Archive for January, 2011

………………………… What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,
As if that every one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life! — Francis Beaumont to Ben Jonson

Dear all,

Strong recommendation for American Shakespeare Theater at Staunton Va. Jim & I drove 3 hours there & again back to see their Malcontent. Wonderfully well done brilliant play. I had forgotten what a genius Marston is (w/perhaps Webster).

This is our third there, and each has been a memorable stimulating experience. Lovely restaurants in town; Shenandoah valley pretty.

They did a wonderful American 18th century play, John O’Keefe’s Wild Oats last spring. They do unusual fine older drama. Two stay with me: Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle some years ago, and last year Massinger’s Roman Actor

Alas, no time to reread the play, but I do want to say this: as an audience member you are quickly aware of how the actors see us — meaning you. I was in the first row this time and I felt this more strongly than usual. What if I fell asleep, didn’t laugh. In the dark we are not seen by them. This is felt across the theater.

There is also a curious lack of mystery. The dark makes for mystery; in a way that is eliminated in these productions — or it happens much more slowly. Gradually the space “up there” becomes a special realm, but it’s only gradually. And they do like to interact in the audience. Years ago when we went to see this company do The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the actor playing Ralph spotted our daughter, then around 12-14 and rushed over to her, to utter his speech to Susan. She took it more than half-seriously, looked alarmed and fled under her seat. It was very funny.

The Shakespeare original players who did the plays in the great buildings on the southside did it at 3 pm too.

I do think it doesn’t help them the way they put so few photos online. It’s very hard to find any stills. I realize they are protecting their production or copyright or their original playing but think pictures would help get the “word” out.


The dark also makes for mystery; that is eliminated in these productions. The Shakespeare original players who did the plays in the great buildings on the southside did it at 3 pm.


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Long shot: The Duchess walking away from the Grey family after giving her newborn to that family. By contrast, Duke kept mistress as the duchess’s companion, & his illegitimate children he has too, a daughter from a liaison Georgiana mothered.

At the same time how beautiful the scene …

Keira Knightley in Gainsborough style hat: insignia of 1st British film maker wholly devoted to costume gothics — it’s modelled on a famous hat Gainsborough painted for Mrs Siddons

Dear friends and readers,

What an adventure I’ve had with this paper on the film adaptations of Trollope’s novels thus far I’ve had. My paper took on two new forms, a remarkable (brilliant) 24 page one I called rollope on TV: “Intertextuality in the Pallisers and other Trollope and Victorian films;” and then after a sudden reversal where what I had written so praised previously became unacceptable (“not like the others”) and “three times as long” (it was not), cold implied threats to go away, so (with a lot of help from the Admiral), I produced a 14 page hollowed out (butchered) version called “Trollope on Television: the Pallisers as one of two signature Trollope films.”

The whole experience has prompted two steams of thought tonight. As to my paper, I concluded decisively that: While one cannot look upon the eponymous book as the only source for a movie, as one among several sources (other movies will be others, but also other books, the screenplay), it’s the starting point and comparison is the way to get at the core of a movie, not to depreciate the movie but understand it. And like translation, film adaptation art is a collaborative one. This makes it less respected among the average person for another false norm is the one which values “originality” only (that person gets the copyright). In the medieval period it was at least recognized that there was such a thing as “matter” (say of Arthur) which many authors availed themselves of as a group.

So we might say there is Austen matter of which now many creative people avail themselves of to make new art and new statements. There is such a thing as Trollope matter too, but it’s not recognized as such by those making films and so remains undeveloped. Just as there is Arthurian matter …

Characteristic Trollope matter goes unrecognized

My other perspective comes from what happened to my paper (the attitudes taken towards a study of TV — it must be television or televisual, mind that) and from watching another week of the ludicrous (and widely popular) Downton Abbey. The BBC seems to have several tribes — as do the other British TV stations, and so too publishers of books. There are the tribes who loathe film adaptations of classics, television (beneath them if money-making) — a reverse unexamined snobbery, a stupidity about this art (women’s films, soap operas is the scorn-full term) and are successful in trying to get them quashed and keep money from them. Also in refusing to print anything that studies them at length as serious art. In this vein the term of scorn Margaret Atwood picks up in her Lady Oracle, “costume gothics” seem a propose — except that Atwood shows the costume gothic is a version of everyday reality for many women.

Part of the failure of Downton Abbey is the poor writing and not enough money spent to create a story and characters with depth and subtlety. I wrote about it in a dialogue with an intelligent friend on Facebook as follows:

I love film adaptations (of high status books, from history, of biographies). This one had too short scenes, not enough development, was too cliched, the motivations and behavior of the servants was ludicrously pious and the whole thing finally “upholding establishment,” complete with this drivel about what the lead patriarch of such an estate would be like. The characters in this film are cruel because they are cruel, like a child’s story.

I watch them a lot. They are as capable of complexity and depth as any novel — and even those more recently where the scenes are much shorter (across all movies scenes have gone much shorter, much more epitomizing). These stories of coercion in marriage can go far to analyze say female sexuality today, and through these disguises (with the deflection of beautiful costume and landscape) deal with issues you don’t see dealt with in dramas in modern costume (all films are in costume). So, take the recent Duchess (stars were Fiennes, Knightley [semi-anorexic type], Cooper, Rampling): it presents marital rape, a significant topic, and with one exception thus far I’ve only seen marital rape shown and made a central issue in costume dramas (Man of Property, Poldark); we see other forms of emotional abuse — the idea is women had to take it, and indeed Georgiana Spencer did. You can show direct rebellions of all sorts.

See my reviews of Trouille’s Wife Abuse in 18th Century France, Part 1 and Part 2.

I think this is a poor one and that it’s popular precisely because it is a hollowed out simplistic version. The phrase “soap opera” is used as a put down (unfairly, it’s a female poetics the cyclical form) but you see it used of this one especially.

My friend wrote:

I suspect the better ones are those actually based on novels,whereas I think this one isn’t. Soap opera–I watched them for a few months once after a student suggested that Othello was “like a soap opera.” I decided that maybe soap operas are the only popular genre that takes emotions, and private life, seriously.

To which I replied:

They are women’s art. I agree that it’s mostly when we find a great source behind them, they become great. Don’t underestimate the occasional screenplay genius: Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective say. Davies is not as good when he doesn’t have a rich source text, but his satire on university A Very Peculiar Practice has its moments.

So, those making Downton Abbey seem to be living down to a view of film adaptations as silly and they seem to have no sense of accurate history when it comes to human relationships. But there is another tribe — to which Andrew Davies, Sandy Welch and a host of all sorts of creative people including the actors and actresses who know better and know there is an audience out there.

The question is, Is it worth it to those at British TV to spend the money if they think they’ll get an audience anyway. That’s really it. Do they have real competition on British TV for the better audience; if they don’t, they could just throw crap and hollow stuff. It would be only a concern for decent art and fulfilling the old Reithian mission of the BBC which keeps these finer TV films funded and done.

2008 The Duchess (Paramount, BBC, Pathe), directed by Saul Dibb, screenplay Jeffrey Hatcher, producers include Alexandra Arlango, Michale Kuhn, adapted from Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire — now driven out of house, Grey to marry someone else to further his career


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Mary (Leslie Manville), all vulnerability, sitting between a quizzical Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and her ever so relaxed son, Joe (Oliver Maltman)

Dear friends and readers,

On Sunday Izzy and I ventured forth in the brutal cold to see Mike Leigh’s Another Year. I so enjoyed Happy-Go-Lucky, admired his High Hopes at the time, and Topsy-Turvy Izzy and I reveled in and was our first movie together. How could we go wrong? Well, at one point I lost it and began to cry, my chest muscles went into spasm, and two days later I understand more of why.

Not that we went wrong. As I “read” the film, it’s entirely a characteristic masterly work of art as film. What’s being missed is its irony. We are not to admire and identify with Tom and Gerri but regard them as what they are: false icons that crush everyone else with their exemplary happiness and self-control and allotment garden and (presumably) many ever-so-happy vacations.

In my neighborhood it’s in danger of disappearing because audiences aren’t coming (as they did come for Frears’s quietly truthful [until near the end] Tamara Drewe). Perhaps both seem too British. But however different in tone Leigh’s latest film is closely similar to Woody Allen’s You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Both are an ironic display of what the term family values stands for in our time, how these often function.

