Archive for November, 2010

The Isle of Wight, Alum Bay, UK

Dear friends and readers,

My 64th birthday! Who’d have thunk it? I never thought to last this long and really it’s an accomplishment. Millions have died much much younger. It takes nerve.

And since yesterday (a couple of days now) I’ve had the Beatles’s famous jaunty tune , “When I’m 64 …” And the line: “Will you still need me?” I mentioned this to Jim and the Isle of Wight came up as I sang another jolty ironic line: “We will scrimp and save … ” (make sure your voice goes up and becomes screetch-y at the end of the line). The Admiral rejoined, “If it’s not too dear.” Alas, ’tis. Plane fare you see. Never mind, said I; it’s overrated.

Then to Izzy this morning, “Remember going there the summer we stayed in Sussex in the Duke’s hunting lodge?” At first not, but I reminded her of that noisy bouncing boat that took us over a sort of vaporetto. And taking the bus to Winchester one day (to see from across the street the house where Jane Austen died and to go into the cathedral to see the plaque placed over where she was buried); and on another day a bus to and all about Portsmouth (with a young man as our good-natured guide at the top) and then walking on the ramparts (a Mansfield Park pilgrimage). She laughed. “Yes many houses in rows.”

Still, Fanny Price thought very highly of it …


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A press night photo (not everyone is in costume)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m just back from going to the first production of the Washington Shakespeare Company at their sparkling new theater in Arlington. Izzy and I went without the admiral who had suffered badly from a stomach virus the night before — he’s on the mend now.

It’s very much worth going to see and the second half is memorable in a new way. So: it’s thoughtful: many many scenes so carefully worked out in vividly meaningful ways both as to lots of people on stage doing emblematic gestures to the blocking, staging, costumes They mean to take the play into 21st century; as the director says, it’s not a history play anyway (as nowadays we know Shakespeare was repeating heavily shaped Tudor propaganda), and they have turned into into a dark parable about politicians — at court, in wars, personally. A determination to turn the play into an ensemble (so that, e.g., Richard’s famous opening soliloquy is spoken amid a crowd of people on stage, all doing their own thing) didn’t quite work in the 1st half, but in the 2nd, where Shakespeare’s soliloquies were given full play & individuals allowed to perform with virtuouso emotions and body language, the play came alive. The second half had lots of ritual scenes (ghosts, keening, mourning, cruelty), lots of ghastliness and neurotic grief and loss, even the obligatory torture.

Women took men’s roles and it worked for the most part, especially in Hastings’s case where an actress becomes a mother terrified for her child and came across very well. The actresses doing Lady Anne and Elizabeth were particularly superb, and Margaret, and Buckingham effective.

The new theater in Arlington is lovely. And it’s obvious how proud the actors are and how anxious to achieve a permanent status and physical place the way a few other repertoire groups in the region have (Signature, The Shakespeare Theater).

So go see it if you live anywhere near Arlington.

Journalizing: their Mary Stuart (Schiller, adapted by Oswald) is even better. I dare to say it’s perhaps one of the best things playing on the East Coast; there might be productions or dramatic art as good, but none better. See my blog on this.


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The film begins where it ends, nearly on this still both times: the last day of the existence of the plantation when it goes into a pitch of violent conflagration (Isabelle Hubbert as Maria Vial)

Dear friends and readers,

As with my blog on Stephen Frears’s (et aliae) Tamara Drew, I’m hurrying to post about this movie in a short sketch because I want to recommend the film quickly. It does not seem to be in any danger of disappearing, but thus far in my area (I mean all of DC, near Maryland and Virginia), only one movie-house is screening it. When Izzy and I arrived, the auditorium was almost full and we almost had to watch it from the second row (eyes and back pushed back against the seat to see the screen from even a minimally decent perspective), until I glimpsed 2 seats together another row back and we grabbed those.

This is not a film for the weak-minded or piously (in any direction) sentimental. It’s strong and good stuff: showing what happens when a country is driven into civil war, and the hatreds and resentments of years of oppression for the majority are allowed to emerge full blast. It goes further: it will make you pause about the world around you — or at least it did me. As we walked out of the theater and made out way to a near Metro we passed this flamboyantly palace-like buildings with their expensive decorations and lights and exclusive obstacles and I thought to myself, these stand there because the minority of people owning and inhabiting them taking up so much of the world’s wealth, as the US since WW2 destroyed each and every social movement it could and thus thrust land after land into ferocious crazed civil wars.

The heroine’s crazed son, unable to cope (Nicolas Duvauchelle as Manuel)

The thing was it did not feel like an exaggeration; all that happened — the story line (which I’ll fill in later) was prosaically probable and much of it dreadful.

The heroine’s husband demanding that she leave at long last now, with him; he has taken the last of the gasoline for the truck he hopes to escape in; she insists will stay, that there is nothing else anywhere for her (Christopher Lambert as Andre Vial)

The acting by Isabelle Hubbert was superb — so too all who supported her. It is she who fights what is going on around her by pretending to ignore it, and repeatedly denying its importance, indeed its very reality. She will not listen to anyone describe her naturally layabout son who has no school to go to, nor job to have. Interestingly, there was little talk in this film, as there might not have been much in such a situation, in a way making the job of acting harder. The attached review centers on the white characters; the black characters are important but it is true that those we get to know individually most (the heroine, her son, her husband) are white and except for a few outstanding types I could not tell their names or suggest their stories. One of these is Boxer, a man our heroine apparently had a liaison with who has fled to her house to die from wounds and is being sought by many parties in order to murder him).

As with the 2009 film Small Island and Tamara Drewe, this is a woman’s film using the same criteria. The source is again a woman: Denis’s memories of what she saw and read (she grew up in the French Cameroons), and elements from Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing. The director and some producers are women, the screenplay is by a woman; the central figure here more strongly and emphatically than the other two is is a woman.

I bring in earlier revolutions briefly because what we see has general application: I suspect it was not much different in the provinces in France in the 1790s (nor in the capital during the so-called reign of terror) or in the British Isles in the later 1640s, where I have read a couple of the few accounts that survive of servants at last getting back, and finally the White Russian civil wars (Pasternak’s and Lean and Davies’s territory in their differing Dr Zhivago).


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Gilbert Joseph (David Oyelowo), Small Island

Queenie Bligh (Ruth Wilson) greets Hortense (Naomie Harris), Small Island

Dear friends and readers,

A blog on this marvelous, sweeping and intimately moving novel, and its effective film adaptation. The hype is deserved even if both book & film have flaws. The central thrust of this paradoxically finally optimistic book: coming to terms with a false imposed identity and creating a new one out of the shards of what you can’t escape (it’s part of you and the people around you will not let you escape) and turning back to old memories, reworking the pain of these to be brought forward as part of your recreated self:

A few days ago I got my schedule for teaching this coming spring and got back to working on Chapter 5 of my book project, now called “A Place of Refuge: The Sense and Sensibility movies.” My need to watch a mini-series or film adaptation of a novel by John Alexander (as the director of the 2008 S&S) had led me to read Andrea Levy’s rightly award-winning (Whitbread & Orange Prizes!), Small Island, as prologue to watching the movie (directed by Alexander, written by Paula Milne and produced by Joanna Anderson/Vicky Licorish). Well it seemed perfect for my 302 Humanities class and I plunged in. By the time I reached the close of both (book and movie) I had been absorbed, moved, and experienced something new and yet as old to me as experiences I had when I was five and in first grade and felt real admiration for the art of both.

