Archive for December, 2010

Mel Martin as Demelza from the 1996 Stranger from the Sea

Dear friends and readers,

I regret strongly to have to say this eighth Poldark novel represents a sad falling off. While at moments it came alive for me in the way the other seven did — riveting in some indefinable way where I was caring about the characters and involved and forgetting where I was sitting and my surroundings, most often and for long stretches it did not.

The problem is twofold: the characters I cared most about are not in the forefront and the new ones don’t cut it — or not yet. When the fiction came most alive are in the sections where Ross is there and active or Demelza and especially one where they spend a night making love on and off and talking after his long absence. I long to see Morwenna and Drake on the stage again, and when I’m fobbed off with a story about Sam and Rosina Hoblyn (the crippled miner’s daughter whom Demelza tried to unite with Drake) in the mind of Clowance (Demelza and Robb’s daughter) and Demelza’s talk I feel a hollow at the center. We should not be talking about what counts but rather it should be dramatized. Enys has not yet been personated in the book.

I know I’ve written that Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan is central to the series, but I did not feel the truth of this until I read this book. From Poldark 1 through 7 Ross Poldark is said repeatedly to remain deeply engaged emotionally with her (in love, desiring her, attached, caring) and when she’s gone there is no tension between him and Demelza. Demelza has nothing to egg her on, to get back at, to feel estranged about — omitting of course his continual long absencese. Now and again we are told a vein of “bitterness” emerges from Ross but we are never told what it’s from — and most of the time it emerges in conversations with his son, Jeremy, as he listens to his plans, realizes he’s not been consulted. Nor are we told that Demelza wonders why he stays from her for so long, only that she is lonely, feels isolated, without sufficient company when he’s not there.


The character who is most like the earlier ones in some ways: Stephen Carrington, smuggler, privateer, amoral in his way, is not much on the scene for the scene is not one of struggling outsiders. A smuggling adventure between Carrington and Jeremy Poldark is done as a sort of action adventure story. I’m not a boy of 12.

One of the women I care least about, the gay-strong lady type (to me a semi-literary figure) Caroline is here — and a version of her, much harder, meaner, hypocritical and perhaps realer — Lady Harriet to whom the anti-hero, George Warleggan is attracted is also. This leads to the other difference of this fiction. The marquee or world-historical famous characters are a mark of its trying to present public events. The strength of the earlier books has been in their presentation of public world and all its manifestations through the impingement of this on small people, marginalized lives, obscure and private. For the first time I found things happening I didn’t quite understand — like when George Warleggan’s speculation and over-risky investment suddenly goes rotten because we are told the Prince changed his mind — or party. We are expected to know what party the Prince adhered to originally (was it Whig?) and how he veered about. I don’t. He is nudging into being a history book without all the notes.

Graham is failing to produce another novel which combines the characteristics of the best women’s historical romance novels and men’s action-adventure historical political novels of the era, for this combination is the key to his success

Some signs of this falling off are how well past the mid-way point of the book Graham is still repeating snatches of reminders from what happened in previous books or “tag” type lines to unite things — like suddenly I am again reminded that Demelza was/is a miner’s daughter. I have not counted how many times he has repeated this and other little facts to bind this fiction back to the previous. I did come across passages for the first time which felt like I was being fed information about the era.

I find myself comparing this to Trollope’s series novels (Barsetshire, Palliser). For each new novel he invented a new set of characters; Graham doesn’t want to do this: in a sense the Poldark books are one long novel about the same set of characters. But his hero and heroine are now too safe and conventional in position, and he wants us to respect them so is unwilling to present their children as having a hard time, being bad people. This may be a limitation of his own imagination about his own children: he’s not going there. (Trollope by the way did and frequently in his later career). I realized also for the first time how rarely Graham does go inside Ross’s mind — he does not want to risk himself. In his memoir Graham says he is a private man, but (as he knows) when someone writes fiction one must go deep into oneself and reveal what genius shows you.

The weakness makes me also remember how Ross’s continual risk-taking and then winning back what he had lost is most improbable. I’ve been reading reviews of Darnton’s latest book, Poetry and Police: Communication Networks in the Eighteenth Century Paris, and Peter Brooks (NYRB) brings home how for most people, and this would include a fringe powerful man like Ross, it was so easy to lose out altogether, what money, niche opportunity, even the property you might already have and never retrieve your position. The ancien regime was a horrible order, deeply inhumane and unjust.

And how limited his view of Demelza as an older woman is. In a rare active scene towards the end of the book, she is one again at a party at a great house (Bowood, the house of the suitor of Ross and Demelza’s grown daughter, Clowance). And for what seems an umpteenth time Demelza is again seen from same old angle as pretty women men chase and she eludes.

This won’t do. Are to we think this is all that happens to a woman, young, middle-aged and until she gets too old to attract a man (and in the early phase of the book Graham does take out time to register his distaste for an older woman’s skin and physical appearance at the political Duchess’s salon in Book 1) that counts: that some men go after her, and if she’s wise, she eludes them. Is that all he can imagine for her beyond caring for her garden, chickens, and children? to a man maybe. He has not thought for real about what a 40 year old woman might feel and think and find important beyond love-making all night with Ross (i.e., a simulacrum of him).

It’s true one has the same limited view of women in many a 19th century novel, but, for example, in the case of Trollope the novelist is continually inventing new individual characters to embody such male views and so we accept them, and then he really digs deeply into his paradigms, vignettes and puppets and actually comes up with new sexual insights. Nothing like this here.

I’m thinking what a collapse from high energy and excitement and interest it must have been for Graham when the mini-series was not continued. He was after all still writing The Angry Tide when the second series began. They didn’t get a third not because they were not popular but because (1) the BBC runs on internal politics and doesn’t care about popularity or even money that much (though the reason given each time for stopping was the high cost of filming in Cornwall) and 2) Graham couldn’t get up another book quick enough. He’s trying here but without hope of a TV realization by the time he’s come to the end of the book.

Well, let me do justice to what I can, for I still like the series and now and again this book too — there is the same strongly leftist outlook, serious history and political thinking, gift for description, especially of Cornwall, and the original wonderful characters. I realize some of the best ones have not appeared for a couple of books now or much: Dwight Enys is one and in this book Drake and Morwenna, Sam, Emma. Graham intuited where the power of the original conception lies in his last paragraph: for he ends on Ross reading a letter from Clowance’s rich suitor, Fitzmaurice.

So this time I will not be going into as many of the details of the book’s movement phase by phase. Instead I contextualie it against other seven books, offer up a few notes and sketches to suggest where book does come alive and is good, and where and why it falls. I end (in the comments) with talking about the relationship of the Poldark series as a whole to 20th and 21st century women’s historical (at their best about women’s real sexuality) romance and men’s active-adventure (at their best politically-engaged) novels


Drake at his forge, from Season 2 (as imagined by Winston and then turned into a reasonably historically accurate simulacrum)

Having read eight book now I feel the strongest books in the series are actually The Black Moon, The Four Swansand The Angry Tide, and especially the last two. The nightly rapes of Morwenna, the murder of Whitworth, the political scenes, the coming to London and duel in London between Ross and Monk Adderley, the escape of Morwenna into Drake’s arms.

The early ones are strong (Novels 1-4, Ross Poldark, Demelza,Jeremy Poldark, and Warleggan), but it is true to say that the first gained on me slowly and I know I only stayed with it because I had loved the first season of the films so. The opening of Ross Poldark did not grab me particularly: we see our revenant returning from American (the revolution on whose American side he apparently fought — though this is not gone into) and are then put on the bedside of his father dying. A long filling in and creation of place and time through a character takes place. But the book began to hold me when Ross came back on stage. The story of Karen and murder by Daniels of her with Enys as sensitive idealistic doctor was effective, and then of course the coming of the urchin Demelza to Ross’s house and the development of their first relationship as master-guardian and pupil-girl child. Then the erotic liaison and Ross’s determination to marry her partly as a rebellion against his caste, as a finer replacement, someone who would respond to to him the way Elizabeth never would to anyone.

Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza from the first season of films

Jeremy Poldark is beautifully-structured, very tight around the trial (centerpiece) and aftermath so tied also to Ross leading the riot for food and destruction of ships coming into the harbour at the end of Demelza. We get the romance of Enys and Caroline which has real grit because of the class disparity. Warleggan ends on the rape of Elizabeth by Ross and the first real estrangement of Ross and Demelza, but (my view) I think the film adaptation bettered the book with its armageden of another riot, by the workers, burning down of Trenwith and Ross’s leaving Demelza to join the French civil wars on behalf of the French revolutionaries. The last scene at the end of the first series was deep romance, with the two embracing against the seascape of Cornwall. I believe they did play Wagnerian music as well as Cornish.

But I’d say there’s a sudden deepening, move into real darkness of the human spirit in Black Moon, when we begin with Aunt Agatha and her struggle against the vicious narrow George and knowledge Elizabeth’s child is by Ross. And here we meet Drake and Sam and have the story of Drake and Mowenna, her coerced marriage, and have Demelza fall in love with Hugh Armitage and their liaison. It is Armitage she falls in love with; she plans to have sex with Ross to stay with him and gradually the woman’s love grows afterwards.

Demelza and Armitage bedazzled by sexual desire and congeniality

The Enys story never has the depth of the early phase of his affair with Karen and the pre-marriage years. It could as we see how different they are — the temperamental and value disparities, but he is kept from us. He has barely appeared in Stranger; we are told about him, told he’s there. That there’s hardly a picture of him after the first few episodes of the season gives away the loss.

Book 1, Chapters 1-5

Nicholas Greaves as Stephen Carrington

Compare the archetypal strength of this: Ross as alien, as stranger, all the more when coming to politick

I began this 8th Poldark novel the other night. It has been filmed — in 1996. I’ve never seen the film, know only it’s been much maligned, and was framed (as Graham said) by the fan clubs as necessarily awful which it might not have been even if it was a 2 hour production (instead of the more appropriate mini-series) which had dropped the social imagination aspect of the work. In the way popularity or reputation works, it has probably not helped sales of the novel that the film series was so rejected.

Nonetheless, the book seems to be very like those that came before and I found myself absorbed once more. It opens in the Peninsula (Spain) and we are thrust into the peninsula war — so historical politics are the first framing. The Peninsula War is an extremely important war in terms of military strategy. R.E. Lee should have learned lessons from it. So should the commanders in the Crimea and The Great War. Here is a link to an easy introduction.

Another Scott-like opening and another revenant like motif: now “the Englishman” who moves into the landscape is on an observant mission to see how this war is doing. Who does he meet? But his nephew, and we are back with Ross Poldark and Geoffrey Charles, now ten years older — it’s 1810.

This gives Graham an opportunity to remind us of where we were, if we are new readers, to take us back in time, and at the same time set the terms of his political vision. I want to stress it’s all done very lightly so we really do not feel we are being fed information. For a “old hand” reader like myself there is actually a minimum of repetition while I get to know that the Ross’s & Demelza’s second daughter, Clowance is now 16, get to know Geoffrey Charles (important probably — we are told we can hear the voice of Francis but very different sentiments somehow). We hear that Drake and Morwenna are doing “bravish” — they are now working for Ross on his property boat-making.

The second chapter turns our attention to a character who has emerged as a central protagonist, if not likable: George Warleggan. After this past 10 years when he did not marry, did not think of it (not to be expected from such a cool networking guy) he is at last thinking of it. We had been told that in Chapter 1 by Geoffrey Charles who has had wind of this. It is of course now a rich woman. We are in George’s mind: he remembers how he did not marry Elizabeth for love, but as a beauty and prize he wanted, and how he slowly grew to appreciate, respect, like, depend on her. And we move into Trenwith which has been let go and the Warleggan group. Peeking ahead I saw a segment of this second chapter moves into Demelza’s world with Clowance, but I was too tired and had to give it up …

I admit this opening material is not intensely holding but as I’m into the fiction already, I feel gratified to be back. I like Ross, like Geoffrey Charles, like the political view (strongly liberal in the 1970s sense and on the side of reform in the early early 19th) and moving in. This kind of opening shows Graham’s continued adherence to the historical novel as a vehicle for social and political vision, here the Peninsula War.

It is this transition period, the couple of years leading into the Regency and the wars abroad that Graham’s Stranger in the Sea attempts to put before the reader. In that sense it’s a worthy book showing his commitment to the serious political uses of history novels. Who knows much about the Peninsula War? or why we should praise and empathize with Sir John Moore? I’m ever forgetting what I’m supposed to know about him. Jane Austen mentions him in passing in one of her letters — Cassandra missing snipping out that one. The opening two chapters of Stranger from the Sea takes place in Portugal, not your usual venue for historical romances.

Goya, May 2, 1808

Back in Cornwall, Demelza watching for son and his friends on the seacoast and sees them pulling two apparently dead bodies are pulled from Nampara cove, and one is discovered to be close to death, but not there yet, and retrieved by Enys (with intense warmth, fluids, and then brandy and port). This will bring us Stephen Carrington.

The difficulty Graham faced in this one is it’s necessary for time to move on and he has to invent a new group of characters and they must interest us as much as those we’ve been engaged by. This is in a way harder than Trollope’s method of inventing a whole new set of characters who are then attached by a narrow chord to the Pallisers and then allowed to drift off and disappear by the end of each book, for the characters must relate intimately to our present ones. Sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, with George Warleggan now rousing himself to interest in a new woman at last who outward paradigm reminds me of the gay lady Caroline Penvenen may be likened to;

Sarah Carpenter as Lady Harriet, later in the story reading George’s letter

only Lady Harriet Carter is a widow on hard times (a bad marriage with some serious vibes that her husband was not only a gambler, rake, but cruel sexually to her too) and her world (she’s high status) brought in to bring us into the regency political ring. The letters of George and Lady Harriet very good — convincing, he buying back a horse of hers lost at an auction that she partly hated because of its association with her husband, and she refusing it as a present.

George gives Graham much mileage. He is as attracted to this ambitious networking man as he is to Ross I realize. We have a trip to Manchester and a fine evocation (if I may use the word fine) of the misery of the early industrial scene and credit to the few who did grow enormously wealthy suddenly. A winner take all game like the US in 1210. And Lady Harriet connects us to the world of great houses in mid-England too.

As a comfort book too: I find that the world of Demelza which is kept up — the local scene, a woman’s world of children, household — is one that is presented with great allurement as is she once again. I find myself romancing with Graham in liking this life of hers — how I long to go to Cornwall in 1212 (Jim and my latest dream).

Bk 1, Chapters 6-9: turning into a type 2 historical fiction

John Bowe as Ross grown older

Each volume of the Poldark books are different. This is certainly borne out by Stranger from the Sea. I’d say going back to Graham’s categorizations this is no longer type 3 (the historical novel where all are fictional), we are approaching Type 2 (the historical novel where secondary characters are real historical personages). I don’t know that Canning is a world-historical or marquee character, but the prince regent is and he turns up in a scene; both certainly existed and we have two scenes between him and Ross. We have had in the previous novels references to world historical characters and heard the characters discuss having some relationship but this is the first novel where they are bought on stage. This is part of Graham’s effort to bring the fiction into another era

Brief notes: Ch 6:iii-iii. Talk Xmas time between Dwight, Caroline and Demelza. Again we see clashes of values. Caroline wants her daughters to “rise” somehow, is worried for Sophia amd Meliora. Dwight demurs and Demelza talks of how she wants for her daughters versions of what she has had.

