What a rough laborious dangerous business.

Then Graham delves the deterioration of the marriage of Keren and Mark Daniels; if he is not sufficiently sympathetic to Keren as a person (she is from the get-go of inferior material it seems), he does understand how a woman would be stifled and bored silly with such a life with a mining husband.

From two angles we learn of the realities of mining lives in Cornwall.

The powerful story of Mark Daniel’s relationship with Keren. She is (we are to see) instinctively now tempting Dr Ennys to have an affair with her.

Ennys’s house (turret) is nearby and she is attracted to him. There is an intense antagonism to women’s sexuality finding fulfillment at work here. While Graham can see how bored she would be with this man and what a half- (quarter — for he’s just home at nights and then dull, has no conversation whatsoever) life she leads, but nonetheless, she is supposed to accept this. Dr Ennys is presented as allured in spite of himself — good man he would not want to intrude or break up a marriage. He falls to her as temptress.

At the same time the story of Verity Blamey goes forward. Here the assumption is she is drying up as an old maid, but sympathy is shown to her because she is not pro-active and wants to be a particular man’s wife — no matter what his past, she trusts to him and his love for her once they are married.

Similarly, Demelza is utterly loyal to Ross; of course she has this wonderful guy and so it’s understandable, but it is the typology I’m pointing out here.

Not that easy-going prostitutes are disliked. As long as they know their “place” it’s just fine.

A comparison of the book and film: This is a powerful section of the book which was taken over for major threads in the film adaptation. In each case the changes that were made were in the direction of making what was happening softer (not as hard as in life) and more romantic, and revealingly (alas) again I notice that the depiction of Ross and Demelza’s relationship is nowhere as interesting as the one in the novel.

One thread is the poaching, imprisonment and death from disease and bad treatment of Jimmy Carter. In this section it has come to Jinny’s knowledge that her husband very ill has been transferred to worse place very disease ridden. Ross goes to see him and discovers the place to be an utter rotten hellhole the keepers are unwilling to go into, and against the law but on his authority and rank gets a group of men to take Jimmy Carter out of that prison. The book is like the film, but unlike the film, Carter does not live long enough to see his wife. So the film version resembles Garrick’s rewriting of Romeo and Juliet where he had the lovers wake up and be together before their death. In the book Jimmy never makes it past a new clean bed; Dr Ennys amputates one of his particularly gangrene limbs and he dies of the operation.

A later 18th century Cornish mansion (probably remodelled), used as Penrice (the Warleggans’s second home, Season 2)

The next sequence swirls around a vast festival the Warleggans put on which includes a weekend at their house of certain select members of the community (including the two sets of Poldarks), a party and dancing and gambling at their house, then a ball at an assembly, then the select company returns to the Warleggan’s house to resume eating, drinking, some dancing but mostly gambling until the morning hours when all sleep. Then the guests get up and leave.

Ross at first does not want to go, so sickened is he by Jimmy’s death and his awareness these very people are those who put the young man in prison, paid nothing to make the place decent, made the laws against poaching while they pay starvation wages. He is persuaded he gains nothing from keeping away and needs these people to continue with his new company. He has also on the way to the prison a couple of weeks before bought beautiful material for Demelza’s dress, a brooch and she is looking forward to going, wants to. She is one of those who feels they must live in this world and cannot help the Carters by staying away.

But he goes in an ill temper. She does not know how to cope with looking so beautiful and being beset by a group of men who in effect proceed to take advantage of her since she does not know how to control giving out her dances. Some of the people in the ball admire her from afar on the basis of her “framing” (as Ross puts it later) but we see her actual experience while at first fun soon turns stressful and souring. This reminded me of Campion’s take on how Isabel Archer might really have felt being beset by men. There are also women in the hall and other snobs who sneer at her; it has been rumored (quite wrongly) that Jinny’s last baby was not Jimmy’s but Ross’s and this helps the sneering.

Ross in effect has deserted her. He is behaving badly while gambling, half-insulting people who irritate him. He should have himself danced with her the first dance and stayed near to help her. At long last he pulls away and comes to see her and he behaves in at first a suspicious fashion (as if she’s a “loose” woman and adverse because she’s not being the upper class mannered woman), then is about to leave her to the men, and then changes his mind. We get a dance sequence which reminded me of the famous aggressive and adverse talk of Darcy and Elizabeth in P&P the first time they danced (and I wondered if Graham had it in mind), only the talk here is grim and for real. It’s believable how they cut at one another, but towards the end he begins to see she needed him and half-yield and she takes the reins in keeping them gonig through decorum.

(Now all this is OMITTED from the films. I’d like to think it would be precisely this sequence Andrew Davies would seek to dramatize.)

When they return to the Warleggans Ross goes into the deep gambling he gets involved in in the film where the cheating relative, Samson, is after a long night’s cheating, which includes Francis Poldark, is exposed and Ross throws him the mud. I can see why it’s included because all gather round, Ross bets his mine shares and Clive Francis is just so perfect as the unstable,wry, half-destructive, weak honorable brother-in-law, but after all it’s not a zero sum game.

Verity’s story is kept in the film. Blamey turns up (after having been encouraged by Demelza) and they melt to one another again, and again there is a confrontation with Francis. This too is kept in the film, all the parts.