The story is not told in chronological order but rather weaves back and forth between 1948 when (in the movie especially) events come to a crashing dramatic crisis and “time before” from the childhood of Hortense and Michael Roberts in Jamaica (the Carribean), to that of Queenie on a pig farm in rural UK (1930s) to their experiences of growing up, in the case of Hortense and Michael and a third Jamaican protagonist, Gilbert Joseph, emigrating to the UK, and in the case of Queenie and Bernard Bligh, working to lower middle class, marrying, enduring and experiencing WW2 and surviving on afterward. We experience Bernard’s war in India, and move back in time to experience how his father, Arthur, was traumatized permanently by his experience of WW1 in Europe; we get glimpses of Gilbert’s experience of war as a soldier-driver in the UK and Michael as an black officer of the RAF. I’ve ironed things out to group them, but in the book we move back and forth to juxtapose events thematically and for irony. A full plot-design and story summary brings into play the history and cultural worlds in these two islands (Jamaica and England are both small islands) especially as experienced along class, race, and gender fault-lines.

The movie moves forward more or less from the time Hortense is young and decides she wants to act on her dreams of working in a high position “as a teacher” in “the Mother Country,” England, with occasional flashbacks taking us back into the past and into the minds of the characters remembering specific crucial incidents in their lives.

At first I had trouble getting into the book. It has this deliberately “difficult” (complicated, complex organization (the author has prizes like the Booker in mind where such organizations retelling the pasts of different subjectivities are common): we are given individual character’s soliloquies which are thrust at us, and we are asked to pick up everything about each as we go. As I know little about Jamaica or the experience of black people in London in the 1940s (the two places events occur at thus far), it was a struggle.

It felt weak at first. I could see it belonged to the category of written, successfully marketed, and be-prized books that (for example) in A Critical Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, James English calls Tropicalizing-Colonialist-UK where (as James English says) the miseries and wretched conditions of the marginalized world (“The empire”) are presented using the modes and outlooks of the hegemonic one (in English, the Anglo). Such stories seems to critique the powerful and high ranked, and yet feed off it to make money and flatter the person reading them. English asks if such books are not exploitable globally marketable (high prestige) airport literature where the relatively well-placed, some rich, some well educated (booksellers, film people) and exploit the periphery using fashionable post-colonialist attitudes.

As I carried on though the book gripped me completely and won over my doubts for the most part. It picked up and became strong when in Jamaica our heroine, Hortense (illegitimate and living with an uncle and aunt) has to watch her male cousin, Michael, go to school and she doesn’t.

Hortense Roberts (Naomie Harris)

Michael Roberts (Ashley Walters).

This is a vividly, intensely experienced injustice in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, which I read with a sophomore level literature class three terms ago. Dangarembga opens with how her heroines hated her brother and is glad he has died, for now she may have a chance to go to school as her mother and father have no son. Levy’s is a less startling variant on this; it’s softened by the two being cousins, not brother and sister, and Hortense falling in love with Michael, and getting to go to a teacher’s school without his having to die for her to get a place. She then hopes to rise with him as his wife. All the black characters are seen to have advancement as a continual conscious motivation from a very young age.

A second turn came and deeper engagement when Gilbert Joseph, the young black Jamaican man who seems our secondary hero, but begins to seem our primary one finds himself for the first time in England. World War Twp has begun, and he has volunteered to “fight” for the “Mother country,” whose history, norms, ideals have informed his education from his youngest years so that he learned in school far more about English (not British, but specifically) English ways than he did about the history of the country he was brought up in, much less the western hemisphere than a tiny part of an island in a northern Archipelago. Gilbert hopes to learn a trade, a craft as an airman in the RAF.

Gilbert in the UK (David Oyelowo)

He discovers he will not be considered for any position higher than a driver. Just as bad, his dream of this beautiful idyllic fine society is shattered because the place is shabby, poor, cold, a “squalid shambles” with of cold, lousy tasting food (everything boiled), no heat,, with himself treated as utterly inferior, an outsider. I was deeply moved by the scene where he first approaches this island because I experienced this myself when coming to England by boat at age 21 and seeing the white cliffs of Dover (to be followed by working class Leeds in October). Out of my own reading, I made myself an identity that was Anglophilic, and while the first time I came I felt this intense uplift and loved all I saw (London, 1968) and was treated at least as well as anyone else, it was within a week or so a profoundly disillusioning experience. I saw as white from the get-go the rigid class system which made a huge majority of people ill-educated; class in the UK replaced race in the US. As I did in this novel Gilbert Joseph moves from dream, to realization of the actual (to him especially) cruel system, to dislike (very intense at first), and then gradually resignation because analogously it is just like the country one comes from, and then to acceptance (seeing social justice far more accommodating and far more flexible for people who don’t fit a “norm”), to even — for me in Leeds and Yorkshire, love and for Gilbert and Hortense Joseph at the close of the novel in Finsley Park hope and identification of a new sort.

The book has six principals: three blacks, Hortense and Michael Roberts and three whites, Queenie and Bernard Bligh, and Arthur, Bernard’s shell-shocked father who lives with Bernard, Robert.

With respect to the blacks, the book is also (as I wrote) about being a girl in a traditional society, and each of the paradigms that Hortense goes through in school have their parallel in Nervous Conditions, with this difference. Levy is less personally angry than Dangarembga (that’s a problem in the book) but more aware of theoretical issues and shapes her fiction to have wider application — to white women (especially working and lower middle class) say, and to all traditional women. It does give a certain “making book” quality to her book, a factitious quality, but I could see (not meaning to put this utterly cynically but rather pragmatically) how this book would be perfect to assign in a classroom. Like many of the Booker Prize books it lends itself to analysis which includes the typical middle class person and is not hard to analyse but has the kinds of structures that make for papers.

For example, again and again Hortense in Jamaica and then Gilbert in the UK go through job and application interviews. Gilbert once he returns to the UK after the war is over and he discovers he can get just nowhere in Jamaica, would have ended a poor subsidence marginal semi-working hanger-on, an attempt to get a better position. He can only rise in a developed country, but there he’s a man whose credentials and abilities are utterly ignored. What happens is what matters is, who was your father? Were you legitimate? Hortense is thus rejected for better positions as a teacher in Jamaica repeatedly and her dream of getting into the white school as a teacher utterly crushed. What is your race? your ethnic identity? are you one of us? So Gilbert dreams of being educated to be a pilot and learning about aerospace. Is he kidding? he ends up a driver. (This happened to me in my life several times: the first in in my junior year in high school. I wrote a composition which I saw several teachers knew was excellent but it was rejected along the lines because I was not in the AP class, not in the honors English, not going at that point to college, and clearly working class without the manners and ability to present myself the other girls had. What a lesson that taught me. I’ve never forgotten it. You don’t have to be black to learn it, just working or lower middle class.)

A particularly moving moment comes early in the book with the death of Michael Roberts — or so we think. A telegram written in euphemistic language arrives. The euphemisms used to describe his death are at not at first understood by the naive parents. The authorities don’t know for sure and don’t want the parents to know how he died and that he was in fact thrown away.

The book obviously does not neglect white people either, the real colonist types Trollope likes to present, fringe people in the UK who come over to the colonies try to rise about those who are exploited as beneath them. We have Mr and Mrs Ryder, the pair who run a Jane Eyre like school. He’s adulterous with many women: we are shown how women get along everywhere by selling sex. She’s adulterous with Michael Roberts.

