Archive for September, 2010

Morwenna (Jane Wyman) about to be raped by her husband, Osborne Whitworth (Poldark 1977-78, second season)

Near casual execution of a group of men who happen to have Ross among them (also season 2)

Dear friends and readers,

As I didn’t want to make another over-long blog, I’ve divided up what I want to say about this book into two parts (see Part 1). That the first fourth or so of Black Moon showed Graham getting back into Poldark’s Cornwall after a 20 year pause and the second half of the book two central stories made it easy. Graham once half-apologized for the too strong optimism of his Poldark novels; that’s not true here, what happiness people have is snatched from the jaws of death and violence, and the bleak undercurrents of the first four book come into prominence.

I get such comfort from this book. Each night I reach for it – or another by Graham. It’s the ethical awareness of the darkness that does it. One night Jim looked at my Black Moon book and said “you’re coming to the end, what will you do?” I said “Read the next. And I’m nowhere hear running out as yet. As I read a new one I buy the next two books on” [so I’ve just bought Stranger from the Sea) Then I’ll reread them once during the day. And there’s the film adaptation to study a bit too. Not to worry …”

An outline of the whole novel, see comment. For those interested in the mini-series, Season 2, Parts 1-5 more or less correspond to The Black Moon.


Morwenna under strong pressure from Elizabeth Warleggan (now) to marry Whitworth

Book Two, Chapters 4-5: What an arranged marriage means

I left off with Ross ploughing weekly “through the snow and ice to see Aunt Agatha ..” (p. 260)

Graham has brought home to me for the first time the full sense of horrified shrinking away, terror, and then if and when forced bodily disgust a girl forced to marry a man sexually unappetizing (to say the least of it) to her. I’m now aware how in most if not all of these 18th and 19th century novels the novelist does not really imagine the girl going to bed with the guy. The only scene I know where we are invited into the bedroom is George Sand’s Valentine where the girl locks the man out, he gets in, and she jumps out of the window and won’t live with him. It does bring home what’s happening in an arranged marriage (Trollope does say Lady Glencora Palliser was driven like a cow to a stud or some such words but he does not make us feel it).

A great deal of Bk 2 chapter 4-5 is taken up by two stories of experiences happening at Trenwith. Ross continues to visit Aunt Agatha once a week and by his implicitly threatening presence wring better treatment for her: a clean bed, clean room, no smell, attentions. He cannot get her to return with him to his home. We have scenes between them (e.g., pp. 261-63).

Ross (Robin Ellis) trying to persuade Aunt Agatha (Eileen May) to come back to his house and live with him and Demelza; in the film and book Caroline Penvenen (Judy Geeson) comes with him the first time

At Cardew and now at Trenwith intense pressure is put on Morwena to marry Osborne Whitworth. It’s introduced by the scenes of hard negotiation between George and this man. What’s so good is the banal reality of this horror. They haggle and now the price is driven up and now down. George recognizes the man is a shit but he knows he’s a shit too. He even begins “rather to dislike this conceited young man,” but we see George’s desire for the connection overrules all and how he can persuade himself he is doing right for Morwenna because the illegitimate norms encourage what he’s doing (p. 271-72). It’s very ugly.

It’s followed by the scene between Elizabeth and Morwenna pictured above (first still of blog). Elizabeth inwardly (says Graham) sympathized, but hides it. She commits this kind of cop-out complicity throughout this novel. Much evil occurs in the world because people say and do nothing against it. She is driving Morwenna in order to keep her own marriage with George going on the terms it’s started; and when asked if she doesn’t value love she lies: she says she loved Francis and the love was gone in a year. She never did. If she is capable of tender love and affection — or intensely sensual enjoyment — she’s never been sufficiently aroused by a man to keep it up; the sense (I admit) is that night with Ross could have had sequels of love but since he did not return, she never knew anything beyond what she acquiesces with George (pp. 274-8).

Then we have a long letter from Enys (latter part of Chapter 4) which reaches Caroline telling of the prison conditions (pp. 279-82). Most powerful are how it is one of the letters embedded in the novel’s passages about the weather and movement of time. In the earlier novels he had had discipline just to use enough history to really bring scenes alive, now he seems moving towards a geological or deeply felt rhythmic recreation of this older world, e.g,. opening of Chapter 6, p 300. This intermingled with the reports of so many dying in the wars, eg., 276-78. It’s such a passage that introduces Enys’s letter. There are caps here but not so many (they do jar as they would not be used so sparringly).

Back to Trenwith and the Warleggans’ plans. The problem is Morwenna buys into these people’s values;that’s why she cannot fight them forcefully enough. She cannot get herself to be firm in any direction. This is what will destroy her; the brilliance of this is this is the novel shows her her compliance is what people use after extractng it and then blame her for not wanting to keep to it — it’s touched on deeply in Austen’s Persuasion when Wentworth blames Anne for her hesitation, but what she hesitates on is not a direct threat. It’s in fact someone urging her to protect herself by not marrying.

Here the reality of people trespassing on women is felt at its core. In the scene where Osborne now satisfied (just) with his payment begins the first serious “courtship.” They are left alone. It’s in such lines as this:

“Morwenna withdrew her hand. During this avowal [as Osborne asserts “their love will grow”- she had glanced up at her suitor’s face and seen a momentary expression in his eyes that a more experienced woman would have recognized as lust” (Chapter 5, p. 291)

Her reaction does help but not enough:

“She saw it only briefly and as something startling and dislikeable. Stumbling and embarrassed, she began again. Part hostile towards him, part apologetic, she told him that she did not in fact return his sentiments at all, and that she feared she might never do so” (p. 292)

And why not enough because everything around them encourages him to trespass against this no and her to disavow it (including a letter from her mother urging her to marry this prize.) Alas she does not keep to this resolve and by the end of the scene is asking only for time. Austen’s parallel scene in Pride and Prejudice of Collins and Elizabeth lacks this level of apprehension — the anger and threat of Collins does not quite move into the body.

Osborne does see and hear of course:

“there was a core of resolve in this slim, shy girl and that it had to be tactfully overcome before a wedding day could be fixed. For the moment he would have to be content with his sick fancies” (p. 292).

His sick fancies. We are told of Osborne’s first wife that “he had bestowed his attentions on twice weekly [on his first wife] until she died of it” (p. 289)

Then there follows Drake’s first Sunday visit (Chapter 5) to Morwenna and Geoffrey Charles in months: he can visit because George and Elizabeth are not living at Trenwith as yet. Geoffrey Charles longs to see Drake and Morwenna has acquiesced. She tries to elude him. Geoffrey Charles is made more naive than he would be so he doesn’t notice what’s happening. The scene is distressing and moving as the two of them stand there and she feel sin her bones how her family would all be horrified and despise her and yet likes him so. When she sees him “the release, the relief, was breath of life to her” (p. 296). As the moments go on she remembers and they begin to talk, partly facilitated by Geoffrey Charles. She is happier and more herself than she has been for weeks. She then is alone at a door in a corridor with Drake (a rare blessedly un-renovated place) and tries to tell him he must leave her forever. As she will fail to tell Osborne in the next scene she finds it anathema to marry him but only begs for time, here she collapses at Drake’s pressure:

“‘It is all I can tell you.’
‘No … That’s not all, Morwenna. Just — just look at me. Just show me your heart and tell me to go.’
She hesitated and then turned, her eyes blind with tears.
‘Don’t go, Drake … At least no just yet. Oh, Drake … please don’t go …’ (p. 299)

Then the chapter (6) ceases and another begins. As with Ross’s rape of Elizabeth (in Warleggan) and what happened over the course of that night, we are not privy to this. I assume they did have some version of sexual experience but in a corridor by a door with her a virgin, not much could happen. Enough to awaken her, for in the next chapters her blood and feelings are aroused and she cannot dismiss him from her mind.

Trollope has a novel where an aunt drives her niece to suicide (Linda Tressel) by insisting she marry a vile old man; but she does commit suicide first and we never feel she would have gone to bed with him; the emphasis is on the cruelty of the aunt’s bitter denigrations and name-calling of her, resentment and anger that the girl wanted to and would have married a handsome (but we do know alas probably unworthy young man) and hatred and fear of life and sex. Edith Wharton has a young girl in Summer seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a Willoughby type who in the end is driven to marry another vile older man but the novel does stop as she walks up the stairs. I could see Graham is going for the jugular and Morwenna will be coerced into marrying Osborne.


Ross and Demelza’s farmhouse (second season)

Book Two: Tholly Tregirls

Graham invents another new character who will enable him to make his text alive for the 1970s. Ross and Demelza come out of a 40s to 50s point of view. Morwenna, Drake and Tregirls the 70s. He is another ‘ghost returned’ (like Ross), an old friend of Ross’s, this time a disfiguring scar, an adventurer, someone who will re-involve Ross in smuggling — and I suspect the upcoming rescue of Enys (in the air, and anyway I saw the series past this phase). Something more amoral needed you see — as well as genuine stark oppression of women shown. Demelza says any friend of her husband’s is welcome to her house.

Those who know (Ross, Demelza, now Sam) continue to disapprove of Drake’s relationship with Demelza. George a patient man (thinks well of himself — as do many who do evil) has come to understand Morwenna’s intense reluctance to marry Whitwoth and she is given time.

Aunt Agatha’s party to which she wants to invite Ross and Demelza, and Elizabeth (cool as ever) doesn’t see why not.

France invaded which sends some into hoots of laughter.

Meanwhile under Geoffrey Charles’s unknowing eye, Drake and Morwenna continue to meet: “there had been tense, deeply emotional meeting which had matured their relationship as in a forcing house” (p. 319).

The story probably meant as comic of Drake successfully putting another bag of toads in George’s pond and eluding the efforts of George’s hired men to shot to kill him. His forearm badly hurt though, and he must avoid people. A conversation with Demelza where he justifies himself: “I’d believe two people — a man and a woman — in perfect harmony can give more to the world and to God than either of them can do separate” (p. 342)

That’s the way Demelza feels. Reath Cottage the place Mark Daniells built so badly continues to provide a place for some of this; in Graham’s mind this landscape where Enys lived to (the doctor who replaced Enys almost killed Valentine, Elizabeth’s child by Ross whom George thinks his heir — Enys is continually missed as is Francis).

Geoffrey Charles loves Drake because he feels himself rebelling against the cold stepfather who would discipline him and send him away to school (p. 347) and thus delights in the toads put in Geroge’s poind. It is of course sexually symbolic too.


Morwenna’s distress on the beach, Drake holding her (Kevin McNally), Geoffrey Charles watches

Book Three, Chapters 1 – 3: Morwenna and Drake found out

Tholly’s life, Ross meets him, the armies of the counterrevolutionaries have invaded France (Chapter 1), giving Ross his opportunity to sneak in with a band of men to save Enys. It’s obvious from further news the conditions at that prison are mortal for most.

Morwena and Drake are found out (Chapter 2). How: a busybody clergyman seeking to curry favor with George has the courage to tell him. Many know by this time but no one wants to tell as bad messenger. They fear George and Elizabeth remains remote.

The strength of the book comes out: no one is a crazy tyrant, no one is particularly filled with hatred, revenge or anything like that for the young couple, but not one person except Geoffrey Charles shows any effective sympathy. Silently Demelza lets her brother Drake know she understands, but she stands firm with Ross who regards this relationship as a nuisance.

George is cruel and mean in his words to Morwenna, implying she’s sexually unchaste, and has degrading tastes, is ungrateful, disgusting. His first impulse is to tell her she’s to go back to her parents and he’ll tell his great friend, Whitworth as no one would want “damaged goods” (to his credit Graham does not resort to that modern cliche). A long scene before Elizabeth does not evoke one word or sign of sympathy from her. She sees George is angry partly because he longed to go to bed with Mowenna. She hugs her kinswoman but does nothing beyond not corrode her soul further.

Sam, the religious brother, cannot understand Drake; he is given over to Satan it seems, and Sam is so sad that Drake will not come to a giant revival meeting: the methodists are growing apace as conditions become terrible. Drake and Morwenna have one more anguished scene, and we see him alone in Mark Daniel’s cottage hitting himself hard against the wall. Morwenna’s mother writes that she understands meanwhile pointing out all these advantages (like Mrs Dashwood in Austen’s S&S her letter comes after the knowledge of Drake and Morwenna’s meetings has come out).

And Geoffrey Charles, I now realize he is a combination of Francis and Elizabeth’s best qualities but he can’t fight his uncle-father (shades of Claudius): George is glad of this opportunity to send this rival away to school, separate Elizabeth and “make a man of him.” Yes thinks Elizabeth but knows better.

I can see that Elizabeth and Ross could have made a go of it. She would not have softened him, made him enter into the problems of really lower class types (Drake is just learning to write with Demelza’s tutelage) but they would have understood one anther and he would have brought out what was best in her.

She is willing to tolerate Aunt Agatha’s party, not herself spiteful which is at the heart of the way people deprive the ugly very aged of their heart’s desires no matter how foolish or useless. They’ll do it, few will come (most are dead) and it’ll be over inside 7 hours.


In the film Ross with Caroline asks to see George; and servant insolently blocks the way

Book Three, Chapters 3-5: violence the basis of whatever order it is; TV comparisons

As Graham moves into the last phase of Black Moon (phases of the moon strikes me as appropriate to this novel), we have several threads of high violence occurring. One off-stage; the invasion of France by counter-revolutionary armies and what we have heard is going on in Paris in partial panicked response to that invasion.

Ross we know is about to take advantage of this to free Enys: as he (too late) dragged Jim Carter from prison (to die), so he has at last realized the only way Enys is going to live and come back is to wrest him from prison. The prison he’s in is a real one at the time and located in the place it really was.

These two and the third are fully dramatized in the second series: the third is Ross’s visit to George. Ross realizes that the only way he can free Drake from the false trumped-up charge of stealing Geoffrey Charles’s Bible is to see George and ask him to drop the charges. Far from effective, Geoffrey Charles’s efforts are what leads to Drake almost being hanged.

Ross now remembers that going public first is no way to win over power. He was irritated and humiliated in public and anyway would have no ability to save Carter from a poaching charge for the upper class want to be seen to be punishing; they might do under cover what they would not admit to (free a man). The kind of naivete which led him to have a day in court for Jim Carter is gone — Carter was swiftly put in jail for poaching, no matter for what cause he did it and left to rot and die of disease. He thinks to round up friendly lawyers too (he won’t himself argue) but there is no time if he wants to leave for France on Monday. Further this business of depositions and the court scene he knows could go badly for Drake: he himself is not in sympathy with the young man for having courted Morwenna. (More: male-like, he blames her for implied looseness; Drake defends her fiercely but Ross brushes this off.) The upper class people on the bench, with George there, might just declare Drake guilty because they are incensed he dared to visit Trenwith regularly when he knew this was verboten.

(Luckily no one but Demelza knows Drake was the trickster putting toads in George’s pond — a visual pun that has sexual resonance when one remembers that Elizabeth realizes George is so hard on Morwenna because he wanted Morwenna himself.)

So (Part 3, Chapter 4) Ross visits George. Before setying off though he takes a hired gun in effect; his old friend, Tholly Tregirls now helping out the local madam of an unacknowledged brothel, Widow Sally Tregothnan’s “kiddley”. Perhaps too markedly Graham again likens this pair of to Don Quixote (Ross an idealist in his way) and Sancho Panza (Thollys a man of appetite, no morals). He has to force his way in. At first the butler (whom Ross had bullied when he visited the aunt regularly so no friend of Ross) says the master is not there, Ross insists citing he is there as a man of peace on an urgent matter. George of course has his lawyer with him, is sitting in a fine dressing gown, looking very well fed. Ross insists the lawyer leave.

Then the dialogue ensues. I’m not sure it is kept as is in the films though a version of this remarkable scene is there. At first George refuses to listen at all, then he insists Drake is guilty of stealing and to all Ross’s objections, will only parry (Geoffrey Charles is a child, he is taken off and will go to school). Ross realizes that only his original “promise” of their first meeting shortly after the marriage to Elizabeth will do. That is, if George will not act decently, he will counter as strongly — this time with force. Ross cites George’s enclosures, firing people, vicious traps, his whole behavior since marrying Elizabeth as what makes a man enemies; he, Ross, will rouse all to burn George’s house in retaliation. George is stunned:

“You cannot mean that.’ Ross can: “I have not come here to joke.”
George demands that he leave. Ross does (Bk 3, Ch 4, pp. 400-13). In Ross’s conversations with Tholly Tholly has agreed to accompany Ross to France.

We then switch to Trenwith and Elizabeth’s patient exasperation trying to accommodate Aunt Agatha’s demands for her birthday party, including a new dress. We see this first from Agatha’s mind: how Lucy Pike, the maid (whom Ross had to bully to take care fo the old woman) is useless, and how Morwenna was useful but suddenly not around. Then Elizabeth’s shouting her just contained patient replies, and then Elizabeth’s mind. She is upset herself because her son, Geoffrey Charles, is white with rage; he looks to her like Francis used to (p. 416). She foresees a separation from her son.She goes into Morwenna’s room. Morwenna has not slept but has not lost her reason. She is angry that Drake is arrested, at the injustice, and like Ross, asks Elizabeth if she thinks her son is lying; “why will you not accept your son’s word? Is it not enough.” No answer beyond the false: “Of course it will be taken into account.” “But he is not to appear, You sent him away.” Morwenna has not lost her poise. Still I wish Graham had been braver and shown her rocking and crying all the night through.

Elizabeth goes to visit her baby, Valentine, her one consolation: “his dark eyes sparked with mischief and he pulled at her frock and her hair … ” She has contentment “knowing he is hers.” (Not really for legitimately he is George’s.). The paragraph does not register her awareness the child is Ross’s, only her comfort in it (p. 418).