The adulterous love affair of Dr Ennys and Keren is part of the mini-series. The book’s presentation is kept in the film, only the book is better in making Mark Daniel slowly growing aware his wife is not loyal and is having an affair with someone else. This build-up of tension is powerful and is omitted in the film in order to have the shock of Daniel’s realization and thus half-justify his immediate murder of his wife. (There used to be a defense that men used successfully when they murdered their wives if they found her in bed with another. For all I know it may still be used.)

Another omission is when Ross and Demelza go home and they reconcile themselves after some talk, with him acknowledging his fault and she telling him of Verity’s new troubles in part. She omits telling him of her role. This closing scene of not love-making but laying together is deeply right. And it’s omitted in the film. A curious resonance in the book is how her being lower class keeps them together: he’s not as jealous too because he has a deeper rooted longing for Elizabeth who he regards as above Demelza; she accepts his treatment of her more readily because he is the upper class gentleman and is bringing her up in the world.

The next day he has to go and cope with keeping his mine going and one of his partners is angered that he broke the law and rescued Jimmy. It’s a good thing Jimmy died for now it will make any case moot and there will not be a hearing. The rich people would resent and defend themselves and their laws and thus hurt the new company Ross is trying to build. This too is omitted from the film – so the complexity of the social critique is lost.

But the meeting of the Warleggans angered at their relatives Sanson’s exposure and deeply vengeful over this new competition which then follows in the book is kept in the film.

I mentioned Andrew Davies: at the same time I’ve been slowly watching his very great early mini-series, To Serve Them all My Days (1980) an adaptation of R. F. Delderfield’s novel of the same title. It’s (I admit) a better series than Poldark because all the issues are presented in an adult and often complex way, and it’s highly original in some its approaches (especially to sex — as in his later films Davies is concerned to create tolerance for homoerotic relationships and defeat bigotry). But I’m struck by how both heroes, Ross and David Powlett-Jones are the same types: they stubbornly defy cruel and unjust social arrangements and mores at the risk (and cost sometimes) of their personal interest and even survival. This being TV in Davies’ case I see how Powlett-Jones wins out; Ross at the close of Season 1 was forced to leave once more in defeat. Graham is the more radical writer than Davies (and probably Delderfield) but the idea of what makes a hero is the same and (alas) it is not one pushed today.

In the next turn of the fiction, Verity flees Francis and Elizabeth Poldark’s house to join Captain Blamey. We are not told if there are plans for marriage — this shows how what we have here is a 20th century fiction. Graham imitates the 18th century motif of the fleeing young woman but himself does not think a young woman is ruined and probably doubts she was quite in the way respectable fiction at the time inculcated.

It’s an effective scene: she has to divest herself of little Geoffrey Charles. Here the scene is meant to reveal what an inadequate mother is Elizabeth for not reading stories to her son Geoffrey Charles: she has pushed this “duty” onto Verity.

The scene where Verity’s letter is found is effective too. However, the films in Season 1 do skip over this letter and this whole scene of running away.

It was the 1980s breakthrough of art films into British TV and the transformation of what British films could have as content that made a terrific change and is a kind of threshold — and the Poldark films are on the far side of this.

The story of Mark Daniels’s murder of Keren is juxtaposed to the story of Verity’s flight to Blamey. Graham’s novel makes the parallel of two women seeking some real personal fulfillment. At the same time we see from Demelza’s keeping it a secret that it was she who enabled Verity to correspond with Blamey (Demelza hand-carried the letters back and forth with her during visits), we do — as well as that she keeps this from Ross. Ross was against Verity’s fleeing to this man known for his violence and drinking before. He is now being blamed by Francis and Elizabeth Poldark for having provided a house for Blamey and Verity to meet more than a year ago, before Francis and the father came to Ross’s house, caught them “in the act” (of courting) and provoked a duel which Blamey won (injuring both father and brother). Demelza rightly does not tell Ross, for he would be very angry.

Like everyone else, she now sides with Mark Daniels apparently, but they are also determined to protect Dr Enys, the lover in the case from Daniels’ intense wrath. Enys finds himself cornered by Daniels’s in Ross’s house as Daniels seeks to escape the law (with Ross’s help), and he does speak out for the murdered woman’s misery. Since she has been presented as oversexed somehow, ensnaring and instigating all this, she is from the get-go “bad” stuff. When Daniels catches her coming home from Enys (how he comes to murder her) and she tries to lie her way out and then discovering she cannot, defies him, it’s a good moment.

Perhaps a better title for this book would have been: On the other side of silence.

The novel begins to draw to a close: and like, Ross Poldark,, the reader will discover Demelza does not end (like so many) in a (meretricious) happy ending, but on a believable turning point in a life.

An interesting interlude occurs when Ross succeeds in getting Mark Daniels off to safety. This is done the same way in the film. A daring-deed of sneaking out at night and in the sight of the law almost Ross sends Mark off in his boat. The new captain, McNeil, does not catch Ross; he gets back to bed first, but McNeil knows and we get a sharp delightful conversation between them (only some of which is in the film) where in coded language Ross stands up for rebellion, for defying bad laws, and McNeil says he understands but now He is the Law and Ross had better be careful not to do it again. McNeil is also attracted to Demelza and she flattered, flirts back. All this in the film.

Meanwhile Ross’s attempt to create prosperity for himself and his tenants have begun to end in defeat: things have come to a “head:” Francis Poldark, very angry at Ross for (Francis thinks) helping Verity to flee to Blamey, has apparently been responsible for telling the powerful people in the community that there is a new mining company and undermining them completely by doing this. The banks’ have withdrawn support and Ross’s new company lost some markets. Ross’s debts are mounting up.