We meet Queenie, a girl in a laborer’s family, brought up a farm girl and given an opportunity to educate herself minimally for office work when her Aunt Dorothy invites her to come to London to learn manner, how to speak (dialect is class-inflected), how to dress, type, and meet young men. Before Queenie can find a place for herself, her aunt dies, and she is threatened by her mother (in effect) with returning to the farm. She has met but not loved a shy, un-aggressive bank clerk, Bernard Bligh; he has tried to ask her to marry him, and she was not eager. But under pressure she makes the pragmatic choice.

In the film Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) steps forward to say that Queenie (Ruth Wilson) has accepted him when her mother (Mary Jo Randle) says she has no way of supporting herself in London

Bernard is driven to enlist out of shame and a sense that Queenie does not admire or love or even need him. The marriage is not simply a desperate choice (like Charlotte Lucas in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) one as the male here is while shown with all his flaws (racist through and through, narrow, dull) is also sympathized with. When he goes off on his bus, Queenie shuts the door and does not watch Bernard to the last moment.

The scene has a parallel in film and book when much later after the war and Bernard has not come home, Michael Roberts turns up for a second time (no he was not killed), becomes Queenie’s lover for a weekend but as he has no love for her beyond that walks out of her life off to Canada, without turning round. She would have gone with him but is afraid to ask if she can lest he give her an answer which reveals his indifference to her.

Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and Michael (Ashley Walters) during the weekend

So the book reaches out and joins the unprivileged in both small islands.

Two powerful scenes may stand for how the black and white stories are woven together. Gilbert Joseph comes to live in Queenie’s house as one of three servicemen looking for a place to stay (this while Bernard has gone off to war). Gilbert takes Queenie to a teashop where some American white soldiers; they see him and immediately want to destroy him. In terror, he has to get out of there and yet not show the fear. He and Queenie go out in the street and meet up with Bernard’s father, Arthur (a barrier to these men) and then decide to go into a moviehouse (partly Gilbert seeking safety).

Gilbert and Queenie with Arthur (Karl Johnson) in the film

Gilbert is about to sit downstairs with Queenie (and perhaps Arthur) when an usher comes over to tell him he must sit upstairs. The mayhem that follows is intensely persuasive: as many whites are for him sitting there (British people) as there are American whites incensed at him. We see how the usher and manager just don’t want trouble, how the vast majority of those sitting just wish all would sit and watch the movie. A riot ensues in which Queenie’s father-in-law is killed because a American military white type suddenly produces a gun.

The film offers a shorter version of the scene, one which occurs wholly in the street: Gilbert (David Oyelowo) is trying to reach and to help Arthur who he has become fond of (Arthur is a good card-player, in fact cheats)

We see the intense racism of Americans against the unthinking not institutionalized “color” bar of the UK.

Both white and black women make pragmatic marriages. When Gilbert comes homes to Jamaica, he just has no chance for anything; not considered for any role, cannot make even a subsidence living. Hortense has learned how limited her chances are too, so she offers to pay for his return (she has worked for years in a low-paying job putting away some of her pay each week), of he will marry her first and then send for her afterward. She says she wants to marry him as it does not do for a “young lady” to travel and live with a man without being married to him. She is utterly conventional in her aping of respectable ways.

The deal is about to be struck (Celia [Nikki Amuka-Bird] Hortense’s friend who does not get to go as she is not allowed by Gilbert to desert her dependent mother

He cannot find a decent place to stay at first, and when he finally does find a job as a postman, he remembers Queenie’s address, seeks her out and as she is a rare non-prejudiced person who needs lodgers very badly, she rejoices to see him

Greeting one another

The book does not neglect showing how Queenie experiences the war: as bombing. How she works as a government aid whose business it is to supposedly help traumatized, homeless, maimed and bombed out people. She is ever giving them super-complicated forms and send them off to officials we are to realize will not exactly greet them with the open arms Queenie displays to Gilbert

What often bothers me about some post-colonial or third-world novels is a kind of prejudice is set up against the whites — and it might seem so in this book by my above paragraphs. (And this is true of Jumpha Lahiri’s first volume of stories, Interpreters of Maladies and her Namesake where the working class whites are stigmatized, for example, by their drinking habits and the upper class whites caricatures of New Yorker imagined readers.) Not so with Levy: we get an inside-the-white-skin moving account of Queenie Bligh’s growing up working class, her marriage to Bernard (lower middle) , her experience of the war, of being deserted by him afterward, which persuades me if Levy didn’t grow up in the UK she has a strong empathetic imagination.

Another aspect of this book which makes it at once more acceptable for a woman’s novel (and thus be-prized) and seems one by a man — and a wee bit of a problem to set as a text for students — is its vast sweep. Why? It makes the book longer. Atwood’s Lady Oracle is under 300 pages, and Lahiri’s Namesake and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto) not much more. J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country is well under 125. Anyone who teaches will tell you how increasingly hard it is to get students to get a book of 400 plus pages. (All these gentle reader are books I can and will assign beyond Small Island if I got through with this to my 302 in Humanities students.)

It does make the novel more impressive; there is a long moving section of a white working to lower middle class hero, Bernard’s, time fighting in India. What is striking here is how Levy uses the subjective soliloquy style narrative which moves back and forth in time (common in Booker Prize books) for varied purposes. She captures the early history of Bernard’s father (who is suddenly killed in the race riot outside the movie house I described yesterday) so that we learn to love this man, a broken person from WW1 (and thus get some of this). She also gives us an incident where our conventional hero who has thus far refused to mutiny, refused to strike, refused to do anything rebellious suddenly finds himself pressured and bullied to lie about the death of one of his close friends, to claim the man died as one of a series of strikers in order to fulfill the agenda of the officer (promotion). When he refuses, he is thrown in jail himself, court martialed. I had not thought of this: how officers and powerful people would pressure lower people not just to lie about their mistakes, but lie about others to use them — just as much in death as anywhere else. Yes this is an anti-war, anti-colonialist novel.

Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) coming home at last

He feels how Queenie is shattered and also that she does not want him. She does not go to bed with him. She rightly is indignant that he questions her decisions to take in blacks when he has not been home for 2 years, was thought to have deserted her. He thinks her spirit now weakened considerably by the terrible bombing and loss of her father-in-law — his father. What he does not know is she is now pregnant by Michael Roberts.

The novel does cheat. It has a magical providential patterning using Michael Roberts. What is an accepted providential nature of novels allows Queenie to meet up with Hortense’s cousin, Michael Roberts, the young black man who was sent to school when Hortense wasn’t, and then declared missing believed killed in the white man’s war in the RAF; Queenie naturally has a one night affair with him. There is a Lawrentian undercurrent here: Michael is the sexy man of the novel.

It’s on Michael’s second weekend-long tryst with Queenie after the war is over (and Bernard has not returned) that she became pregnant. He then (as I wrote) went walking off to Canada.