Allen and Leigh’s films present a group of interlocking stories (a small group of friends and families) which begin and end in medias res and only gradually reveals the nature of the cruelties and needs being shown; Allen seemed hard and comic; this one compassionate & touching. It’s a kind of reverse mirror for Happy-Go-Lucky; or, High Hopes thirty years on. Ruth Sheen was the female in the sweet working class couple then; she’s now the paramount upper middle, with satisfying do-good career as a counselor of the depressed for the NHS who has a devoted husband, Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist who is doing very well and also does a useful job (he decides what can be built on any given piece of land). They are the ultimate fulfilled couple, drinking just the right amount of wine, growing their own vegetables and fruit in their allotment garden, cooking exquisitely yummy healthy food.
We can tell what season we are in from intertitles with the pair of them each time in a different phase of the growing season in their allotment.

In bed, Gerri with her characteristic smile, Tom with his usual harder face

Lesley Manville is back to as Mary, an excruciatingly lonely emotionally, apparently highly perceptive intellectually woman who cannot get her life together: she buys a car to give her freedom and it’s a dud and plagues; she seems incapable of finding her way from her flat to that of these supposed great friends of hers, Tom and Jerry.

Here it’s time for Mary to return to the train and go back to her flat

The complaint has been made (rightly) in some reviews that the happiness and adjustment of Tom and Jerry, their ease and comfortable lifestyle with no problems, is fatuous and unreal. Similarly they have one son, Joe (Oliver Maltman) who is a lawyer who works to help people: in the one scene of him at work he reassures an elderly Indian man that he will not be evicted; the old man suddenly smiles grimly as his daughter (or daughter-in-law) conveys this news to him in a language (English) he can barely understand. Joe gets engaged during the movie, or becomes involved in a deep relationship with Katie (Karina Fernandez) who also has a do-gooder job. These four make light conversation to pass the time which shows just how comfortably socialized they are.

Making the food beforehand: note how Gerri clings, just a bit, and again Tom harder

Meanwhile not only is Mary a sad-sack who (as they see it) “behaves badly” each time she is invited over. The first Saturday night for dinner, Mary drinks too much and ends up passed out on Joe’s bed. She spills her heart out to them, her problems including that she has no one to go on vacation with. It does emerge that she was married and the man left her. He was ill-tempered and cold. Then she involved herself for years with a married man who finally dumped her. All this they see as just too much. How patient they are though.

The ever patient Tom and Gerri the next morning

Their other two friends are equally miserable and cannot contain themselves.

Ken, Tom’s best friend (played as brilliantly by Peter Wright), lives in Hull (this is clearly the pitt), and comes & goes by an anonymous fast train.

Ken when we first see him

He is too fat, slovenly, lives alone (divorced, separated, widowed, a gay man, it’s not specified) and cries too: it seems (if this is true, this is awful to be lamented) that the old pub culture Jim and I so loved, where the whole neighborhood could be found in the pub, drinking, dancing, listening to bands, with a ladies’ night, a room for children, places to play bowls and cricket in summer, has disappeared. Can this be? It’s replaced by posh bars which sound like singles places for yuppies. Perhaps. Has the UK been Americanized and life only anonymous with people not getting outside their tiny circles of work, associations, families.

Well, if so, the likes of Ken are left out. He is too old, too fat, does not make enough money (or have a high culture job) and no one talks to him or interacts with him at the bars except at a distance. Consequently, because he is alone (no one living with him) he too has no one to go on vacation with. Two weeks off and he doesn’t know where to go or how to find joy. Mary and Tom are patient here too, though a bit physically put off.

A third male, Jack (Phil Davis, who often plays nasty sardonic, sadistic villains, Smallweed in Bleak House, for example), is much better behaved. He just sits there miserable, and it’s not his fault — it’s implied that somehow it’s Mary and Ken’s fault for not getting it together, at least for not smiling. It seems Janey, his wife or companion, is dying. He says little at a barbecue and leaves early.

There is another character doing splendidly, Tanya (Michele Austin): she, like Mary, works at the National Health Service, in her case a full physician. She is ever-so-comfortable in her body, though heavy-set. When we first meet her, she’s enormously pregnant. She gives birth and we see her at the barbecue with her beautiful baby. At first I thought her a single mother, but no, we hear of a husband who of course doesn’t change the baby’s nappies enough.

It’s through this character that I think we see most clearly what we are intended to: that these happy people are cold bastards, complacent, hard to those they meet, in effect bullies (though of course they are doing what they do for the good of others — does not Jerry invite Mary to “her” house), living unexamined lives that they think are just the cat’s pajamas because they deserve them. Rather as the stories they tell suggest they’ve been lucky.

I can’t find any stills of Staunton as Janet; so here she is as Vera Drake whose typology reveals that Staunton is a type of victim heroine for our time, stoutly carrying on — well in Another Year she needs sleeping pills and can’t get them

It’s been said that we see Imelda Staunton just once, as Janet and here is where the perspective I picked up and think is there is seen in spades. We may see Janet just once but she reveals the bullying nature of these upper middle class people who have power and use it to control others and demand of them they behave beautifully too. The faultline is the character of Gerri. As the movie opens, we are witnesses to what emerges as a classic doctor bullying scene.

Tanya refuses Janet, a miserably unhappy white working class woman (Imelda Staunton) a full bottle of sleeping pills. Janet can’t sleep you see and that’s why she’s come. We watch the doctor’s hand feeling Janet’s chest and body and Janet submit to this. It’s invasive but it’s what’s done. Tanya has the kindest of tones. Does Janet not realize her not sleeping is only the symptom? Janet needs to deal with underlying causes. Janet needs to think about why she is so unhappy. The doctor will give Janet only a week’s worth (at a time?) on condition Janet visits a counselor.

Then we get a close-up of Janet not answering ludicrously normative questions to a counselor who we see only partly. What were the happiest occasions of her life. Jane says nothing. The counselor is patience itself, and then helpfully suggests, the day your children were born, the day you were married? Piety itself, for of course these days brought great joy surely. Janet’s face goes flat. We see Gerri full for the first time. Does Janet not talk to her daughter? It seems Janet’s daughter has problems; she can’t sleep too. Ah. They need to talk. Alas, the hour is up. Janet need not return next week of course.

But if she doesn’t, Janet hasn’t a hope of Dr Tanya renewing those pills. In fact Dr Tanya might not renew them anyway. Janet is the umbrella symbol for those outside Tom and Gerri’s magic circle of family: we don’t learn what has devastated her and is making her life so grim, but we do learn what does this to everyone else.

So, let’s return to badly-behaved Mary:

Mary, sexed up (her breasts clearly on offer) to look right (at one of Tom and Gerri’s dinners)

We see Mary for the first time in the office. She is a secretary, not a high prestige job, but she is clearly super-busy. She seems to be the only secretary in the place with papers piled high. Gerri has asked Mary out for a drink. We see them drinking and talking casually. It does emerge that Mary (from Gerri’s point of view) is sorry for herself, lives alone, is pathetically grateful for the invitation on Saturday night. Mary makes eyes at a man not far from her age across the floor. When Gerri leaves, Mary looks invitingly at him, but alas, a much younger, fresher woman turns up and he kisses her. No go.

Skip past that Saturday night when Mary appears disappointed Joe does not show. During the barbecue he does and Mary tries hard to chat him up. She tries to get Joe to agree to phone her. “Promise? Promise me you’ll call.”

Promise me?

He too is all patience. But if you listen to their conversation, it emerges he did go to bed with Mary and now has dropped her. Of course he has. This is the modern way, The Way We Live Now. Mary can’t seem to understand or accept this, poor thing. Doesn’t she know it’s sex they got and that’s it. He does. At the same time, Ken tries to chat Mary up. Here Mary is openly disgusted and pushes Ken off. She wants a younger attractive specimen, someone who has at least stayed thin and dresses in modern fashionable clothes (which in her case we are told leads to men feeling her up on the trains). She is in her way no better than Joe — or Gerri and Tom who are disgusted by her.

Mary and Ken drinking side by side, she ignoring him: this still has been repeated in many of the reviews

Another afternoon somehow Mary came to Tom and Gerri’s. This time Joe brings his new girlfriend and Mary misbehaves badly. She is not good-humored, reveals how startled and offended she is not to have been the chosen one, tries to snub Katie, can’t remember her name, looks cross-eyed at her. Mary tries to control herself but can’t. In the final scene we learn that Mary has not been invited after this to Tom and Gerri’s for months. Mary comes over without an invitation. Gerri is very hard about that one, pulling the usual socially-acceptable, “Mary you should have called.” You see they are expecting Joe and Katie. Gerri goes up to Tom who is working on his computer. Tom says, “Why not throw her out.”