The use of point of view is effective: we then turn to Sam, hard at work in Ross’s mines, his mind troubled for Drake, his religiosity, his prayers, his disappointment in Drake and how he has to go against his principles and pray for Drake’s body to survive. He comes back to the hovel he shares with Drake and cooks and drained, telling himself to search his conscience, sleeps .He is awakened by a harrowed strained Drake. It seems the charges were simply dropped.

So the point is made about violence.

A kind of cliffhanger which I think is the result of (whatever he said to the contrary) Graham for the first time writing chapters in the novel with end of episodes in TV in mind.

Determined to thank Ross, Drake finds him and we see Ross from Drake’s standpoint and then point of view switches. Ross is not sympathetic still, and the experience with George (where George again insulted Demelza and Ross whipped out scorn for George’s lack of ancestry) has shaped his treatment of Demelza who brought these relatives to be his. Drake insists on thanking him and apologizes for his behavior (Ross thinks to himself he’s been to see Demelza that’s why that) and then says he will become a wanderer. Ross points out how that will turn him into a harried beggar, a total outcast; at first scorning the boy’s apparent desperate loss of love and then suddenly comparing hiim to himself, his real love for Demelza which has stayed and hers for him, asks Drake if he will go to France a some of the men, half-hoping from the silence Drake says no. But he says yes.

Ah we are to think poor Demelza, both brother and husband now at risk!

The TV people at the end of the first series did take Ross’s threat to George and made it come true without Ross’s instigation and made it the apocalyse: losing the meaning of the scene but gaining the unusual and leftist-leaning meaningful defeated close.


Book Three, Chapters 6-10: meaningful adventure sequence

I never said Graham can’t write adventure, did I? He certainly can, and he betters Daphne DuMaurier at it. I refer to my posting on Cornish gothic which as a type includes just such sequences as Ross’s leading the riot of the starving against the merchant ships coming into the Cornwall coves and now his leading a small band of men to go with the counter-revolutionary invasion (run by French aristocrats) into the Brittany, and turn off to Quimper All the information on the ancient prisons of Quimper are in French but I send it one full URL in the hope some of our readers may profit A map of the city/town and prisons compound. I can see the walls Ross and his men have to climb across going in and out.

What makes this historical novel better than DuMaurier’s and many another is that it is 1) shot through with a continual awareness of the politics of this place and the specific time, an awareness of what the existence of such a place means vis-a-vis human nature (there is nothing special about our 20th century gulags of horrific destruction/enslavery of people) and 3) the presence of the character Ross who goes because he cannot resist the adventure and yes suffers from ennui (in effect) and finds throughout that he is continually aware of how he must kill and rely on other to kill as they set forth, get into the prison, find Enys and bring him out. He is aided and abetted by the new pirate figure, Tholly Tregrils, who with his captain hook hand is as ruthless as anyone with a sharp rusty knife. Real hard cameraderie and effective pictorial sense of this man. The killing and deaths prevent it from being quite deja vue all over again (I allude to DiMaggio’s famous reworking) of Jim Carter where there were not these deaths as they were on home ground with Ross as respected landowner. Not here.

They lose Joe Nanfan who is shot across his head, they kill or wound in ghastly ways any number of French and English guards and people who get in their way. At one point Drake hesitates before jumping down a wall, and it emerges later he did this in an effort to deflect someone shooting at Ross and Ross goes livid with anger at the “boy” (out of guilt): who do you think you are, I don’t need this. And Drake is shot across the shoulder and becomes weak and ill and near death. But doesn’t die (this is a comfort fiction, folks). Drake also because thin, agile, small (like Demelza) at one point shimmies himself up a chimney and drags by a rope two lighter men after him and then the three drag Enys, two more and Ross comes last (our hero always comes last). As he looks in Drake’s eye, Ross sees the child Demelza’s face he brought up running from him up a tree one afternoon.

They almost don’t make it several times, especially once they get into the boat, for they must wait not just for the tide but for emptiness and other currents to go in the right direction.

Within the limits of later 1970s TV technology and money, the film series did this whole sequence brilliantly. They couldn’t resist adding the implausible near killing of Ross by a firing squad and last-minute rescue. Graham doesn’t descend to that: Ross isn’t important enough, but I admit it was that sequence I wrote about on ECW and put stills on its groupsite page. I thought Ellis did those moments, especially the one facing death impeccably well, with real gravitas.

The man next to Ross is murdered

I can’t take my reader through the sequence phase by phase only urge others to read Graham. I can quote some of the lines. There’s one I can’t find where Ross thinks to himself George Warleggan would never do such a stunt, and it is a stunt. And Enys is near death and what if he had been shot too. Why risk so much for this one man? It’s not really quite for Enys Ross did it of course; Enys is his excuse.

Drake says more than once: “I don’t mind … At least t’as taken my thoughts away …” “It don’t mind .. It has taken me away from what I left behind” (Morwenna taken from him, perhaps married off to this other man, p 437)

Ross to De Sombreuil, the French counterrevolutionary leader who invites Ross if he survives to visit his home where De Sombreuil will offer him “better wine than anything you have tasted here!” ..” Ross thinks as De Sombreuil describes his home and family “It is what I have been doing … but at the same I have left it” (at one point he wonders if “they” are taking in the hay back home “safely” yet, p 435)

“he wondered if he were leading these seven cheerful Cornishmen to their death” (p. 453)

“That part of his character [Ross’s] which made him so critical of authority also worked against himself. The same faculty which questioned the rightness of the law and the lawmakers was sharp to keep his own actions under a similar scrutiny … ” (p 544)

Finding the skeleton Enys (7 stone) “We want you” and pulling him out from the bodies (p 465)

We are to think some of this is Ross’s being in love with Caroline too now – they kissed intensely on the lips when he bid adieu to her.

They do pick up Armitage and the other English man they encountered in the prison on their way to the boat; these two English speaking men escaped in the melee and headed for the coast for a boat as both are Cornish.

Ross’s dream of himself explaining to Demelza who turns into Caroline as he brings home Enys on a stretcher to die (p. 495)


Demelza (Anharad Rees) just as Ross left for France

Book Three, Chapters 11 to close: another moving, cyclical ending

The four previous novels all ended with Ross and Demelza alone together, the first one falling asleep in one another’s arms, the second sitting by a window trying to adjust to the death of Julia, the third, him going into the house to her, and the fourth their not quite being able to overcome a serious estrangement but getting there (it seems).

The pattern breaks here: this novel ends with the dissolution of Aunt Agatha, with her death. We are with her in her last moments as her minds drifts off and out. The last chapter contains George’s vindictive visit to her bed to tell her there will be no hundredth birthday party because when he attended the wedding of Morwenna to Whitworth (ah!) he looked at the church register which went back a century and one half; what he saw there made him return to the family bibles at Trenwith and discover that Agatha is but 98. He has cancelled everything. How he sneers and triumphs. She is striken and doesn’t know whether to beg, plead, screetch or pretend not to care when she sees he is serious. This after Elizabeth had seemed to go along with all her preparations, bought the dress, provided the jewels, the invite, the menu. She says Elizabeth will not allow it; he says Elizabeth can do nothing as he is master in this house. The old woman is devastated because she will not live so long. The contrast with Ross who visited her weekly, was kind and got the roomed cleaned is stark and we are to recall if, for it’s then she turns and tells him in a way he find convincing his Valentine was a full term baby. His reaction in his face is such, she knows she hit him, but she doesn’t herself suspect Ross or any particular person, but rather asks insinuatingly if he and Elizabeth had it off before marriage “Or maybe someone else was riding she afore ever you was wed! Eh? Your precious Valentine.” He slams the door going out and all we hear is the twitter of the bird, the soft fall of the curtains. On the last page her mind wanders and she hopes she has not done anything to injure Elizabeth.

I wonder why. What is conspicuous to me in these last chapters is how Elizabeth does nothing to prevent cruel and ugly harm, to interpose herself for Agatha — or importantly Morwenna. For the even that matters just before Agatha’s death is a chilling scene between Whitworth and Morwenna on their wedding night. When she tries for more time, he rushes at her, hits her and rapes her.
The film series they presented him raping her after the birth of her baby when she had just had this terrible physical ordeal of tearing and exhaustion (I no longer remember if the baby was born dead). Graham from the get-go describe this man’s sexual behavior as rape.

We find out about the marriage when Ross returns home from spending time at Verity’s with Enys and Drake. He took all to Verity upon reaching the shore. He turned to her. Then Caroline arrives and while blanching at the skeletal shattered Enys she takes him home with her, scoffing at the idea she should worry because there will be time before they can marry. Good warm feeling between them is matched by Ross’s awakened appreciation of Drake, his brother-in-law who Ross now wants to help set up in some business (Sam has enough with his mining and religion) and encourages Drake to look forward by telling him (as Ross believed) that Morwenna was sent home and perhaps they could get together yet. Then he finally rides back to see his wife and Jeremy running out to him. In the moments after he confides his liking for Drake and hope for him, only to be told immediately that Morwenna and Whitworth were married a week ago (p. 515)

The story is then told as a sort of flashback. George had changed his mind. He never sent Whitworth the letter telling Whitworth Morwenna was damaged goods worse yet, Elizabeth did not send the letter by Morwenna to her mother (6 pages) explaining her reasons for refusing.

This is utter betrayal.

Intense continual pressure was put on Morwenna by everyone, more softly from her mother but what they did was simply start the arrangements, and go about teh business as if she agreed. A scene with Whitworth shows him that she is intensely reluctant and we feel how “he hated that, feels “contempt” for her having no fancy bridal outfit, and while he talks of how she will learn to love him (taking the role of the mature man teaching) Graham gives us a feel of this cold resentful appetitive mind .Her “pleases” to people get her nowhere.

It all rings so true, and here is her wedding night:

All day he had been jolly, but it was as if his jollity were put on to hide his true feelings not to express them. Several times he rose from the table during supper to kiss her hand and once he kissed her neck, but a shrinking movement, however nearly con­trolled, prevented him from doing that again. But all the time his eyes were heavy on her. She looked for love in them but saw only lust, and-a small measure of resentmenL It was as if she had only just failed to escape him and he still bore a grudge against her for having tried.
So supper ended, and in a panic she complained or sickness after the ride and asked if tonight she might go early to bed. But the time of waiting, the time of delay was over; he had already waited too long. So he followed her up the stairs and into the bedroom smelling of old wood and new paint and there, after a few perfunctory caresses. he began carefully to undress her, discovering and remov­ing each garment with the greatest of interest. Once she ­resisted and once he hit her, but after that she made no protest. So eventually he laid her naked on the bed, where she curled up like a frightened snail.
Then he knelt at the side of the”bed and said a short prayer before he got up and began to tickle her bare feet’ before he raped her. (p. 532)

Then follows George’s trip to Aunt Agatha’s room. Yes interwoven in this chapter are a series of brief vignettes of contentment: Ross and Demelza and children out on their lawn, Caroline helping Enys ride again, Whitworth arguing in a loud voice about his tithes, Morwenna herself though with the chunky stepchild in her hand looking at the mud thinking how she wished she could sink into it and never arise again, Drake getting better, eating enormously, thinking how the future may yet hold good work for him and Morwenna too (so as yet unaware); and then George with the poison now in him: he had thought to give the woman he looked at as a viper a mortal wound (and he had, by forbidding this birthday party) but not before she had bitten him and we are told he does not yet know the extent this poison will spread.

George (Ralph Bates) forbidding Agatha (Eileeny Wray) her party

The book opened with George’s nastiness to Agatha and the birth of Valentine (said to be unexpected, said to be the result of a fall or stumble Elizabeth said) under a black moon. It’s not that Elizabeth is the hole at the center of this book; rather it’s that she’s a nothing, shows us the banality of evil. And yet we have flickerings in Ross’s mind about how he should be appreciating Demelza which tell us he has not quite yet learned enough.


See also Ross Poldark, Demelza, and Jeremy Poldark.

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Opening still from 2nd season of Poldark (1977-78)

Dear friends and readers,

The fifth Poldark novel, Black Moon, was written 20 years (1973) after the fourth, Warleggan (1953). It’s a richer book than the four previous: it moves in a leisurely way, has philosophical dialogues, reaches new levels in its depiction of what a coerced marriage means (the experience of) to the forced woman, and show us how violence is the basis of whatever order we live with. The quiet leisurely pace of this book and use of historical fiction allows time for consideration of places, landscapes, and now issues.

The cyclical way Graham builds a book is felt or made more explicit as the landscape, weather, agricultural and seascape and church worlds are repeatedly described rhythmically.

While still the favored poetic presences, Ross and Demelza are less central structurally and thematically: George Warleggan, Elizabeth now Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan, and Drake Carne and Morwenna Chynoweth (who alas becomes) Whitworth are equally there and shaping the book. So too a very old woman, Agatha Poldark, spinster, aged 98, and Francis and Elizabeth’s son, Geoffrey Charles, who carries the spirit of his father forward in time.

Aunt Agatha (Eileen Way), Black Moon, opens and closes on George Warleggan’s seething hatred of her

By reading Graham’s <Poldark’s Cornwall alongside this one (so to speak) I felt the last hundred pages showed such a quickening and increase in depth in the characters I’d say the 20 year interval has made a great change for the better in Graham as a novelist and writer. Black Moon is distinctly richer; the others have the historical weight right and so does this, but its presentation feels denser.

One of the reasons I like this series so much is Graham has the rare gift in a male novelist to look at numerous issues genuinely from a woman’s point of view. In this novel he has a new character, Morwenna, who is coerced into marriage, in effect sold like a horse. This is the first novel that brought home directly the sexual angle, the distress, disgust, and distaste such forced nightly trysts (the way the man has sex with her is called rape) because in 18th century novels this is avoided (no one impugns marriage) and in modern novels it’s not felt in the inward way an 18th century woman might feel. Graham achieves. this.

A 5th journey through a Graham novel. Like the others before it, it’s a reworking of 18th century sources which sheds light on the 18th century, Cornwall and human nature. Very effectively done, finally a comfort book because of the integrity of the central figures, the author and the hard realities of it faced and not trivialized or dismissed or given a meretricious triumph over.

For an outline of the whole novel, see comment.


Cornish mine near the shore, another opening still from 2nd season (Poldark, 1977-78)

Book One, Chapters 1-5

Twenty years have gone by. And Graham is feeling it. There is a note which reminds me of Austen’s prefacing her Northanger Abbey – she is uncomfortable because 13 years have passed since she wrote the original version of NA. Well for Graham he is aware something strange has happened. He left his Warleggan in an odd place. Yes we are having yet another semi-reconciliation, but as he puts it here (the second chapter) “they were trying to recover from a near-mortal wound and they were trying to reassure themselves. The quieter levels of absolute trust which had existed before had not been regained (p. 27).

Why did he stop? and for 20 years. I suggest he had developed his characters and themes as fully as he wanted, and he had no more to say about them at the time even if he left them in media res. He says he was pushed to return because he had not visited Cornwall for three years running after a long visit with a group of film-makers proposing to make an adaptation of his four books (Poldark’s Cornwall).

So he has a little trouble getting into it I thought. He worries in front of the reader that too much experience has gone by and he has lost the feel, having written and lived so much since, but he says he had a need to return. “Sometimes the totally unexpected occurs, and one day, for no discoverable reason, it became necessary for me to see what happened to these people after Christmas night, 1793. I became very preoccupied with finding out, and it appeared to me, rightly or wrongly, that to return to an old mood was as much of a challenge as creating a new one. The Black Moon is the result.”

The first four books (he says) meant four imaginative presences for him: Ross, Demelza, Elizabeth and George. Not quite: he forgets Francis. He says he did not reread the four books, for that would have killed him, he wouldn’t “dare,” feared his response. He allowed himself only dipping in to refresh memory — “it was as if the characters had remained dormant in the subconscious waiting for the word.” And the “first hundred pages [was] like breaking sound barrier.”

So as I turned to page 1 and began I felt the opening style was not the same as in the first four books, more modern and impersonal somehow. Tellingly, he begins with the Warleggans and not just with George (Ross’s enemy), but switches quickly to George’s father, Nicholas: in Ross Poldark he also began with an older man, Joshua, Ross’s father, as he lays dying, and once again he now proceeds to remember, recreate a world from the older generational perspectives even if what we have is the ironical incident of the birth of Valentine Warleggan (biological son of Ross by having raped Elizabeth).

Really he creates anew, I noticed that with Warleggan (Book 4) the whole world or place had begun to fill out with places never named or described before (as Trollope first describes Barsetshire in detail inside a coherent map in Dr Thorne, the third book of that series), so now we have our first genealogical tress. Not quite persuasive because years of the same generation often don’t match and especially before the 20th century. Still …

Aunt Agatha helps in Chapter 1: George’s nastiness to her, her linguistic idiom of 18th century Cornwall, bedded in its memories, forms, feelings. Then in Chapter 2, we have a Walter Scott opening; two young men seen coming over the cliff. They are we discover Demelza’s brothers, Drake and Sam, now grown up (we had not heard of all her family before you see):

Drake (Kevin McNally) and Sam Carne (David Delve) climbing up the hill towards their sister’s house

and once again we return to Ross and Demelza, their on-going life with Jeremy, and a now thriving mine, and the book is now taking on intense life, as we enter Demelza’s thoughts,, Ross comes home and we read Caroline Penvenen’s letter to them about the Warleggan christening of Valentine.