In the film we are also given to understand Francis is intensely jealous of Elizabeth’s previous relationship with Ross, but there is no sense of this in this novel as yet.

Demelza also has thought about how Verity could have been and was happy with her relatives; how her domestic life there meant something to her and how they miss her — though Francis never says this much less Elizabeth.

Guilty and upset, Demelza decides to tell Francis it was she who was the go-between delivering the letters and Ross had nothing to do with it. As we might expect, after she has trouble even getting in, and then gets a brief discourteous hearing, Francis is at first disbelieving, but when he begins to acquiesce in the probability Ross was also against Verity’s marriage (for she is now married to Blamey), it makes no difference. He asks Demelza to get out.

She is as yet young in the ways of the world and is learning that the truth does not set anyone free nor do apologies really make any deeper difference. They are a ritual of pretenses.

She goes home and proceeds to tell Ross. Now this does make a difference. He becomes enraged; he tells her he had reconciled himself to this marriage and grown to love her for her loyalty to him. Here she has been deceitful, and disloyal. She flees the room, he after her and almost beats her. He does not, but they are now estranged.

This estrangement is developed in Season 2 but it is instead derived from Ross’s continuing affection for Elizabeth (not seen in this novel), and Demelza’s hurt, insecurity and jealousy. In the novel Elizabeth seems to have nothing to do with Ross — perhaps this was written in as flashback in the next novel. The Elizabeth material put into Parts 1 and 2 of the film series come from Warleggan (where it’s developed as a flashback and memories).

A letter arrives from Verity (chapter long) where they see she is happy — if very lonely. Blamey’s children do not accept her, and he spends long weeks at sea. But making him a home and having one of her own and this love has made her happy in ways she was not just serving Francis, Elizabeth as their live-in servant-cousin-sister in effect.

So this is a coda which does give Ross pause but not enough to begin to bring the two together again.

Not much of the novel to go, and this stasis reminds me very much of the way Novel 1 ended: the rhythms of life before us: there it was the Christmas weekend and a night of semi-reconciliation and sex and love with Demelza’s coming child that closed the book.

But then we get a strong climax, reversal of emotions and return to stasis at the close.

As Demelza and Ross’s half-estrangement carries on, the disease Francis Poldark has caught is contracted by his son, and Demelza offers to come nurse the boy and this man.

Again we are (I suppose) to see how inadequate a woman (!) is Elizabeth. She can’t manage this as she couldn’t manage reading stories to the son.

It’s powerful because it’s seen from Demelza’s point of view and she doesn’t think about Elizabeth. As I wrote, the book doesn’t dwell on the sexual conflict between them. In the book there is no sense that Ross’s love has carried on nor is Demelza jealous sexually. She feels inferior as to class and social abilities. That’s different. The sexual angle is added in the film and it’s a powerful one.

As I’ve written and know Demelza herself (with a little help from Enys too)in the film saves Francis and his son, thus rehabilitating Enys in the eyes of the community, only to sicken herself and sicken her own child by Ross, Julia.

She gets better, Julia doesn’t. In the film Francis has learned to get over his despising of Demelza and forgives her for helping Verity to escape to Blamey; he will do this later in the books.

As we have seen (above), the book ends on Ross and Demelza coming together again when she sickens and their child dies.

An appealing moment: Robin Ellis is superb at enacting the strongly self-confident loving Ross — his rough jagged face, kind eyes, and muscular body are perfect for the role

I know I’ve been dwelling on the romance and adventure of the novels, in fact there is a lot of information and background of an economic kind deftly told — on mining, smuggling, fishing, becoming servants, the desperation of these mostly very poor people to survive.

So I would like to end this account of Novel 2 of the Poldark series on their general social and economic realism. From reading these novels I know am aware that a central place for mining had been Cornwall — for tin. The tin had been used up by the beginning of the century and people sought to find other minerals to make money by. In the novels, Ross seeks to break the monopolies created by local thug-families, families with ruthless aggressive successful types at their heads and the English — who treated the Cornish as if this was a colony (not part of them). He seeks to find copper and mine it; at the end of Season 1 he has been defeated. Season 2 he is doing better but we are really left in the dark as to what is happening (another aspect of why Season 2 is weaker than Season 1).

Now on C18-l (an often academic 18th century listserve), someone asked the following question while I was reading this book:

“I am doing research on the life of the Rev. Joseph Townsend (1739-1816) of Pewsey, Wiltshire. Joseph’s father Chauncy was involved in coal, silver, tin, and copper mines in Wales and Cornwall. Joseph’s attitude to mining may be found in A Journey to Spain (1791):

“It is certainly for the happiness of this principality [Spain], that the mines are not made more productive. In mining countries, the gains are exceedingly uncertain; a gambling spirit is encouraged; agriculture is neglected; and poverty prevails. If the mineral is raised on the adventurers account; unless they discover uncommon treasures, they will be inevitably ruined. If the working miners become sub-adventurers; they either gain too little, and are wretched; or they get too much, and soon contract strong habits of indolence, prodigality, and vice. Of this truth we have melancholy proof at home [Britain]. Let any one pass through the county, which most abounds with mines, and in mining parishes he will be struck, every moment, with the sight of poverty, and wretchedness.”

Apparently most of Chauncy’s fortune was absorbed in mining adventures.
My question: was this a normal attitude in the 17th through 19th centuries? Was there a literature which opposed mining on the basis of its moral effects?”