Tom saying “Throw her out”

Gerri says I can’t (it’s heartless). So Gerri goes downstairs and talks (semi-stern) to Mary, implying if she stays Katie and Joe are coming and then how will Mary behave. Mary starts to weep again, she did apologize. Gerri admits this, but says (implying the apology is useles), “this is my family, Mary.”

This moment said it all — the intense piety and group of assumptions about the sacredness of this group moment to which outsiders, especially not outsiders who can’t be respectful, are not wanted. Gerri lets Mary stay and the movie ends with us watching slowly once more Gerri and Tom present their yummy food to their guests, and now we hear of how they met in the 1960s, how they lived apart and now together. Joe and Katie confide they are going to Paris for their vacation. They have someone to go on vacation with you see. The camera slowly pans over Ronnie (David Bradley), silent, gaunt, but appreciative of the good and apparently gaiety (someone has put a napkin over his shirt) and next to him, Mary, now silent, trying hard to smile. The camera stays on her face for quite a while as she makes one civil answer, and then blackout.

As I remarked, at one point I lost it and began to cry helplessly. It was during the sequence which focused on David Bradley who often plays comic grotesques is here the pathetic (one review called him catatonic) brother of Tom. We see Tom, Gerri, and Joe arriving at one of these classic narrow utterly deprived looking houses on a street of just alike attached ones. We have come north. They are bringing their usual cartloads of food, this time not from their allotment garden we realize: it’s typical sandwiches one finds at funerals. Ron’s wife has died, suddenly, and he is utterly bereft. He lives in a house without a stitch of culture or beauty or anything of interest. It’s a caricature of working class life. He is utterly distraught. Now he is alone and will be alone forever. He is ugly, has no conversation, smokes all the time, rolls his own cigarettes (slightly disgusting to everyone but of course Tom and Gerri tolerate this as they are so tolerant).

It was here I couldn’t take it any more. We hear of Carl who Gerri and Tom hope will come. It emerges slowly Carl is Ron’s son who has not been to visit or head of for over two years. It hit me where I live. The night before Jim (my husband, not a character in this film) had been saying that estrangements inside families are commonplace. They are not admitted to in public; in public all families are all solidarity and support. In reality not at all. (Think of the divorce rate, who marries who, the tensions and troubles from not getting jobs, the demands for success, the family does not at all exist apart as a sacred unit.)

The scene at a funeral was uncannily like that of Jim’s mother: much of the film is verisimilar realism. The scenes at Tom and Gerri’s house, the way it’s set up (including pictures by a stairwall), the compost pile in their back garden, their allotment garden are precisely like those of a friend who invited Jim, I, Izzy and our now estranged daughter, to stay with her for 2 weeks so we could have a vacation together (the irony of this coincidence amuses me this morning but is telling for the realism). My friend also had an allotment garden which she went to on Saturday to tend her plants.

At the funeral just as the coffin is being trundled along to be burnt up behind a curtain, Carl appears. He looks terrible, grim, unshaven, dressed in an old leather jacket. He arrives very late, too late to hear even the meagre service. He is indignant. “Is this all?” Tom and Gerri are patient as ever but when they get out of the funeral hall, they emit remarks which show how impatient they are. Carl says he got stuck in traffic. Tom says you should have allowed for that. As at my mother-in-law’s funeral, there were a couple of friends of the dead person. This time two women she worked with. Reluctantly they come back to Ron’s house where the sandwiches and usual wine is on offer. Carl does come back, and angry quarrels half-erupt. Joe looks at Carl condescending and critically. Gerri asks him, what is he doing? (his job). He retorts, Is this an interrogation. The deceased’s friends see their opportunity to escape and escape they do.

Of course Gerri and Tom invite Ron to come home with them for a few days, a week, as long as he needs. At first he says nothing (he usually does) but not enough to show he will come but gradually we see he will. He says, “I don’t know what to do.” Ron and Tom are seen in Ron’s bedroom with Tom gently packing a few things for Ron. Ron almost begins to cry, and Tom comforts him by embracing Ron and patting him on the back. The camera focuses on the pats.

Tom putting arm on Ron

This scene of one person crying and the other hugging is repeatedly throughout the movie. Tanya almost pats Janet (not quite as she is really just testing Janet’s chest), Gerri pats Mary several times, Gerri almost pats Jack (remember him, guy at barbeque who is about to lose his wife). Everyone ever so kind.

But are they?

The critics have made fun of the apparent criteria for success and joy. It is absurd to make a criteria for happiness or success, Do you have someone to go on vacation with (it’s been gently mocked by the British press), but it works more than to signal something deeper Mary, Ken, Jack, Ron have not got and need desperately when they make such a complaint. Tom, you see, offers to Ken to go on vacation with him next autumn. They can go play golf maybe. Ken appears not to answer this or say yes.
For in fact his problem is not that he has no one to go on vacation with. The whole situation of life which so focuses on this as the high point of one’s existence — the right person who is socially acceptable to go with, doing the acceptable happy thing in the desired admired place — is what is pointed to here.

Review after review have been knocking the film as taking seriously and tragically trivial events. They have misunderstood the movie and thought that Tom and Gerri are examples to us all we are to admire. In Allen’s film where Gemma Jones as mother does not come through, where all desert one another, lie to one another, they survive by living in chosen bitter delusions as without these they will not be able to carry on. In Leigh’s film these bitter delusions (fortune tellers, romance, learned bookshops (Tom and Gerri read magazines at night, or light “reading by bed” books) are inherent in the characters of Tom, Gerri, Joe, Katie and Tany. They insist the rest of us live in the trivia and shallow next to one another so as to leave them comfortable.

So, to make the thrust of the movie clear: at first Gerri seems all goodness and light within but if we begin to look at what she does for other people, we see it’s less than nothing much, nor her husband. And she lets them know, when no it is. Very skillful is Gerri at social skills, as we see in the opening scene with Janet. She is of course too heavy (middle aged women actresses are allowed to be this way) and complains she is “fat,” and Tom of course tells her she is just right. She dresses with light jewelry, lots of scarfs, bright colors.

Mary needs to get a real friend. We see her desperately going after Ron when she arrives at that last scene. At first he won’t let her in. Distrusts her. She has to describe the house to show she’s a friend. Only gradually does he allow her to see he’s listening, and then share his rolled up cigarettes with her.

Ron and Mary with Mary trying to get along and be in Ron’s world, memories of the 60s are shared

We know she will chase him down. If she does, it may end up he’ll endure her for a while or they’ll stay together. Then she would be family to Gerri, no? Lucky her. Mary never thinks for herself and cannot see past her nose or her drink. The car she thought would be her great comfort and freedom cannot be. But there are apparently no real friends about.

No pub life for Ken. Only allowed to hang on occasionally to this happy family unit of Tom and Gerri, which of course by comparison just desolates him.

The Great Family of this movie

That’s the point. I hope, for your sake, gentle reader, the next time you go to a physician she does not talk condescendingly to you and concede a half-bottle of pills which won’t last you more than a week on condition you obey her and see someone like Gerri. My physician is better than this. I get a full bottle and am not nagged. I can’t get a decent counselor out of Kaiser, but this movie does suggest what I’ll meet may be a Gerri. Maybe you’ll be lucky, though and when you show up, you’ll see one of Woody Allen’s decent characters, say Sally Channing (Naomi Watts). You would be better off with Helena (Gemma Jones)’s fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins).

I may be super-subtle. It may be Leigh is fooled, but I don’t think so, and I don’t think so because of the way Tanya clearly bullied Janet, Gerri, Janet, and Gerri’s righteous priggish tones to Mary which turn so hard so readily and close her out.

Mary, having gate crashed past Ron, in from the cold (it’s winter)

Ellen Moody

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Frank Currituck Benson 186201951), Currituck Marshes, North Carolina (1926)

Dear friends and readers,

A brief seasonal blog: tonight in Alexandria we are experiencing the kind of cold that threatens the life of anyone who has to spend the night out in it. I did finish and sent off my paper on the film adaptations of Anthony Trollope to the editor of the coming volume, Adaptation: British Literature of the Nineteenth Century on Film: the title of mine is “Prologomena to a study of film adaptations of Anthony Trollope and Victorian films: the 1974 BBC Pallisers.” Whew!

I start teaching again on Monday, a one-day schedule again, though not as long as last term. I have but two sections this term, one in Advanced Comp in Natural Sciences and Tech, and the other Advanced Comp in Humanities. If you click on the links, you will see the times, places and my booklists as well as the plan in the syllabus for the course. I’ve added a new student model: “The Common Prejudice against Men as Nurses has got to go!”