There are intense frissons in the text every time a character thinks about what must not be mentioned aloud: Elizabeth and her new baby. It’s apparent all at Poldark Manor (Ross, Demelza, Jud and Prudie Paynter) know this is no 8 month baby and knew when Ross had his night with Elizabeth partly because of the estrangement from Demelza for weeks and weeks afterward. Ross has to keep himself “from thoughts of Elizabeth and her child” (p. 38). “Neither [Ross nor Demelza] said what was uppermost in their minds; it could never be uttered by anyone” (p. 27).

I’ve not mentioned how Graham will allude to romantic poetry by the famous males or Tennyson. In Poldark’s Cornwall, he quotes powerful lines by Tennyson applying them to Cornwall landscape and life. In Black Moon here’s a Ross’s characteristic utterance early on: “Just by living we are all — what you call — hostages to fate.” Ross’s lines resonate more deeply than anyone in the novel once again as he hits a level about life no one else in the novel does. He is Graham’s alter ego (p 39).


Morwenna Chynoweth (Jane Wyman), Elizabeth’s cousin, brought to live at Trenwith to be a governess to Geoffrey Charles

Book One, Chapters 6-7

A new living vital character has come onto the living stage of this book: Morwenna Chynoweth, beautifully observed, consistent: both to human nature generally and to the specifics of the era. She has herself been brought up by a religious father, a man with a puritan tone or turn of mind. As the eldest daughter, she was led to help her mother and the children. She wears glasses.

These important details go far to explaining why 1) she could be bullied by George and Elizabeth into marrying the sycophantic cold vicar Osborne Whitworth, and also 2) in the film series end up raped by him just after a hard childbirth. She is presented as grateful to Mr Warleggan (George) for taking her in despite his cold ways: George is to her sense gracious; she sees Elizabeth as kind and going out of her way to alleviate any sense of shame in taking on the position of governess. Geoffrey Charles is a gifted boy (son of Francis and Elizabeth). For Morwenna to come to this grand house, to live near Falmouth, Truro is a wide opening of the world.

Her background would also make her susceptible to Drake’s own (mild) religiosity, strong integrity and passion like Demelza’s own — for Drake and Morwenna fall in love.

Chapter 6 has a long scene between Morwenna, Drake and Geoffrey Charles on the cliffs, seashore which shows how their personalities attracted and adjusted to one another, and how they see the strain between the Poldarks and Warleggans. They are innocent of any knowledge of the hidden events.

The three, Drake, Morwenna, Geoffrey Charles gathering rocks

Then we move to the library in Ross and Demelza’s farmhouse where Demelza is fixing it some more (a beloved room) and is interrupted by Drake and gets to talking. Drake becomes aware of the tensions and strains between the two households; Demelza to any insult to the “captain” her husband, that he is not a good man even if not religious in the way of Sam.

Sam has started a subcommunity of religious people at the local church.

All this is conveyed in the mini-series but not with the extra depths felt in the book, because details of background are omitted, though Angharad Rees and Robin Ellis are past master-mistress actors in conveying between intense love (and sound reasons for it) and growing trust (again) in Demelza for Ross and Ross’s reciprocation and gratitude to her for this. In the Poldark novels the love between Ross and Demelza offers safety to Demelza, respect, a name, a place and the object (the male) is also sexually satisfying to her: the children bring in erotic love turned into maternal, so we have jouissance. The perpetual memory of Julia in the books is touching too — she was part of their earliest euphoria we are told they had (last part of Ross Poldark). Demelza is the Psyche figure remaking herself to thrive in this patriarchal order, living by her sense and reason too. Ross is the entrepreneurial spirit thwarted repeated, the kind of egalitarian semi-socialist hero we see in some of Andrew Davies’s movies based on 30s novels whose Oedipal struggle is with his rival-brother-enemy (so to speak) George over his birthright (the house, Elizabeth) who has nonetheless inserted his own son into George’s nest. Dr Enys and Caroline Penvenen fit both 18th century patterns (gay lady, man of sensibility) and modern ones (strong lady, man of sensibility/integrity again, doctor)

But these fit a conventional paradigms, Morwenna and Drake do not; they elude it. That’s what makes them newly alive in an intriguing way.


Ralph-Allen Daniell’s House (Tressilick, Cornwall)

Book One, Chapters 8-9

This book differs from the previous two which (especially Jeremy Poldark) had strong plot-designs revolving around a specific set of active incidents: for example, the aftemath and trial over the riot on the beach at the close of Demelza takes up the first half of Jeremy Poldark and is its medial climax, with the second half the struggles and breakdown after the trial. Warleggan revolves around Francis’s death, Elizabeth’s poverty and loss and marriage to Warleggan, Ross’s rape of her, and then another breakdown between him and Demelza despite growing prosperity.

Outward events sweep us along and are plotted with aesthetic bravado.

Black Moon is slow leisurely book; I’m more than 1/3rd in and not much has happened. Two more incidents since Drake and Morwenna walked with Geoffrey Charles (a determined active little boy who bosses his governess around and talks perceptively) on the beach and planned to go to the Holy Well and Drake and Demelza talked in the library: conflict in the church builds up. George Warleggan wants to control the activities there, the big man must be waited for an he’s not always on time; this concurs with Vicar’s growing resentment of Sam Drake’s subcommunity of methodists in the church. They begin to sing and pray before George shows up, and are not impressed by him and his party. Elizabeth (give her credit) is glad to see them sing, but not George. The vicar comes to talk to Sam who will not be talked down to and Sam is no longer welcome in the church. That means Drake loses a cover to see Morwenna.

But it’s a slow series of nuanced scenes as are Ross and Demelza’s determination to go to a weekend at a rich man’s house, Daniell’s beautiful mansion. We have a scene of Ross and his banker going over real social economic difficulties in mining: less tin, who will get shares for working it. Then at home Demelza still feels her lack of rank and remembers what happened last time, but Ross will not go without her. Another objection is she must ride there, but that’s a red herring: she doesn’t mind riding and boating up to the end of a pregnancy.

We get a slow moving nuanced dialogue as they ride through the countryside, talk, what they see, and then the vast new house. Since visiting the “new” Trenwith, Ross has fixed their farm house and is fixing it more (library ceiling lifted) and thinks to himself, he’d like his to look more like this. This house is one Graham mentions in his Poldark’s Cornwall and shows a photo of; it’s a real house still standing, a mansion built at the close of the 18th century.

A world is building up once again in Graham’s mind and inner presence and what’s important is this world.

To some text: after the conversation whether they should go (and they go because Demelza wants to), the journey, again quietly about the value of going to this dinner party, the beautiful ride up to the Ralph-Allen Danielle’s house and then the party. The sequence at the party, dinner, after political talk, and Ross and Demelza’s after talk in bed (all dramatized fully in Season 2).

Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) at the party: in this novel they are part of a larger group

The book has Ross and Ralph-Allen Daniell retire to Daniell’s library; Daniell offers Ross the position of Justice of the Peace, out of respect for the origins of his family. Ross refuses and they get into a serious Utopia-like (I allude to Thomas More’s book) political discussion.

Ross says he is not a suitable person — Daniell has said they need strong characters, someone with respect, gravitas in effect. Unexpectedly Ross first talks about he is not suitable to enforce the law and refuses to acquiesce that his acquittal had any genuine meaning, that he was innocent of the act as described. Ross says he was guilty.

Ross both lays out the limits of his radicalism and extends it. Ross says he does not find Paine’s Rights of Man so revolutionary as people make out; Daniell counters with Paine’s suggestions of pension for the old at 50, education for all, tax on incomes above 23000 pounds. (Things not yet come to pass for real in our world as yet). Ross then says admires Paine as “a visionary who has set his sights too high, not a revolutionary in the most aggressive sense, not a true admirer – though he affects to be — of what the French Revolution has done. It is not the possession of private property that he is decrying but the unrestricted use of it for selfish ends.” (p. 143)

Then they come to talk of the law where Ross argues the way it is administered lacks validity. He himself is not desperate in the way some are, but if he was the law makes no allowances for this.

“I am no revolutionary in the Jacobin sense. I believe in the laws of property. I do not like thieves. But the sentences are too severe. If a man came before me accused of trespass and trapping rabbits on someone’s property, I would be unable to avoid asking myself if, in his circumstances, I should not have done the same. And if I should have done the same, how can I condemn him:”

Daniell takes the argument further into abstractions and generality as how “a magistrate wields power in the country both for good and ill.” Ross would have “much to do with rates and taxes and the uses they are put to. Building roads, repairing bridges, dredging canals.”

Ross acknowledges Daniell’s “gracious” way of talking and wishes he could be as “gracious in his refusal,” but he would not like the people he has to work with, cannot see himself with them. If the laws were becoming more “lenient and liberal” he “would be happy to try to interpret them.” But this is far from the case. People are “stamped Jacobin and condemned as traitors,” a man last week “hanged for taking 1.15.0 out of a shop.” All this has gone too far, and he thinks “in order to defeat a tyranny overseas we are in danger of creating a tyranny ourselves.”

Daniell sighs and acquiesces, only saying the “good governance of the country must continue” and Ross was someone to do it. “shall we rejoin the ladies?”

In the bedroom scene soon after Ross tells Demelza and she is disappointed — he has a “rightful place in the world” and should have taken it. “I want you to have the respect you are entitled to.” “It grieves me you had to refuse.” He points out the drunken sot Brodugan and how he takes advantage of his position, of the hypocrisies of others, and feels “an unreasoning resentment” at her reaction.

Talking late that night

“‘So you think I did wrong,’ he said.
‘How can I say? How can it be wrong to do what you believe is right?’
‘He had not told her of the man likely to be appointed in his place'” (p. 148)

George Warleggan takes the position and he acts for the worst possible motives: power for himself, out of envy, to destroy, to keep people done, to get back, to set up patronage networks. An analogous debate (though presented very differently) in More’s Utopia, where the question is whether a man of integrity should be active as a courtier and near the king because even if he is forced to be corrupt, he can perhaps do a little good, prevent some evils from happening. We are to see that Ross was wrong.

Ross and Demelza’s talk peters off; Daniell will be appointed High Sheriff. Of the party, dinner and dance they experience, Demelza says, “if this high society,” she liked it. Ross: “Yes it is a cut above the Assembly Ball. There is a state at which the possession of money justifies itself by enabling its possessor to become urban, cultured, refined and elegant. When this happens there is probablly no better society in the world.”

She hopes they will be invited again, but he says his refusal will not “endear him” to the people in power. The people there today are the “progressive, who in better times would be the reformers, who pride themselves on openness of mind.” But they are losing out and “at present the landed gentry of England are seeing bloody revolution behind every drawn shutter.”

“Well it’s not important,’ and about that shopping list they brought,” says Demelza (diplomatically, kindly, knowing to dwell on what has now irrevocably occurred is useless) to which Ross says: “Yes, it is a foot long.” Demelza: “Good. Then let us think of that. Good night Ross.” “Good night. They lay quiet together listening to the sounds in the tap room, each “thinking their own thoughts.” But “however extravagant their purchases, they become, the events of today had taken the savour out of it.” (p 150)

I like the quiet disillusion here.

This dinner party, so dressed up for, so discussed, so glorious as they come up the coachway, has become ominously pivotal because of Ross’s decision not to take the offered place, leaves a bad taste and sours their joy … and they turn to sleep separately (I omitted yet more talk of sexual unfaithfulness interspersed in the conversation as my posting was getting too long).

The next chapter opens with George taking the appointment. Ross really feels intense resentment at Demelza’s desire for him to have taken the Justice of the Peace position; she is an evasive personality who has learned to get along that way in life; thus when her brothers want a bit of land to build a church for themselves the way Ross and Demelza compromise to do what neither wants (both secular people, he knowing how this will be read by the powerful) is persuasive and rings true today as well as then.

George and Elizabeth have had their first flurry of intense sexual satisfaction, but that has faded and they face (silently) that they do not love one another Today they’d be a performative couple. He is surprised at her lack of affection for and defense of Ross at this point — we know why (the rape) so the dramatic irony works as we watch their marriage form. Caroline Penvenen’s story moves from a “defy-the-father story” in the 18th century mode (she insists on her right to marry Dr Enys, beneath her in rank), her uncle’s aging is pathetic and moving for her to cope with — a paralell in this book to the story of Aunt Agatha, neglected in the Warleggan house, but unable to get herself to move out of her old home and live with Ross and Demelza, though the world she’d be offered would be emotionally and really generous.

The politics of George taking the position first offered to Ross, of the church, and of the effect of counter-revolutionary and frantic fear and hysteria in Paris has its parallel in Enys’s disappearance when his ship, aptly named The Travail goes down. Enys refused to marry Caroline as a follower, because he would be lower than her, and we see through Ross how it’s understandable why he left, though this will make great trouble for these people when they have to bring him back — another revenant!


Drake Carne

Morwenna Chynoweth

Book One, Chapters 10-12, Book Two, Chapter 1

As I read at the dialogues between Sam and the minister over the behavior of Sam and his followers in church, the minster’s insistence on ejecting Sam if they don’t kowtow to the hierarchical controls and obeisances,

and then Sam’s inability to find land (as it’s all taken up by George Warleggan’s enclosures) and then Ross’s reluctance to give him space and Demelza’s evasive replies (based partly on their distaste for this religious controlling group), then turn to the meditations and dialogues between Ross and Demelza, and again (at a greater distance) and George and Elizabeth, I’m struck by how much Graham is going into the new philosophies and secular attitudes of the era and how they connect up to ours.

Then some heart-rending description of the shores and caves Morwenna, Drake and Geoffrey Charles clamber about, not much evocative description because Graham turns to letters to fill us in on the politics of France as Enys sees it. Caroline (gay lady), Enys (well-read man) and Verity (Ross’s beloved cousin, homebody) are the letter writers of the Poldark books.

Graham has passed 20 years since Warleggan and one of the new elements he threads and deepens his book with a philosophical and psychological apprehension of everyday life in the 18th century and its political debates. Yet as in the previous novels, I’m struck by the quality of the utterances of some of the characters, the sense of authenticity stemming from the author.

For example, on the more abstract plane of issues, just this one: Ross explaining to Demelza how he sees religion:

“I think they all stem from some insufficiency in men’s minds, perhaps from a lack of a willingness to find themselves utterly alone. But now and then I feel that there is something beyond the material world, something we all feel intimations of but cannot explain. Under the religious vision there is the harsh fundamental reality of all our lives, because we know we must live and die as the animals … ” (p. 181)

On the turning of ways of life and thinking that correspond to our own (secular) into specifics of the narrative stories and characters: here is George thinking about the marriage to Elizabeth, an instance of free indirect discourse where our implied author has his take too:

“Ever since they married he had felt some reluctance in her to stay at Trenwith, and he had often wondered if there were more behind it than he knew. Of course before they married he had promised her a life at Cardew, but when it came to the point his father had not been prepared to vacate the house. In his effort to convince her that marriage to him offered everything she wanted, George had been guilty of one or two exaggerations, of which this was the greatest. Elizabeth had tried to hide her disappointment, but it was more evident now since Valen­tine was born. George always suspected that this desire to leave Trenmwith was in fact a desire to put more distance between herself and Ross Poldark.
This was their only meal alone. Two years of marriage had seen subtle changes in the relationship which the birth of Valentine had accentuated. George had deeply desired only one woman in his life, and his achievement of this end had brought him immense gratification. He had taken Elizabeth with all the passion in his nature, and to his particular delight had found her responding in a similar way; for he was not to know that there was more reactive anger than genuine passion in the response. The immediate consequence was that both put out more emotion than it would have been their normal nature to do; and fusion was exceptional for them both. But Eliza­beth’s early pregnancy had been an excuse to descend from these summits, and they had never been scaled again. George in his nature was cold, and Elizabeth no longer had to prove anything to herself. Since Valentine’s birth she had not refused him, but it was a proposal and an acquiescence, not a mutual need.
They were both aware of this. George knew what happened to some women temporarily after they had borne a child. He knew how it had been between her and Francis after the birth of Geoffrey Charles. That it had not been so after the birth of Valentine gave him satisfaction. In any case for the time being he was content. The possession of Elizabeth was almost enough on any terms. The emotional demands upon himself were the less. And Elizabeth was content with this damping down of a relationship she was not sure she had ever wanted. (pp. 153-54)

As John Ryland remarked, each of these books has its own distinctive universe; to this I add they do nonetheless add up to a coherence whole and unlike say Trollope’s Palliser novels or Olphant’s Carlingford or say some quarter by a modern author (A. S. Byatt’s quartet) cannot stand alone; they are more like Proust’s or Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time or Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet and Durrel’s (Alexandrian) quartets.


George (Ralph Bates) expressing his will to Elizabeth (Jill Townsend)

Book 1, Chapters 11-12, Book Two, Chapters 1-3

Bk 1, Chapter 12 takes us through Ross’s adventure (high risk) going into Brittany to see if he can find out if Enys survived. This was part of the film only the two trips (for Ross goes again to rescue Enys from the prison where conditions are such like Jim Carter Enys comes near death) are conflated. The way people are watched by governments, how their henchman quietly work, and how Ross is confronted and then has to sneak about and bribe and, fearful the man he is bribing is a spy, is all done well. He gets back suddenly as in the film: we are with Demelza heavily pregnant now, and for the first time getting to know Caroline who she feels uncomfortable around. A moving quick scene of Demelza and Ross’s reunion (p. 202) is followed by the birth of their second girl, Clowance.

I haven’t mentioned how Graham is paying such close attention to a hateful personality for the first time: George, who stands quietly for the worst norms of society then and now. There’s a quietly scary (Elizabeth says this) scene between him and her where he broaches to her his schemes for Morwenna’s coming marriage to someone who will give him political or monetary advantage.