Clowance and Nicholas Greaves as Stephen Carrington (renamed Cravensen in the film)

The stranger from the sea becomes a character, Stephen Carrington. He is another outsider it comes to Demelza’s mind, so a kind of parallel to Demelza and Ross both, another variant on this theme. A warm loving scene between Clowance and Carrington where they do not go all the way. I may be mad but I see a parallel between Austen’s S&S and this one: Marianne and Willoughby visit Allenham where there is no chaperon we are told; the only movie to try to dramatize this, Andrew Davies/Pivcevic/Alexander’s has this as a moment where they do come close to going to bed. What is suggestively possible in Austen’s text. Here the couple “return” to the Poldark family home that Clowance has already been “haunting” I’ll call it. The house and landscape and family presence are central to this fiction.

Ch 7-8: George visits the Enys family to pump Enys for information about George III. An insight in this fiction: Dwight is himself getting involved in the earliest phase of interest in the mentally ill and genuine attempts to help them — this was done in the regency, I’ve read about this in the 1810s and 20s somewhere. We hear about this in detail that is convincing because it’s just enough and out of Enys mind. In the conversation that ensues Caroline pumps George for information about Lady Harriet more than George gets from Dwight.

Ross and Canning’s at the end of the second the Prince joins in conversations bring in real-poltick of the era — rather like Walter Scott. I love how Ross sees the UK: Ross is for peace and neither Canning nor the Prince are, and he sort of brings out his views as side comments; “we are after all an unimportant island attempting too much, are we not? … Staining our resources to no effect, wasting our blood and treasure in trying to restrict the expansion of the great French nation” (p. 134).

Ross’s views show us what Graham’s views were of the US (and UK with it) military oligarchy spending huge sums around the world to restrict socialism at the cost of millions of lives everywhere. Graham didn’t need to read the new post-colonialism discourse to know this.

I reread Chapter 8 and was struck by how Scott-derived this encounter between Ross Poldark first with Sheridan briefly, and then with the Prince of Wales. Prinny is presented in the most disillusioned manner — making modern movies look simply dripping with reverence. I had said that Poldark is presented as friends with George Canning on and off and Canning is presented more neutrally; Sheridan has made himself an instrument; and as for “prinny” he does come across as colorful, larger than life. It differs from Scott’s treatment in that there is nothing ambivalent about Graham’s (through Ross’s) irritation and disgust, and the extrapolation out to our own time (post-colonialist destruction) is not flinched from. Ross’s point of view is part of this: our 18th century Che Guevara sees “a fat fop and his dandified manners and his lisle stockings and snuffboxes. If this was the future King of England … ” The prince doesn’t listen to what doesn’t fit with his preconception; he sees immediately that Ross is going to tell him about the devastation caused, the coming absurd defeat (nothing gained) and Ross’s own lack of reverence towards him. Ross thinks of walking out abruptly as he feels it’s useless, but controls himself as he has learned to; he tells himself he will have tried.

It’s a new or individual version of the old choice: be complicit and try to shape things some; refuse to be co-opted. Graham shows his hero trying to appear complicit (and he is as a landowner and MP) and seeing he cannot shape things to come.

Chapter 9, an assembly dance and dinner, and another marquee character appears: Sir Humphry Davies as friends with Dwight Enys. This novel has quite a different atmosphere from the previous ones, lighter somehow. I’m not sure I like it as much as the era changes into the Regency one. I think I’ve been too tired again and shall have to reread again: much politics as Canning appears and interacts with a young man interested in Clowance: Fitzmaurice. If the spirit of the book (its genius loci in the female vein) is Lady Harriet, I probably won’t like it as much as I have the others.

I think I’ve managed to “get into” this book now. This is the first one I’ve had to persist and work at, and had I not read all the previous, I might not have stuck to it. So I would definitely not recommend any one to begin here.

The problem for me is the atmosphere is somewhat changed, and thus the mood. Graham is (perhaps) imitating Regency novels as he sees them, not Regency Romances of the 20th cenutry, but something more like what’s said to be the norm of Bulwer-Lytton and silk fork books. These are not exactly the sort of books I rush to open. There is still Ross at the center, taking a jaundiced alienated view from what he is surrounded by so that helps (enormously) and as for Demelza, well, she just stays well away from say the Duchess’s ball. Ross is sickened by the Prince, alive to the waste of the war and horrors, and yet alive to not despising and using the men, supportive of Sir John Moore — you do need to know something of the history of the peninsula war and the phases of the Napoleonic ones.

I’ve been reading a little Balzac: a little goes a long way with me, and at a great distance I can see the connection of Graham’s assembly to Balzac’s opening in Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans/Courtiers.

Book 1, Chapter 9, Book 2, Chapters 1-7

Ioan Guffurd as Jeremy Poldark

I read a great chunk of this novel yesterday and have to say that while at moments it came alive for me in the way the other 7 did — riveting in some indefinable way where I was caring about the characters and involved and forgetting where I was sitting and my surroundings, it often did not.

Mid-point in chapter 8 there’s a good example of what I mean about this book not moving on: Demelza and Clowance walking near where Sam and Rosina now live (Pally’s shop, he has taken over Drake’s shop and thus is rising in the world): Demelza moves into a reverie remembering the first night she and Ross made love and how she initiated that in order to prevent him from returning her to her father. It’s a moving moment, this bit of memory. But it’s from another book, one 7 books ago. It’s not a new experience (p. 280).

The smuggling encounter?

Chapter 8 improves suddenly when Jeremy goes to visit the Trevanions where he has made an acquaintance with their daughter on the night he fled the Prevention men (anti-smugglers hired by the government) with her help. Now we have another public occasion, but this time no world-historical famous characters, rather new ones introduced, but one previous one: Valentine, George Warleggan’s son: he has turned out to be mercenary and cynical; he talks to Jeremy in a sneering boastful way of his conquests in women; and implicitly denigrates Clowance in ways he must do many women (pp. 291-3). Point made that biology is only the start: with no Elizabeth around to counter anything, this is a son of George, only worse.

This too brings exemplifies what I wrote yesterday: Graham is not willing to allow dark and complicated depths to the children of Demelza and Ross; their home is described as always filled with laughter and up to a point frank and free.

Book 2, Chapters 8-9, Bk 3, Chapters 1-3

Jeremy Poldark with Amanda Ryan as Cuby Trevanion

I see I’m expected to take a genuine real interest in Jeremy Poldark and his story. He is having hard time being accepted by the Trevanions, and Graham writes a powerful enough scene of how when, after Jeremy sees the (half-insulting because so brief and transparently a snub) letters from Mrs Bettesworth refusing Demelza’s inviation to Clowance, he goes straight to the Trevanion house. That’s a Ross kind of gesture. He is simply in effect insulted to his face. They go so far as to refuse to offer him tea after his long journey there and one back. One of the male relatives shamelessly tells him he’s not good enough for Cuby. I didn’t find myself as incensed as I should have been as somehow I have not been made to care enough for Jeremy Poldark. There is then a scene between Cuby and Jeremy where she is clearly intensely distressed but it’s not clear that it’s because she likes and wants to be courted by Jeremy or is upset by his demands as she really identifies with her family group. It’s a good scene and is another parallel to the earlier stories of coerced marriages.

We are getting in at another angle than we did before.