Winston Graham’s Poldark novels (I’m just finishing No 2 and going on to 3) focus on mining as well as smuggling, and there is much moralizing on both sets of activities — both from an ethical and economic standpoint. Some of this is voiced by the narrator, but a lot by the characters and of course dramatized in their fates. Mining undermined (pun there) people’s health badly; characters grow weak, sicken and die; they drown. The characters also drown while mining, they seem to have to work very long hours, and they go back to it from agricultural and “service” (servants) because the money actually supports them. There was money in mining and not much money anywhere else.

They also fish but there are apparently laws set up to control this so as to make sure the money to be gotten from it in large amounts goes to the powerful in the area. One scene late in Ross Poldark shows Ross and Demelza going to watch some fishing in the early dawn because that’s when the fish return from somewhere to other and also to evade these authorities.

I can see why people preferred to smuggle, but it was dangerous. To offset starvation people also poached. For that they were thrown in jail to die if they were caught (like Jim Carter in Ross Poldark and Season 1).

Among the books Winston used for his research: Graham used for his research Victoria County History of Cornwall (Oppenheim), antiquarian. Others: Daniell’s A Compendium of the History of Cornwall. There is apparently no recent Georgian-era Cornwall history book. Lots of books on smuggling though.

Someone else contributed this:

” a proslavery tract published around 1790 was dedicated to the “Starving Tin Miners of Cornwall.” The writer goes on to lambast abolitionists for ignoring inequities at home (i.e., the situation of the miners) in order to chase “foreign” issues.”

Elizabeth Montagu was one of those who grew superrich on the labors and miseries of other people working mines: I feel sure the following article will not put it that way:

“Child, “Elizabeth Montagu, Bluestocking Businesswoman,” in Reconsidering the Bluestockings Edited by Nicole Pohl and Betty A. Schellenberg (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 2003), 153-73.”

Here is a still from Season 2 where Ross has bought and is giving to his brother-in-law, Drake Crane, a ruined property to turn into a blacksmith shop.

Arriving at new property

We see the state of Cornwall in the ruined nature of the property. In the fiction of the film it has come cheap. This will foster in the second season (based on the later novels) a repeat of the kind of romance-sex we had in Season 1 where Keren Thomas came to live near Dr Enys, so started up a liaison with him and was murdered (this occurs in Demelza). In season 2, the blacksmith shop that Drake Carne is given by Ross is near where Morwena lives with her nasty bullying vicar of a husband forced on her.

We do see the economics of the area. Drake could not make a living enough to buy property so Ross as a landowner who did inherit something can buy such a property for him; where Drake learned the trade from we are not told.

The characters get to the property by riding horses. There was a thread on Austen-l where someone asked about how often women rode, and the answer was some did when they wanted to travel. In the early modern period it was the only way to travel; but you had to have owned and learned to ride a horse to do this. An elite activity.

Anyway in Season 2 we see Ross, Drake and Demelza ride to the property on horses. This is deliberately done so we can have stills of the countryside, watch Robin Ellis ride (he loved to ride and did his own riding) and Demelza (whoever did it) ride sidesaddle:

Riding Sidesaddle

Historical fiction often tells us more about the author’s time/preoccupations than the historical period in question. Nevertheless, there are writers who ‘do their homework’, and are especially useful for illuminating private lives as well as the larger patterns of existence in an era. The Poldark series is one of these.


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George Hanson (Paul Rudd) and Nina (Jennifer Aniston) have a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers moment during their Friday night dancing lessons, from 1998 The Object of My Affection

Miss Giest aka “poor Miss Taylor that was” [Twink Caplan] and Mr Hall aka Mr Weston [Wallace Shawn] talk on a park bench (1996 Clueless, free adaptation of Austen’s Emma, also starring Paul Rudd as the Mr Knightley character).

Dear friends and readers,

Over on WWTTA we have been having a second festival of reading and writing about women’s plays and films. For over a month now we’ve been reading and writing about to one another about Wendy Wasserstein’s work and life, specifically her Uncommon Women and others andIsn’t It Romantic. A couple of us read parts of Jan Balakian’s excellently biography and study of Lee’s works, not including this later material.

Well I discovered on Netflix there were available DVDS of Uncommon Women and Others (1970s for PBS), and The Object of My Affection. I watched the first last month and The Object last night and enjoyed the latter much better than the former despite a few reservations. Just now I read an article by Mark Steyn in the Spectator (“Marriage a la Mode, Sept 1988) dissing it which I take to be deeply anti-gay (the denigrating term “hag/fag” relationship gives this way) and apparently ignorant about the flexibility of sexuality. Steyn felt sorry for poor Jennifer Aniston (Nina), did he? She didn’t have a “proper male” (like himself?). She was much better off.

So partly to show why and how Nina’s better off and remains with George Hanson (Paul Rudd) walking and talking with him as the movie fades from view, partly to defend the film, however qualifiedly; and to record the good time and a few thoughts about Wasserstein we’ve had on WWTTA this past month I’m writing this blog.

The Object of My Affection is not short and I was surprised to find it was after 1:30 am when I was finished and I had stayed up! Not fallen asleep. I did very much enjoy the several dance sequences, long, short, and reprises of them (as montage, with blurring focus and some minor key music) at the end.

Our main hero, George (Rudd) and our heroine, Nina (Jennifer Aniston) who are living together decide to take dancing lessons together on Friday nights. Couples do this. One graces the opening of this blog. Nina’s scarf, flowing dress and slightly old-fashioned pumps, George’s his tie, white shirt and general elegance, plus the the swing and sweep of their motions might alert you to guess they are dancing a Ginger Rogers’ Fred Astaire sequence from which they deliberately fall.