This is preceded by an austerely beautiful rendition of Drake and Morwenna finally moving towards one another romantically. Drake knows he is beneath her in rank, and so does she. But their characters are so deeply congenial, sensitive, ethical in an offstandish, individualizing way, they are bullied in part (comical this) by Geoffrey Charles into going to the house and to his room and when he goes off for something (not at all seeing the romance), the moment comes of an embrace, a kiss, and acknowledgment (pp. 213-14): “when they separated it was with a sens of return to self-consciousness”).

This is juxtaposed to the chilling scene of George planning to marry her off like some horse. His idea of candidates is entirely based on his interest and male appetite: he would sell her to an old sick man, to someone who is a younger son of an old family to get his connection in (though “the Navy is a dubious taskmaster. A few make rich prizes but the most remain poor”, p 223), to a “drunkard” (he doesn’t mention this just the man’s riches) so as to make Morwenna “a valuable prize.” Morwenna is regarded as men do slaves. The whole thing is chilling, but what makes it even more memorable is while Elizabeth “wonders why she was not more afraid of him,” she does not protest openly, she does not reject this line of thought and feeling at all; she feels no abhorrence but is going along: “‘But what, said Elizabeth curiously, ‘attracts you.” He is shameless because he does not know what a monster he is — as such monsters are so common (to day too). Here’s a tiny piece:

George: “and of course the thought of an eighteen-year old girl can be a considerable attraction to an old man. Elizabeth shivered. ‘And your other thoughts?” (pp. 221-226).

Christmas is done with sweeping intense feel of what it must’ve been like to be freezing cold for weeks with a frost, snow, dank rain, over-freezing — and it was the year 1794 so. Demelza and Ross have only Caroline with them and the new girl baby, Clowance, and the household servants.

By contrast George sets up a grand party at Cardew and few come; he did it there just to attract older and rich and connections, but the weather and place on the landscape get in the way. I feel Graham expects us to share his gratification as the humiliation (wrong and overwrought) George feels. he wanted to “show off his house” and he gets precisely the young people coming he didn’t want (“never having been young himself, in the sense of being frivolous, scatter-brained, enthusiastic, or jolly, he had little patience … “, p 218)

Francis’s death continues to be felt as a loss. While George is gone, Ross visits his aging aunt and finds her in a filthy bed, alone, ignored, dirty, miserable and wretched (pp. 248-52). He takes on his landlord upper class self role and galvanizes people in the household to serve her for the time he visits. As in the film, Ross offers to take her back to live with them, but she cannot face the move. I am not sure this is believable. In her thoughts we see that she misses Francis and the prose lets us know that no matter how often drunk, how non-networking, non-renovating Francis was, reclusive at times, the genuine quality of inward life in his house was vastly superior due to his character in and of itself and his position around them, how he was simply aware of other people as people, presences, valuable: “an more since Francis wa took — I been lonely” (p. 238). How what a male is counts — Graham does not see it this way, but a woman reading this novel sees it. Demelza could not make this offer; and she would not, only for her brothers does she persist in nudging the reluctant Ross.

It’s in Demelza’s concern for Drake that the romance of Drake and Morwenna first comes to Ross’s notice. Demelza had seen it in Drake (pp. 245-50). Demelza says at one point she believes that “Caroline is more than half in love with you” as he is himself, unawares, her.

Again from Daniell’s party Caroline appealing to Ross about her concern for Enys’s life

Why else risk his life saving Enys for her, help her so with her dying uncle; Ross says it’s friendship, companionship and not like … Well, Elizabeth’s name almost trips off his tongue, and it’s Demelza who supplies it; and this leads to talk of what a woman wants from her husband, on to Sam who cannot go to the church where the Warleggans preside and then Drake’s disappointment in not going there. We see neither Demelza nor Ross are friends to Morwena and Drake’s relationship either. How people are self, self self.

We get another party at Cardew where unknown to her Morwenna is being showed to men and is introduced to the suitor that Elizabeth can stand to think of: only 30 at least if with 2 children and fat and stupid: Morwenna enjoys the dance with him superficially for she does not know what is in the cards here: “She saw only this tall, loud-voiced, affected young clergyman as only a partner to step on the floor an listen to afterward.” (p. 256) What she is unaware of but we are is what ‘s going on in her mind and body: “Day by day, hour by hour, she lived the times again when they had met and what they had done and what they had said to each other.” “An uneasy dream.” she knows her relatives would be shocked, yet there are “slow strong moving current of blood carrying all the obstacle before it … a heart-lurching knowledge that only what happened between her and Drake was real …” (p. 257)

I love this sense of the weather renewed, the ploughing of land, the passing of time. The meetings of Drake and Demelza under the chaperonage and encouragement of Francis’s son (Geoffrey Charles is somehow the father again in a new frame with Elizabeth the hardening stuff) are done at the seashore under white skies and waters and recreated beautifully in the films.

I just loved this novel and it was all I could do to stop myself from quoting long snatches of the descriptions of the rhythms of the seasons, weather, life’s cyclical passing while the dramas go on. I wish he had gone on writing them forever. Here’s one picked at random:

The great frost came down on Christmas Eve. Before that the month had been mild but very wet. Ceaseless rain had flattened alike the sea and the fields and the smoke from the mine chimneys; rivulets had formed in fields and the Mellingey had been in swollen spate, the roads and tracks were quagmires. George had sent his coach to fetch the two elderly Chynoweths, and five times there and fiye times on the way back the coach was bogged down in mud and had to be dragged out. In order to lighten the loan the day being temporarily dry, Morwenna and Geoffrcr Charles followed on horseback (Bk 2, Ch 2, p 226).

I have not treated of the type of historical fiction this one represents according to Graham: type 3, all the characters fictional but set into accurate history. He works out the types usefully in Poldark’s Cornwall. I surmise he began this categorization well after he began these novels and began to apply it around the time of the last three for the TV series.

I divide this blog into two (see Part 2) so as to make them shorter.


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Elizabeth Gaskell (1865 watercolor)

Elizabeth Spencer (1921-)

Dear friends and readers,

My listserv community (mailing list) WWTTA has embarked on a four month “Elizabeth Gaskell festival.” A group of us propose to read two short stories by Gaskell each week alternating occasionally with a novella over two to three weeks, at the end of which a few of us will read her historical novel, Sylvia’s Lovers and a few others, her powerful biography, The Life of Charlotte Bronte. What enabled this was most of her works are online.

What prompted this? Her fame, we like 19th century women novelists. Some of the people on WWTTA have read Gaskell with other people on line on this and my other list before, _viz_, Cousin Phillis, Cranford (twice), Wives and Daughters (twice), North and South, two ghosts or gothics, “The Old Nurse’s Tale,” and “The Grey Woman.” Recently I had read Jenny Uglow’s wonderful biography, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, many of us had seen and loved both Cranford mini-series (Cranford Chronicles,

Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith, a stand-in for Gaskell herself from first series

and Return to Cranford)

The community of women from the second

I set up the order for reading by using my books, anthologies and individually published books. For the stories and novellas: Cousin Phillis and other tales, ed. Angus Easson, The Moorland Cottage and other stories, and A Dark Night’s Work and other Stories, both edited by Suzanne Lewis Lewis, Lady Ludlow, Mr Harrison’s Confessions, Cranford (numerous editions), to be followed by either the novel or biography (depending on what the person wanted to read).

Well, we have begun and I’ve now read three masterpieces in the short story genre, and one at least telling or candid story about illegitimacy and unwed mothers in the Victorian period. “The Old Nurse’s Tale” is one of these and I’ve written about it before (and taught twice too), but I’ve never before read or written about “Half a Life Time Ago” or “Lois the Witch.” These two, together with (more briefly) “Lizzie Leigh” and Elizabeth Spener’s “Light in the Piazza” are my subject tonight.

“Half a Life Time Ago”

Whistler, “Reading by Lamplight” (1858)

I compare “Half a Life Time Ago” with Elizabeth Spencer’s great novella, “Light in the Piazza,” a modern masterpiece about how a mother to provide her beloved mildly disabled daughter with what’s called a normal life sacrifices much in her life and then her mildly daughter herself by giving her up to a young Italian husband embedded in a traditional family — though we have enough evidence to suspect it will go hard with this girl when her mother had to leave her to a new husband and his family. There’s a popular musical adapted from it nowadays. (For more on this one see the comments)

To the story:

“Half a Life Time Ago” is intensely moving story. It differs from Light in the Piazza” because the young boy, Will is not mildly disabled. Clara in “Light in the Piazza” seems to many people just fine; it takes time to see she is not quite like others. Will is mentally feeble gentle and sensitive and a target for ridicule, worse yet, a target for beatings by Michael Hurst, the young male apprentice betrothed to our heroine, Susan Dixon, before the story opened. The story centers on Susan Dixon’s consciousness. Her mother dies and asks her to care for this boy, specifically not to put him in an asylum.

The descriptions of the asylum are really mind-pausing. The people there know how to stop these disabled people from giving them trouble. I’ll bet.

I was at first bothered by what seemed to be Susan Dixon, the heroine’s acceptance or ignoring the cruelty of Michael Hurst, her suitor (how he enjoys triumphing over her too) and for me part of the anxiety of reading the tale was the worry lest she marry this man, Michael Hurst.

She didn’t: slowly he begins to want to marry her for her money and property and not herself. In reality he never appreciated her character at all and would probably have been much less happy with her than he was with much more ordinary, stupider woman he marries in the end. Michael stands for more than the world’s view: he is cruel. We are to believe this cruel or hard character of his attracts Susan. I wonder about this. I read a piece by Sade yesterday where he argues for masochism and sadism as central to sexual experience. I think Trollope is closer to the mark when he presents a more prosaic dominating-submissive interaction between people and I have not known anyone who likes to be hurt, bossed, or used.

Susan was lucky in that Michael brought his hard tactless mean sister to see her. They make a demand that he won’t marry Susan (they think she’s desperate) unless she puts Will in the asylum. In reaction to this ugliness, she refuses.

I can’t say she was better off herself being faithful to her disabled brother but she was doing right and until her servant-friend dies and he does become more violent she had the love and comfort of his presence. I can imagine Michael would have beaten and destroyed her brother if she had not allowed him to put the boy in an asylum.

At the same time I really admired the hardness of the tale. Will does become violent and hard to deal with later in life. In the 19th century they had no calming medicines and such a person would be so frustrated with his life as he grew older and take it out on those nearby. Susan’s servant-friend had died long ago and when Will dies young (as happens with severely disabled), Susan is left alone. One night she can’t bear not to look once more at Michael and follows him home drunken from a pub. We are told she watches him beat his horse and act as mean as usual. We are not told she is relieved not to have married him. I can’t understand this. Surely she would see how miserable in a different way she would have been.

We are told this is a community where women accept men’s drunkenness. But Susan has differed from others in refusing to put her brother away.

The story closes with Michael once more coming to Susan’s house — perhaps he too hankered after her, but so drunken in the cold, he falls hard and dies. She goes to Micheal’s wife and tells of his death, and in her own trauma over her long desolate existence, has a heart attack. The wife at first put off by her feels for her, and in the end Susan takes the broke widow and her children in so she is no longer alone.

We are to think she is now better off not being so alone.

“Half a Life-time Ago” is as good as “Old Nurse’s Story” because it is not a neurotic dream and breaks through censorship. Gaskell doesn’t quite break through to reject the sadomasochistic patterns still inculcated today but she does show the hardship and misery of isolated existence. Susan’s real lack was she never had a chance to meet anyone like her. All she ever had a chance for was Michael.

This reality lies behind not just stories like Jane Eyre but many other women’s stories until say the early 20th century when they could for the first time break away from a local community — if they were lucky find people they could have a bearable existence with.

But of course the real burning center is is the disabled child and what it takes from a mother. I know of a third: Elsa Morante’s Storia (History) where the last quarter is about her and her elliptic son and how he’s treated by the world (horrible) and his dog killed and he dies of the heart attack at 7 and she is taken to an asylum for 9 more years when her body finally dies. her soul did upon the death of the boy and dog. Funny Gaskell in comparison is much more realistic.

“Lois the Witch”


“Lois the Witch” anticipates our journey into Sylvia’s Lovers for its a historical fiction: set in the later 17th century in the US among American puritans. I find it just rich, embedded with knowledge of the era, especially a feel for recreating the US and the scary fanaticisms of the religious types who dominated early Massachusetts. Lois has the misfortune to be not just an orphan (no one to protect her for real) but to have been born to those who fought for the king — high church.

The story is a study of the impulse to and acting out of great cruelty religious fanaticism masks. Gothic here becomes an issue of vital life for women: witch accusations arise from the worst impulses of human nature directed towards women who are unprotected. When it comes to the enlightenment, Gaskell is on the side of secularism from her background.

I got beyond the first chapter of this story and by this time had become so anxious for the heroine I had to peek ahead. This is a terrifying tale centering on the heartlessness, cruelty and stupidity of human beings, and especially how risky fanatical religion is to anyone who is powerless, particularly a woman.

The center as the previous tales have been is women. In the first half of the tale when Lois arrives in America she listens in on a tale told in a censored way but sufficiently clearly that we realize a woman was allowed to be tortured, raped and murdered by a band of her fellow men rather than their risk their lives to save her. The hard stupid (for he probably doesn’t quite see that he’s justifying the women’s friends’ cowardice) older man who listens immediately begins to justify the men for doing nothing and among other things he comes up with the idea the whole thing was a vision sent by Satan. The obvious evidence that the woman existed and this all happened is put in front of him, and he pauses for a moment, but (like many people in juries) only long enough to dismiss this and come back to insist on his theory. What poor Lois doesn’t realize is she has awakened his ire by contradicting him.

As she arrives at her uncle’s — her mother has died and she has no relatives to live with and she is sent by the mother to the uncle for him to take her in — she sees a child whose beauty strikes her. The child see her and slips on a stump; the mother sees this. Ominous. This reader (me) knows what Gaskell is suggesting. I had a grandmother who believed in the “evil eye.” She would get it into her head that he neighbors had “poxed” her plants if they didn’t grow or sent an evil spell on her if something she wanted didn’t work out. My knowledge of this woman and what she would have been capable of if she had lived in a village with people like her has ever prevented me from sentimentalizing peasants or traditional cultures or rituals/superstitions. They are not pretty.

Her aunt is hard and mean, and immediately dislikes her for being a relation of a family which stayed loyal to Charles I. Again Lois makes the mistake of sticking up for her parents when she sees them bad-mouthed. They are after all recently dead. And we see a son is sexually hankering after her almost immediately

Of course the parallel is the woman tortured, raped and murdered and then dismissed as a vision of Satan with Lois accused of being a witch and then being murdered in some horrible way. It’s brilliant of Gaskell to align them.

Oh how I wish that sea captain who first brought Lois to the US and this biological family of hers had removed her from these people and taken her back to the US to starve. This is a hard story to read. It’s the remorseless terrifying story of a cruelty to a young woman with no one whose interest it is to help her.

As I read to the end, I found myself remembering what I’d read about people facing the cruel death penality, from Victor Hugo’s Last Day of a Condemned Man to descriptions of people waiting to be guillotined en masse. It’s the latter this story is about: a mass delusion which overtakes an ignorant fearful community. Lois dies because she gets caught up in the jealousies of the household she was placed in where no one had any feeling for her at all; she is loved and wanted by two men who her female relatives wanted for themselves. Her cousin goes mad and her aunt loathes her in order to have someone to blame. So when in a hysterical mass meeting Cotton Mather lights on her, she is lost.

Lois herself believes in witches and our narrator says when she finds herself in jail she half-believes others may be witches in other jails. When she sees them, she knows better. She finds herself chained and in quiet powerful moment is brought back to sense because she realizes how ludicrous and cruel this is. She lives on because she is so young and has a urge to survive.

A number of scenes where she refuses to confess to being a witch; she is helped to die because the old Indian woman who lived in the house with her ends up in her cell. In her impulse to control and cope for herself, she acts as if she’s doing this for the Indian woman. Only when the woman is taken from her and hung first, does she go mad, lost it and scream a horrified “Mother!” a call our narrator tells us went through people. (As other calls did).

It was the next autumn before the Captain returned with a young man who had loved Lois to bring her back to England. Too late. The young man when others present mass apologies, prayers, and the graveyard as comfort can only say, she is dead, cannot be brought back and there is no retrieval.

For myself I am bothered this far by the tale: Gaskell seems to me to ask that I understand and thus (implied) forgive. No better misanthropy than accept this with quietude.

“Lizzie Leigh”

London Woman, Street Seller, Gustave Dore, from London: A Pilgrimage

I did find “Lizzie Leigh” a demoralizing one to start with I admit — from its outlook where it seemed to buy into the making a pariah of someone who has had a child out of wedlock to its morbidity (so many die) but can see it as revealing tellingly the same kind of tones and impulses we find in Bronte’s Shirley where there’s a story of an unwed mother now a governess whose daughter died when she was finally able to be near her, having been parted from her at birth, a kind of neurotic compensation daydream where the intense sadness allows the person to experience what she is really experiencing and validate it without breaking through censorship and telling the truth.

“Lizzie Leigh” breaks through the censorship. I’d argue it does so more than Susan Hill’s Woman in Black which allows readers and viewers to blame Jennet Humphrys. I’m aware the story turns her into a monstrous witch and only through careful reading of the text does the inner story come out. All three Wharton tales are far more feminist in structure than even the written Women in Black. Given our period’s misogyny I fear to think what a film feature might make of Hill’s work today.

For Light in the Piazza, see comment.