Michael Attwell as George Warleggan

Another thread in the book is the reality that the Poldarks could apparently have destroyed George Warleggan. He is so badly in debt and his bank without funds that were the bank Poldark is a partner in call in his (bad) loans they’d destroy him. A fine and interesting political-social scene where we see Ross meet with the other share-holders. This is the sort of thing that makes this novel so different from many historical novel-romances (nothing like it at all in DuMaurier) and makes it place it against Trollope — who has political scenes but usually avoids this truth about money and wheeler-dealing. What we see is that the vote goes partly on behalf of not destroying Warleggan. Not because (as we see acknowledged in the meeting and Ross’s and other thoughts) Warleggan has been a destructive terror to the community, enclosing, firing on mass, acting as a justice to destroy, sending slanderous letters around, and in the case of Ross, he knows he could be long dead because Warleggan egged Monk Adderley on, but because 3 out of the 5 consider their personal interests make it possible they could use Warleggan and might need him.

More to the relevant point today: this group of people fear that were Warleggan to fail, many in the community would suffer. This is the same thinking we see led Obama and his chieftains to save the banks in the US. Happily no great sums from the people in the area will go to save Warleggan. He can’t fleece them the way the banks do us today — everywhere (as about education for example).

It comes down to Ross’s vote. A powerful couple of pages where he cannot decide whether to say yes, destroy Warleggan or no. Finally he abstains. That means Warleggan survivies and we have a scene of him and his father-uncle saved so now plotting again.

One influence on Ross was Demelza. She was against destroying Warleggan for she said they would have to live with themselves if they did that. When he comes home, he is not proud of himself, but feels very ambivalent, after all this is leaving George with power to again do much harm, and interestingly, Demelza feels the same.

It’s at such moments the book comes back to its greater strengths. It makes us think. Ross’s abstaining from voting against George Warleggan lets a man who has shown total disregard for the fundamentals of humanity to get away with it. Demelza’s encouraging this shows how she is a woman functions as compromiser.

Book 3, Chapters 2-3: A Cornish summer solstice celebration

Hans Mathesen who plays Ben Carter

The Cornish summer solstice celebration Demelza organizes is a good example of how Graham is falling off. He has read a good deal about Cornwall and knows all the customs that could be followed on a beach near a house during such a high summer evening. So he has these characters he loves and he puts them through their traces making their characteristic comments and behaviors. Caroline (we are told) is pressured into becoming Lady of the Flowers ceremony and singing an old non-English (gaelic? of some sort) song. Ross is the chief, Demelza the maker. The scenes are lovely but it’s using characters as if they were puppets, not developing them further. The young people we are told stayed up into the dawn, and at the end Stephen Carrington (our stranger from the sea) is seen, along with a local crippled girl, in a place where superstition says augurs a coming death for both.

There’s nothing wrong, harmful, bad in such an idyllic interlude but if there were a strong fictional story with intense crises a working all around into which this was interwoven it would be like poetry. I’m not enough involved and I never liked Caroline. Graham does and did. And where are Morwenna and Drake? He is avoiding them

It’s as if Graham’s imagination is only set on fire when society forbids and estranges what’s natural: Drake talking to Morwenna before she is coerced into marriage

A mistake showing Graham’s lack of literary interests. He does not have any of his characters serious readers. Demelza says she would find going to the upper class home to which Clowance has been invited (we are told she has an upper class suitor, Fitz-Maurice, a near beggar, Ben Carter, and the rogue type Carrington — see the schematization is put in front of us!), and she imagines “taking a turn in the park and talking prettily about Mr Scott’s latest novel.” (p. 373). Ouch. This is supposed to be 1811. Scott had not written any of his novels as yet. Graham is imaging the historical novels of others as well as 18th century ones in which this kind of thing happens (say Austen) and does not want his heroine there.

The next chapter moves back to the story of Jeremy and we learn how hard he’s working to make a machine, to bring Wheal Leisure back to life — of course, naturally he has somehow managed to buy the property. This is fudged since according to Graham’s fiction this giving over of Wheal Leisure back to the Poldarks is the last thing George Warleggan would tolerate, it would reallybe over his dead body first).


I left off when Stephen Carrington is seen by Clowance coming up from the beach. His presence has been way too fragmentary. I find myself wondering what was happening in Graham’s life that he should so eschew the very type of male that he put at the center of his fiction before; Carrington could have replaced Ross as a burning center, but has not. He has not invented any woman to replace the now complacent Demelza. Lady Harriet looked interesting as a much harder meaner version of Caroline, but she too has been pushed aside.

Book 3, Chapters 4-6: Graham wakes up

Sarah Carpenter as Lady Harriet before she married George Warleggan

Unexpectedly and to my surprise, the book suddenly improved enormously. As the dinner party given by the Enys which includes George Warleggan and son, Valentine, the two Poldark young adults, Jeremy and Clowance, other young adults connected to them, Ben Carter (in love with Clowance – who several young men we are asked to believe are in love with), and Lady Harriet – why she turns up I can’t say except that we were told early on Caroline knew her as the elite of the era were small and she might just know another society lady in London, a duke’s sister.

The conversation became biting and the turns and twists of interest as reflecting their future lives and on themes of genuine moment. The reader listening especially to Clowance and Valentine is supposed to recall they are half-brother and sister, and if we don’t, Graham is determined we shal by having them explicitly talk about how they are not really related (Valentine’s mother’s first husband was cousin to Clowance’s father). There is real banter. I do note though that Dwight Enys might as well not be there; he doesn’t register a presence at all, and we again get characters reminding us and themselves of what happened in previous books. There is after some rebarbative give and take an assignation set up between George and Harriet. We listen to Valentine’s thoughts: at one point he’s thinking he wouldn’t mind his strong father’s death.

We then get one of the economic sequences. Jeremy is building, has built a machine which will now help to make Wheal leisure more profitable and safer is the idea; Carrington accepts hard labor and (though he at first declines) is given the rate of pay of a laborer. Not improbably this throws him into contact with Clowance and we do get one of the “old” powerful scenes of sexual entanglement between them on the beach. Probably what I don’t care for that much is how much she is made into this virtuous type, but not quite. We feel that despite her knowledge that the night Carrington arrived (St John’s Eve was the Solstice celebration) he had sex with (I don’t use the “f” word lest we be categorized as “adult”) a crippled vulnerable girl who he supposed took to the festival out of pity for her – and active kindness; despite this knowledge and our alert sense Carrington is wild and not to be trusted, lawless (he got Jeremy almost jailed, perhaps imprisoned for a long time and thus dead), she might just “go” for this guy, i.e., marry him. The scene was intense with frisson of sex and betrayal and nuances of give-and-take.

By the way, would we had had that scene — would Violet have been brought before us. This vulnerable girl afraid to go to the festival. Her being brought there and then taken advantage of by this cad Carrington. Alas Graham shows no sympathy and seems to look at her as just some woman who is weak and attracted to Carringtons “great charm.” A failure of imagination towards women I identify with there.

Jerome de Groot says one mark of the male historical novel of the 20th century is 1) its conservatism (that is not true of Graham — but he is not mentioned anywhere in de Groot! — as Graham says he is a that curiosity, a forgotten big-seller); and 2) its penchant for active adventure. I don’t believe such sequences for real, especially when the hero emerges unscathed (and that goes for Ross’s escapes). In this book Jeremy and Carrington’s adventure did not hit out at larger political issues sufficiently, but then as a smuggler Carrington is simply a thief, not a free-trader so to speak.

Part of the weakness of the book is Graham’s inability to imagine a middle-aged woman’s inner life apart from males chasing after hero or advice to her daughter on her love life. His feminism, real understanding and sympathy with women’s sexuality is limited. He has not managed to combine the woman’s historical romance novel with the man’s in this one.

An alive scene between her and Clowance deciding whether to visit the great house where her suitor, Fitz-Maurice resides shows how she compromises; she really would rather not go but if her daughter likes the young man, she will. We get a real sense of reluctance and acknowledgement she might experience small humiliations but this is put aside and we are asked just to think about whether Clowance really thinks she might love this young man.