More often they imitated Gene Kelly, and once there is some sudden (improbable not realistic but we leave realism) tap dancing.

Here they are dressed in the modern tap dancing way. Nina is now in short-skirted polka-dot dress, and George has on relaxed short-sleeved jersey and chino jeans.

At the close of the movie, they dance again and there is interwoven stills from Singing in the Rain.. One of Kelly with Debbie Reynolds in “I was meant for you, you were meant for me”

is sandwiched in between a dream-montage sequence where her pebbled silk 1920s kind of dress matches his suit:

As in “Isn’t it romantic,” “I was meant for you, you were meant for me” is the ironic recurring thematic music of the film. In the earlier play, Wasserstein alludes to the Rogers and Hart song which was part of a sequence from Love Me Tonight The suavity and charm of Maurice Chevalier’s rendition on the Net is more than a little undercut by these typical lyrics (there are different versions of this song):

Isn’t it romantic?
Soon I will have found some girl that I adore.
Isn’t it romantic?
While I sit around my love can scrub the floor.
She’ll kiss me every hour or she’ll get the sack
and when I take a shower she can scrub my back.
Isn’t it romantic?
On a moonlight night she’ll cook me onion soup.
Kiddies are romantic
and if we don’t fight we soon will have a troupe.
We’ll help the population,
it’s a duty that we owe to dear old France.
Isn’t it romance?

Wasserstein’s doing the same thing again: an ironic reference to an iconic song from a famous movie (Singing in the Rain). One “lesson” this movie teaches is no one was meant for anyone; it’s Austen’s lesson (P&P, S&S) that first attachments are often not the best, and first impressions as bad way to pick a mate (though film versions reverse her theme and have characers regularly falling in love with the person they were “meant” to have).

The story: girl (Nina, Jennifer Aniston) lives alone, takes in as a roommate a gay young man (George, Paul Rudd). George’s ruthless homosexual partner, Steve (Gabriel Macht), who uses people casually in other ways too, wants to get rid of him.George teaches Kindergarten. This is not exactly admirable heroic stuff for a male. Nina’s lover, Vince (John Pankow) is jealous, Nina becomes pregnant by Vince, and decides to have the baby.

Here’s my first quarrel with the film: it’s de rigeur for films to have an unwed girl decide to have the baby when in fact statistics repeatedly show that even after all the propanda, obstacles and pseudo-science most girls chose abortion when young, unmarried, early in their career, plus the word “abortion” is never used.

What has happened is Nina has learned to love George; he’s kind and good and she thinks he would make an excellent father for her baby. She loves how he leaves her room and space and doesn’t not at all try to dominate her.

Vince (the biological father) attempting to assert his “rights” over Nina

She wants George to be there all the time, to become the baby’s father from bringing it up, and as the movie progresses it becomes obvious she also would like to get him to go to bed with her, and marry her.

The film assumes the viewer has a sufficient knowledge of real sexuality to know it’s flexible, and there are two scenes where George almost does begin to have sex with Nina. In the first instance there’s a comic interruption; in the second, he has already become involved with Paul, and the truth is he does prefer men to women and so prefers Paul to Nina. He likes living with Nina; they enjoy one another’s company, reading together, watching TV together, eating the same things:

It is important that George is a gay male: he is presented (implicitly, this is not made explicit lest it make viewers nervous I suppose) as more willing to talk, more willing to open up and confide and comfort. A trope common to many romantic comedies is the couple talking on the park bench. I remember a touching one of two lonely grade school teachers in Clueless, the free adaptation of Emma movie where Rudd played the Mr Knightley role (and this is no coincidence — see still at the front of this blog, one of my favorites from Clueless)

Here they discuss her pregnancy and George says that Nina must tell, Vince, the coming baby’s biological father:

Back shots are seen as more romantic

A side shot

Gayness is part of the film’s subject matter (so to speak). What is emphasized goes with the film’s encompassing theme: the dangers of falling in love, how hurt you can be (thus how important it is to choose well), and what happens to gay people we see is since society does not pressure them to be faithful, they drop one another easily.

Early on in the film George’s lover-partner, dropping him shamelessly

As the film goes on a second or third couple emerges (depends on how you count the couples). Paul (played by Amo Gulinello) is not a free agent (any more than Steve was). He’s living very well while working as an actor because he’s the live-in partner of an older professor, Rodney Fraser (Nigil Hawthorne). Paul invites George into bed with him while Rodney is there and has no shame or feelings for this older man’s hurt.

Paul, a real shit; George on the phone making excuses to Nina

The older man can do nothing for Paul (we are made to feel) would leave him.

Hawthorne has the funniest lines and the most poignant.

Nigel Hawthorne as Rodney raising his glass to Nina (very pregnant) with George standing by

Hawthorne utters his lines more skilfully than anyone else and I found myself laughing most when he was witty about what they were seeing or the behavior of someone. The title of the film come from his wry description of his relationship with Paul: Paul is not his beloved, or mate, or partner, but (the ironic drawled-out tone here makes a complicated point) “the object of my affection.”

This delving into gayness is found in Wasserstein’s plays, especially the best known, Heidi’s Chronicles. Very Wasserstein is Nina’s choice to have her baby and end up a single mother. When it becomes apparent that George is going to bed with Paul and in their shared flat and she is to take this kind of thing as a norm, she says she can’t take it and wants George to move out. She still doesn’t want to live with or marry Vince.