Photo from Lincoln Center performance of musical adaptation of Spencer’s story


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Godolphin House, Cornwall, used as Trenwith, the Poldark family home (1975-76 Poldark mini-series)

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight I had a familiar experience: the Admiral and I were on the way to a opera in DC, and as soon as we got into the car, and upon opening my latest Poldark novel, Black Moon (the fifth of the Poldark series), I fell straight into it. I forgot I was in that car until we arrived at where Jim was parking; then we walked to the Metro platform, and upon opening the book to wait for the train, happy absorption; the train comes, I look up and get in, sit down and the upon opening the book … No matter where I am it seems, I can lose myself in a Poldark novel.

This blog though is about Poldark’s Cornwall (1983), a sort of light autobiographical meditative essay as travelogue by Graham on the Cornish landscape today, its geology, ancient and 18th century history; and on his writing of the Poldark novels. He tells of its people, followed by a suggestive outline of his own stays there, from a boy vacationing on a trip with his family, to a younger man living there as a writer with his family for what seems to have been a considerable time, to an older one still returning there periodically for the deep pleasure of revisits. We learn of his later time as a consultant for the lead-up to the first BBC mini-series based on his books, his immersion in the second. He includes his thoughts on historical fiction, something of how he came to write the Poldark novels, put them down after writing 4 (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan 1945-53) and then took them up again twenty years later, just before and during the filming of the series’s second season (Black Moon, 1973 and then Four Swans and The Angry Tide, 1976-77). It’s a large book printed on art paper to accommodate many stunningly beautiful photographs by Simon McBride, many of which are not connected directly to the novels or TV series:

Trevelgue Head, iron age fort near Newquay

though many are:

St Winnow Church, Cornish perpendicular church, used for the wedding of Dwight Enys and Caroline Penvenen in the second series (1977-78, Poldark)

Poldark’s Cornwall has cheered my heart just before dawn for quite a few near-days. Yes it’s a kind of forced-made-book, made to call attention to the film series, but it has much to recommend it. Quietly Graham calls attention to the terrain and beauty and history embedded in the seascapes and houses and people of the peninsula. He quotes with a good eye from his own brilliant evocation of this place in his last three books used in the series (Black Moon, Four Swans, Angry Tide):

So they all went to look, at least as far as the stile leading down to the beach)· further it was unsafe to go. Where the beach would have been at any time except the highest of tides) was a battlefield of giant waves. The sea was washing away the lower sandhills and the roots of marram grass. As they stood there a wave came rushing up over the rough stony ground and. licked at the foot of the stile) leaving a trail of froth to overflow and smear their boots. Surf in the ordinary sense progresses from deep water to shallow) losing height as it comes. Today waves were hitting the rocks below Wheal Leisure with such weight that they generated a new surf running at right angles to the flow of the sea) with geysers of water spouting high from the collisions. A new and irrational surf broke against the gentler rocks below the Long Field. Mountains of spume collected wherever the sea drew breath) and then blew like bursting shells across the land. The sea was so high there was no horizon and the clouds so low that they sagged into the sea.

and includes much informative and insightful material on his books, method and the TV series.


Cornish fisherman

First, he offers the reader a deep sense of the land- and seascape as central to his vision and writing of historical novels: that’s where he sets them, and he says that after putting down the novels for 20 years, he returned to them after he had spent three summers in Cornwall. Avril Horner and Sue Zlasnick in their book on Daphne DuMaurier define a subgothic kind they call “Cornish Gothic,” to which they say DuMaurier’s Cornish novels, all of which take place either in the later 17th to later 18th/very early 19th century, belong: Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn, both about smuggling; My Cousin Rachel an imitation of Lorna Doone, and King’s General (set during the English civil wars). As Mary Waugh in her Smuggling in Cornwall and Devon shows, the later 18th century was a “high” point in smuggling. The patterns in the Poldark novels are not gothic, but some of the women character’s subplots do follow the paradigms of female gothic: both of these reflect the real and different circumstances and inculcation and what happens to women for real in their lives.

To evoke this Cornish gothic sublime sense of the land- and seascape, history, culture of Cornwall, Graham quotes the following two stanzas from an anonymous lyric he attributes to Tennyson. It’s not by Tennyson but is 19th century:

Nine large piles of troubled water
Turbulently come;
From the bosom of his mother,
Each one leaping on his brother,
Scatters lusty foam.

In the sky a wondrous silence,
Cloud-surf, mute and weird;
In the distance, still uplifting,
Ghostly fountains vanish, drifting,
Like a Druid’s beard.

The North Coast above Boscastle, near Crackington Haven

In this opening section and throughout Graham offers many casual scattered details about history, life style, specifics of families, legends, as well as scattered suggestive details about his boyhood times in Cornwall and when he lived there later in life. I leave this to the interested reader to find out about by reading the book.

The perpendicular gothic windows of St Winnows

Historical fiction and the Poldark novels.

Launceston Gaol

When he turns to his novels, Graham presents strongly the reality that a historical novel is the vision of the writer (p. 148). “If there is no personal view, there is no art.” He knows that historians downgrade the historical novel because it colors or shapes history. He does not himself go on to say historians do the same (Haydn White would).

But he does say: “if he [the historical novelist] is good enough he creates a world of his own which the reader comes to inhabit and finds it comparable with life rather than identical with it.”

He divides the kind into three types: those which use actual historical personages as chief characters (I Claudius); second where historical personages are substantial figures but main characters are fictional (Scott); third where the characters are “entirely, or almost entirely fictitious” (Stevenson, and of course his own; so too Margaret Mitchell I’d say). He says in the literature there is a tendency to rate the first and second types much higher than the third and this is “pretentious rubbish.” Fine novels, works of art, and truths about history occur in all three.

What I really like are the final paragraphs in this section (p. 149). Human beings have not changed “but their reactions to life patterns” have and do, and the writer must understand and try to transmit these to the reader. There must be geographical truth too as setting is often essential to the art of the historical novel.

Of enormous importance is to “select” what historical fact you use. I paraphrase him here (quoting some of his words too): You must do a lot of intense homework and reading. It’s” tedious to enumerate all the sources” of the Poldark books, long hours of research to illuminate this or that event, into “old newspapers, travel books at the time, parochial history, manuals, autobiographies,” contemporary fictions. He then goes over a whole slew of events in the first few novels which are rooted in history and business and economics and politics and geology (p. 149).

Cornish mine opening, with pink flowers

Nonetheless, there is “the opposite risk, that of becoming too preoccupied with history. One can so easily detect the midnight oil, the desire to instruct. But novels are about life.” So even if you are “reluctant,” once you have “discovered something at great trouble, not to make the most of it, resist that. Writing historical novels are a recurrent discipline where you use only what is relevant to the moment of the living fiction.” What is not relevant is irrelevant. (p. 150). Here is the key to difference of writing wooden stilted books and living breathing ones.

Origin of novels

Roscarrock, used as first still in second series where Ross and Demelza greet one another once again

Graham tells of how he named the characters and what originals they were built partly out of. Ross Poldark is based on man who was Graham’s best friend in his twenties: Ridley Polgreen, a young chemist, died tragically at 32. Not like Ross in the sense that he was Wesleyan, non-smoking, non-drinking and lively sense of humor, but like Ross in his “appreciation for all that was good and beautiful in life.” Ross’s physical appearance comes from a chance acquaintance in a railway car in WW2: tall, lean, bony, scarred, heavy-lidded eyes, pale blue, back from wars, not one to flinch, broken leg; a quiet man, tense, purposeful, a vein in his neck, and — most important for Ross the character “a vein of high strung disquiet.” (p. 191) “Polgreen seems not quite strong enough. So the name Poldark came into being.”

Jud and Prudie Paynter were also transmutations of real people, Jud a man Graham used to see on a nightly pilgrimage to a pub (same “voice, grimace, toothless gums”), a figure of comic pessimism, obstinate, drunk, doom-laden religion, and his sister became Prudie (pp. 196-97)

He had the idea that Ross’s wife and love would be a dark waif he picked up at Redruth Fair, but was a long time before discovering a name and identity. He came across the name on a signpost, which he later passed many times. According to William Pryce, author of Mineraologia Cornubiensis, “De” means “the” or “thy” and “Melza” means honey or sweetness. So Demelza means “thy sweetness” (pp. 191-92)

Others: “Nampara” means “the Valley of the Bread,” an ancient name, taken from a village known for its bakery. “Warleggan” is also the name of an old village on the Bodmin moors: “a lonely place, and one almost impossible to get to witout traversing the desolate moorland.” Cold, wet, swathed in fog, grey, much “moorland granite, harsh-wind scoured countryside” — just right for this character. The family did flourish in the 18th and 19th centuries in Cornwall. The “one-armed asthmatic rascal, boyhood wild companion of Ross, also a revenant (in Black Moon he first turns up) Tholly Tregirls is named after another village on the Bodmin moors. Clowance, the name of Ross and Demelza’s fourth child, the first daughter to live, was the name of a family home of the St Aubyns (pp. 195-96).

Bodmin moor, a woodland in spring

The twenty-year hiatus and first attempt to film the books

Tressilick House, used as Ralph Allen Daniell’s house in the second series

Graham tells of the great difficulty he had getting back into the novels after a twenty year break. Although he says his return to the novels was not predicated on a need for more material for the film series, the two events were intermingled at least.

An attempt had been made to film the first 4 novels in 1969 by Associated British Pictures. It was intended to last 4 hours and be a Cornish GWTW; he and Kenneth Harper, the producer, Vincent Tilsney, the projected writer and team went to Carlyon Bay Hotel at St Austell and spent 4-5 days in Cornwall. Tilsney wrote a brilliant script but it was too long — over 5 hours. It fell through. EMI took over ABP and incoming moguls axed old projects.

But London films bought the option on TV rights and interested BBC in a joint production. The real force behind the project became Robert Clark, ABP chairman at time of take-over, so someone there in 1969 too. He became chair of London Films, a re-invention of the old costume drama Alexander Korda film company who Pam Cook discussed in her book both on national identity and the costume drama. Korda films are as of 1983 still very popular. This group made I Claudius, Therese Raquin and Testament of Youth (pp. 162-63).

So in 1975 it all began.

Now in 1969, there were only 4 novels (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan) and for the first film series, the story matter went into the opening of Black Moon (1973). Inbetween Warleggan and the time of attempting Black Moon, Graham had written 8 modern and 1 historical novel, The Grove of Eagles, about 16th century Cornwall.

Lanydrock, Jacobean mansion (renovated in the 19th century), used for Sir Francis Basset’s house (second series)

He claims there was at the time (1973) no inducement to write Black Moon as the movie project had died and seemed dead that year. But creative stirrings were in him, partly he says a reaction to not returning to Cornwall for three summers going after having gone there with the TV creative and business people.

He says it was very difficult for him to get back into these novels, to move from “taut, compact modern” text to this “more leisurely broader-canvassed” kind of thing. He had to revert to another style re-pick up characters, situations, clothes.

As he talks it’s apparent the first four books’ most powerful resonance in his mind and heart are rooted in four imaginative presences: Ross, Demelza, Elizabeth and George (p. 144). But he did not reread for that would have killed him, he wouldn’t “dare” and feared his response. Only dipping in to refresh memory — “it was as if the characters had remained dormant in the subconscious waiting for the word.”

Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) and George (Ralph Bates): Elizabeth in the films presented successfully as far more nervous, unsure of herself than the reader might realize; George is more petulant, less fierce and hawk-like, but just as domineering

The “first hundred pages [were] like breaking sound barrier.” And it was a comparatively “non-profit making activity,” His modern novels did much better and appealed to Hitchcock and others. Of course now TV changed all that (pp. 153-163).

I can confirm that the opening section of Black Moon does seem more impersonal than anything in the Poldark series before or since (after that first hundred pages or so). Twenty years has gone by. And Graham is feeling it. There is a note which reminds me of Austen’s prefacing her Northanger Abbey – she is uncomfortable because 13 years have passed since she wrote the original version of NA. Well, Graham is aware and says 20 years have passed and he is feeling it; he has experienced much since. Further, he is aware that he stopped in an unusual or strange. He left off his Warleggan in a scene where Ross and Demelza are not quite reconciled, as he puts it here, “they were trying to recover from a near-mortal wound and they were trying to reassure themselves. The quieter levels of absolute trust which had existed before had not been regained (Black Moon, p. 27).

The opening embrace of Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) (second series)

So he has a little trouble getting into it I thought. He worried that too much experience had gone by and he had lost the feel, having written and lived so much since, but he says he had a need to return. “Sometimes the totally unexpected occurs, and one day, for no discoverable reason, it became necessary for me to see what happened to these people after Christmas night, 1793. I became very preoccupied with finding out, and it appealed to me, rightly or wrongly, that to return to an old mood was as much of a challenge as creating a new one. The Black Moon is the result.”

Tellingly, Black Moon begins with the Warleggans and not just with George (Ross’s enemy) but switches quickly to George’s father, Nicolas: in Ross Poldark he also began with an older man, Joshua, Ross’s father, as he lays dying, and once again proceed to remember, recreate a world from the older generational perspectives even if what we have is the ironical incident of the birth of Valetine Warleggan (the child who resulted from Ross’s night in bed with Elizabeth).

Really he creates anew, I noticed that with Book 4 the whole world is filling out (as with Trollope’s Dr Thorne, the third Barsetshire book is the first one to have a consistently filled out map), so now we have our first genealogical tress. Not quite persuasive because years of the same generation often don’t match and especially before the 20th century. Gradually Black Moon comes alive, the poetry starts up again, as we enter Demelza’s thoughts in Chapter 2, when Ross comes home and we read Caroline’s letter to them about the Warleggan christening. I’ll write more about Black Moon when I’ve finished the book.

Bronze Age, neolithic tomb, 1700-1500 BC

These neolithic stones in a Cornwall bay are not far from the house Graham says he had in his mind for Trenwith. It’s a great hurt for Ross the way the Warleggans have taken Trenwith and a great cause for exultation in George.

NB: By the time of the writing of Poldark’s Cornwall (1983), Graham had added The Stranger from the Sea (1981), The Miller’s Dance (1982) and was probably at work on The Loving Cup (published 1984). Only The Stranger from the Sea was ever filmed, a 1995-96 attempt which received such hostile resentment that no film has been made since.


Port Isaac Harbour, filmed in the first season

Poldark’s Cornwall ends with Graham’s comments on the film series. He intensely disliked the first four episodes of the first series — so he differed from the commonalty, for from the outset this series was spectacularly popular. He suggests that as the film-makers went along they did better from his standpoint which was to convey his meaning and his sense of the era. One of the Poldark writers never read any of Graham’s books which did irritate and showed in his episode.

He was strongly involved and consulted for the second series. e first remarks on the procedure of having different directors and writers for individual episodes, basically to keep to the schedule. He also did have some sharp disagreements at first when he came aboard — just as Robin Ellis said he did (in his valuable Making Poldark), he did, but compromises won out — as too much money was at stake and careers too. He had not finished his Angry Tide the last book of the series to be adapted by the time the second series started — one can see how he did return to these novels (no matter what he says) something under the gun.

There was talk of a third year and central actors were ready to do it again, but the problem was Graham had not written the books as yet :). He balked at this kind of forced and contrived book making. If one looks, one finds 4 and 3 years between these books and once 20; only the first two and the last three but one came out every two years (which is the schedule asked of commercial writers if they want to keep their name before the public). So he declined, “apart from the public, it would somehow have been letting down the fictional people about whom I have come to care so much.”

Quin Cottage, Port Quin, used for Blamey’s house


Houses off Port Quin

The book’s coda or postscript contains Graham’s admission he has made the characters and books more “in the sun” than “shadow” and perhaps they have been less respectable because of this. He did this out of his experience of life. He’s known sadness and disappointment, but on the whole sees a mixed skein. Saying this though his tone is melancholy, retreating, quiet, and the last lines quote Catullus famous sonnet to his dead brother, about which recently Anne Carson has produced a moving translation and book. Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale

Through foreign seas and over foreign lands,
Brother, to your sad graveside I have come
To lay the gifts of death with my own hands
And speak, too late, some last words to your dumb,
Unanswering dust. Poor brother, who was torn
Brutally from me by ill fortune, take
All I can give you now-these few forlorn
Offerings made for ancient custom’s sake
And wet with a brother’s tears. There’ll be no other
Meeting; and so hail and farewell, my brother.
Translation by James Michie

“But next summer perhaps the sun will be shining again.”

And thus the book ends.

Trevalls Porth, Bawden Rock

The above the place of many scenes between Ross and Demelza (the apocalyptic close of Series 1, wholly invented for TV) and Drake and Mowena (Kevin McNally and Jane Wymanfrom Black Moon, about which more soon):


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Pool, Villa D’Este, Tivoli, from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens

Dear friends and readers,

Over the month of August on Trollope19thCStudies a very few of us read Henry James’s Roderick Hudson, if not James’s first novel, his earliest in print and still read. I had not read it since I was in my early thirties when I probably read it naively as all I had to go on was (quoting Dean Flowers on the vast superiority of the recent 2 volume biography of James by Sheldon Novick) “the suave sterilities” and evasive misleading generalities of Leon Edel. Since getting on the Net in the mid-1990s, and participating in a Henry James listserv community, coming across and reading Colm Toibin’s The Master and other essays on James, and simply growing up into candour at long last, I’ve become aware of how central to James’s oeuvre is his homosexuality. Still, I was astonished when I was confronted with this frank text, not just for its time and place (homosexuality was still a seriously prosecutable crime, and led to harassment and blackmail by the unscrupulous, as described by J. M. Forster), but for James himself. How it leaps out at us.