I have no new books for the Natural Science course but I do have a new experiment: I’m going to screen film The Constant Gardener by Mereilles (from LeCarre’s novel) but instead of asking the students to read the fat book, I’ve ordered the screenplay. I think it may work better for most students and the screenplay book has good essays on the drugs company’s appalling amoral behavior and Africa. I am doing a new book for Advanced Comp in Humanities: Andrea Levy’s Small Island (together with the film); so now with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake I need no longer feel my list of books is so white European I’ve decided to take the leap and instead of assigning books on children’s literature (Mason’s Girl Sleuth) and about reading as a significant experience (Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Teheran), I’m going to do a brilliant (wonderfully rich) children’s books, Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family, and a book I’ll present as a girl’s coming of age book (Austen’s Northanger Abbey — see my “A Refreshing approach: a fun experience”) and a book I’ll present as a popular historical romance in the male mode (Graham’s Ross Poldark). So now in the class we’ll be going in search of lost time to semi-popular literature too.

There were sufficient changes to make me have to change many links on my online library for my students, especially for Randall Jarrell, Andrea Levy and Winston Graham. All new texts linked in. Older now irrelevant texts removed.

I begin my teaching work tomorrow. Right now I’m working on my review of Mary Trouille’s Wife Abuse in 18th century France, and keeping up watching movies in the evening. I have not made up my mind whether I will try to write a paper on historical novels (Graham’s Poldark novels) for the EC/ASECS next fall or not. I do so want to return to my book, “A Place of Refuge: the Austen movies” and was not able to this Dec/Jan because I did the Trollope paper.

So readers and friends, that’s where I am tonight. My title comes from James’s Washington Square. I am working hard tonight at accepting our — the Admiral’s, Izzy’s and mine, not to omit out two cats, Clary and Ian’s — lot. I’ve framed this with a natural world picture and a city poem.

*Friday Night at the Royal Station*

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.
In shoeless corridors, the lights burn.
How Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile:
Now Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.
— Philip Larkin


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I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive
if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only
at a price I cannot afford to pay”
—–Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Beyond the Horizon: from another production, probably Andy and Robert as the play opens

Dear friends and readers,

Six years past 1914 (when the 19th century ended) 1920 Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon was performed. It is genuinely revolutionary. This early play by O’Neill plays is the first to have characters bring out the ravaging truths of their experiences with one another and the world we have been since used to (so commonplace it’s easy to think of lots of plays which do this, e.g., Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has this at its center and nowadays movies too). To celebrate this unusual revival they had snacks, cyder punch (delicious) and snacks.

I recommend the play to all in the DC area beyond the well-meant (I’ve no doubt) performance. Nonetheless, it’s worrying or dismaying if you think about it, for the gifted, intelligent, sensitive character O’Neill meant us to sympathize with, value is regarded sheerly as an object of pity. Nowhere does it come across that he has something worthwhile in him. What is happening in our culture that this is so. For Bronte and those who have loved the book: Jane Eyre is not an object of pity (or scorn as in the review of the book by a woman who was deeply resentful of this governess), but admiration. The horizon is pictured for us in the art work but at no point does anyone in the play suggest you might reach it imaginatively.

Thus this blog:

Last night the Admiral and I had braved the fierce cold to go to see this play done marvelously well at the Arlington American Century Theater.

Gunston Arts, where this group performs

The building houses another theater as well as a middle school during the day. It’s been getting deserved good reviews; in last night’s severe cold last night, they had a full theater. Kathleen Akerley the director (she’s also a fine actress). Beautifully directed to create to mood (essential to all O’Neill’s plays). Andrew Drewe and Felipe Cabezas where particularly moving, rousing as the two brothers.

What was interesting to us was the ambivalent attitude of director and actors towards Robert. In the play Robert is your intellectual, ever reading (always with his “nose in a book” is the way it’s put), writes poetry and as the play opens in spring he is set to leave the family farm to go on a ship with an uncle. Unfortunately, his brother, Andy, who would make a wonderful farmhand, is in love with Ruth (a cousin) and upon discovering Ruth loves Robert, Andy after grieving intensely, decides he must leave the farm to Ruth and Robert. Robert is all loving and fine in spirit and could not imagine betraying his father to leave the farm if Andy leaves it, so he stays and gives up his chance to see the world, to travel which he would have appreciated.

Andy flees as far as Europe, and to the US north midwest where he is a successful business too. His letters show he takes only a practical view of where he goes, his aim to accumulate money. Three years later in the fall Andy returns to find Robert and Ruth desperate. Robert and Ruth have a child, Mary — a brilliant use of a puppet is made. The puppet was made handled so realistically, it felt like she was this clinging loving but difficult child. Robert appears to love and cherish her far more than Ruth. Unknown to him, Ruth has fallen out of love with Robert: she despises his intellectual attainments, his books, writing stories. She wants Andy but he no longer wants her. Ruth never tells Andy but lets him go almost immediately. He was going to help them but he does not at all.

Five years later he returns to find his parents dead and Robert mortally sick, the farm mortgaged and in a terrible state. Robert is dying and Andy brings him a doctor at long last. No one else had. A mother-in-law (Ruth’s mother) is one of these people with a corrosive tongue and it’s her money that has kept them alive and with the farm. The baby Mary died too. Robert asks only that Andy take Ruth for his wife when he dies in a moving scene — at sunrise — and that Andy stay and keep and make a success of the farm.

After some intense soul-searching and wrenching dialogues with Ruth Andy will comply.

At no point does anyone regard Robert as having anything in him really worthwhile. Robert’s desire to be a writer is something everyone else humors. Yes it might bring in money is the feeling. Ruth is bored by Robert’s reading after all; she at least cooks supper, cleans, mends shirts and were she a man would work hard on the farm.

It made me feel the same kind of ambivalent self-dislike I find in Trollope’s texts towards writers operating here. O’Neill as implied author allows the hard critique of this man — whom surely he identified with. This is his nightmare, the farm and world he escaped.

Jim says that the extant criticism of the play veers between finding Roger to be an anguished sympathetic icon (with the farm and wife “the enemies of” his “promise”) or looking at Ruth as a long-suffering wife who’s been given a raw deal in life. Ackerly had Andy speak in harshly blaming words to Ruth, so harsh we rejected it, but she did not allow Robert really to present himself as loving his books, as finding fulfillment there, only as lost because he couldn’t farm or be a business man. Ackerly’s choices, the production as a whole, sympathized with Robert but only as an object of pity.

She built up a slow lingering mood of elegiac and angry feeling. The set was an wooden structure which allowed us to be outside at sunset when the play opened, inside most of the rest of the time, and outside at sunrise when it closed. The acting was just superb: Amy Quiggins vanished into her parts first as Mrs Atkins, Ruth’s mother, and then Ruth at the close of the play; Ashley DeMain was a superlative puppeteer. The women exchanged roles, suggesting how individuals don’t count so much as generations, but again here we were not valuing the individual life’s fulfillment.

The contrast to be brought out is with Susan Glaspell’s work — O’Neill’s contemporary and often his producer. Be it her The Inheritors (a strong social critique in the spirit of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People) or even more The Verge, which latter is written out of Bronte spirit strongly. Austen’s critique of her world is muted but I think the protest and valuation of such an individual there.

From a recent production at Provincetown of The Verge

Glaspell’s The Inheritors

Jim and I have now seen a number of O’Neill’s plays: a couple of years ago here in the DC area: Strange Interlude (done beautifully by the Washington Shakespeare Company), Mourning Becomes Electra (I forget where), Desire Under the Elms (ditto), about 10 years ago The Iceman Cometh (NYC, with James Earl Jones, weeping weeping weeping). This is the only one where conventional behaviors were presented so flatly. It’s as if O’Neill is writing out of the father’s point of view who dies early on because his sons either don’t want to or can’t keep up this farm.

From the same production as my first photo: presumably Ruth and her dying baby girl, Mary

This not to say the play wasn’t performed in a way that felt illuminating and the deeply anguished emotions were cathartic. This is only third play we’ve gone to this year; the Mary Stuart was as good as anything we’ve seen in a long time. The Richard III meant well but while it went against the grain of Shakespeare’s conception, it did not lose his savage condemnation of politicians. At the WSC Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Shakespeare’s Richard III) were sharp critiques of the politics of out time.