There are some typical kinds of jokes or targets for jokes one finds in Jewish New York stories and plays (except here the Jewishness has been partly erased by keeping the names neutral and not bringing up any particular culture or ethnic group). Nina has this superambitious networking sister and brother-in-law (Dr Roger Jolly, Alan Aiken) who we are asked to feel a certain distaste for over their superficiality and commercial socializing — meanwhile everything in the film endorses networking, wealth, social life of conformities of various sorts.

The film has real flaws. The worst is the tacked on meretricious happy ending. After an effective because tense Thanksgiving dinner made by Nina for George, Paul, and Rodney (where Rodney does lecture her on the problems of being with a gay man), George and Vince begin to accompany Nina to the obstetrician and Paul and Rodney are seen going out with them. All four are now seen to be happy, reconciled.

Fast forward five years later and George is again putting on a play with his kindergarten (that’s how the movie opens) only now it has Molly, Nina’s five year old daughter there. All are blissful with love for this child, cherishing her (including the commercial couple) and she is just so sweet. Nina is not a single mom after all; she has begun to live with he nice African-American male who as a cab driver befriended her.

When an ending is tacked on — a sudden gush of a wedding — like this it usually means the studio insisted. But not always.

Not very Wasserstein was how impersonal it felt. The situations are uncommon and forced — which is not at all the way of her three plays we read on WWTTA. All three of these had a cyclical structure. This was a forward moving though one could say the story is the story of Nina’s pregnancy for the move becomes hinged when she announces the pregnancy and conflicts come from that and it (in effect) ends on her going to hospital. The film reveals what happens when material is made commercial and to reach more people by turning it bland, smoothing over, disguising what gave the material the interest it had in the first place.

Do I think it more than amusing and advocating decent values and kindness? Yes, because of the gay characters, Nina’s pregnancy out of wedlock, and refusal to marry. It’s not what it could or should have been: when George comforts Nina after telling her that he loves Paul and prefers Paul and this is an inexorable reality about him, we have confronted one of its strengths:

It may seem I have spent too much time on a relatively slight comedy, but there is more here than meets the eye. Nina and Paul are decent good people who don’t betray, don’t drop, don’t sue and don’t hurt others. What’s not to like? They are last seen walking and talking as the film fades away.

Sheer ballroom dancing

I admit my favorite character was Nigel Hawthorne’s — I just loved him as Archdeacon Grantly in Barchester Towers, Madness of George III.

What Wasserstein is capable of may be seen in Wasserstein’s less commercialized plays, about which see the comments.


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I giorni dell’abbandono by Elena Ferrante

Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
(Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights,” second stanza)

Dear friends and readers,

A few weeks ago a good friend, Kathy, who writes a thoughtful varied blog on the books she reads and her experiences, wrote a blog on Ann Goldstein’s English translation of Elena Ferrante’s <Days of Abandonment. She had bought it by mistake and meant to buy Elsa Morante’s Storia (History), but when she began this one was pulled in and praised it highly. Her description persuaded me this would be the sort of subjective woman’s novel delving profound emotions and thoughts originally and absorbingly. The sort of thing that (to go for an English example) Margaret Drabble did in The Waterfall; Carol Shields wrote much softened variants (Mary Swann, Unless) in the US, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is the stuff raw, uncompromising, exhilarating.

The type is seems most congenial to Italian writers, Natalie Ginzburg (Le voci della sera, Voices of the Night), Anna Banti’s Artemisia Gentileschi.

Gentileschi loved heroic images: this is her Clio, or History

One I read recently which shared in this genre is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Falling, only she complicated it by making the center a male sexual predator;or Margaret Atwood with her pronounced feminism. Surfacing? . Chantal Thomas combines the mood with the essay, Souffrir (Coping with Freedom). Men can write in this genre too: Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, recently Colm Toibin, The South.

It’s important to know what genre this kind of book belongs to, and what it seeks to perform. They mean to break taboos, to move (as George Eliot put it in a meditation in Middlemarch) onto the other side of silence to explore abysses women walk by or in and how they can emerge.

Movie come in this genre too, sometimes mistakenly referred to as Brontesque, or Bronte-like. In fact the Brontes do not break taboos, but show why they exist. The source may be a book, another movie, it does not have to be a book of this type, so Before the Rains, and its significant (if you want to understand the popularity of the Austen movies), that Jennifer Ehle, a quintessential Elizabeth Bennet, plays the wife who leaves her husband here:

Here we watch the “other woman” (Nandita Das) destroyed.

with Linus Roache as the treacherous (in the end) cowardly husband/lover

Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment as translated by Ann Goldstein came and I was too busy or tired for quite a while to pick it up, but when I did, I found myself compelled to go on to the end. I write about it here to recommend it to others.

Kathy’s blog will tell you the central gist of the novel; also Jean Hanff Korelitz’s review in the Canadian Times praising the book.

This is a subgenre which revels in expressing what people might think inexpressible and what cannot be communicated to someone who has not experienced the same, or with great difficulty: a review of Anne Carson’s Nox included the line “The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved.” Yes. It’s not a ritual of remembering but of the experience here and now. At one point someone comes to fix the locks in her house — because she’s frightened now living alone. Well she can’t cope with the mechanism, and locks them in and then locks them out. It’s not funny from the standpoint of the novel, but rather how to a confused mind all becomes bewilderment.