Without giving the whole ending away (not quite predictable), I have to say the white women and white couple (Queenie Bligh and Bernard Bligh) are the big losers in this novel. The young black couple (Gilbert Joseph and Hortense Roberts) are giving the providentially happy use of an inheritance which a black friend of Gilbert’s is willing to share with him (which of course calls upon their work ethic). The young black couple are going to go live in a much nicer house in Finsley Park whose income they will share in; Queenie may yet get a certificate to teach English in the UK. They are going to do all right. The white male comes back blasted and nervous and our white heroine, a strong presence throughout the book ends up with him and gives up what means a tremendous amount to her — her baby to the black couple, not because she doesn’t love it but because she loves it very much and knows she will not be permitted to bring it up without terrific prejudice thrown at it such that it will grow up twisted and angry. She also give Bernard a place that he can feel comfortable in by simply staying with him.

There’s a sort of hidden revenge going on here. I said I often did see an animus against working class whites in books by Afro- people, sometimes spiteful and through caricature (Jhumpa Lahiri); this was not at all the way in this novel until the very last scene, which I suspect could also be attacked at (not meaning to but) reinforcing racial separation (against say adoption of black childen by whites or any ethnic/racial child of one haplogroup by parents of another haplogroup).

I did cry as I felt intensely for Queenie — our white working class heroine.

I watched the mini-series immediately after reading the book and thus the inevitable comparative temptation was to find the film wanting in comparison with the novel. As I went on I recognized the film had its own themes, or (to put it another way) elaborated the themes of the book with a different emphasis. The idyllic dream of England found in the book and slowly torn down to a minimal expectation of a more comfortable modern life, one in the book analogous to and made also to stand for the dream of being promoted, advanced, having a career of dignity and fulfillment is emphasized and shapes the choices, plot-design and especially the close. Most of the characters are thwarted at almost every turn until near the end Gilbert and Hortense get the opportunity to move into the house of Hortense’s dreams: it may be run down, but we can see it has potential. I say especially the close, for the most moving characters in the film (perhaps paradoxically) is Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and she is left crying on her stoop, her weak husband’s arms around her as Gilbert and Hortense drive with baby Michael (her name for her baby) away.

One of the reviews I read, this one by Laura Albritten, Harvard Review, Nov 29, 2005, pp 237-39, argued that Queenie is the most admirable character but for Gilbert Joseph, and as hardest and permanently hit, the most memorable.

All four protagonists, the black young man and woman and the white young man and women are thrown away by their society at some point, the blacks more ruthlessly than the whites, but just as surely. They are given little opportunity to use their talents, education, gifts. The only one who might fulfill hers is Hortense at the close but it’s chancy. In the logic of popular (naive) art, it’s somehow fitting that Hortense, the most insistent on her self-image and pride is the person who may indeed fulfill her dream:

Hortense putting her nose up at Queenie’s unnecessary but well-meant explanations of what is sold in a given shop

I felt some of the scenes in my bones as someone who got a Ph.d. and had no chance to become a tenured type, as someone who came to the UK with this dream of the place and saw the reality. Actually I was struck by how in the end the black characters stay in the UK and accept and even like it; I would have stayed too had my parents not offered Jim and I a real step-up of money and I gain a position in university in NYC and Jim get so much better a job. This is the distance between the US in the 1970s (a place where jobs and advancement were possible for lower middle in the 1970s) and Jamaica (a place where this was not possible in the 1940s).

My feeling is this theme of being shut out, a class based fault-line for whites, resonated with the viewers of this film too. The scenes of someone with a good education (Hortense) laughed at, of someone who aspires to one (Gilbert Joseph) scorned and humiliated, who gradually learns to live with his or her place were among the strengths of this (optimistic finally be it said) film:

Hortense and Gilbert on a park bench contemplating Buckingham Palace.

A small side show was the two older characters who are nervous wrecks and supported by their families. Bernard’s father is an emotional cripple from WW1 and he is kept and his death in a race riot (considerably toned down) as devastating as in the book. The film adds a woman who is equally in need of support, Celia’s mother whose father deserted her years before and who I described above. Celia does not get to leave the Carribbean because Gilbert Joseph will not hear of her leaving her mother to go with him; Queenie is faithful to the end to her father-in-law.

The flaws are (to someone who did no more than read the book and watch the film for entertainment) departures from an already compromised text: The opening gets rid of the brother-sister (Michael versus Hortense Roberts) rivalry which is so powerful at first in the book and collapses it immediately into a romance between the two cousins (actually they are cousins) which the novel (to be fair) eventually does too. They make the white teacher in the Carribean, Mrs Ryder, simply a lover of Michael Roberts, who since he becomes Queenie’s lover too, begins to be a portrait of a philandering cold male by the end. This gets rid of the reality of promiscuity we see in Mr Ryder (who is not having an affair with anyone in the film) and Mrs Ryder and turns the thing into lurid romance. Hortense’s dislike then becomes “the young girl who has a lot to learn” (and her lesson is the Lawrentian I’ve been noticing from Turn of the Screw and Atonement that the girl must accept male sexuality in full power because healthy passionate (&c) women do, like Mrs Ryder and Queenie (later in the book) and in the Atonement, Cecilia.

Albeit straight from the book, Michael Robert’s multi-function in all three women’s lives is improbable — it does connect to the male who is presented as glamorous and sexy because he’s aloof. He does walk off into the sunset so to speak — to Canada, never to be seen by any of the characters again we are to suppose. So he can stand for the male who deserts.

Michael as false comforter

A young minor black woman in the film, Celia, is not able to escape Jamaica because her mother’s mind has become unhinged and she needs her daughter since her husband deserted her. Bernard, Queenie’s husband, in effect deserts her (for 2 years after the war from depression, fear, anxiety, an idea he has syphilis), but ironically when he comes back, she is not elated to see him, he only makes trouble for her as she’s become independent and managed on her own after all. The sad ending is partly the result of Bernard being there; Queenie would maybe not have made the decision she did had she not had a racist white male husband to live with.

On the other hand, as in so many films recently, we again have – and there is not one iota of warrant for this in the text — these older women continually counseling the young girl to compromise, the accept the male fate has offered her (Hortense’s aunt, supervisor, Queenie’s aunt and mother). The tone is not as bitter or vile as in Lost in Austen, but the reiteration is striking — especially when there’s nothing like this in the book.

We have a narrator but he is male — this is a book by a woman. I did say Levy had been clever enough to combine a male type novel with a female but substituting a male voice erases the mark of this as a novel by a woman. Yet in the interests of time and expense, the war sections are cut severely so the novel is about here and now and domestic romance primarily. This is loss even if it was to save money and time.

The film-makers also considerably soften the racism — they were afraid to show the full extent of suffering of blacks lest they lose their white BBC audience I suppose. They make Queenie’s husband much less racist than he is in the book. In the book his behavior is both real and painful to watch. Our black hero, Gilbert Joseph, has far worse experiences in the book when he comes to the UK both during the way (the death of Arthur is far more ravaging and poignant) and is bitterer in the book.

But as I’ve shown, much is left that is of individual and unusual value.

Hortense arriving (the opening of the film)

They did keep the book’s and allusion to Gone with the Wind, and it worked so fittingly: when Queenie comes to have her baby with Hortense in the room, Queenie says we are Scarlett and Prissy (you see the type) all over again, Hortense denies this stoutly (getting the allusion) and we can see this archetypal scene has undergone a sea change: Queenie is not a queen, she’s having an illegitimate baby through adultery and Hortense is an educated young woman, not a slave.