For the conclusion to the book, assessment and the context of women’s versus men’s historical novels in our era, see comments

The visit to Bowood house


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Colin Firth during press conference promoting The King’s Speech

I’ll begin with The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper (he also directed Daniel Deronda), screenplay David Seidler and numerous producers.

The microphone is a central image repeated from the opening sequence to the close: it’s what demanded of this man with a stammer, that he speak out into it

It’s a deeply absorbing, nay (for me) riveting movie in which with sensitive empathy, utterly convincing, Colin Firth enacts Bertie or George VI as someone afflicted with a very bad stammer, strong sense of inadequacy (despite his high rank), along with a truly noble, ethical, kindly nature. Good father, loving husband too. Yes, it’s another of these deeply reverent movies about the British monarchy, with our central characters behaving with exemplary perception and well-meaningness. Everyone but Firth is made up to look closely like the (unattractive) people they are enacting, so much so I am putting on this blog the actors in their ordinary clothes

Helena Bonham Carter was Elizabeth, George VI’s wife

Both women — Jennifer Ehle played Myrtle, Logue, the speech therapist’s wife — spent their time looking compassionate, reassuring, patting the men or children in sight. Their remarkable talents were thrown away, or only a smidgin of it used. Bonham Carter is protean in the types and power she lends to all her roles (she is the only live presence in the recent Harry Potter film). I suggest Ehle did not get the lead role for to see her next to Firth at the closing scene on the balcony greeting and reassuring their adoring public as WW2 sets grimly in would reek too strongly of Darcy and Elizabeth grown middle-aged

Jennifer Ehle recently

Part of the fun for me was to bring out of my memory which actor was this or that person playing this or that role. I felt a certain triumph on recognizing in Baldwin an aged Anthony Andrews, in a minor functionary David Bamber. These surrounding roles bring me to why I say in my header but doesn’t bear too much thinking about. The performances felt dazzling in part because the stereotypes were so cleverly inflected with corruption, flattery, aggrandizement, as, for example, Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop kept stealing the scenes:

Jacobi steals this scene (Ely Cathedral stood in for Westminster Abbey)

But all the roles except Bertie, Logue and (for a bit) David (Edward) were stereotypes. The full psychological reality given George VI and apparently Geoffrey Rush as Logue makes us not pay attention to how little beyond two dimensions is given anyone else.

I say apparently because a little thought makes one realize how idealized, unreal is the account of Logue in the film:

Logue and Bertie walking in the park together

Lionel Logue had no degree; he is presented as someone without much money who gets along (just) on his unconvenional therapy business. Logue became something of a Rasputin the way he managed to help the Duke and then king who became dependent on Logue’s presence for the rest of his life when it came to public speaking (which happened often enough). After all there is a direct parallel between Edward’s (called David in the film, played by David Pearce) infatuation with Mrs Simpson (Eve Best) and the development of such a strong dependency on her, he gives up his throne to have her as his life’s support and companion. But in this film Mrs Simpson is demonized: presented as ludicrously promiscuous, exploitative, hard, and Edward as cruel and nasty, derisive to his younger brother, Bertie, so we don’t think to see the parallel, but there is one. This kind of dependence with someone who is an utter outsider can be seen in other members of the royal family (Prince Charles has shown this).

Can it be the mediocrity of their intelligence and pressure of the fishbowl job? Jim did say the story explaining how Bertie came to stammer was true enough: he was bullied by a nanny, his older brother, his father, George V (played by Michael Gambon, as presented a piece of cake, so easy) did say to Bertie: I was terrified by my father and I will make you very scared to me (words to this effect). One of the most moving moments in the film has Firth breaking down into tears not just because he stammers, but because he has been so narrowly educated (he’s only a naval officer).

At any rate had whatever the relationship between Logue and George VI been thought about with intelligence, regarding them as complex, ambivalent adults interacting, instead of Logue all love and pious support and the King at first disdainful, distrustful but then sheer gratitude, the movie might have made a serious statement about the condition and experience of life of a super-privileged disabled man. It was something more complex than the servant becoming the master; it was not simply playing at being equals (as is suggested by Logue). Logue and Bertie used one another.

Alas the film offered no adult useful insights into the relationship between a life-long therapist-companion and powerful disabled person.

The film was rather simply popularly heart-wrenching because Firth knows how to be heart-wrenching with poised dignity. Jeremy Irons slides too far into the neurotic (perhaps is too thin) so he can be mocked and for men in our macho culture is embarrassing. Firth remains close to calm control, on the edge of the breaking point (and the massive shoulders help project this image).

The music (non-diegetic) was repeatedly Beethoven, including the king’s last speech, given upon the declaration of WW2 was eloquent. I assume this is the one George VI gave.

I thought my friends and readers might also like to know we three (Jim, aka the Admiral, Izzy and I) passed our Christmas day together.

Early morning Izzy and I watched some videos of spectacular ice-skate dancing to the music of the Nutcracker (a famous pas de deux arrangement); when it came time to exchange presents (around 11:30) we all liked our gifts. I knew mine were new sets of the Poldark two mini-series, newly digitalized DVDs with a few features, but Jim and Izzy didn’t know theirs. He loved his Sondheim book of lyrics, brief essays, photographs: Finishing the Hat, and Izzy seemed to appreciate her two biographies of J.K. Rowling to the point that when we returned around 5 am, she took both to her room in the back to start reading.

We worried perhaps we were going too early and to too early a showing of The King’s Speech (see above) when we set out directly after present-opening, but in fact we arrived only 20 minutes before The King’s Speech was to begin and by 12:25 pm when it did the theater was packed. When we got out at around 2:30 lines to get in were long. Mark’s Duck House was the same non-pretentious place, and again my heart sunk a bit when I saw what seemed to be a crowd in front and at least a half-hour wait. But no, since we were just 3 we got a table quickly. The meal was scrumptious: spring rolls, dumplings, peking duck, eggplant, and beef fried rice. My glass of Merlot was fine.

After 5 when we arrived home, Jim stayed in the front reading his new book and listening to the Messiah, Izzy read her book in the back, watched ice-skating, listened to more Christmas music and had the TV on. I watched three more episodes of Barchester Chronicles (for my Trollope project), drank madeira, finished Graham’s Stranger from the Sea.

We were all tired from our efforts on one another’s behalf by 9 pm tonight. Yesterday Izzy had had her third date with Jessie, and came home from the National Gallery with presents; we will go forth to reciprocate with some for him this Monday. And Christmas Eve Jim and I had had our usual long walk, this time to the Masonic Temple to gaze out at Old Town from a height, and then round the neighborhood to see the lights. I had written on facebook:

Twilight walk in our neighborhood & Old Town, Alexandria. We do this each year on the 24th. There were fewer houses with Christmas lights this year and none like a circus, though some houses lit (new occupants?) for the first time. An in-between time, day’s last light when night-time seems to come as peace slowly. Strange picturesque. And then the dark.

And now today our talk had been good and all was kindness and cheer between us, but it was something of an effort as it was (as usual) just us three — and when we were home, the two pussycats. I had managed to post a little to 6 listservs (!) in the morning, and read through a series of essays on Trollope’s Palliser novels (I’m almost ready to write).

I’ve written this blog to keep myself awake to midnight that I might sleep for 5-6 straight and wake up refreshed and ready for Day 2 (Boxing Day).


P.S. For Boxing Day at the National Gallery see “Reveries under the Sign of Austen.”

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Isabel Collard (Christine Kavanagh) accused of murdering her brother-in-law and lover, Roger (James Faulkner) and mother-in-law, Harriet Collard (Judy Parfitt) (Blackheath Poisonings, 1992)

Dear friends and readers,

Now I’ve re-watched all 26 episodes of the Palliser films, re-read all my blogs, and am watching for a second time Simon Raven’s 1992 adaptation of Julian Symons’s BlackHeath Poisonings (a pseudo- or imitation, pastiche 19th century mystery text).