I want to address Kathy’s comment it’s Kafkaesque. Yes, we are in a paranoid world where the heroine is helpless against her husband leaving her. She seems utterly dependent on him and she describes other women as being the same.
But I’d like to say for me it goes beyond this: implicitly it addresses so many novels, memoirs, movies, I see or read — especially those by men. Here is the other side of silence it seems to say. In so many novels we see women from the outside; this tells of the inward life of one woman when the world she was told she had built by shoring up her husband and her relationship with him crashed. On his say so.

Her case is the husband has abandoned the woman but then the narrative is filled with fierce outcries. One can read it as radically de-contextualized; there’s a sense that it doesn’t matter what are the details; it’s the experience on offer that we live through.

I find it cathartic, and at moments profound in the way this kind of book can be. As Olga reaches an abyss of letting go, breaking taboos of thought, refusing to act out what she has been trained to for years (the person who shops, cooks, cleans, does bills, is controlled endlessly for all), we get these raw great passages, long lyrical. One is about the years of having very young children, which for some women includes breast-feeding (the “acid of vomit”, the smells, regurgitations, swellings of body, and impatient children, and insights about need); another on the man going off to work; this one is at the heart of the book because the heroine’s electrification comes from the breakup of this love relationship around which her world (and many women’s worlds) was constructed:

Everything was so random. As a girl, I had fallen in love with Mario, but I could have fallen in love with anyone: a body to which Fe end up attributing who knows what meanings. A long passage of life together, and you think he’s the only man you can be happy with, you credit him with countless critical virtues, and instead he’s just a reed that emits sounds of false­hood, you don’t know who he really is, he doesn’t know him­self. We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long-ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women. We take for some sort of kindness addressed to us alone the banal desire for sex. We love his desire to fuck, we are so dazzled by it we think it’s the desire to fuck only us, us alone. Oh yes, he who is so special and who has recognized us as special. We give it a name, that desire of the cock, we personalize it, we call it my love. To hell with all that, that dazzlement, that unfounded tit­illation. Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else, what claim do I have? Time passes, one goes, another arrives …

Among other things what happens is she meets the husband and his new girlfriend (naturally much younger than she) in the street and she tries to beat them up, becomes wildly violent. I’ve seen analogous examples of this in descriptions of how women can come to want to murder a man who has left them (court cases) and do it, and not care if they are punished afterwards. What they want is to stop this thing from happening which so humiliates them.

She considers suicide. Not thoughtfully but cleans her medicine cabinets. (Now and again she cleans the house steadily). Then gets two bottles of sleeping pills, a big bottle of cognac. Sits there. Then throws it all away.

She offers herself up to have sex with the one person left in her building during this hot August, a musician who we can see is a depressive man. A remarkable scene where sex is written about with great frankness — not romantic at all (to connect threads).

The boy and girl (her children) bother her — they are upset. The boy has urinated on the girl’s bed and the girl complains. Interesting to me apparently the girl makes it a habit to threaten her mother physically. This time with pinching. I would not tolerate this for a minute but have been told some women do — as they tolerate their children being cruel to the smaller ones. So often children are idealized; especially in movies. They are presented as innocent and sweet and the adults hug and play with them. Not reality at all.

She cleans the mess and then realizes she has been neglecting the dog, Otto.

The dog is huge, her husband’s, not her choice to have such a large animal in an apartment, but she takes Otto out to teh park to run and to play. Something begins to click as she realizes it has held itself in. Trained. It licks her as they go out, then in the park it pisses, shits, romps, wants to play with her. Is grateful to her.

It’s then something breaks. She writes: I”t seemed to me if I were behind him, holding tight to the leash, I would feel again the warm air on my face, my skin dry, the ground beneath my feet.”

I feel she is taking a turn for the better. It may not hold, but it’s a sign.

Still Days of her Abandonment go on in much the same vein until we come to what I was waiting for: she runs out of money (at least for a time). Remarkable sardonic humor over scenes where first she lies, then when her lies are ignored, goes to the offices, and wonderful (I’m ironic here) finds there is no one to complain to anywhere. She does begin to get money from the husband, but it’s that moment where we see how society is set up to deflect her utterly, a wall.

Gradually she becomes calmer and a friend of a friend gets her a job as a translator of correspondence and reading foreign correspondence for someone. One of the more memorable passages for me is when a friend comes to “reason” with her: yes, it’s terrible how your husband has treated, but you don’t want to deprive the children of him and other things like that. It reminded me of how Lady Russell in the film 1995 BBC Persuasion (Nick Dear) speaks to Anne Elliot of how she’s got to get out — go to Bath; you only think you dislike it. Olga has been violated utterly over the course of 15 years, blamed for not being able to cope when it was she who coped with what is hard to cope with and now she is to accept, submit. She does actually: she begins to send the children over to the father and his lover for weekends, and the children (being children) are often mean: they will say how the new girlfriend is better at this, prettier, and what a great time they had.

As the novel moves on it and she begins to accept what has happened, she does become less passionate, and probably for many more probable. Time speeds up.

At first her husband looks better and younger, but within a year or so he has returned to his sloppier heavier looks. We begin to piece together information to discover he’s a real shit in business dealings too. Her friends invite her over and she has to endure their trying to find a man for her. It ought to be hilarious she says, but it isn’t. She is taken to a nightclub and sees the depressed musician in her building in his public self, looking accomplished, making beautiful music. The novel ends with her beginning a quiet friendship-love affair with him. Its last sentence:

I pretended to believe him and so we loved each other for a long time, in the days and months to come, quietly.