An irony about the depiction of racism in recent BBC films: I notice the same small group of black actors recur in many of these films. Three of the principles here; David Oyelowo (Gilbert Joseph), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Celia), Ashley Walters (Michael Roberts) I’ve seen repeatedly in star roles in films where blacks are wanted (Five Days for example) so not that many blacks are being promoted and advanced in quality British TV. I did love Ruth Wilson (Queenie), recently in Jane Eyre: bringing Jane Eyre together with Queenie Bligh shows the folk typology at the heart of this film. Naomi Harris (Hortense) I’ve not seen before, the new ingenue princess, we are to see her as prissy, and that is a good thing as her self-esteem and demand for respect does help her — as it might not in life. Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Bernard was the rapist in Atonement and has gone on to be a modernized Sherlock Holmes so his typology is complicated, here extends his range:

Need I say all are brilliant actors in the modern British quality TV tradition, Karl Johnson as Arthur.

And I saw many film techniques of John Alexander which he uses in his, Andrew Davies and Anne Pivcevic’s 2008 BBC Sense and Sensibility (use of romantic surging music, of nostalgic kinds of blurs, of landscapes); nothing as original as shaped by Davies’s montage poetry-drenched text, but the films definitely have the same director. There are memory montages for Queenie remembering Michael (this is typical modern technique, found in 1996 Meridian Emma to 2009 Lost in Austen. The real love affair in the book is that of Queenie and Michael, and he deserts her, and she gives up his child. This is a film which shows us the risks and limits of romance in our world in so many areas of life on so many levels.

Yes finally it’s a woman’s book and a woman’s movie.


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The train that thunders through (Dicken’s “The Signal-man” as adapted in the 1975 film)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve another gothic from my Exploring the Gothic class to discuss: for this past Friday my class and I read and discussed Charles Dickens’s unusual and brief ghost story, “The Signalman.” I’ve written about Andrew Davies’s 1976 film of this here before, but then I concentrated on the film, now we’ll look at Dickens’s text itself.

Here’s the story online: “The Signal-man” by Charles Dickens

A summary (if you don’t have the time or inclination to read this gem): an unnamed narrator comes to a deep cutting in the earth, and calls down below to a signalman whose job is to live in a box-like small house by a railway track and provide a signal for people on and working a train of its coming, going, and state. He persuades the signalman to let him come down to his dark place below, and he and the signalman talk. The signalman is in a bad way: he tells the narrator of an apparition he has seen twice: a man stands by the track with one hand over his eye and the other waving at a coming train; each time this vision appears death follows soon. After the first time it was a ghastly train accident; after the second a young woman died. The signalman is distraught because he cannot save the person/people. He is lonely, he is educated, intelligent and has no one to share his thoughts or learning (math, algebra) with. He once had an opportunity to better himself, but missed out because of private events he won’t go into anymore. The narrator goes off but says he will return on the narrator’s off hours again — these off-hours are not much use to the narrator as he has ever to be alert for the bell. His duties to pull the bell are light, yet he is a slave to it. He lives a life of anxiety. The next time the narrator shows up (next day?) he looks below, seems to see the apparition himself, hears the train coming, and then rushing below finds the signalman has died — run over.

Bernard Lloyd as visitor (narrates the tale)

The story is eerie and mysterious: we never learn the names of the two characters, and we never learn who the narrator is. To the narrator, the signalman appears to be a spirit; to the signalman the narrator appears to be a spirit. At the first meeting between the two men, the unnamed signalman is clearly wondering if the narrator is somehow being controlled by spirit forces. He asks him “don’t you know” that the red light is part of his charge – and goes on to ask during their conversation if the words he spoke “were conveyed to you in any supernatural way. At the same time, the narrator (also nameless!) is wondering almost the same thing about the signalman. “The monstrous thought came into my mind as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man.” The narrator finds a “monstrous thought” entering his own mind – and, in the next breath, says of the signalman: “I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.” The narrator goes on to share the signalman’s obsession and fear of the red light – and, when the final catastrophe comes, he finds his own thoughts (the words he associated with the warning gesture) strangely borne out along with the signalman’s deadly premonition.

The story begins with one question and ends with another. At the start, as readers, we wonder why the narrator calls down to the signalman in the first place – and we never really get an answer to this. If he wasn’t being motivated by something supernatural, what other reason was there? The signalman could be lured to death by an irrational self-destructive despairing impulse; the narrator could be an employee of the company come to investigate the signalman for being ill or too nervous to do his job properly. We are left wondering and get no definite answer. It almost seems as if the signalman lures the narrator down and disturbs his life just as the phantom (real or imaginary) is luring him and disturbing his life.

The story is about the mental torture the signalman experiences daily. Loneliness, helplessness, lack of power (he is too lowly to persuade the company to act differently about the train), anxiety, a desire to have someone to talk to: there is the strangely creepy repeated line: “But he would beg to remark that he had not finished” – which has a touch of humor, but at the same time helps to give a feeling of impending doom and the signalman’s desire to have the narrator stay. One interpretation says the signalman is haunted by a malicious poltergeist.

Denholm Elliot as poignant signalman

One of my students (the first section I teach) gave a talk where he suggested the story is about the how technology obliterates traditional ways of life. The railway contain immense power, and people felt threatened before it. The student’s view echoed an essay I linked into my “course materials for y students” is by Norris Pope where he argues that the story is a response to the terrifying technology of the railways (which at the same time liberated people more than any other technology had before and except for the car since): Norris Pope’s “Dickens’s “The Signalman” and Information Problems in the Railway Age,” Victorian Studies, 42:3 (2001), 436-461. But the student went much further in suggesting the story was about the evils of technology for the audience.

Another student (in my second section) talked about how the story was about or derived directly from an accident Dickens was involved with and showed us a state of trauma that the signalman should have had help with and couldn’t. She thought the apparition was a psychological projection of the signalman’s mind. (She didn’t explain how the narrator saw the third apparition; questioned she suggested maybe the third apparition was the signalman himself seen by the narrator just before killing himself.) The student’s view was more or less the view the second article I put on my “Course Materials” discussed: Jill Matus’s “Trauma, Memory, and Railway Disaster: The Dickensian Connection,” Victorian Studies, 43:3 (2001): 413-36. The student went much further in saying that today we would try to help this man and the story was showing us how no one did help this man.

I’ll go over that as told in this second essay:

In 1865 Charles Dickens narrowly escaped death when the train on which he was traveling from Folkestone to London jumped a gap in the line occasioned by some repair work on a viaduct near Staplehurst, Kent. The foreman on the job miscalculated the time of the train’s arrival; the flagman was only 550 yards from the works and unable to give adequate warning of the train’s approach. The central and rear carriages fell off the bridge, plunging onto the river-bed below. Only one of the first class carriages escaped that plunge, coupled fast to the second class carriage in front. “It had come off the rail and was […] hanging over the bridge at an angle, so that all three of them were tilted down into a corner” (Ackroyd 1013).

Dickens managed to get Ellen Ternan and her mother, with whom he was traveling, out of the carriage and then behaved with remarkable self- possession, climbing down into the ravine and ministering to the many who lay injured and dying. Ternan was his mistress and he was concerned to hide this, but still went forward to save others.

With further aplomb, he climbed back into the dangerously unstable carriage and retrieved his manuscript, an account of which is offered in the memorable postscript to Our Mutual Friend (1865).