I’m staring at the central question the volume I’m aiming my essay at is supposed to answer, Adaptation: British Literature of the Nineteenth Century and Film:

What do particular adaptations of 19th century texts reveal about the ways we understand, respond to, analyze 19th century culture?

and rereading the series of postings on what unites film adaptations of 19th century novels in my Reveries blog. I compared a number of adaptations of 19th century novels:

Hardy Films: Two Tesses and One Jude

The Golden Bowl: films from 19th versus 18th century sources

to a number of adaptations of 18th century novels, stories, texts:

Quills: Sade and Austen

One Duchess and One Cornwall Landowner: 18th versus 19th century sources

In a nutshell, my idea is 18th century films repeatedly delve into sexuality for its own sake and present the issues of each in such a way that we delve deeply into the nature of people’s psychologies interacting with the mores and issues of their particular social groups. This lends itself to abstract social issues like say slavery (as in Amazing Grace where the accent is on the individual’s inner world). The 19th century films turn to social and familial pathologies, attempt a larger picture of society in which these pathologies are formed, and we see how the social roles imposed on people conflict with and/or sustain their deepest needs and desires.

The full truth is, though, the Henry James films don’t fit this neat opposition. Since James was himself a closet gay and his books closet gay books (on a quiet level, see Roderick Hudson), they allow themselves to be used for exploration of sexual issues. For example, Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady.

One has to take into account changes in dramaturgy, technology and the way film-makers think they should and can make films. The dramaturgy of the 1970s is essentially staged plays or playlets, as as capable of holding the viewer as anything from the mesmerizing computerized and radical new modern thematizations of the 1990s and recent poetic cinematographies (1st decade 21st century) are. You must have great actors to carry it off and good scripts. The dramaturgy and cinematography is of the older stage scene kind; no montages, little voice-over, no mesmerizing computers and music. The acting is not quite all but a great deal of it. They build slowly, and slowly the characters emerge, and the story evolves and its worlds are created before us.

The 1990s after 1991 BBC Clarissa (a landmark film in retrospect) use modern computer techniques, zoom, distancing, jump cuts, on location with good cameras, huge sums on places and luxuries — important as all this is — but the outlook. They use overtly sexual scenes and include transgressive (homosexual and lesbian) sex.

Which angle to take perplexes me too:

The authorial one? If Raven’s, then we lose Trollope. Trollope’s Pallisers however well-known and brilliant do not tell the whole story of the man, and especially as by Raven emphasize the upper class material in his vision. By contrast though the same man’s vision is found in Herbert Wise’s Malachi’s Cove out of Trollope’s short story.

how different the angle on Trollope’s vision is provided by his story (part of the source for this film done in Cornwall), this film and the filmic onlocation (Cornwall the cliffs by the sea where the poor made a living gathering seaweed for manure). It’s a startling revelation of Trollope’s ethical vision and inclusiveness.

The generic context: the Pallisers comes before the 1980s and Brideshead Revisited and the later 1970s build up toward sophistication. It is a relatively naive film technically in comparison to what came later, viz., they are not conscious of what they are doing in the way of the 1990s films and thus bare or stripped away from the kinds of intensities of meanings coming out of the images that one sees in Blackheath Poisonings for all its inferiority of story, plot and themes. They rarely use voice-over, have no flashbacks that I can remember, remember strictly within very conventional presentations of sexuality with women strongly repressed (by themselves and through preaching.

Filmic Trollope: Davies has spoken very little of his work on He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now. There are no features in the DVDs of these two, no over-voice commentaries. All I have are articles by Sarah Cardwell on TWWLN. Trollope’s are apparently not “tracer texts,” texts that hit home somewhere so strongly that they become sociological events when they are filmed and generate other filmings close by. The content of such texts becomes traces found in many other works. Not even Barchester Towers can lay a claim to that — though it is remembered as the progenitor of academic politics-mysteries books in Showalter’s Faculty Towers (a study of this subgenre).

For summary and commentary on Diane Sadoff’s Victorian Vogue, see comments.


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Burgo (Barry Justice) hysterically weeping on shoulder of his vampiric aunt, Lady Monk (1974 BBC Pallisers 2:3)

Dear friends,

Thus do all things come together: back to Palliser films & I find the Balzac book alluded to in the Pallisers is alluded to in Lost in Austen: if I can do it, there’s still a window for me to publish a paper on Palliser films. (Not sure I can as I’ve stacks of student papers to read, not to omit life’s daily tasks). Still trying, and what do I find but an allusion in Lost in Austen to the same book centrally used in Palliser 2:3.

About two weeks ago now I was told by the editor of a (proposed or coming) volume of essays on film adaptations of 19th century texts that there was still time (perhaps) and room for me to publish a paper on the Palliser films. Thus I’m now trying to devote my time — 6 to 7 hours a day I’ve managed thus far — to developing and writing a paper on the Palliser films by early January. It was at this editor’s suggestion I write a paper on Austen and film adaptations or Trollope and film adaptations for a possible published collection that began me on this long time work on films I’ve been doing the last three to four years.

I took it up and liked it a lot and took it much further. I thought I had long ago missed the “sell-by” date or the project had fallen through: she said other contributors were not wanting to write without a promise of publication for sure; maybe the publisher said no. It seems two essays are very weak and the publisher did not want to go forward. They are from the titles all so abstract and mine will not be but I assume since she said she liked what I wrote on my blog on Pallisers and her co-editor did (Thomas Leitch) I’d try. She invited me to use some of the enormous amount of material I’d created in my many blogs.

Well in an effort to find an angle I am thinking of using intertextuality in the Palliser films: Raven said more than once that he never owned a TV. He also never went on the set to supervise the filming of his mini-series. I have not located any allusions to other films that matter in his mini-series. He did worked hard and diligently and took more than 5 years over the Palliser scripts though I have found one type thus far: to books, political books specifically: The three episodes revolving Phineas’s time in prison have a striking allusions to Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career:

Monk (Bryan Pringle, an honest thoughtful politician) picks up Phineas’s cell reading: Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career (and then Trollope’s American Senator, Pallisers 9:18).

I went ahead and read that brilliant book and discovered that it may be read as a parallel type book to the two Phineas books (young man’s rise and near fall in politics) and that the allusion is significant in understanding the Palliser films’ take on the Phineas books. Ditto an allusion to the highly political (relevant) American Senator by Trollope in the same scene.

Now this is but one instance. In Pallisers 2:3, three times a character is seen reading Balzac’s Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans: Lady Glen twice, Mr Botts (both with grins) once.

Lady Glen (Susan Hampshire) as avid reader of Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes, Pallisers 1:2)

When Lady Midlothian comes to call, Lady Glen finds she is sitting on it and holds it out as the scene goes on. I know that Trollope said he was writing in the tradition of Balzac, and that Raven said he loved Balzac’s novels and referred to Balzacian country when he talked of writing the Palliser films.

So I’ve now read (and mightily dislike) an English translation of said novel: A Harlot High and Low by Rayner Heppenstall. I find the book at once revolting and a fascinating entry (so to speak), intervention into the French novel world of the 19th century by the masters (include Sand there). An online comparison of Hugo’s treatment of prostitutes and his reaction to the French revolution and huge injustices of society to Balzac’s probably captures why I disliked A Harlot High and Low.

And now to my finding: Yesterday I proctored three final exams — 2 hours and 45 minutes three times. So I got a lot of reading in :). I did manage to churn through Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low (French: Splendeurs et miseres de Courtisanes) to the end.