This one exposed our own desperate blind muddle — those of us who want to live an examined fulfilling life. The hard scrabble life of a New England farm can become a metaphor for what we are being increasingly driven to just to survive monetarily.


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Marnie (Tippi Hedren) all distress and the caring tender Mark (Sean Connery) from Hitchcock’s 1960s Marnie)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not given up on Winston Graham because his 8th Poldark novel, The Stranger from the Sea, revealed a precipitious falling off. A series of 7 remarkable historical novels set in the 18th century is not to be dismissed. What I’m doing is reading a few more novels by him which are not historical novels, reading good books on historical novels (among them Jerome de Groot’s The Historical Novel) and trying a couple of historical novels set in the 18th century by other people: one I’ve begun which I’m thus far enjoying is Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask. Donoghue’s is the first type in Graham’s typology: most of the characters really did once live and she is in effect doing history imaginatively.

Marnie (Tippie Hedren) stealing thousands from firm’s safe

The burden of the song: Like Graham’s other novels this one delves unusually into sexual unhappiness in marriage (including another rape); Hitchcock turned it silly Freudianism. It might be said that Hitchcock’s movie is an absurd travesty of Graham’s novel, but I’m not sure Graham’s novel is itself really sheds any humane light on sexual and psychological distress — especially in his attitude towards Marnie’s mother. He does calls attention to “the rough deal women have” (his words). That’s a start.

One source for his book was an incident of infanticide that from my reading I know is not uncommon:

while he lived in Cornwall during war a mother with 3 young children came to live there as an evacuee. Graham presents her as simply promiscuous; she’d let men in her bedroom and throw her children out while a man was there. She got pregnant and, fearing ostracism, exile, loss of her own children, she hid the pregnancy and when she gave birth, strangled her newborn in a newspaper.
A neighbor had assisted in the labor, and unfortunately this woman began to hemmorrhage so the dead baby was found. She was acquitted on grounds of insanity. As we shall see, this is a version of what happened to Marnie’s mother.

I’m beginning to think that Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction condemned more than hard-boiled detective stories with women-hating males at the center, more than the deluded use of irony which allows so many books to have evil narrators at the center, more than the hardening of readers such reading encourages: he was pointing out how a whole slew of modern books may be regarded as documents showing the sicknesses of our society. Graham’s book by substituting a woman for the central figure and not asking us to read the book ironically does this in spades.

A second core of Graham’s novel was a real young woman he once came across: It’s based on a young girl who was hired to take care of young children as a nanny. Gradually it emerges she was psychologically disturbed. She would take baths three times a day, and had an inordinate love of horses, loved to ride, and hated men. He says he read a letter she wrote to her mother showing this. He then says she was let go and he heard later on committed suicide.

The moral lesson he draws is the narrowly selfish middle class one of “be careful who you hire to take care of your children, with the implication you should do it yourself – meaning women should.” Nothing about the woman or her suicide. Nothing to ask himself where such a hatred could come from. Nor in the original (as far as he tells us) was the problem the girl was liar or stole things. Nothing of her behavior beyond the above is told. What he did was account for the babysitter’s behavior by making into into one of the children whose mother had gotten pregnant, killed the infant and was imprisoned. What Hitchcock did was substitute the story of the woman who let men into her room and shoved the children out as an explanation for Marnie.

This topic is of interest because the movie at least continues to be famous and no one discusses the book which does have a marital rape (if not at the center at any rate there) nor the portrait of a mother. It is counterproductive and not feminism because there’s no understanding of the causes of a girl’s psychological distress. When you’ve read this one and go back to Graham’s historical novels you see them differently: why he chose to set his novels in the 18th century is perhaps that 18th century novels do examine sexuality at least women’s and men’s centrally

Marnie centers on a supposedly helplessly sociopath liar and thief who is a woman. In both film and book here is the central character and conceit (so to speak): this the story of a young woman who when we meet her is busy changing her identity, looks, serial numbers (identity cards), clothes & hair color too. She is stashing away a huge amount of cash she has stolen. She then visits her mother with a story about Mr Pemberton who is her husband which the mother doesn’t investigate. She is supporting this mother. In the book we learn little of the mother until the back story emerges. In the movie the mother (called Bernice and played by Louise Latham) is presented as a neurotic bigot who teases Marnie by preferring another small child and clearly dominates her. Marnie though does not depend on her mother or live with her; she leaves (escapes) after the visit and gets another job. Apparently this is what she does: get a job, steal a huge amount of cash, flees, change her identity, gives most of the money to her mother to support her, and and gets another job — all the while lying to her mother by pretending she’s married and her husband just does not want to visit.

This is what is presented in both movie and book.

It could thus be a misogynistic book, but I really think it’s another of Graham’s curious works of instinctive quasi-feminism — he means it as feminist. I didn’t read it that carefully because I grow very impatient with hard-boiled detective fiction — I’ve hardly tried any or gotten through any — but I know from those I’ve opened and Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction (justly famous) these often have these cruel misogynistic males at the center, Mickey Spillane and irony is a cover (as in Lolita) for offering up delectable exercises in raping, torturing, murdering, bad-mouthing women. Most of the time they are mindless: the protagonist’s name is put in agreement with verbs.

The real impulse behind Booth’s famous book is his detestation of this popular form. Booth shows that the ironies supposedly used here are a cover-up to allow male readership (and female perhaps) to read cruel trash and tell themselves what they are reading is really reprehended by the author and themselves. The Rhetoric of Fiction was written during the 1950s when this kind of fiction had had a supreme embodiment in the hypocritical Lolita where Nabokov has it both ways: he gets to masturbate in front of the reader and flatters himself and the reader they really detest what they are doing in the person of Humbert Humbert and anyone Lolita is a total tramp and deserves to be used, exploited, her mother killed &c&c.

In Graham’s book at first Marnie seems as hard and mindless as the usual detective story, but as we progress we find that although she never does give us subtle psychological meditations (only Le Carre and tremendously successful writers in this vogue dare that and not too often), by the end we have a fascinating portrait of a woman twisted by her society.

It includes a motif I’ve come to expect of Graham: the marital rape. As in the Poldark novels, the rape itself is not described in any details, only enough suggested to feel a terrible violation of Marnie.

Marnie is told in the first person and as an incessant stream of consciousness that gradually widens out. I found it a kind of page-turner at times, and then again was bored by being asked to keep track of minutiae of facts (endemic to this type). I also find the conventions of hard-boiled not-telling inner truths directly or keeping the mind of the central figure semi-blank or not understanding herself irritating.

In the original book Mark is a businessman, not (as in the movie) upper class. Graham’s Mark is high in the last firm in the book Marnie tries to fleece. He falls in love with Marnie because she is beautiful and strange and he does sleuth successfully to discover her previous position and catches her at a new theft and attempt at a new appearance. He demands she marry him and then he’ll protect her. He discovers she seems terrified of sex, won’t let him near her, and he rapes her that first ight. After that unlike Sean Connery he is does not attack her again. There is another male in the company, one Terry, who is also attracted to her and she to him, a much less moral man. Mark brings Marnie back to the firm after himself replacing the money. Then he says he has married her so naturally she will not work anymore but stay home. He says they have an invitation to Mark’s house to gamble and he does not want to go. Marnie does so she concocts a story about a girlfriend which Mark appears to believe and then Marnie goes to gamble each Saturday night — lying to Mark about it.

Alas, it’s somewhat justified for the man, Mark, is not just married to her and wants to help her and by the end she returns to him and begins what might be a decent life — we can’t tell. He has (I rush to say) not done that again, not forced himself on her again.

One of the fallacies of the book is how she gets away with lying. It’s just improbable. Now in the book gradually Marnie comes to like, trust Mark and when she is found out further (an old employer comes to a party) and Mark finds out a great deal and wants to go to the police, she decides to flee again. This time though guilt assails her, she puts the money back, and visits her mother, stalling for time. She arrive to find her mother dead, and her uncle and an aunt who brought her up there. She goes into the mothers papers and discovers the book’s back story. Graham’s novel is a gothic.

It is structured like a gothic for at long last we get to a back story, and what is it, but of Marnie’s mother — whom Marnie has been lying about and protecting and stealing for for years. Turns out Marnie’s mother murdered a baby son she gave birth to. A while back I reviewed two books which made a strong impression on me: the first, McDonagh, Child Murder and British Culture, demonstrated that infanticide is 1) omnipresent in many books; and 2) central to social stability throughout history (killing unwanted infants) and 3) most of the time suspected in such books and in the real world of societies too the woman is suspected and is blamed for killing the baby when most of the time she didn’t do it (shades of false accusations of rape) but either the child died in a miscarriage, was still born, from the horrors of childbirth before the 20th century; or she is often driven to it because she has gotten pregnant out of wedlock and will be shamed, ostracized, her life ruined in the community.