Once back in London, however, Dickens began to develop the symptomatology that today we would recognize as typical of trauma.’ He was greatly shaken and lost his voice for nearly two weeks: “I most unaccountably brought someone else’s out of that terrible scene,” he said. He suffered repeatedly from what he called “the shake,” and, when he later traveled by train, he was in the grip of a persistent illusion that the carriage was down on the left side. Even a year later, he noted that he had sudden vague rushes of terror, which were “perfectly unreasonable but unsurmontable.” At such times, his son and daughter reported, he was unaware of the presence of others and seemed to be in a kind of trance. His son Henry recalled that he got into a state of panic at the slightest jolt; Mamie attested that her father’s nerves were SP never really the same again: he “would fall into a paroxysm of fear, tremble all over and clutch the arms of the railway carriage.”

I then delivered a sort of lecture, inviting questions as I went along. This is what I do after students do presentations or talks. After their presentations I ask four questions: what was the student’s thesis, what his or her strategry [what did he or she do in the talk, tell a story, give an example, write on the board &c], what his or her strengths and how could he or she have improved the talk. Then the student sits down and I again get in front of the class.

I talked about how Victorians would have had an ambivalent attitude towards trains. Trains liberated people more than anything had before: before trains most people could not easily travel farther than by foot in a given day. Most people could not afford a horse; a carriage went slowly and awkwardly — not comfortable, dangerous (from overturning). Now in a brief time you could get to a major city. You could escape your environment, move far in one day, move away with ease. It’s comparable to the Internet in how it can connect people from distances. It was part of the industrial world making things and making money for some people. They knew this. I talked of how the underground was built in London at the time: promoted by Michael Farraday, he had to overcome tremendous fears (of the world below, of being buried alive) to achieve this, but he did it and then people used the underground quickly.

Dickens’s was a strong purveyor of gothic, or used it centrally in his long and short fictions. In novels and short stories, he has a has a number of character lured to their own death, attracted to self-destruction (Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, Carker in Dombey and Son). Dickens seems compelled by people who are mysteriously drawn towards their own death – there are quite a number of characters in his books who commit suicide, but there are also others who are drawn towards something which will destroy them.

The students’ questions got us talking about the atmospherics of the story as not overdone and effective. A hallucinatory quality is found in Dickens’s great novels. Another way of seeing it is a tale of doubling, the double self (as in Hyde and Jekyll) only this time the double is a threat. At the end we wonder why the signalman allowed himself to be drawn out on to the line and ignored the approaching train. The phantom if there was one appears three times: – the phantom has appeared twice, with death resulting each time, and now is appearing for a third time. We immediately know from fairy tales that the third catastrophe will be the final one, the end of the story. They noticed the number 3.

The horror of the visitor looking at the Signalman’s corpse (what’s left of it)

To conclude, the story or narrator can be seen as a projection of an impulse towards death opening before us a disappointed frustrated man who lives his life shut up in a dark cave through which a machine thunders with mechanical regularity. There are some odd nervous puns in the story which support this idea.

I talked of how this gothic manages to tell the story of another kind of unspeakable: the terrors of technology and misery of an ordinary life controlled by technology. Dickens had great sympathy for working people, and here is a man compelled by the need for a job to live like a troll in a cutting all alone. (How much he would have profited from the Internet and a computer in his hut.)

It takes place in a railway tunnel. Good modern ghost stories do not tend to occur in gothic castles or be set in the long ago. They are often set in modern anonymous places where technology has rooted up a natural landscape: old canals, waterways, and railways are favored. Dickens doesn’t need owls or bats; the wet dark tunnel without a sky is enough. There are no windows in a grave either. There are some good resonating lines about the nature of hard life. He’s missed his chance and does not get another.

As for the film (Andrew Davies, the screenplay writer, Lawrence Clark, director, Rosemay Hill, producer, Denholm Elliot the signalman with Bernard Lloyd the narrator or visitor): they do full justice to Dickens’s appreciation of how technology can land given individuals in terrible isolation. Denhom Elliot plays the Signalman who has little to do but must be there, and is living in these meagre circumstances, an educated man who lost out. Very touching in the story and film how he sits and read math, but no one to talk to or appreciate or ask questions of, but he plugs on. (Such a character might have been found comfort in the Internet.) The man who comes to visit (investigate really) show real compassion and full horror at the close.

It was shot on location. Beneath a high steep hill by a train tunnel. I’ve no doubt it arose from Dickens’s own train accident, the terrors and pain of this are gotten across. For the brilliance of the film techniques, see my other blog.

We had really good talk and the students appeared to have read the story and understood it with no trouble.


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Kenilworth, 1575 reconstructed

Dear friends and readers,

As you may know, for the last two weekends I have been away: for 4 days in Portland, Oregon, for JASNA AGM, preceded by the Burney conference, whose topics were the Abbey (NA) and gothic respectively.

Kenilworth, popular 1814 print

And for 1 night, 1 day and 1 morning Pittsburgh, EC/ASECS annual meeting whose topic was “recovery.”

Kenilworth, Sporting Fields photo, early 20th century: an angle & vision used in recent film adaptations of 18th/19th century novels

The topic for the 1212 JASNA AGM in NYC, is “sex, power and money.” Izzy made a good suggestion: why not focus in on the depiction of cities in Austen’s work. Her idea is look at “Sex, Power and Money” in the towns Austen depicts. I can see that; as I think about it, I realize that there is a strong animus against the town; it’s where people are hurt, are betrayed, it’s dangerous; it’s ugly (in Portsmouth), cut off from the natural world and its rhythms.

Another possibility (but not probable) is a paper on Burney’s journals for the Burney conference in 1210 (piggy-backed onto the JASNA).

Having chaired two panels successfully, I’m also thinking of proposing for the next EC/ASECS whose topic will be “liberty” (held in Penn State) a panel on 20th and 21st century novels set sometime in the long 18th and 19th century novel. Of course I want to write a paper on Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. My problem here is I have got to get up a respectable line of argument. Alas, most historical novels are not respected (this is most unlike the 19th century) and seen as romance. So I am trying to gather secondary materials (essays and books) on historical novels in the 20th and 21st century as well as Graham to give me ideas beyond the super-abstractions of post-modern thinking. Christine Clark-Evans, organizer for the coming EC was enthusiastic and open to all sorts of approaches so I’m hopeful I’ll come up with something for real.

She also suggested I send in a second panel call, saying I need not chair that one too. So I’m thinking I could propose applying Isiah Berlin’s conceptions of “positive” and “negative and positive liberty” to 18th century novels and memoirs. I define these (after Berlin) this way: Negative liberty is what you can do after you have counted in all the constraints society and your own needs put on you. Positive liberty is knowing who you are apart from all this from within and seeking to enact it; then when you agree to do what someone else wants in order to get what you want, it can be seen as a freely taken form of acting, not servitude or enslavement. Then one would see how these sub-genres and concepts act out in recent fiction. Is it different for 19th century fiction in the way filming an 18th century book or matter produces a probing of modern familial and sexual pathologies and 19th century social and economic and class issues.

Kenilworth, 1850 photo

I admit developing a new set of routs is a challenge. I am teaching; I have still this (very enjoyable) book on Austen films to write. This project now includes reading about time-travelling, an essential dream that is part of the longing to return to the Austen world and also fuels the films.