At first I thought it might make Roderick Hudson a clearer book than any other James published, but soon discovered that since James didn’t have the courage to build his plot-design around his pair of potential lovers, Roderick Hudson and Rowland Mallet, but rather created an enfeebled version of the conventional courtship and thwarted marriage story of Victorian novels. Still what he has left us with is valuable: a partly hidden because not coped-with story of the howling anguish of a life of a man made to feel what is natural to him is profoundly sick.

To summarize the story: it is ostensibly the story of Roderick Hudson, a young artist who given money to free himself of his boring job and repressive family by the rich idle gentleman, Rowland Mallet, goes to Europe to fulfill his gift. This after he engages himself to Mary Garland, a supposedly super-innocent good young woman (this characterization is part of the flaws of the book). Once in Europe (Italy to be specific) he finds a corrupt society (debauched offstage), most people unable to appreciate fine subtle visions in art (and certainly his kinky statues of beautiful naked young men), encounters Christina Light, the unacknowledged bastard daughter of a ruthless mercenary mother, Mrs Light, and biological father discreetly living off her (Giacosa). Like Roderick, Christina is forced to make a decision (marry a dull prince) which will prevent her ever from having a fulfilled inner life. We are asked to believe they are in love. The real thwarted lover is Rowland Mallet who harasses Roderick to live a compromised existence, invited Mary Garland and Roderick’s ludicrously child-like mother to Italy to follow him, Rowland himself said to be in love with Mary. Driven and angry, depressed, and not knowing how to live out what he is, Roderick throws himself or falls off a cliff.

At the same time or just before reading and posting about this book we had rapidly and briefly read and posted about Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Martin Scorcese’s film adaptation.

Newland Archer (Cecil Day Lewis) and Ellen Olsenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Scorcese’s Age of Innocence (they could stand in a types for a film of the story Roderick and Christina Light)

Not unexpectedly (given the close friendship of James and Wharton and the known parallels of their work and shared milieu), we found the same moral design in both this book and film: a hero and heroine, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, forced to deny their love for one another because she was a divorce (abused by her husband) and he is pressured into marrying a supposedly innocent but manipulating controlling woman, May Weyland. Wharton’s book ostensibly justifies Archer’s throwing away of his and Ellen’s precious possibility while Scorcese’s film delineates Archer as spending his life as a lost depressive. (For more on this book and film see the comments to this blog.)

Susan Fraiman’s Unbecoming Women, a study of novels of female development sheds unexpected light on Roderick Hudson. One of the chapters is on the humiliation of Elizabeth Bennet. The gothic may be seen as a special or strong instance of such novels I’d say (and it’s no coincidence that Fraiman edited the Norton edition of Northanger Abbey). Novels of female development and female gothics differ from novels of male development and male gothics strongly: men are self-fashioning, travel, gain integration into the world (in gothics they are outcast and exiled); women have a vexed embattled time where they are pushed into conforming and punished when they don’t, all the while driven not really to conform in order to survive.

Now (as we shall see) Roderick Hudson; he is embattled and being pushed to do what he doesn’t want to, be a heterosexual conventional male. And destroys himself or is destroyed (depending on how you look at this).

What follows are a selection of parts of my and other people’s postings as we read the book over a few summer weeks.


John Singer Sergeant, In the Medici Villa, 1907 (the cover illustration for a 1970s reprint of the New York edition of Roderick Hudson).

Chapters 1-3:

What struck me is the homosexuality: how it leaps out at one. Roderick Hudson’s statue of the beautiful young (ripe, luscious, athletic, choose what words seem to you delectable) male water-drinker and how Rowland Mallet can’t resist it. In later books this kind of origination and temperature is marginalized.

Robin Ellis playing such a character, Robert Action in an early Merchant-Ivory-Jhabala Europeans (like Dan Steevens who also played a gay male in Line of Beauty, Ellis played Edward Ferrars in film adaptations of Sense and Sensibility)

“‘The cup is knowledge, pleasure, experience, anything of that kind.’
‘Then he’s drinking very deep,’ said Rowland (Ch 2, p 27, Houghton Mifflin 1977 edition, introd. Edel)

Rowland’s attraction to Roderick is contrasted to the sexless feeling of of Rowland Mallet with his cousin-in-law — suitably distanced in kin and later Roderick with Mary Garland. Again in later books this kind of duo pair will be presented as themselves somehow embroiled. It’s franker here. Later in his life James will have more acquaintance in Europe and people to model characters on. I wondered how much this cousin and American mother reflect either James’s mother or his brother’s wife (about whom recently a book has been written).

Directly parallelling (or contrasting) to Wharton’s Age of Innocence, as Archer is pressured into conforming to his society to live a life of ease and convenience on his wife’s money and amid a respectable money-making firm, Hudson has to fight his family and mother to avoid going into the family business and become an artist. His brother has died in the war — more autobiography. Two of the James’ brothers fought in the civil war and (as I recall) it shattered at least one of them). Some guilt here and remembrance. There is sympathy for Hudson’s mother.

The usual tired ostensibly plot-design of opposition of European as knowing, sophisticated culture and American as innocent, repressed, philistine is put before us. Hudson must go to Europe to learn his art.


Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan in Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady) as the repressed gay male who gives a fortune to the protagonist; Touchett’s living vicariously is excused by his illness, and he is a much kinder figure than the strait-laced blaming Rowland Mallet

Chapters 3-5:

Linda R put it this way: “Only one line really summarizes the action of these chapters as Ellen describes them.

“This is what we’ve got here: one proto-gay man gives the other a forture, setshim free, and sends him off to dangerous places.”

To me what gives James his peculiar stance is the intersection of his homosexual or gay stance with this dual perspective found in Wharton: conformity and wealth, surface respectability (based on hypocrisy) and ease and convenience versus self-fulfillment, precarious (very) independence and living out one’s truth insofar as this is permitted socially. Far more than in Wharton James shows us a strong retreat and critique in both American and European characters — and, partly because of inner conflict and pressure by the conformist characters, a persistent disaster course taken by the central presence where the central character kills himself or dies (in the case of The American the heroine opts out totally), or (just as bad) somehow does not involve himself in life, remains outside and terribly a loser because of this or stays with a decision that means death-in-life (Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady). The parallel books are Daisy Miller say, many of the short stories, “The Beast in the Jungle,” Wings of the Dove (disaster for the heroine), most strongly The Ambassadors (Strether).

The next chapters occurring in the US include satires on the Amercan Strikers at the same time as the middle class respectable characters’ cold response and pragmaticism is acknowledged as prudent.

Another parallel I see with other novels by James is the giving of a character a fortune or some gift which frees him or her, and ends up ambiguous. At the opening of Portrait of a Lady Ralph Touchett enables Isabel to have a fortune. As those who have seen the movie know, this is what does her in since she becomes prey to Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.

This is what we’ve got here: one proto-gay man gives the other a forture, sets him free, and sends him off to dangerous places.

I do love the exquisitely beautiful descriptions of places; James’s prose is a delight — he’s a wonderful travel writer.

For those who might be bored and the book seems effete let’s say — like Forster’s Passage to India the tea- picnic- scenes will explode, and the book does end in the imagination of disaster that James says his books are often about (in his introduction to Turn of the Screw). So plug on, things will get interesting. I remembered the ending yesterday as I was reading but won’t give it away for I forget how we get to it


Henry James as a young man, photo

Chapters 4-6:

I wrote this in response to people who did not want to take into account what we know of James’s life:

As to James’s homosexuality, I can’t pretend myself not to have read several biographies which simply say he was. The question is whether he was a closet (not practicing gay) or quietly semi-active one — he has letters of correspondence with a few young men which show intense affection and sensuality and they visited and lived with him a couple of times. Colm Toibin’s great fictional biography, The Master, dwells on these incidents.

The old “school” — Leon Edel with his magnficent 5 volume biography took the tack that James was a closet gay, never practiced. This is in accordance with strong reluctance to tell or admit to hard truths — they are seen in Genlis studies I’m just now doing where still two children she had by Orleans are said to be adopted, on the basis of ludicrous stories. Of course we don’t have evidence, if for no other reason than in James’s era he was in danger of arrest. Sodomy was a crime and blackmail was a very bad problem for men. Forster talks about this and didn’t publish Maurice until late in life. The world seems to be filled with people who won’t believe someone had transgressive sex of any kind or an illegitimate child by someone unless we have photographic or DNA evidence.

The recent writers and biographers are divided as to what James’s private life was. Mostly they remain discreet, and I this morning have an article to share with people if they are interests: Michelle Mendellson: “Homosociality and Aesthetic Theory in Roderick Hudson.” If anyone would like to read this, let me know and I can send it separately. Not only can we not search our archives anymore, but we cannot put essays in our files. Mendellson is discreet, because the novel is, and what we have are not two male open lovers, but two male loving friends. She is also protecting her career; Rictor Norton’s two histories of homosexuality, one on the 18th century is similarly discreet in its terminology (I forget their titles, but one is about Mollies in the 18th century).

I’d say that Mary Garland is a kind of convenient cover story: she stands for “innocence” in the US way and the values of keeping to a job, a business, obeying and staying with the family which Roderick needs to break away from to even practice his art. Read with the grain one could say Rowland’s upset about the engagement is as much from his love of Roderick as his supposed yearning for Mary.

LIterary criticism today mostly joins the old themes of Europe versus America with a group of new ones. The book I most recommend (though it’s hard reading) is Eva Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet which has a long section on James. She, among others, regard him as the first writer in English to treat homosexuality almost at all, and certainly with sympathetic imagination, understanding, and as central to his particular repeated story: which is, as in Rowland Hudson, the man who doesn’t engage in life because the terms on which it’s offered, he doesn’t want at all.

I like Azar Nafisi’s long chapter on James in her Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I summarized on my blog, Reveries under the Sign of Austen: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Parts 3 & 4: Austen and James. Nafisi presents herself as an “internal exile” too, refusing to act for ease and convenience; her book is compromised badly because she never admits the revolution in Iran had real economic and social causes (she is utterly pro-capitalist, American) and may be likened to the memoirs of upper class French women about the 1790s, but unlike most of them she analyzes her situation and makes these older books’s ordeals parallel to say someone who refuses kowtow to whatever regime is in charge at this particular moment.

For my part the homosexuailty or sociality leapt out at me. Why? Because I’ve read lots of middle and later James and thought about them. Because in the later books such a relationship is marginalized, and the characters who are loving men are found on the margins or as sheer observers not involved in life and often are impugned in various ways. The characters who indulge quietly live apart as drones (in The Wings of the Dove there is a striking character of this type). There’s a self-hatred going in on James’s depiction of Winterbourne, a deep depression in his depiction of Strether.

So it’s startling and brave and he didn’t do this again in quite this way. This is also his (to me) book about hope lost. I’ve gotten up to Chapter 7 where Rowland and Roderick part. Roderick is beginning to lose his great intensity of idealistic belief, and it’s shattering him.

“Standing in his place as the coach rolled away, he looked back at his friend lingering by the roadside. A great snow mountain behind Roderick was beginning to turn pink in the sunset. The slim and straight young figure waved its hat with a sort of mocking solemnity … ” (p. 129).

It’s poignant, pathetic. I am as taken and interested in Roderick as Rowland. It’s true we are in Rowland’s consciousness much more, or most of the time, but this story of a young person who goes abroad to get in touch with finer art, profound positive attitudes towards the imagination which makes it central to life moves me.

I went to the UK to get away, and just the other day wrote on Women Writers Through the Ages At Yahoo about my first moments coming up to Europe:

When I first came to England and it was just to be for the year, among the first books I read was James’s Golden Bowl. I remember the copy, remember reading it on the train: grey Penguin. I was advised to read Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (about the north) which I duly did. But for me the memory which counts, Fran and all, is one I have seen analogies in since for Americans abroad. I felt I was coming home. I was thrilled to see those white cliffs of Dover as our boat came up the channel. The Channel was green that day, the sun sparkled. I had been 12 days at sea. It remains with me. There are travel books by Americans (James is one) registering just the same unreal or imaginative feeling.

One reason I love James is his partial rejection of the US and its philistinism. I love his travel books where he is the American seeking culture and an identity to be at home in.

In his books we find again and again his characters do not find an identity. And in Chapter 6 the characters we are introduced to while far more interesting because they are leading genuinely individualistic lives (fulfilling their appetites to some extent) are also sordid in ways the folks back home are not. They prey on one anther desperately to make some money which is scarce for them all. The painter, Sam Singleton has had to change his pictures to sell them and his compromise shames him.

Roderick we are to understand sees what is in front of him. He begins to lose that idealistic spirit which was enabling him to work so “beautifully” as it’s put. One Rowland no longer has: Rowland sees the many sides to life in Europe and when he says why should Roderick not have a “lick” at them, he is using a slightly lascivious term for the experience of Europeans. Sedgwick calls this kind of thing covert language in her epistemology of the closet.

I do have a real criticism of the book so far; it’s curiously empty. James speaks in such general hesitant terms about art, much of the talk lacks content, specific content about what makes this or that statue so nice. It’s all airy kinds of orgastic talk intermingled with ironic underminings by the disillusioned characters (say the art dealer Gloriani). While James is bolder about homosexuality in this book than he will be later, he is unwilling to be bold about what it is that makes Roderick’s art so vivid and alive, so “fresh” and innovative (to use a modern term).


An illustration for an 1890s edition of James’s Ambassadors (by Coburn)

Chapter 7-9: Christina Light who becomes a recurring character

Chapter 7 finds Roderick going to pot: in a vague kind of airy way we are given to understand he becomes debauched: gambling, perhaps drinking and sex. The sex is suggested so diffidently (I feel) because what James has in mind is homosexual sex, but no matter, the point is he stops serious work. He overspends. He is losing his beauty, fine spirit, and (we worry) wearing out his gifts. We see how susceptible he is to other influences. Not a strong character and does not augur well.

Rowland comes to meet him, they return to Rome and he does regenerate, and begin work again. At the end of Chapter 7, beginning Chapter 8 they meet a trio who we saw at a distance before the summer, a particularly vivid sensual and slightly campy portrait (reminding me of Sondheim’s way of sending up upper class types) reappears: an apparently down-at-heels cavalier servente cum-lover, Giacosa, Italian fallen on hard time; the big lady he is attached to (like a dog is the feel or the poodle the lady’s daughter has on a chain), Mrs Light and the beautiful daughter, Miss Light.

Miss Light is an American by ultimate origin though brought up in Europe, super-beautiful and supplants in her beauty and more alert, unconventional character, Mary Garland. Roderick has no interest in Mary for real; Rowland thinks about how he went for her because she was there. Roderick suggests at Rowland’s nagging what do you mean to do about Mary, they send for her and Roderick’s mother (with whom Mary Lives), but Rowland is not sure this will be a comfortable (or successful) time for any of them. We have two letters, one by mary and one by Mrs Hudson to remind us of their supposed innocence. This is such a curious idea James has — how does he define innocence: it’s seems to be more than sexual, something about loyalty and spending your time making money as a man or staying home with family as a woman. It’s very superficial if you think about what goes on in businesses and families. Wharton’s “Afterwards” shows the cutthroat amoral nature of business and no one needs to be told that repression of the surface does not make for innocence.

The treatment of innocence is for me a flaw in the book — not thought out, not real. Roderick had begun to make a louche sexy statue which projects something that embarrasses Rowland. It’s debauched? Again I see here a self-hatred and intense discomfort with sexuality that is not “wholesome.” But then Roderick makes a bust of Christina and is retrieving himself. The statue is so realistic, beautiful and yet not disturbing we are told.

But wait. Let’s look and pay attention to Christina. What interested me though is Christina Light — the history of her grandmother and mother, and herself. Why? She will become the Princess Cassamassima. We will see her with Hyacinth Robinson, and we did read that book on this list several years ago, at least two of us, myself and Angela and two others at the time. Perhaps people will remember it: a political book. On p. 186 James describes Christina as “a complex wilful passionate creature who might easily draw down a too confiding spirit into some strange underworld of unworthy sacrifice.” She is described as possbily “preying” on “the faith of victim” (types). This is just what happens books later: the Princess takes over Hyacinth, in type very like Roderick only older and susceptible to political idealism and she causes his destruction.

Her background is not airy-empty quite. Her grandmother was a Miss Savage, daughter of a miserably failed American painter, depressed with horrible wife (we are told) an English actress who beat Savage with his stick. She pushed him to paint, got him customers, bullied him, and then ran away with an English Lord. He died in an asylum. Her daughter, our Mrs Light, handsome, married an American consul, mild, a gentleman and he was drowned 3 years later. Since then she has led a ratty kind of amoral life, her surprizing variety of bonnets and men in her train tells the tale of paying lovers. Giacosa began to hang in there then.

And under this woman’s aegis has Christina grown up, been educated. A lawsuit which was triumphant brought in money at the last, and now she makes a show in Florence (pp161-65). She’s after a Prince for her daughter.

She gets him and it’s not exactly happiness for Christina who we also meet in The American in a Jamesian reclusive phase.

What we see here is not just that a character recurs but in their beginning is their end. One can trace the same kind of inherent development from the beginning in a few of Trollope’s characters in Barsetshire (Josiah Crawley) and Pallisers (Lady Glencora) but many are changed.

I can see how Christina could be the child in The Awkward Age.

Rewind: how is it this child of this woman can produce in Roderick this ethically beautiful statue?

There are problems in this early text, things James has not at all come to terms with in himself.