The third is the case here: Marnie’s mother in Graham’s book murdered the neonate after denying she was pregnant in the last trimester in order to hide it from all those who would despise and throw her off. Her husband had fought in WW2 and the way she supported herself was to be a prostitute. Not uncommon. If she were pregnant when he came home or had a baby, he’d know. Some time after he returned, he died, but she was suspected and accused of killing the baby. She went to prison and then was later released (exonerated). She then spent the rest of her life hiding this after she was exonerated by a court: — that is improbable, but then this is a novel. This woman in the book brought Marnie up to hate and fear sex for (among other things) the way the woman supported herself and Marnie was through quiet prostitution along with a menial job — not uncommon for women in history.

Marnie’s mother (Louise Latham) in Hitchcock’s movie: she often has just that irritated smirk on her face

This story as I’ve told it speaks for itself I should say. I ordered the movie from Netlfix and it arrived two days ago and I watched the movie for the first time last night. I also have a book called The Making of Marnie— by Tone Lee Moral, a very early film study — of the type so familiar today but not when it was done. I chose to read the book because of my interest in Graham’s Poldark novels, desire maybe to write a paper on historical fiction set in the 18th century and growing love of things Cornish, books and films (yesterday I watched one made out of Trollope’s “Malachi’s Cove” about abysmally impoverish people who make their living gather seaweed to sell it for manure on the dangerous cliffs).

In the movie much of this is changed, and in the movie Hitchcock said the central issue is Marnie doesn’t want to have sex with Mark. (Graham never said Marnie’s dread of sex was the real crux of the book.)

Why in Hitchcock’s movie did the mother teach Marnie to hate sex. It seems that either the father died or disappeared and to support herself the mother went in for prostitution. The child was forced out of the bed where she slept with the mother and had to allow the man in. She had to sleep outside in the outside room. One night she cried too much, the young man came out and tried to soothe her, grew irritated, started to shake her, the mother defended her and before you know it a brutal incident emerges and the child grabs an iron stick for stirring a fire and hits and kills him. The mother “takes” the “rap;” says she did it and ever after lied about it.

A very different story from the one in GRaham’s novel where a woman gets pregnant and is driven to kill the neonate (rather than be exposed as a prostitute and ostracized) and then is accused, goes to jail for it, and hides that.

At the heart of Hitchcock’s movie is Marnie’s refusal to have sex with Mark. This is what seems to be the great problem to Hitchcock. Mark looks upon this as her tremendous illness and what she has got to get over: poor thing. And of course long-suffering noble Mark — except that one instance of rape which is presented so discreetly if you blink you’ll miss it and seems to have not much effect on Marnie afterward in the movie (nor to be fair in the book). She just carries on.

This rape scene was very controversial in the movie it’s said. Oh the film was the one which clinched Sean Connery’s career (as OxBow Incident began Anthony Quinn’s) and he was Mark. I mention The Oxbow Incident because it was a genuine success d’estime (and deserved it) and was a financial flop. Not only was Hitchcock’s movie a financial flop, it was ridiculed. Only years later did it come to be seen to be worth studying, fascinating, to some a “great” movie.

In Graham’s book the marriage is coerced strongly (as it is in the movie), but it’s not done with violence. Mark discovers Marnie is a thief of a high order: stealing vast amounts of cash and threatens to turn her in except they marry. She thinks to herself (in the book) that this will prevent him testifying against her. So there is a sort of bargain.

Promotional shot of Marnie on horseback (Forio)

Then what happens in the book is Mark insists that Marnie see a psychiatrist. (The first script for the movie by Joseph Stefano included the psychiatrist of the book.) We read of weekly long sessions in Graham’s book where Marnie lies, makes up stories, but, after she learns her mother’s back story, is broken down to tell the psychiatrist what we have known all along: her father died when she was young, mother remained alive and supported them on a menial job. Marnie was was brought up by a kindly aunt who lived with and on the mother, Lucy Nye. Marnie as soon as she grew up herself supported her mother by stealing, thus sparing her mother the awful office jobs she had had to endure.

In Graham’s novel, Marnie has been followed by Terry who urges her to return, instead she returns to her house and goes on a hunt. Mark shows up; in the book she lures Mark into a bad accident and her feelings afterward and thoughts (at long last) about her mother and all she has said to the psychiatrist and past bring her to a realization Mark is her great friend and she is last seen returning to him.

I’ve discovered a theme of intense loneliness is important for Graham — Graham’s Marnie is intensely lonely and Graham’s central hero for his Poldark novels, Ross remains a renegade, a man apart, ever traveling and keeping to himself, bitter within, seeing how unjust and awful are society’s arrangements, sickened by them The ending of several of the Poldark novels were Ross comes home to Demelza, stands outside watching her and feels comforted he has this place of order, stability, peace to return to is just the way Marnie ends, only it’s the woman who has been a radical criminal type and now finds her way back to a dependable kind partner.

The movie changes much of this. In the movie absurdly Mark is not only upper class but Philadelphian (with a Scottish accent as Connery’s is still there). We have this upper class milieu which is fake utterly, which includes a tender loving father-in-law dressed absurdly (not in the book where there is prosaic sort of mother who lives off her son’s business.) There is a promotional still where we see Marnie talking to her father-in-law. Shades of La Traviata.

In the movie all is done that counts by the powerful Sean Connery. It’s he who finds out about her mother, he who takes her there, he who is kindly overlooking the mother’s story (but deeply disapproving), he who focuses on Marnie’s dislike of sex. Not that the book Mark likes this but he does not see it as so central, and anyway he is in rivalry with Terry.

In the movie, Marnie does not nearly kill Mark but herself gets into an accident which appears not to hurt her at all except emotionally. She does bang her horse, Fornio into a wall. Fornio is so badly hurt he must die. She runs for a gun and hysterical shoots this horse. In both novel and movie , we are asked to believe that during Marnie’s childhood the one creature she really loved who loved her was this horse, that she had the money to keep and ride it. (Maybe this is why Hitchcock made Mark upper class so when they visited the horse it would not seem improbable to a British audience). It’s after this that in in the movie Mark takes Marnie to visit her mother.

Hitchcock regarded Graham’s book as fodder with which to make a very different story, one with a strong hero (not in original); a previous screenplay by a Evans Hunter kept the transposition and did not include the rape but this was rejected. Jay Presson Allen wrote the play we now have; in the feature she comes across as not caring about the improbabilities and saying the rape was not really a rape. (The usual way of justifying rapes.)

In Graham’s book Marnie does ride and she does damage Mark, come near killing him in a hunt towards the end of the book as I said. So we could say it’s partly a woman’s film, one third of the triumvirate was a woman. But the truth is the first play was writen by Evan Hunter who was fired because he balked at writing the rape scene in the way Hitchcock wanted it changed. The Heart of Me– a misogynistic take on Lehman’s book had a woman playright, but the director was a male.

The great climax of the movie is how Mark breaks down Marnie’s carapace, she relives the incident where she was put out of her mother’s room, the man came into the room when she cried, violence ensued and she killed the man. Marnie breaks up into whimpering and a kind of crazed monologue. We are to believe this releases her, and when she returns home with Mark they will now begin to have a “normal” life together: she will have sex with Mark. Mark of course will continue to support the mother who is left there after herself confessing how she has ruined Marnie’s life by bringing her up to hate men and sex. But she did not mean this. So we are allowed to feel for her.


Some thoughts on the book as part of Graham’s oeuvre. Graham’s novel is not one of your respected high status books so you may have to buy a cheap copy on the Net. I found one which is part of an omnibus book of Graham’s “best” mysteries. It seems that highly unusually Graham really repeatedly delves the problem of unhappiness in sex in married life. He again and again presents marital rape in his Poldark books; he repeatedly shows married couples unhappy because of an unhappy sex life. He shows men raping women, men murdering women out of jealousy (or their lover) or from too much alcohol (that’s what happened to Verity’s husband years ago we are told, and naturally she forgives him for it’s years later.)

The first instance is the rape of Elizabeth Poldark by Ross Poldark in Graham’s novel of the same name, life just goes on. For Marnie she goes about her business the next day, breakfast &c. And he rapes her no more, only a couple of times trying to seduce or soften or be suggestive but she does not let him near her. At the end of the book when she returns to him (after she has had a sort of revenge by luring him into hunting and then into doing something beyond his capacity so he broke bones and was almost killed) we may guess eventually gradually now she’ll learn maybe to accept and even like sex.