I’d like to add a project on Graham and historical novels set in the18th and 19th century novels/memoirs, and read solid (informed, thoughtful &c&C) articles & books (if there are any) about historical fiction in the 20th and 21st century. I’ve read a few on historical fiction in the 19th so this will help, but the subject is not the same at all as attitudes have undergone a sea change. This would be towards the EC/ASECS panel I mentioned above but I’d be doing it for myself. I see that it was his novel, Marnie, upon which Hitchcock’s once famous (if commercially failed) movie was made; and have gotten a superb film study by Tony Lee Moral on the film. I’d learn a lot about film from reading the novel, seeing the film, and reading this book. This would ‘feed’ into my JA movie project.

For further off projects/absorbing work, I met and talked with Gillian Dow (whose paper on Genlis’s Countess of C******** was an argument just like mine: that this gothic is a central source for NA). She told me about a coming 1213 conference at Chawton library which will celebrate the 10 years of this place devoted to women writers of the 18th century. She liked my ideas for a Charlotte Smith paper.

I will really watch out for 1213 Chawton one, and budget that year accordingly. Jim even said, why don’t we try for Cornwall that summer, one week in Hampshire and one in Cornwall following the imagined worlds of Poldark and DuMaurier too (I’m a lover of DuMaurier’s historical gothic novels too).

Not to omit plus read for fun and to join in with other on my listservs.

It feels too much and I might not be able to do it all. I’ll try for I don’t want to give anything up any more: “one cannot have too many holds on happiness” says Henry Tilney. Maybe I ought also to make my motto one of Trollope’s favorite aphorisms (from Macbeth): The labour we delight in physics pain.


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Closing of Abbey Grange (Jeremy Brett & Edward Hardwicke as Holmes & Watson, 1986)

Dear friends and readers,

In my Exploring the Gothic classes, we’ve read and discussed two of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and we’ve watched the 1984 “Adventure of Abbey Grange” (1986 BBC The Return of Sherlock Holmes) and “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (1994 BBC The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes). I propose tonight to write about the form, history and nature of Sherlock Holmes tales, and then talk of these two tales of marital violence and torment.

First, the form: There is a basic pattern of detective fiction (mysteries): you restate and restructure a past event in the present in order to understand it. Sherlock Holmes tales begin with the impact of a crime and then put together fragments to make a coherent whole to explain the past; the reconstructive act takes into account the notes, blank spaces, dreams and texts found. It’s said the Holmes stories celebrate rationality and are anti-gothic gothics, but it doesn’t take much to see that logical processes of ratiocination are thrown into question by a deeper irrationality. Further, the detective really works by intuition; longer the story the greater the mass or welter of contradictory detail.

The stories begin in Baker Street; in the middle they move out into London or the English countryside; in the end, they return to Baker Street. The first part of the story involves two moves. First, it establishes the power of Holmes’s reason, and it does so by allowing Holmes to work over some minor problem or mystery. The middle part of the story, which takes place beyond the rooms at Baker Street, introduces a series of details about the mystery, and introduces them in such a way as to increase our fear that our lives are being thrown into disorder. As we venture away from Baker Street, we suspicion that reason will not be able to explain all the curious facts of the case that we–and Holmes–are confronted with. But in the third and final section of a Holmes story, we return to Baker Street and the inconceivable once again becomes conceivable. Here, Holmes explains how he arrived at his solution, thus erasing any doubt that all is indeed united.

An early illustration of The Hound of the Baskervilles

The story itself bears witness to a profound personal disturbance, which has occurred & which impinges on the apparent reasonableness or objective nature of the detective’s vision: the detective someone in retreat, addicted to something, depressed, not an exemplar of moderation, reason as a way of conducting one’s private life. They are acted by people who can impersonate, identify, reproduce behavior of criminal types; so they have self- and social knowledge; you need to know yourself, know the minds of others to prevent crime. The reader is to distrust the narrative to put together his or her own authentic story; the resolution of the mystery not as important as the process of connecting, disconnecting, building a more complete account. To understand each individual one we look at particulars of mystery-story, the resolution and the process.

At the core of Sherlock Holmes’s stories is I propose a metaphor of the universe as a labyrinth. Traditional gothic presents a labyrinthine house or dungeon or vast edifice of some kind. Here it’s the structure of the universe. Browner’s story does not suggest that the world is without order, that it is “ruled by chance” and thus not really “ruled” at all. Rather, the metaphor of the labyrinth implies that the universe possesses a malicious order, designed not only to frustrate full knowledge (obscure it), but also to destroy the reasoner. The problem is not that the world is an “unreasonable” place. Like a labyrinth, it follows a design. The problem is that the design of the universe, like the design of a labyrinth, is resistant to our reason, beyond our insight, against us (as in “things are against it” — an existential joke from French writers of the 1940s).

The most moving statement of this occurs at the close of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” where faced with the miseries that class snobbery, sexual repression, vengeful malice and behaviors that bear witness to a demand for pretense and silence in all, Holmes says:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson? … What is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.” (340)

These stories (mysteries) Holmes “solves” are startling, surprises, with painful emotions involved. They are a kind of anti-gothic. While ghost and other supernatural stories reprimand us for our presumption of supremacy; in detective and mystery fiction there is always an explanation; the irrational is subdued and set in order.

The world is tidied up and controlled; deeply conservative in nature, these stories distrust outcasts. They constitute a celebration of the establishment — but they do open the curtain for us to look at what the establishment is trying to control. We see the cruelties, injustices, miseries of family and sexual arrangements, sexual and class pathologies


Jonathan Whicher (he went from earning a pound a week as a laborer to earning 73 pounds a week as a detective inside a year)

So, where did this variant on the gothic come from and when? Mystery-detective stories originate as a fictionalizations of policing work, which begins in earnest (paid for) in the early to mid-19th century. They rose in an urban era, again 1890s when cities grown very large, much immigration; filled with people materially deprived who are excluded from improving their lot

A larger social function is enacted: detective fiction tidies up the world temporarily; the establishment or present order is upheld and all these outsider, lower class, suspicious type people are contained, punished, brought to experience justice. Detective fiction sustains a tension between objective solutions and irrational passionate subjective mysteries (what happened). You have story of the crime and the story of the investigation; the inside (back, told, embedded story) is often Oedipal insofar as Oedipus story is one by which protagonist defeats an older generation’s bugbears and gains self-knowledge.

The first function of police officer was to preserve property and protect the middle class consumer: a social system set up to cope with new technologies; new medical theories to understand one another as well as drugs, memory, mind-altering technologies

Brief history: in London, the formation of the Bow Street Runners (later part of 18th century), then Parliament passes Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act, 1829 establishing Metropolitan Police, then 1842 a special Criminal Investigation Department is set up, with some of its offices in a street called Scotland Yard.

Popular fiction begins to record this new world from the angle of the police officer in stories. One of the most influential was a French memoir, Les Memoirs of Francois-Eugene Vidocq (1775-1857), a deserter, forger, convict, who offered up services and rose to be the head of Surete (French police, 1812). Later there was the French fictional work by Emile Gaboriau (1832-73) of fictional surete agent, Lecoq.

As the earliest artful ghost story in English is Walter Scott’s “The Tapestried Chamber,” so the earliest mystery-detective tales are Edgar Allen Poe’s focusing on Inspector Dupin and his Mysteries of the Rue Morgue, e.g., “The Purloined Letter.” Also published were fictions purporting to be memoirs, e.g., Recollections of a Police Officer (1849-1853)

The intervening years between mid-19th century and Holmes show such stories sold well and novel-length or novellas became popular, e.g., Fergus Hume, Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886). In English a few masters take the figure up: Dickens’s Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff from Moonstone, and Mary Elizabeth Bradden in her Lady Audley’s Secret.

Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket (character modelled on Whicher whom Dickens interviewerd)

Then in the 1890s, a young physician with literary aspirations, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “A Study in Scarlet;” it was turned down by three publishers before he got it accepted as a Christmas number: Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887. The novella-length The Sign of Four, appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Feb 1890. They sold but it was in a way the short stories (easier to digest) that made the big impact: “Scandal in Bohemia,” “voice of Science.” 300,000 copies of the Strand that contained one of them sold, went to a million copies a month.


Contemporary illustration: Holmes on the train in “Abbey Grange”

Our two particular stories linked by theme of wife abuse and husband torment, or marital betrayal and misery. In this decade it was still next to impossible for the average person to get a divorce; women could theoretically be forced to live with their husbands; male violence was no longer socially acceptable but it was not condemned to the point places were provided for women and children to flee to. This is the social background to these tales.

We read “Abbey Grange” first; it’s from Return of Sherlock Holmes (mid-career collection) where he begins to delve social issues a lot. The locus of anxiety is not large political issues but family circle and moral behavior of individuals to one another. Again and again Holmes is busy to hide scandal from outside world to uphold class. He does this here, but he also acts against law to free a woman from her abusive husband, condoning in the process murder. Issues found in Strand include violence in home, violence to wife. (Terrible story of a man who broke his wife’s arms and she afterward murdered him.) In this period still divorce very hard and woman did not have right to leave her husband, not established until later 1890s and then barely in custom. Of course it offered reform.

This one models ideal masculinity in the person of Captain Croker: self-control, reasoning, protective of women. It means to shore up marriage. We have Miss Mary Fraser who came from South Australia. Her maid, Teresa Wright. Her husband, Sir Eustace Bracknell is seen as an aberrant, instead of presenting humiliation and violence towards wives from husbands as commonplace. Stanley Hopkins is the dense man who calls him in. The wife beater remains in these stories as a man who is outside the norm, fearfully violent (he sets fire to her dog) and this story shows women still in need of protection; not looking for paradigm outside conventional marriage structure. The reality is violence is not an abberation but a cornerstone of marriage.

Other stories where wife or woman abuse at the center: “Norwood Builder,” “Black Peter,” the novella, The Hound of Baskervilles. The Hound of Baskervilles tells of 17th century young women basically abducted by the powerful lord, imprisoned in a room so he can have her when he wants her; she escapes and is hunted down by the hound and torn to bits. He is not punished. The story proper — front story — opens today. So like our gothics we have this back story which has a hard time being told but is key to what we are to think about the family and the happenings.

I mentioned Eustace Bracknell drenched his wife’s dog with petroleum and setting it on fire, p 640. He is a fiend when drunk. Supposedly not himself — as in Mary Reilly; really a transparent rationale. Myself I think the fierce hatred of the man overshadows the presentation of alcoholism as a problem in marriage.

Nowhere is it suggested marriage itself guilty or reasons for it or the reality that such violence could happen without drink and far from recourse the wife would be punished for trying to protect herself; either running away or fighting back. Yet the story is told and as people read it, they do think.

The idea has been to re-invent the terms of marriage which has happened at least in many western countries today.

“Abbey Grange” as a story with particulars is a better text than film — partly because upfront the wife from the get-go asserts her husband was violent, a drunk, and she’s relieved she’s dead. The film does not do that: Plater, the writer was afraid of the audience I suppose. Also at the end instead of leaving Holmes and Watson to absolve the man who murdered the husband, we get this coda worrying about the man that “got off.” This is a story which does edge towards wives who kill their husbands after years of abuse. She does not herself kill him, but she aids and abets it, and her beloved nurse governess companion is active. The film is too sentimental but it is well done and the gothic elements of the story are brought out strikingly.


Particularly creepy image of the two murdered bodies frozen under ice, found by Holmes, Watson and police at close of “Cardboard Box”

“The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (from late collection, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) is the second tale we read. It was suppressed by Conan Doyle. Why? the stories are, above all else, celebrating the power of reason, venerating the human intellect and its ability to penetrate the mysterious surfaces of the world and explain the workings of the universe as rational and fully knowable. Whether the tales are celebrating reason in order to protect middle-class property interests or to defend scientific rationalism is an interesting debate that remains beyond the parameters of this essay. What matters here is that the Sherlock Holmes stories, for whatever end, are designed to glorify reason. Here though the written story follows outward superficial pattern but what we discover is reason leads to murder; but the story ends on Jim Browner’s, Susan and Sarah’s despair and anguish.

The kernel story: Miss Susan Cushing. repressed maiden single woman receives a gift of two ears meant for her sister, Sarah

Joanna David as Susan telling Holmes that her sister, Sarah, engineered the liaison of Mary Browner with Alec Fairburn

The ears are Mary’s and Alec Fairburn’s. Jim believed Alec was Mary’s lover.

Deborah Findlay as Sarah trying to win Jim over: she tells him she has blamed someone else for the gift of the cut-off ears

Sarah had loved Jim, been able to lure Mary off to Fairburn so she could have Jim who wanted nothing of her.

The film, “Cardboard Box” is one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve seen, and that’s due in part to Ciarhan Hinds’s performance as Jim Browner, a deeply tender and loving man who is despised by his wife’s sisters, and when chased after by Sarah becomes uncomfortable. His rage and hurt make him murder his wife, but he remains intensely remorseful, missing her, unable to be alone, haunted by her ghost. He was emotionally tormented by the sister who hounded him for sexual love, his very worship of his wife turned into a weapon to drive a normally protective man wild.

Ciarhan Hinds in prison

Ciarhan Hinds visited by his wife’s ghost (a psychological projection)

Lucy Whybrow as Mary Browner (her ghost reproaches Jim)

“Cardboard Box” also departs from the usual Baker Street, go out and solve the crime, and back to Baker Street format. This format enables the writer to keep the back story just that, held together within a frame and distanced from us. The 1994 “Cardboard Box” begins with the opening phase of the story, Mary and Jim Browner’s wedding, then fast forwards to the present Xmas when Mary runs away and Jim comes home while Susan is running her boarding-house and keeping Christmas. We see Susan quarrel with Sarah and throw her and a paramour of Sarah’s out. Christmas eve is detailed and the delivery of the ears. It’s then Susan loses it (she has been missing Mary). This story is further developed at length through flashbacks, visions, and also Holmes and Watson’s investigations. But the back story is now the front with Holmes and Watson inserted into it.

So, to cut to the quick and be brief, here it is: the gothic is about the patriarchal family, at its center is an exploration of its interior life, in the case of male gothic done from the point of view of men as they experience this (this may be written by women but is not commonly), and in the case of female gothic done from the point of vie of women as they experience it. Gothic stories are family stories and show us what the “law of the father” imposed and causes in interior lives. In the “Abbey Grange” our imprisoned beaten, Psyche heroine is Mary Fraser; in “Cardboard Box,” Jim Browner as the vulnerable, uneducated lower class man (in aristocratic scenarios, he’d be the younger son), is the man traumatized, inverted, disturbed, and the wild interior life in him opened up. In both Holmes is the typical male gothic figure: an outsider, exile, wanderer, unconventional, valuing solitude.

Jeremy Brett as Holmes (“Red Circle”)


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