Veduta della Grotta, St. Kesian (1801, picturesque-sublime print)

Chapters 11-14: art & betrayals; family & suicide; departure

I really enjoyed these chapters early in the dawn hours this morning. Finally the book is totally coming alive for me. It has taken time for James to build up his situation to the boiling or intensely troubled point so that our two central characters (as it’s emerging), Roderick Hudson and Christina Light, lovers who’d like to have a liaison and more, though hard to say what given the pressure she’s under and responds to to marry the stupid dull but thoroughly rich and socially conventional prince, and the pressure he feels to remain respectable, and if not return to Mary Garland, at least do sufficient justice to her to tell her why and let her down easy. It appears he cannot bear even to think of her. There’s a passage uttered by Christina where she articulates his betrayal and described how he is stifling remembrance of what he promised that I applied to Ross Poldark in Warleggan as he sat and thought about (but could not article) a more striking and active betrayal (he rapes an ex-lover who is now about to betray him and marry his enemy and then returns to his wife who unlike Hudson he has no intention of betraying for this erotic attachment). The passage with its compassion and humanity and insight (Ch 13, p 262) is the best thing uttered in the book thus far in the sense of high ethical understanding, and it shows that however “vampiric” (the word is used) Christina’s effect on Roderick is, she could be otherwise were the world to let her. Of course too as her mother and father (Giocosa is clearly her father) tell him if she marries the Prince it’s because she wants those riches, that security, those luxuries.

Chapter 11 is a debate, dialogue on genius. Roderick defends the idea that a genius in order to fulfill his gifts must be allowed to break conventions – which means hurt other people, and we can see as he’s talking to Rowland, live off them. This is an old debate whose terms are most brilliantly set forth in Diderot’s Rameau’s nephew. I’m afraid Roderick is in the position of the louche lousy nephew, but we are not to reject him as Rowland doesn’t, we see he does want to create seriously and there are lines that show James is thinking of himself, his life choices as he enacts Roderick. Of course why not compromise like Sam with his landscapes. Roderick does and he finds himself writhing with frustration as he has to sit with Mr Leavenworth for whom he is making something inferior because it flatters and pleases him and the old man is so dense the darts Roderick cannot resist never reach him.

Chapters 12-14 gives us Christina’s parents giving Rowland their views of Christina. Mrs Light finds ‘the radical talk’ we hear all the time ‘deadful (p. 253

Then another debate between Rowland and Roderick this time over Roderick’s future and how Mary Garland is waiting. We are asked to believe Rowland loves Mary and that’s part of his drive, but it is not felt in the text at all. I suppose nowadays we’d have Rowland pursuing Roderick himself :). We do see how Roderick is beginning to despise himself (“weak as a cat”) both for compromising and not compromising, for betraying and not betraying and these “squalid dark streets” that Rome really is for most people.

She tells the prince she does not laugh at him, oh no, she takes him seriously 9237), and there’s a little piece of gothicism, an imagination of being buried alive that is chilling.

A high point. The imagination of disaster James called it. Roderick comes near to committing suicide to make a gesture to Christina. He and she have been meeting it seems (not so secretly because they can’t) and now are in the ruins of the Travestere. Their conversation is poignant and bitter as they present the different points of view of whether to have an affair, if she should marry this prince, who she is (her parents and her background she moans over). They don’t come to a resolution and to prove his devotion to her and over a dark flower she sees on a ruined wall and wants (p. 263). She needles him: “Fancy feeling oneself ground in the mind of a third-rate talent.” He can’t take it any more. He should like to hear of a person offering him a career (p. 263) but this is unlikely, Roderick almost climbs high on it and would have fallen to his death. Rowland is overhearing this dialogue and leaps to save him. He is shaken. So too Christina who Rowland meets separately and urges to leave Roderick alone. She does, she flees, leaving a short letter of adieu.

I was reminded of Winston Graham’s Poldark again when Roderick says Christina will “wipe up her feet with him:’ it was what Ross was afraid an upper class woman (modelled on the 18th century gay lady of plays), Caroline Penvenen would do to the earnest idealistic doctor, Enys; it turns out she doesn’t and wouldn’t. The two women characters are archetypal parallels.

Linda responded with a set of quotations and detailed analysis of the debate on the rights of the artist:

I thought Chapter 11, which is comprised mainly of dialogue between the two main characters (oh, why did James give them both names beginning with “RO”?) to be quite interesting. Here James also reflects on the trials of life as an artist–perhaps his own trials.

The conversation in chapter 11 is as intimate here as any we find in the book. It delineates their relationship more clearly than at any other point that I’ve read so far. Rowland has told Miss Light of Roderick’s engagement. It leads to a conversation where Roderick implies Rowland is meddlesome.

“There had been from the first no protestations of friendship on either side, but Rowland had implicitly offered everything that belongs to friendship, and Roderick had to every appearance as deliberately accepted it.” We gather from this that the friendship is more one-sided than Rowland had imagined. Or at least that Roderick has let him down.

At one point he says, “You’re the best man in the world. Only…you don’t understand me.”

Rownland reflects: “Genius was priceless, beneficent, divine, but it was also at its hours capricious, sister, cruel; and natures ridden by it, accordingly, were alternately very enviable and very helpless.”

It goes on. They are talking at one point of inspiration or the lack of it.
Roderick says, “It’s worse out here than in Rome…for here I’m face to face with the dead blank of my mind.There I couldn’t think of anything either, but there I found things that helped me to live without thought.”

Rowland reflects: “This was as free a renewed tribute to forbidden fruit as could have hoped to pass; it seemed indeed to Rowland surprisingly free–”

It is not clear to what “forbidden fruit” refers. The implication is that it is sexual. One might say that for James this was unusually frank, also.

They go on to discuss other aspects of an artist’s lot. Rowland seem to discourage the connection with Miss Light He suggests that in his
“speculation”, Roderick may come to grief artistically.

Roderick rejoins:

“Well, then, I must take life as it comes–I can’t always be arranging grand bargains. If I’m to fizzle out, the sooner I know it the better.”

Curious word–“fizzle”–to use regarding an artistic gift. It comes up again a few pages later.

Roderick expounds on the nature of genius.

“The whole matter of genius is a mystery. It bloweth where it listeth, and we know nothing of its mechanism. If it gets out of order, we can’t mend it; if it breaks down, we can’t set it going again. We must let it choose ts own pace and hold our breath lest it should lose its balance. It’s dealt out in different doses, in big cups and little, and when you’ve consumed your portion it’s as naif to ask for more…”

“What am I, what are the best of us, but a desperate experiment? Do I more or less idiotically succeed–do I more or less sublimely fail? I seem to myself to be that last circumstance it depends on. I’m prepared, at any rate, for a fizzle. It won’t be a tragedy, simply because I shan’t assist at it. The end of my work shall be the end of my life.”

It is a grand speech. Rowland reflects on his friend’s outpouring with less eloquence. We may imagine that in Roderick’s summary, we have the opinions of James on the nature of artistic genius.

I haven’t half done the chapter justice, but I wanted to bring up some of its outstanding points of interest.


Bob Lapides had suggested that Rowland and Roderick were two aspects of the same self, so I responded to his and Linda’s:

I enjoyed Linda’s posting on this chapter very much, for the me question seemed to fall down also on the artist’s assertion that conventions get in his way so he does not have to be responsible to other people in the way non-artists do. Thus Roderick could pick up and then drop Mary Garland because she fed and now gets in the way of his spirit. Diderot’s famous novella Rameau’s Nephew both accepts and argues against this as self-serving and cruel.

When I got to the chapters where Roderick is interacting with Christina, and she needles him, manipulates him and it seems he would have literally jumped off a cliff for her, I felt we were to make a parallel. She is not excused for this behavior nor ought Roderick to be for his.

Roderick Hudson, Chs 11-14: Roderick acts out for Rowland, Christina a Newland Archer

If we see Rowland and Roderick as two aspects of James, that does somewhat flatten out the anguish of the book, which I suggest we are to sympathize with. Our heroine is not Mary Garland; she disappears; it’s Christina Light. Our heroes are neither the businessmen at home nor the social elite in Italy, France and England. These are the enemies of promise.

I offered the article by Mendelssohn because not only does she not skirt the issue of homosexuality/sociality, but she reads the novel in a way that makes sense of the two figures and the plot-design. I agree with her that Rowland is a kind of failed flaneur who has hired, bought, Roderick to act out what he cannot; Rowland can evade his morality and work ethic through what Roderick does. We are told Roderick does lots of stuff offstage that we are not told about — that’s one problem with other of James’s novels too. The insidious morality of the imagined audience James has to write too makes for this, and under it Rowland becomes a voyeur; Roderick may seem to be beating his wings against a wall (like many a poet in 19th century poetry from Shelley on and there’s a famous metaphor about this in the later 19th century French aesthetes and Baudelaire), but he tries, and if she’d have him, he might marry Christina. (In a more recent novel, they’d have already tried a liaison and the scene in the Coliseum about their despair of having any really fulfilled future, could take place in ed.) It is interesting we are asked to see the statue of Christina as peculiarly ethical. She has an honesty neither Rowland nor Roderick attempt

The dialogue where Roderick comes out for the right of an artist to live amorally, disregard other people’s needs around him, is in the context of a world where his high art is not understood or wanted. Nafisi talks about the nobility of the “perfectly equipped failure” in James: in the worlds they are in, success is a mark of lowness or stupidity in your nature. The refusal to follow conventions and seek success as it’s understood (like marrying the stupid prince for his name, wealthy, respectability — which turns out to be the shallow admiration of passing people, a point James makes) is described thus by Maria Gosprey to the ultimate type of this male character (Strether): “Thank goodness, you’re a failure — it’s why I so distinguish you! Anything else to-day is too hideous. Look about you — look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honour? …”
The gay male whose sexuality is normal, natural (as is bisexuality) is a perfect type for alienation from a society which has constructed him as not existing in the first place or. In the same passage from Ambassadors (quoted by Nafisi on p 201), Maria says further: “our realities is what has brought us together. We’re beaten brothers in arms.”

So the realities of Christina brings her to these two alienated men.

The thing about this novel I like is that many of the failures in it are awful too: it shows failure can be the result of wrong cruel inhumane mercenary ideals: we see this in Christina’s parents who are pressuring her too to follow conventions. She’s a kind of Newland Archer who will obey the world, only she will not justify it by delusions he puts forth about the “innocence” of those who want others to give up their lives to their ease and convenience.

This directly connects to us in just the way Wharton’s novel does only it goes to the quick in ways hers evades utterly.


L. Luisa Vidal, untitled (1890)

Chapters 15-18:

I’m back from Queens, NYC (see my “Return to Queens College” at Reveries under the Sign of Austen). On the way there I read the opening sections of James’s The Turn of the Screw, apparently a 1898 text, and when I rose this morning 3 and into fourth more chapters of Roderick Hudson. Then I read Linda’s typed out note (thank you, Linda), and realized I’m reading either the 1879 or 1907 latest revision of Roderick Hudson. I also have James’s preface (as well as Edel’s for this edtion). It may be this 1879 (or perhaps 1907) Roderick Hudson is a much revised book, but it is still eons away from The Turn of the Screw. There is a kind of mocking poetry to every sentence of the Turn of the Screw, a way the sentences have of backtracking and also talking about what they mean to say rather than quite saying it or as well as saying it. In comparison RH even in this later version is direct with the sentences meaning what they say directly, not playing at their meaning sentence by sentence.

The nameless governess (Jodhi May) in Nick Dear’s 1999 Turn of the Screw on her way to the interview with her prospective employer

On first blush one might say that the later book, meaning The Turn of the Screw, is strong poetry while the earlier, Roderick Hudson, is without the lexical ironies James left us to pick up through the ironies of the story and our own adult intelligences and sensibilities. And I do think that myself. But reading The Turn of the Screw (as I was) with an eye to remembering I’m going to assign this to students, I know I’m glad I’m showing one of the films, for many of them will find this later poetry very irritating, a waste of their time — rather like Mr Leavenworth in the novel would. They will not understand what meaning is added — quite like Roderick’s mother fails to understand what she is seeing. I read (as a comparison) also the opening of The Hound of the Baskervilles: in comparison, it’s silly stuff but it is direct and would seem very little self-indulgent (except for the occasional joke to the reader).

These chapters continue our story with Roderick supposedly going down down down. I do wish we were told what he’s doing offstage with these disreputable people. We never even hear their names. The princess has allowed herself to be pressured into an engagement. Alas Rowland still thinks of her as contamination and has brought Mary Garland and the mother to bear down on Roderick. After dropping Roderick for a while (though I suppose the money kept coming), Rowland had thought (we are told this was the devil in him) of enabling, pushing Roderick into the suicide, destruction he was headed for.

How I wonder? How would he have done this? We are not told.

But no, instead he will bring him back by sending the good mother and wise virgin, Mary.

I begin to think to myself that reading this book morally in the way of Rowland’s mind is to miss the point. I suggest the book may be read with Rowland as one of James’s dense narrators. He is missing the point altogether — and that is seen in the way he treat Christina Light as ugly, a contamination we are told, polluted.

The book shows us the spectacle of life as about doing nothing at all meaningful because you can’t. The great solemnity of the American characters (except for Christina Light) in the way they treat their emotions and how they spend their time so earnestly is the central obstacle. Madame Gandoni is closer to what is the truth of experience, with Rowland the self-complacent ass. This then is as ironically bleak a book as any of James’s, with here what makes life endurable the beauty of texts and works themselves contaminated (great word, Rowland) because they are set up with money and as symbols to impress people earnestly.

Roderick did not know how to accept what he saw and live with it, Christina by contrast is learning to.

Linda’s response:

Well, I don’t have it all worked out yet–I just think the relationships James creates deserve to be more fully explored. He is all about relationships. And yes, I agree the language of Person and others is preposterous–one has to work too hard to figure out what they are really saying–although they do suggest some interesting ideas from time to time.

Yes, I also agree James focuses on exploitation of one person by another, especially in Portrait of a Lady. I am not familiar with the Americans. But by whom is Roderick being exploited–his employer in Mass. or Christina? Christina is, of course, exploited by her mother.

Rowland is dangerously meddlesome. How can he justify it to himself? What motivates him? It is implied that he suppresses his homoerotic impulses toward Roderick. Yet we find later that Roderick has been living a flagrantly immoral life in Rome. What a slap in the face to Rowland, who must be so confused about his own sexuality by now. Not sure of what he wants or feels–but clearly he is most unhappy about Roderick’s choices.

I’d say Rowland was being idealistic in trying to maintain this relationship on a platonic level. Whether he succeeds at this or not is lost in the greater tragedy of Roderick. He continues to insist to himself and others that he is only trying to nurture Roderick’s genius, but we all suspect his interest is motivated by other considerations. So repression of one’s sexual nature would also be a theme here, although James very carefully skirts around this issue. And comes to no conclusions.

My rejoinder:

I’ve not time to explore the ideas you throw out here, so interestingly (to use a Jamesian grammar), but can’t resist the idea that Rowland is too meddlesome. I suggested here is an early version of the dense narrator we see in say Winterbourne. Now I’ll add as meddlesome he becomes a kind of Fanny Assingham you see — more subtle as Fanny is clear an ass 🙂


The Prince (Daniel Massey and Charlotte Stant (Gayle Hunnicutt) as the driven-apart pair in the 1972 BBC Golden Bowl

Chapters 18-20:

It’s devolving into a story about two young people whose families don’t want them to marry and what’s happening is the fuss occurring because the girl has broken her engagement and the boy is refusing to see his mother and bethrothed!

Christina and Mary met socially and it did not go well. Underneath all the deflecting James’ rhetoric, it seems to me that Mary was spiteful and Christina jealous and angry at the way she was despised. So Christina broke off with the dull Prince; hearing this, Roderick wrote to his mother he couldn’t bear to be around her nor Mary for a few days. It’s apparent he’s hoping for some sign from Christina so they might elope. Meanwhile both are beseiged only we don’t see the beseiging of Christina, only Roderick: by Christina’s probable biological father (the Cavaliere), by Rowland, by Mrs Light (we even have a bad mother here).

Naturally the American characters are kept away from us as innocents.

I’m reminded of how Trollope said he tried to write Miss Mackenzie without a love story, basing it on a 35 year old spinster, but after a while he caved into the paradigm.

What’s different is the angle. Most of these novels focus on the heroine and bullying scenes of her parents imposing themselves on her, her distress is put before us. Not here, and Roderick is guarded, ironic. All we get are these authority figures who have been presented to us as anything but authoritative.

What to make of it? In part, James is not much trying to throw anyone off the track, attempting to “serve up what’s wanted.” That’s why I instanced Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie. Sales were bad: here he had a plain 35 year old woman who has gotten the barest inheritance and she has (so to speak) a minimal world ahead of her. But it wasn’t selling. Plus Trollope could not think of another plot but courtship and marriage since he was determined never to show women at careers.

The heterosexual courtship plot is there because it’s popular — but note that the heroine is a bastard (cavaliere her father) so James will only pander so far. Then as now most people were heterosexual, and alas, then as now, most of these do not want to acknowledge homosexuality openly as natural. It’s worse than that, some people are filled with hatred for those whose sexual orientation is different from their own.

The unbelievable parts include the mother as so very naive. James nods in this book more than once too.

I do love James’s evocative prose. Beyond the photo I’ve put at the head of this blog, another from the beautiful photos from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens seems to capture the settings of several crisis scenes:

Villa Borghese Aesculapius Temple, again from Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens

Someone on the list had persisted in ignoring all the postings on homosexuality and wrote about how the characters didn’t make sense. He argued he was reading the novel as what he asserted was the way later 19th century readers read it. So I finally responded this way:

I suggest we don’t know how many people read the book. Reader response studies and theories show there is no such thing as a uniform reading at all. From what evidence we have then and now it’s startling how idiosyncratically people take books, how personally many read them, without regard to the author’s purpose or design of the book at all.