This is what presumably happens to the second woman in Graham’s Poldark novels. Morwena experiences marital rape nightly and it’s sufficiently suggestively describe a few times that we know the man is sadistic, a foot fetishist. She begins to lose her firmness of stance, become shattered psychologically and she is impregnated. Finally she has a hard birth and he is made to understand by a doctor he must leave her alone; after a while he does start up again. Our author (Graham) is kind and this husband-rapist is murdered. She flees her wretched family who coerced her into the marriage and to a young man she loved. He see she cannot bear sex and is tender and loving and leaves her be. We see them marry and it’s implied no sex yet. Book ends. The next book opens and we hear she had a child. Presumably like Marnie she began to trust, then bear and then like it. But alas, we are not shown what happened at all.

This kind of thing though one sees was of interest to Graham. This trajectory of the woman coming to trust or learn or change was not to Hitchcock. Instead she breaks out of her shell by him making her hear and tell the tale in front of him and her mother. But there is this peculiar man’s point of view that in both cases (book and movie) we begin with a rape. The author wants to have the woman broken down some more first.

I’m interested in the subject of rape, how it’s presented (which is usually rare in mainstream novels and almost never of marital rape)

Of interest is that Mark in the book is really an ordinary law-abiding person, perfectly conventional, not at all pathological and not a rapist type at all. (Graham’s favorite heroes are not violent men: Dwight Enys, a sensitive doctor; Ross normally is not violent to women at all, but loving and kind even if a strong man. Strength does not issue in physical violence against others in Graham except when someone is attacked.) People watching the movie say there is something awry in the Mark character: perhaps they can’t believe he would live with a woman without sex — or are embarrassed to think so so something must be wrong. In the feature that goes with movie, some people opined Mark is enjoying his role, titillated by it.

The most common promotional still shows Marnie on her horse: see above and this too;

In the movie she goes off and kills her horse; she does not do this in the book

This is an archetypal image of the femme fatale: the woman on a horse (the horse is phallic power, something outright denied Victorian women during the worst repressive phase of the era, when it was not done even to ice-skate). The woman with the gun. The woman on a horse is seen in cover illustrations of Mary Braddon’s Wilkie Collins’s books – and DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Remember Hitchcock made a version of Rebecca. All evil, when DuMaurier said she was partly on Rebecca’s side, and Max de Winter was a murderer.

Well Marnie (book and film) made me think more about the way rape is and is not treated in the Poldark books — sexual experience is open and central to 18th century novels the way it is not in the 19th century. In Graham’s Marnie the transgressive heroine (twisted by her society and childhood) is coerced into marriage, but it’s not done with violence. Mark (as I’ve said) discovers Marnie is a thief of a high order: stealing vast amounts of cash and threatens to turn her in except they marry. She thinks to herself (in the book) that this will prevent him testifying against her. So there is a sort of bargain.

Two, he insists on sex the first night. So he rapes her — not presented in the book after the initial suggestive sentence just the way it’s one in Warleggan between Elizabeth and Ross — and then afterward nothing happens. There are no fatal consequences — except to Ross and Demelza’s marriage and later to Elizabeth’s with George because she conceives a child he can’t endure. As in the rape of Elizabeth Poldark by Ross Poldark in Graham’s novel of the second name, life otherwise just goes on. For Marnie she goes about her business the next day, breakfast &c. And he rapes her no more, only a couple of times trying to seduce or soften or be suggestive but she does not let him near her. At the end of the book when she returns to him (after she has had a sort of revenge by luring him into hunting and then into doing something beyond his capacity so he broke bones and was almost killed) we may guess eventually gradually now she’ll learn maybe to accept and even like sex.

This is what presumably happens to the second woman in Graham’s Poldark novels. Morwena experiences marital rape nightly in Graham’s Black Moon and Four Swans and it’s sufficiently suggestively describe a few times that we know the man is sadistic, a foot fetishist. She begins to lose her firmness of stance, become shattered psychologically and she is impregnanted. Finally she has a hard birth and he is made to understand by a doctor he must leave her alone; after a while he does start up again. Our author (Graham) is kind and this husband-rapist is murdered. She flees her wretched family who coerced her into the marriage and to a young man she loved. He see she cannot bear sex and is tender and loving and leaves her be. We see them marry and it’s implied no sex yet. Book ends. The next book opens and we hear she had a child. Presumably like Marnie she began to trust, then bear and then like it. But alas, we are not shown what happened at all.

The first episode of Poldark movies brings home to me how Graham is unusually frank and interested in marital sex — the dissatisfaction between Enys and Caroline is not just a matter of diet and exercise. How it fails and creates terrible miseries for people. Another couple is presented as having fraught difficulties because of sexual life does not cohere to supposed norms.

This bothers me. There is this peculiar man’s point of view that in both cases we begin with a rape. The author wants to have the woman broken down and does not always punish the males who do this but at times justifies them (Ross in his behavior to Elizabeth, Blamey to his wife, Mark Daniels to his — the latter two murdered their wives).


Now comments on the movie as movie: Several issues are at the heart of a comparison of the film with its source — which is what interest me. The first is easiest to deal with — swiftly. The mise-en-scene and cinematography of the movie was dated when it was filmed. Lee (and the people in the feature to the movie, some famous, which is part of the modern DVD) justify the refusal to film on location at all and the various symbolic techniques which break naturalism (the screen goes red when Marnie is deeply distressed about her past) are instances of German expressionism. Perhaps the film would be better in black-and-white — as it seems to have been originally filmed. In color it’s all conventional pastels. The use of painted backdrops, of people not on real horses but wooden something-or-others with countryside behind, does detract. The studio rooms with the action as a drama on stage is fine once you accept this is an older style movie.

As for the inner life of the novel (first person personating a woman in an incessant stream of consciousness with story going forward interpersed with memories), what Hitchcock puts in its place seemed to me didn’t work. He is fascinated as were so many by Freudianism and when the “back story” of the mother — driven of course by Mark who is the big he-man presence of the film, acting, knowing, doing everything (but except once apparently fucking his wife, Marnie) — is finally presented we get this sudden dissolving of Hedren as an actress to a whimpering kind of neuroticism. It’s hard acting. We are to pity her. Why? Because you see she had this mother who hated sex and taught her to hate sex.

To me it’s remarkable all the respect Hitchcock gets. Yes he brings up intense important issues of great violence and terror and misery between men and women, but then he most of the time just shows them at their most sensational and improbable and then walks away.

I am bothered by the way the character, Marnie in the movie is discussed. The discourse endlessly begins with how she’s a “liar.” This word has a powerful dishonoring connotation, so powerful that even today one must not call someone else a liar even when you and they know the person has been lying. In fact lying is so common and when people protest against a lie, it’s usually not the lying but the content they can’t stand and don’t want to admit to disliking.

In the book we gradually see Marnie’s is a defensive lying; she has to lie a lot because she’s getting away with a lot — so to speak.


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Camille Pissarro, Morning Light on Snow

Dear friends and readers,

Several months ago now (!), back in September I wrote a blog about how on WWTTA we had begun a reading and discussion of a group of Gaskell’s short stories and novellas that are online as well as in print in three separate collections (Cousin Phillis and Other Tales, The Moorland Cottage and Other Stories and A Dark Night’s Work and Other Stories). The plan was when we finished these to go on to Lady Ludlow, Mr Harrison’s Confessions (also online and both used in the film adaptations Cranford Chronicles and Return to Cranford), then to read the tales of Cranford themselves and finally end on Gaskell’s historical novel, set in the later 18th/early 19th century among poor sea-faring people, Sylvia’s Lovers. These two are all online.

Well I’m here to say tonight that we did in fact read all the stories and discussed most of them — three of us reading and posting about them. I began to cross-post on Trollope19thCStudies (which is supposed to be about 19th century authors) when it’s group reads ran out and the people there fell silent insofar as reading or discussing any books, and have discovered a few more people are reading along (if not posting).

Last time I discussed “Half a Life Time Ago,” “Lois the Witch,” and “Lizzie Leigh” (together with a comparison of Elizabeth Spencer’s Light in the Piazza) as examples of the powerful and varied stories with their typical woman-centered themes that we had been enjoying. Three out of eight. Since then we’ve read 15 more (many gothics or with strong gothic elements) and it’s really hard to choose, especially since I didn’t write summaries or as coherently as I did at first.