To me it’s probable throughout. For example the creature who suffers most in the novel is the poor dog, Otto. He eats poison by mistake and Olga just doesn’t have the strength or whatever it takes to do for a dog to save him in time. The huband says it’s her fault the dog died. No. It’s his.

One particular passage from many of insight into what we do in relationships that we don’t like to face:

What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture. What a mis­take it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifica­tions, his enthusiasms, for the ever more productive course of his life. What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him .. Where was his skin under my fingers, for example, where was the heat of his mouth. If I were to interrogate myself deeply –and I had always avoided doing it –I would have to admit that my body, , in recent years, had been truly receptive, truly welcoming, only on obscure occasions, pure chance: the pleasure of seeing, and seeing again, a casual acquaintance who had paid attention to me, had praised my intelligence, my talent, had touched my hand with admiration; a tremor of happiness at an unexpected . encounter in the street, with someone I had worked with in the past; the verbal fencing, or silences, with a friend of Mario’s who had let me understand that he would like to be my friend in particular, the enjoyment in certain attentions of ambiguous meaning addressed to me at various times, maybe yes maybe no, more yes than no if only I had been willing, if I had dialed a telephone number with the right excuse at the right moment, it happens it doesn’t happen, the palpitation of events with unpredictable outcomes.

The book could be read as a warning lesson. The outward outline is an older woman’s husband leaves her for a young woman and does it ruthlessly and remains unpunished, and there’s been a mildly praised film adaptation in this vein: I Giorni d’abbandono too.

Olga (Margarita Buy) and Mario (Luca Zingaretti)

Looking at herself in the mirror

Elsa Morante’s Storia (History), a long masterpiece, one of the important books of the 20th century, combines an outward objective male historical saga approach (she covers 1910 to 1950 and much is about the wars, politics, vast and objective drama of Italy) with this kind of subjective inward woman’s novel, for she has two narrators, much like Dickens’s Bleak House: there is the impersonal ironic narrator, and there is the woman, Ida, Iduzza, driven this way and that, a schoolteacher, married, the war comes, she loses family, place, money, then fleeing, raped, exploited, starving, driven with her epileptic child and their dog. She does do right by the dog insofar as she can; it does not survive and when it and the boy go, she does too and so the book ends.

I probably would have gotten more out of Days of Abandonment in Italian but I no longer give over time to reading Italian. The blurb about Ferrante suggests it’s autobiographical. We are told the author lives in Naples and this is her second novel (and that has sold well apparently) but she keeps her identity a secret. I imagine she must know more people in publishing and distribution and good translators that this suggests 🙂

Chantal Thomas, a photo, back cover of Souffrir


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Jane Austen’s writing desk, photograph from Chawton Cottage

Dear friends and readers,

Over on WWTTA a friend sent to the list the URL for a perceptive humane brief article by Claire Tomalin. It’s a meditation on Jane Austen’s writing space photographed above. Do peruse it.

Tomalin brings out how touching this little writing space is. The writing spaces we see for writers today are often a form of showing off too; is not Uglow’s that? The writer knows her room is going to be photographed. Over on WWTTA, I’ve made an album of such pictures. I’ve been guilty of this too, though out of an impulse to understand myself through examining, picturing the environment I make for myself. We also did this on Trollope19thCStudies once.

Still how beautiful Tomalin’s words. Just this piece shows how a writer can illuminate something and why Tomalin’s books are so good.

Compare Margaret Forster’s (whose books I can never resist) for example,

Gwyneth Hughes’s Miss Austen Regrets just about prides itself as showing the roughness, hardship, hard work involved in Chawton cottage life, but if you look at the still of Olivia Williams as Austen writing at Chawton they have gussied it up with mahogany and all sorts of prestige items almost despite themselves.

If you reflect, just a little, especially after you have read Julianne Pidduck’s brilliant, Contemporary Costume Film, you can see that the space in which we allow our writing selves free play — either to act out invented selves or reflect our inmost hearts and minds — are places to be and become our selves in. “Discourses of interiority, of desire: she called them and connects the trope of letter writing, voice-overs, and epistolary scenes in costume dramas to such places: “these recurrent movement-images [of letter-writing, of reverie alone] highlight qulaities of deep feeling and creativity cherished.” Of course often these are anguished letters which are ignored, despised, or tell tales to harrow the soul. Say, for example, Letter from an Unknown Woman where the man has aged and changed and become and the woman stays frozen in time. “Moments of lost possibility continually revisited,” Pidduck says.

Curious these films, for the writing space is where the film script and idea is conceived, the dream book is written.

What are we to think of Austen’s space here, then? why did she not carve out an area for herself, that reflected her? I find myself remembering how she would get up so early in the morning to play the piano so as not to disturb anyone else. What was her life like within this family of women we are to think were supportive and nurturing. Again, Miss Austen Regrets makes us think twice about this, as does David Nokes and a recent issue of Persuasions (31:2010), with essay by John Mullen, “Sisterly Chat” (acid); Jan Fergus, “‘Rivalry, Treachery between Sisters!’ Tensions between Brothers and Sisters in Austen’s Novels”; Susan Allen Ford, “‘Exactly what a brother should be?'”: Failures of Brotherly Love,” to say nothing of what the underlying reality from which Mr and Mrs Bennet emerged.

Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) listening to her family talk (of money, of nobodies like the Wentworths) in the brilliant 1995 BBC Persuasion.

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