For my project on Austen movies, I’ve now written four blogs on Lost in Austen. I find this movie fascinating and even enjoy it nowadays. Well, there is a studied allusion in Lost in Austen lost on those who have not read Balzac’s novel. The variously titled (the implication is all of these are phony) Marquise/Countess de or Madam) Serisy is an utterly corrupted and corrupting high society woman Lucien de Rubempre goes to bed with regularly — as do many of her escorts. She is one of the books courtesans (Esther, the book’s pathetic anti-heroine is its chief prostitute). It hit a memory chord and I realized that the startling fiction Amanda Price in Lost in Austen comes up with as a result of prompting by Wickham is an allusion to A Harlot High and Low.

Wickham (Tom Riley) teaching Amanda (Jemima Rooper) the dress and ways of the world (Lost in Austen)

The name is conjured up as one to conjure with by Wickham while he is dressing Amanda properly. He tells her to use it as one she can intimidate others with; thus are we are (those of us who recognize this) to know what Wickham’s been reading.

Amanda taking in the lesson of the Countess de Serisy

In the context of the film this does not criticize Wickham adversely because he is presented sympathetically as someone who can float through the world (the world “float” is Simon Raven’s used by Burgo Fitzgerald in his film adaptations of the Pallisers) even though he has no money or connections worth speaking of anymore; he’s a survivor and knows the techniques of lasting, including stitching for wounds, where women are who do this kind of thing, and we know he won’t mind when he discovers Caroline Bingley (denominated “Frosty-nickers” by Amanda) is a lesbian — we know she was planning to marry Darcy because it was the thing to do so know she will not mind heterosexual sex all that much. She doesn’t mind much, this hard female character. I remind all who have seen this parody re-creation Caroline is last seen jumping from Lady Catherine’s coach to meet Wickham waiting in the road for her.

Caroline (Christina Cole) playing hard flirtatious games with Wickham from the carriage

Amanda uses it at Rosings in front of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It’s the first moment Lady Catherine treats her with any respect.

Amanda shortly before she plays the Serisy card for Lady Catherine (Lindsay Duncan), with Jane Bennet (Morven Christie) by her side

Lady Catherine is unwilling to insult or dismiss anyone who comes with the compliments of the Countess de Serisy. The address and place in Paris that Amanda comes up with when Mr Darcy asks her could she give them a bit more information about this Countess de Serisy who wants to send her compliments to Lady Catherine de Bourgh are those cited by Balzac whose seething distaste is found in the chapter of the novel (Penguin, p 349) called “A Parisian type.”

That Darcy is suspicious shows he is sharp and that is not quite fooled also shows he’s no dunce.

Darcy (Elliot Cowan) dubious

But that he never heard of this name or woman or place gives away he is something of an innocent (uncorrupted) man when it comes to the demi-monde.

I should mention that the paper I gave at the recent JASNA at Portland, “‘People that marry can never part:‘ an intertextual reading of [the gothic] in Northanger Abbey” has now been published jn Persuasions Online

Thus do all things come together,

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Elisabetta (Marina Poplavskaya) and Don Carlos (Roberto Alagna)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d write a new kind of blog on Verdi’s Don Carlos as performed at the Metropolitan Opera, NYC, and screened on HD screens around the world. I want to tell others how moving I at least found it — the actor-singers were marvelous in the subtleties of their acting and the magnificent singing. I also want to urge others to see it as an unusual 19th century opera for managing to expose the horrors of reactionary regimes while also upholding them. Most of these 19th century opera just uphold profoundly conservative pessimistic values.

But I don’t want to spend the usual hours I do writing these things. One reason I’ve not written on this season’s operas as yet (and we’ve seen two) is that this writing takes such time.

Instead I’ll forward and add to messages I’ve put on Facebook where I’ve found a group of friends who like and go to the HD operas too. One friend provided information about the operas the Admiral might like to know and this way I can tell him.

First here is a site where you can read about the production generally and read the story (filled with ecstatic praise and no political or moral analysis in the way of such popular sites: his comment is this is a blueprint for grand opera. Indeed it was super-luxurious.

From Facebook: It’s the best of these HD operas thus far this year. For my taste it is “too busy” an opera: so that the time for the moving arias and 2-3 people scenes seem crowded out — almost. Not quite. I loved the Elisabetta (her last arias), Don Carlos and Philip. I was so moved by Philip’s aria music. loved the aria by Philip at the opening of the third segment. I ignored the imputed sentiments (where where unbelievable – he loves Elisabetta (!) and identified intensely with his grief over the irretrievability of life’s losses. Also Elisabetta’s final aria where she too grieves this way

Ferruccio Furlanetto just had the role of Philip perfect: a man gorged on absolute power who exercises it remorsely and thinks well of himself — murderous cruel blind; there were many as bad people on stage were: clerics, soldiers, people-burners, but he had an incisiveness in his deadly nastiness and a refusal to listen to anyone else that was scary. Like a spider — shots of him with his cane make him look spider-like (Scott’s Quentin Durward presents a medieval French king as a “spider”).

He’d be nothing without his hired compliant henchman.

Jim has a good saying when people say someone in power is doing something bad because of bad advisors (as when Obama is said to be following Rahm): the Cossacks obey the Czar.

At one point in the opera, Don Carlos and his friend, Roderigo attempt to rebel. The Pope thunders how the king is a God and all kneel down. It brought home how important it was to cut off the king’s head in the English civil and French revolutionary wars, quite apart from these people’s continual machinations with others to get back in power and savagely punish those who dared to rebel.

Simon Keelyside as Roderigo was a complex driven character: beloved friend of Don Carlos who wants to pressure Don Carlos into fighting for religious and political freedom for Flanders (rousing famous duet), taken up by the king as a sincere man. Somehow this role did not give Keehlyside room for his most effective acting, which is a lot less macho and manipulative than this role demanded:

I felt distressed by that scene before the cathedral. I know it was so stylized and like much of the production glamorously overproduced to some extent — though I acknowledge the hideousness of the Carlo monument was appropriate as this group of people in power are hideously cruel — even Elisabetta has her autocratic moments when she flat-out dismisses Eboli.

Eboli (Marina Smirnova)

Nonetheless, in that cathedral scene the people about to be burnt to death, the gestures they made, the way they faced the audience made me cover my eyes so I would not see their humiliation. I am so alive to the realities of torture in our world nowadays and think about the viciousness of all these regimes and wars to stop any social progress whatsoever over the last 30 years

We do see how powerless women as such are — I was struck by the paradigm of Elisabetta’s forced marriage: as in all these 19th century renderings we never see the sex that happened on the nights the man first takes the women. Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield and George Sand’s Valentine are the two exceptions and there the woman refuses the sexual encounter successfully: Winston Graham is really outstanding for showing the woman raped nightly and abused because the husband knows she has been forced. Here we have the woman accepting the ancient man and the frissons of the ex-lover, Don Carlos, becoming her son are basically ignored. As I said, Elisabetta herself preys on her underling, Eboli.

The Admiral had told me about the composite nature of what we had seen. Act 1 is a very early Verdi in French trans into Italian. Apparently a number of Verdi’s operas are in French and grand operas with ballets. Acts 2-5 are later Verdi: in Italian, the third from last opera Verdi wrote. I knew the text was basically Schiller’s — last week coincidentally we saw a modern adaptation of Schiller’s Maria Stuart by the WSC. Also relevant politics:

Maria Stuart: a play about seething hypocrisies

whose dramaturgy Izzy described,

a companion to their Richard III: a parable about ruthlessly ambitious politicians

My friend on Facebook, added some more solid information about the opera’s sources and analogies:

“I was very moved by the big scene in front of the cathedral–the flux of politics and religions, celebration and terror, father and son, “brothers,” swords and flames. The production–but also the words and music–suggested that human sacrifice was necessary to preserve Philip’s empire. The whole thing was written in French first. Lots of scenes had to be dumped in the early productions in order to work in a ballet–a sine qua non for the Paris Opera–and still allow opera-goers to catch the last trains home. In the Don Pasquale intermission interviews Alagna and Keenleyside were talking about the difference between the two versions, saying the Italian version is more “herroic.” Apparently the first version of the story (aside from the events themselves) was a 1670s French historical novel by Cesar Vichard, Abbe de Saint-Real. I found it on Googlebooks–the first 30 pages or so are entertaining, dissecting all the various kinds of love the principals feel for each other. All the 19th c. versions are based on Schiller, though. There is also a Conrad Veidt silent film called Carlos and Elizabeth, with amazing sets, especially for the Office of the Inquisition, a sort of spherical hellish bureaucracy. Also the Throne Room is a Met-stage-sized room with a wall that slides open to reveal the cathedral with its bishops and such ready to excommunicate if anybody missteps.”