People might have a sceptical response to this but Sedgwick and others (Rictor Norton for 18th century studies and someone named Pat for plays) argue that people did recognize these homosocial (the favorite word) patterns and some of the coded words and motifs. It’s hard to deny Michelangelo for example in his poetry didn’t know what he was writing; the coded young man love in Shakespeare’s sonnets is similar. I think the patterns were recognized in the Renaissance among the poets, and in the Restoration again in poets and playwrights; in a biography of John Gay Nokes argues this for circles in the 18th century.

I also think James understood what he was doing and did hope for readers to understand him. You wouldn’t try to imitate the naive or conventional reader today of books or viewer of films; why try to imitate them then. The naive reader won’t see the sexual trouble between Emily and Louis Trevelyan in Trollope’s HKWHR because it’s done sotta voce, but it’s there for the reader capable of seeing it and understanding and makes that book much deeper. What’s gained by imitating naive and conventional readers & viewers? Muddle. The book probably puzzled naive and conventional readers at the time. People doing TV and film programs today address different audiences at once and so did James.

Anyone in the later end of the 18th century who had a hero or heroine who committed suicide was intensely attacked. If this is no longer so in the later 19th century, still there is not sympathy for such a central figure, and James wants sympathy for his hero. When James chooses such a hero, he knows he’s defying norms and means to. It’s not as obvious as Werther; he’s more subtle.

To me it’s like not acknowledging gravity. At one time people didn’t have a theory of gravity to explain why we stick to the earth. Now we do.

I don’t see it. Surely one reads a book to gain enriched insight for our own lives from our author as well as good intelligent emotionally decent feeling companionship and beauty and truths that are real and matter.

I don’t think the book does fail because I don’t think it’s meant to be about heterosexual love and marriage. I was more than half-ironic when I pointed out in fact we can discern Roderick and Christina as our conventional lovers who are being forced apart by her parents and his family. James does not think marriage to the prince a good solution for Christina, nor marriage between Roderick and Mary Garland a good idea. It’s a bad idea. He’s not particularly keen on marriage in this and many of his books. We are supposed to pick up the cavaliere is Christina’s father though it’s not explicit — so as not to offend. James is clearly more interested in this sordid desperate but kindly man for himself than any imposed marriage for Christina. He’s interested in the non-conventional and (I feel) finds Roderick’s mother pathetic. He reveals that Mary Garland is not so impeccable when we see her spite to Christina, her contempt for her.

It’s a novel about art and probably that central chapter which Linda talked of and I chimed in on is its center — with a debate going on about what an artist should or should not be permitted to do to make his art. I agree we don’t get a lot of description of the statues, but they are (again) very sexy (probably kinky too) and James is careful. There are several perspectives: not only the debate on what an artist has to do or be allowed to do to work his art (time is necessary, freedom) but the problem that most people are not going to appreciate what he does anyway. The patrons want conventional mediocre dull stuff. They want courtship-marriage novels one might say. So that’s why Leavenworth is there.

So there is a great irony in Roderick arguing he ought to be allowed to fulfill his gifts when we see how few will appreciate it anyway. He writhes in private after his darts fail to reach the unimpressionable Leavenworth. This is a desperate book about art in life.

I finished reading Turn of the Screw tonight. It cannot be explained or understood fully similarly. James here moves directly into unspeakable areas: the governess thinks Miles has been ejected from school for good for sexually molesting the other boys and that he learned this from Quint. Some have liked to dismiss this tale by saying the governess was mad and made it all up, except James provides a preface where he says the ghosts are there, and inside the story has the housekeeper validate some of what the governess surmises — including an affair between Miss Jessel and Quint. James wants us to empathize with the lonely repressed governess, but at the same time he actually invites us to laugh at her and the housekeeper as silly women for making such a fuss: they are ludicrous snobs and go on about how all this was “dreadfully low.” There’s an acceptance or at least acknowlegement of what conventional people regard as anathema in all this as part of nature.

To sum up, Rowland is in love with Roderick; we have a repressed homosexual love put before us. And it’s not that repressed in the sense that surely Rowland knows what Roderick is off doing when he’s debauched elsewhere: having homosexual sex. If you just see this as an indirect presentation, everything falls into place. You can also see an implicit critique of the imposition of illegimate norms on Rowland, how it leads him to meddle with others; further that this is an early instance (not quite pulled off enough) of an unreliable narrator, someone whose outlook is sadly/tragically/ inadequate. You write as if none of us had mentioned homosexuality at all.

If James allows himself only to present heterosexual enthrallment, that helps explain Christina’s vividness; but he is also very hostile to her; she represents real risk and danger and is herself wilful and would enjoy seeing others go down we are told. She’s deeply angry of course at what her life has been and now what she’s being forced into. It’s curious how James though almost perversely refuses to give us the usual scene of the girl forced by the mother or girl bullied and browbeaten by ther father (the Giacosa is her biological father).

He’s struggling to find a conventional plot he can stand to tell. Heterosexual courtship leading to marriage seems to him sheer stupidity as a central paradigm I suppose; who gives a shit? it doesn’t rule the world at all; those marrying are made to behave this way because the real stakes are money, property, leisure to enjoy these beautiful gardens and make statues.


Villa Isola Bella, from Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens

Chapters 21-26: Shedding a queer light on things

I finished the book this morning. If I say I laughed, that’s not quite true; rather the feeling when James managed to present his real feelings about his story and character was of dry sardonic ironies running through it all

For examples: Mrs Light we are told turns brutal and tells Christina the cavaliere is her father, and if Christina does not marry the prince, she, Mrs Light, will advertise this to the world. Christina apparently can’t take this shame, and quickly folds, and the marriage occurs one morning. In a later chapter we are told the Prince paid the cavaliere off at long last so he was able to return to his home city and be at peace.

Would that others have paid people off to leave them be. But no one is as sensible as this Prince (I hope if anyone reads this ever they understand I write ironically in this phrase), who however (we are told) when Rowland encounters him and Christina on a hill in Switzerland that while “what is called a well-meaning husband,” someone who “could not in the nature of things be a positively bad husband” (he won’t beat her or remove funds?), did by his conduct deprive Christina of the “sanction of relative justice” and in his countenance showed he was aware of what had happened (“profound consciousness” unlike the rhinoceros-brained Leavenworth) and showed “a record of … pride, of temper, of bigotry, of an immense heritage of more or less aggressive traditions…” — Christina is not in for a good time with this guy.

Would that Roderick, had been as lucky as this to have a mere consciousness of what someone could do and will when he gets round to it. His mother and Mary turn into leeches. One of the narrator’s remarks (and James often in this section drops all sense of Rowland) is of Mrs Hudson as “a little malevolent fairy.” Now that Roderick goes into a tizzy of extravagantly-gestured depressions, she becomes superl-oyal. Suddenly he can do no wrong. This is Austen’s Mrs Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) taken to the nth degree and not believable as a private behavior. Yes in public such a woman might blame everyone but her darling boy, but in private? no. Still this is what we are shown, and we are shown how she expects Mary to be utterly abject. And Mary is. Again there are lines by the narrator showing Mary’s steel and resentment, but she doesn’t go off.

This is where the Prince provides such as shining example to us all. I wondered if Mary lacked the money. Isn’t she after all the Victorian niece who has nowhere to turn? no job. No occupation. Trollope’s niece was carefully never given an outright allowance all the life of his wife lest the niece leave the wife.

Another ironic parallel is Sam Singleton. Before the final denouement of Switzerland, Rowland meets him and he’s as ever drawing away, but says he is being forced back to his family. Not because he lacks the money to stay, but out of some moral blackmail. Yet he does not go. Just as Mrs Hudson at one point says ever so pathetically how Roderick has told her to sell her house and give him this money to live on as long as he can, she doesn’t do that either. Fittingly then he is the one to find Roderick’s body, which however is not smashed to bits but leaves his beautiful face upwards. (Not very probable, Mr James.)

Sam doesn’t get depressed. Sam doesn’t insult his patrons the way Roderick did Mr Leavenworth. Sam doesn’t throw back the several thousands Leavenworth had at the ready to give Roderick.
Such an example to Roderick and Sam doesn’t go off half cocked to fall off mountains.

Not that others don’t try. There is an exact parallel scene of Rowland risking his life to get a flower for Mary the way Roderick wanted to for Christina. Only he being the cautious careful soul he is, doesn’t fall. She is puzzled. What did you do that for? Her best moment in the book.

Another fine moment and memorable to me occurs in the penultimate scene between Roderick and Rowland — the second to last chapter of the book. Rowland suddenly turnst to Roderick and reproaches him. Do you not see the sacrifices I have made? do you no see the self-control I practice? What do you know of anyone’s feelings but your own? Again a parallel with Austen, this time Sense and Sensibility: when Marianne discovers that Edward is engaged to Lucy and Elinor has known this for months and not complained, not gone round like she Marianne ratcheting up the depression, they have an exactly parallel scenes. Elinor reproaches Marianne for not seeing her sacrifices and her self-control and says she has felt very deeply, been hurt enough even to satisfy Marianne. All this does to Marianne is make her cry at first, but then the self-indulgent person shows she has learned her lesson at last, apologizes and says you know I was so self-destructive. Right, my dear. Not Roderick. Confronted with Rowland as an Elinor Dashwood, and the vision of himself playing the role of the self-indulgent egoist (Rowland’s apt word) Marianne-type, he is not at first aghast. He asks why Rowland didn’t tell him before and upon being given Rowland’s image of himself as this utterly good man, says “It’s like being in a bad novel.”

The best line in the book because it shed light on S&S as absurd, which because of its extravagance of presentation and insistent moralizing patterning it can be seen to be.

But Roderick falls away from this high point and in the next chapter (unlike Marianne who abjures her Willoughby in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) is chasing after Christina. Going to walk to Inverlaken or wherever she is, and being Roderick, stumbles off a mountain. We don’t know if he willed his death or not.

So now Mary and mommy go home, and Mary lives out her life by this equally egoistic woman’s side; Sam probably does, and Christina, well, as James says in his evasive obscure preface to this novel, being the one character who has reality to her, will turn up again in a later walk of life in a novel — in fact the next one, The American.

It’s curious the light Roderick sheds on other characters — for me at least. I began to see how Hamlet can be read as a homosexual hero. That’s his core problem after all. Why does he not connect to Ophelia? get thee to a nunnery. She is a Mary Garland to him. Fortinbras the macho male, as in Turn of the Screw where Quint plays a sort of Stanley Kowalsky to everyone else (the governess calls him “rough trade), so Fortinbras. With Claudius our cavaliere. Gertrude, ah, well, as Thomas McFarland says in his book no one does her sophistication and complicity justice; and there is no one near her in Roderick Hudson. We must wait for Madame Merle (only Gertrude lacks her concern for her child, or at least her ability for effective activity.

As to the preface, reading this after years have gone by, all I have read about James since and lived since too, it made me think of Orwell: “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” He says this book is “sincere” and “modest” and as such should be treated with “dignity” but patently in the following paragraphs shows the limits of this: he had “to give the image and the sense of certain things while still keeping them subordinate to his plan … to give all the sense, in a word, without all the substance …” to make “the values rich and sharp” but not give us the concrete reasons for his moral lesson. To put this in less preposterous English, he had to give the image and sense of what it was to be a bisexual artist (for Roderick in the book is bisexual as he chases after Christina on stage) as a metaphor for a homosexual one, without showing us the substance, that debauched life lived offstage and his frustration at having to hide his intense desire to live life in some other sets of relationships than that of this heterosexual biological family group.

And he didn’t manage it. He admits in the preface there’s no “verisimilitude” to the love Roderick is said to have for Mary in the first place, none in the feelings Rowland really displays and behaviors towards Mary. He evades, never speaks of Rowland’s feelings for Roderick in the private sense, only as a man giving freedom to the young artist to flourish in a controlled way. That’s where Roderick fell down on the job; he was supposed to be so much free (to do art) but no further (not to fulfill his own innermost urges and desires).

Cyril Cusack, magnificent as a Henry James displaced into the sexually bullied Bob Assingham, storyteller of the 1972 Golden Bowl


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To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to
what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept
your soul alive. — R. L. Stevenson

Our house, 1984 (Jim’s mother, me, two daughters): it has not changed all that much

Our backyard: you see Izzy’s windows last summer

Dear Friends and Readers,

Over on facebook, someone told of a long day’s struggle to order, throw away, pack, and generally empty out his parents’ home (possible so as to sell it). What exhausting work emotionally and physically. Well his words reminded me of a moving diary entry in the LRB by August Kleinzhaler where he told of his experience of selling his childhood home. Rooting up your memories, and throwing them away.

How much our houses can mean to us. I will never comprehend the lack of feeling so many people display towards their environment, their house. They fix it in accordance with “market values!” Yes, when we did renovate the above, for we did, a little (new windows, installed new appliances in the kitchen, put in airconditioning, a new heater, painted), the man doing the kitchen wanted me to have certain kinds of woodwork along the kitchen cabinets because without that it won’t resell at a higher price. I’ve repeatedly come across people who make their houses into magazine-imitative places, with rooms set up for show (thus the need for a so-called family room). They are careful to make the show rooms impersonal: keep out signs of their real loves and occupations. Rooms are carefully distinguished as to purpose. We do all things in all rooms each of us likes; the rooms are partly distinguished by which of the three of us basically dwells there.

On his last visit to our house (1987 or so) my father remarked:

“It’s getting to look like Seaman Avenue” to which Jim replied, “These things take time, Willie.”

How important memories we have and how they are made concrete and perpetual for us by their local habitation. Do others not value their memories? To understand how a house can mean explicates why the gothic uses houses to signify terror, horror, deep perversion for in these spaces the memories are anguish, sorrow, corrosive. I actually don’t have such memories here, or they are minor, didn’t dominate even when we had a bad spirit here at times, and have now been contained and I can live in these spaces at peace.

How women are taught to hate themselves: it is so common for little girls to have dollhouses. Like dolls, this kind of toy is sometimes despised, and even by mothers of daughters. I’ve known women to take away a daughter’s doll at 11. To me this is scorning one’s gender. It is partly circumstance, partly the construction of women’s lives, but also temperamentally female, to value the intangible, the inward, memory, why women are good at ghost stories. I built three dollhouses with my two daughters; we still have one large Edwardian one in Izzy’s room, shoved in a corner, gathering dust now.

I put pictures on the walls which have symbolic value for me. Scotch-tape them up. Here is my library table seen at an angle:

I’ve changed those pictures again. Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood still has pride of place though.

Much as I long to move to NYC, to sell where we live now would be erasing a 30 yr existence, and probably we’d have to sell our house as a tear-down. No one but us would value it. The thought of what I’m told I would have to do to “prepare” it for a buyer, make it attractive to a typical one is what I can’t bear to do. I hesitate to picture what would replace it even so (for this would just be the veneer) given the soulless McMansions and magaziny-looking houses that have gone up or are wrapped around other houses in my neighborhood. (One good effect of the depression is this kind of obscenity has stopped for a time.)

“Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” (Carol Shields, Swann).

A corner of the room I mostly live in, where I work and read and write.

On wompo someone asked where we literally read and write messages from and where we read them in cyberspace: I sit in my “workroom” or study in my house; it’s filled with my desk, two library tables, my husband’s desk (he sits in the living room), favorite pictures on the walls, lamps, bookcases, a closet with clothes and some of my stuff for writing or teaching. All the rooms in our house but the bathrooms and halls have two outer walls with a large window in each. So too here and I look out on a pretty old fashioned suburban scene (neighborhood built in 1949-51). The bookcases are my Austen and Trollope collections. I change the pictures on my wall as I feel like it. Pictures of friends and cats are on another wall. Poscards. On my computer Canaletto, [In front of] Northumberland House, London, a fresh fair morning, mid-century, peaceful, orderly.

Close to hand, near to heart.


By Eavan Boland (from Object Lessons in Outside History, pages 20-21, Norton, 1990)

I wonder about you: whether the blue abrasions
of daylight, falling as dusk across your page,

make you reach for the lamp. I sometimes think
I see that gesture in the way you use language.

And whether you think, as I do, that wild flowers
dried and fired on the ironstone rim of

the saucer underneath your cup are a sign of
a savage, old calligraphy: you will not have it.

The chair you use, for instance, may be cane
soaked and curled in spirals, painted white

and eloquent, or iron mesh and the table
a horizon of its own on plain, deal trestles,

bearing up unmarked, steel-cut foolscap
a whole quire of it; when you leave I know

you look at them and you love their air of
unaggressive silence as you close the door.

The early summer, its covenant, its grace,
is everywhere: even shadows have leaves.

Somewhere you are writing or have written in
a room you came to as I come to this

room with honeyed corners, the interior sunless,
the windows shut but clear so I can see

the bay windbreak, the laburnum hang fire, feel
the ache of things ending in the jasmine darkening early

I read messages mostly as emails using the gmail board, as emails on Yahoo sites, and nowadays on blogs, and facebook; once in a long while I check archives of lists online. I let the messages come in separately for four lists (my three at Yahoo ’cause I’m listowner, and Austen-l & wom-po since those listservs wreak havoc on messages). And because of all this my life is rich with friends. What matters in life is soul activity.

Hitherto, I have made it a policy to write autobiographically only on Reveries under the Sign of Austen; today I yield to temptation and begin to make my life apart from reading, movies, the arts part of this blog too, and link the two together. So last week at Reveries I wrote of The Return to Queens College: Autumn Entry and for two other examples, Christmas, 2009 into 2010 and Halloween 2009.

Our pussycat, Clarissa, aged 4 months (she is now over 2 years) sitting on Richardson’s Clarissa in our library house


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