Complaint about the movie-house we have been seeing these operas in, the Hoffman theater in Alexander, an AMC/Loews theater: the management has begun to have “pre-shows” before the opera. Very loud, grating (like these others so you can’t ignore them), aggressive. These advertise other HD and TV shows. I fled while it was on. I hate these. In regular movie-going beyond super-loud, the ads are obnoxious in content, the trailers then pick out the most moronic parts of the movie to display.

Movie-houses can’t bear that an audience should sit there and not be bombarded every moment by some form of ad.

Then they did not turn up the lights when it was time to leave. People in the audience began rudely to shout “lights.” But they would not turn them up. I suppose they have decided why should they treat the people watching these HD opera any less ruthlessly than they do their usual customers. One elderly lady behind us would not have been able to walk out without lights without hurting herself. If she did, I would hope she’d sue. I noticed long lines at their “guest service” desk.

They have horrible food — intensely sugared and/or fried; carbonated chemically flavored liquids in tin cans. People who come to the opera are a different group from the usual audiences there: they bring books for the intermissions and many bring their own food (sandwiches, thermos) — though now there are signs forbidding this so less do. I bring a yoghurt in my handbag. But there is no coffee only these chemical drinks and long lines to get anything (unhiring practiced there).


P. S. See comments for earlier new productions this year: Das Rheingold and Boris Godunov.

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Doing Christmas & Snow Reveries

Colin, my fiber optic penguin

Dear friends and readers,

Some people my age have grandchildren, others have great-nieces and nephews: I have two cats and a fiber optic penguin which lights up in a glittery way when I plug him in. I gave him the name I would have given a son had I had one. Colin glitters when plugged in but this does not appear on photographs.

On the other side of endurance tonight. I just gave of myself as a teacher for 3 sets of 2 hours and 45 minutes, 13 hours alogether at GMU.

We are doing Christmas in a small way. As I wrote on Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Izzy and I went to a party for The Birthday (Jane Austen’s of course — coming up on the 15th) where we danced the afternoon away doing patterned 18th century figure dances, up and down the line, in groups of twos and threes. For Snow Reveries (more general) go to Reveries under Austen.

We dare not have a tree again this year. Three years ago the cats attacked what we had (balls, lights, branches) so steadily the tree was wretched looking before New Year’s and they are still so lively. But we did put our white and colored lights out on our bushes in front of our house. We sat them in patterns on top of the bushes so the light seem to come out of the greenery: tasteful and pretty. (At long last we have a safe method: heavy white cord meant for outside, leading through the porch to inside the window and a switch on a panel inside the house.)

I did take Colin down from the attic. At first I thought I’d put him in the screened porch but then I would not see him, and he’d be cold so I have him in my workroom. Outside I fear he’d be stolen and that would upset me.

When my neighbor, Michelle, first gave him to me as a present I sang spontaneously: … Colin, the sledding penguin had a very shiny nose and if you ever saw him, you would even say it glows. All of the other penguins used to laugh and call him names, they never let poor Colin join in any penguin games. Then one foggy Christmas eve, Santa came to say, Colin, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide our sled tonight …

Clary-Marianne not too long ago

Whenever the girl cat, Clarissa-Marianne darts into my workroom she is startled by the lit penguin. She runs away or sits and looks. She doesn’t get to stay in the room long enough to get used to him and begin to investigate.

On the 15th (the Birthday) I will make out my 10 to 12 cards — if I can think of that many snail-mail card friends to send to. I have one cousin and so does Jim to send to.

We have very little to buy and I got it all online. I can’t announce it yet as two of the gifts are surprises for Jim and Izzy. I know Mr Knightley is against surprises, but just this once. For myself I got the DVDs of the Poldark series for the 2 seasons; also Posy Simmonds’s Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovery.

Ian-Little Snuffy recently

The cold season shows us our cats sitting by the grates. (We have forced heat through grates). In our bedroom the grate is behind a door, and they love to sit in the triangular space between grate and door. Izzy keeps her Italian electric radiator on all the time so her room is cosy warm. Ian snuggles behind her computer and in front of her window on her desk in the sun. Clarissa sinks down amid the blankets near where Izzy sits.

Winter passes.

For The Day we’ll have our token exchange of presents, go to see The King’s Speech (with Colin Firth), eat a yummy meal at Mark’s [non-pretentious] Duck House, and in the evening I’ll watch one Christmas movie — possibly the film adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead (beautiful moving film). Boxing Day we’ll go to a museum (our tradition) and this year it’s a Victorian exhibit: vast, photography at the National Gallery. And for New Year’s we’ve tickets for a Woolly Mammoth show: Neo-Futurists Girl Guides (?), Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, with post-show drinks and snacks afterwards.

The hope is to return to the atmosphere and expectations we had in the years 2001 and 2002. We had gone to Paris in 2000 to erase so many previous Xmases (and had had one of our wondrous times — all three of us in Paris, that last day Izzy stood there intensely looking about trying hard to remember the spot where we stood below where we lived), and in 2001 it worked. I remember 2001 happy in a lovely Chinese restaurant after a good movie, the three of us over a duck (had been fired in front of us). We were at peace last year but not back where we had been.

Still just now we are all set: nothing to dread, it will be just as we expect, nothing to surprise, hurt or upset us …

A lovely late 19th century early 20th century December scene: Luigi Loiri: Paris under Snow

I continue this in a more meditative general vein on Reveries under the Sign of Austen: Snow Reveries


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I’ve just read that Obama has offered to extend the obscene tax cuts for the very wealthy (1 to 2 % of the US in this country who now control and have at their disposal something like 23% of the wealth). The house is silent: they are astonished. They never expected this for real. Reid is at least icy. He excoriates Democrats for being sanctimonious and purists. This man will retire with $90,000 a year for the rest of his life. He knows what side his bread is buttered on. Baring Sarah Palin (repulsive, jeeringly openly corrupt she has no idea of public office as anything but grabbing for herself and her cronies) running for president, i shall never turn any lever for this man again.

Here is the URL which will lead you to Bernie Saunder’s speech on the class war being waged successfully in the US — with the help of Mr Obama.


The concrete realities affecting millions of people, the stories
subtended within Bernie Saunders’ speech about the war on the middle and working class people conducted by the wealthy and powerful.

It’s perhaps the first time in literally years that anyone has gotten up to say the truth about the present ancien regime realities spreading and increasing in the US so that the standard of living for 99% of the people is dropping precipitiously and access to health care, education &c being destroyed. His problem is he cannot say all he needs to in the tiny time allotted for anyone before the audience gets bored.

To say this is the sort of speech Obama should be making from his pulpit is otiose. The man is as conscienceless as any of the crooked bankers. Here is this Hypocrite-in-Chief’s sneering at the vulnerable powerless and poor:


It will take you to where he talks nastily to his constituency as he never does to Republicans. He has done nothing for his fellow blacks. He deserves to rot in hell with Dante’s liars and betrayers.

The man is contemptible.


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