But choose I must. So here are a five more, not necessarily in the order we read them. The reader will see that Gaskell often has male protagonists and how her sympathetic imagination takes in all sorts of people. How surprisingly varied and powerful she is if you’ve only read the 4 (great) novels set in her present era. No wonder she created the Bronte myth. For 18th century readers her bent for historical fiction is usually the 18th century and gothic; Uglow; that she is usually seen as an Austen type — neither that nor Bronte, but a voice her own.


Claude Monet, Road to the Farm

Gaskell’s “My French Master” (from Moorland Cottage)

To me in tone and complicated outlook, this story anticipates Cranford. The depiction of Mr Chalabre is suffused with a nostalgia for the ancien regime’s surface courtesy, elegance, manners, and what Talleyrand called the sweetness of a luxurious life among the aristocracy; at the same time while the character himself in the first half believes nothing short of this is true for all aristocrats when together and they can all be depended upon to support one another (of course anyone outside the tiny charmed circle is to be dismissed and exploited, it goes without saying or notice as unpleasant), our narrator reminds us more than once that life in the ancien regime was hard, mean, cruel, outrageous: as for example, when Mr Chalabre goes to pieces over the beheading of Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette, the narrator tells us that the people’s “rage” at the time was a pent-up natural response to centuries of continual outrage and cruel.
Beyond the occasional undercutting, in the second half when the Bourbons are brought back and M Chalabre is suddenly joyous, thinking he will have his estates again, he discovers he is very much mistaken: he is snubbed, his estates stay with the powerful bourgeois who took them over, and he is soon back in the local community teaching French again.

So much for the frame: the delight is in the human relationships idealized in the way of Cranford so stupidity (frequent), extravagance (our narrator’s father), mean gossip are somehow continually overcome by other people who make up for this, compensate and a sense of a whole community who stick together. It was this value in our anti-social time that made the two mini-series so popular: they were a paean to now despised community.

It has her usual range across years, the many deaths and losses, people going broke (and being supported somehow or other most of the time — not all), and quiet survival of a few by the end, and this “I can see her now” emotion so common in these stories.

Not to omit, Gaskell documents the struggles of the French emigres here, civil war and revolution and reaction, the destruction of an old landed order; the teller resembles one of Gaskell’s friends, Mary Mohl, English by birth, but French in manners and married to a German professor, so autobiographical too.


John Everett Millias, Blow, blow thou winter wind, re-strike …

Gaskell’s “The Heart of John Middleton” (from Moorland Cottage)

I read this early this morning. It’s a tale of an inward conversion to religious faith. That’s the outermost plot-design. Within this though it has powerful interest in this: John Middleton is the kind of person most stories present as a bad man: poor, robber, violent, amoral, brought up by a father who worked these terrible long hours at menial dangerous tasks for tiny sums of money and he made his son do this too. What happens is father crosses even taboos among criminals and runs off and the son is ostracized by all, treated as dirt, and cannot retrieve himself.

So Gaskell is making us see the inner world of a man in most Victorian novels despised, dismissed, the kind of “other” in Sherlock Holmes’s tales. We are made aware of how unfair the lack of of opportunity for him is. No one will believe him. No one will pardon or help him in his efforts not to fall into crime again. Poaching is shown to be a way to eat: an implicit critique of the poaching laws is here.

Finally this saint like female touches his heart and he saves her from starvation when her grandmother dies. A great enemy of his, mean nasty hard man attacks said saint and she is injured for life giving Middleton a chance at her for a wife, for her relatives will give her to him as better than no one else.

What an expose of the world’s motives.

This sickly wife in bed is a common trope in Gaskell’s novels, often shown as the person who somehow saves everyone else and makes their lives better. (Not all sick people are like this at all) But the type is in Wives and Daughters, The Moorland Cottage. In W&D it’s given a twist that she’s destroyed for any fulfilling life by a dense husband.

Finally Middleton’s great enemy himself falls from favor and ends up in need and in Middleton’s house and instead of murdering him or getting back, he helps the man escape. The saintly wife dies and he becomes this person going about to convert others.

The real subject here is the heart of society: black, mean, unforgiving, laws profoundly inhuman e and unjust. It’s comparable to Trollope’s “Aaron Trowe” also about a man driven to become a criminal and then into bestial violence: no coincident AT is the initials of Trollope himself.


Claudel, Woman Bent Over (mid-20th century)

Gaskell’s “Sexton’s Hero” as anti-bullying Gothic (from Moorland Cottage)

Last night I read the very brief story by Gaskell, “The sexton’s hero,” and it just hit the right note for me: it’s a story against bullying. What kept up the ritual of male challenge, dual, murder but that if a man refused to participate, he was ever after a target for every mean dense brute that passed by, was shunned by others lest they be involved. The first writer to bring this home to me was Germaine de Stael in her _Delphine_ where for the first time I read the mechanism behind this vicious practice.

Gaskell combines a Wordsworthian figure with this theme: the gravedigger, sexton, man who is poor, in a humble position, silent overlooked tells a story to two friends who are debating what is a true hero. Is it aggression, especially of the physical, competitive kind, or something else? Well, according to the Sexton it is indeed something else, something beyond moral courage too, for Gilbert Dawson, the man who was ostracized, mocked and destroyed (lost his lady love) because he refused to duel saves his beloved’s husband from drowning. (This one also reminded me of the old quarrel over Fanny Price who is very courageous indeed.)

The story has the usual edging towards death and dying: the story occurs in a graveyard; as the story is told we are told the heroine is now dead in the grave with many other relatives; and the sexton is now digging a grave for another child. I wondered if the Sexton was not himself Gilbert Dawson.

There is much effective description; Uglow says this story resembles another by Gaskell called “The Doom of the Griffiths” and was written while she took an annual pilgrimage to the seaside (see A Habit of Stories, pp 147-49).

I connect this to gothic since at the core of the gothic is usually a hero or heroine who is being harrowed, harassed, bullied, threatened.

Fran replied:

I’ve managed to read the latest Gaskell stories, but while sympathetic to her bravely anti-violent stance (her own pacifism can’t have been all that well received in her often jingoistic times), I can’t say I’m terribly fond of her in her overtly moralizing mode or of the sentimental religiosity of previous stories like “Lizzie Leigh.”

I rejoined:

Fran, you make me smile. I don’t think I’m morally improved when I read Gaskell and quite take your point about the (to me) not just cloying but self-destructive veins of moralizing in stories like “Lizzie Leigh.”

My guess is what I do is take away from what Gaskell approves of that I find echoed in my own psyche, and it makes me feel better, less alone. I identified with that Sexton and wish more people in the world were like Dawson. It’d be easier to live on.

Uglow doesn’t emphasize or look at Gaskell’s texts as pacifist, but they certainly are. I like this — we could also call them quietist. At the same time I’ve been reading with my students RLS’s “Ollala” (among other gothic texts) and — very much in the gothic tradition or state of mind — RLS ends that tale with this gnomic utterance:

“pleasure is not an end, but an accident; that pain is the choice of the magnanimous; that it is best to suffer all things and do well.”

It’s a kind of intense stoicism, which plays out politically (in the real social world) as conservativism, but it is comforting at least to me, and this kind of stance is one of the reasons I so enjoy the gothic.

The question (I say in my blog on this story) is what are these ethics we are to hold fast to. All RLS’s work manifests a deep bleak pessimism concerning human fallibilities and our animal nature. Gaskell has her Christianity to impose on the worlds she creates and gives us these heroic heroines. Alas, they would not have any real play in the world and that’s what we see in these short stories, many of which are gothic.

Ellen — who goes for sites of resistance like Atwood’s too


I liked Ellen’s comment that this story has “the usual edging toward death and dying.” I, too, find this in Gaskell’s stories.

I also think Gaskell makes a point of showing how much hardship one endures in life–more so in the 19th Century because of a lack of modern medicine and technology. Life is never easy in her stories–there is no smooth sailing. Poverty is often a theme.

I think some of the morality lessons she implies are an attempt to offer comfort to those trying to make it through. Almost a false hope and cheer but welcome nevertheless in dark moments.

There is a resemblance here to Susan Hill’s Woman in Black in the pony cart and passengers trying to cross to the mainland before the tide becomes full again. The same battle against tide and time. And again tragedy. I think the story does have a gothic element.


Joseph Wright of Derby, Earth-stopper on the Banks of the Derwent (cover illustration for Dark Night’s Work volume)

Gaskell’s A Dark Night’s Work (novella)

This one is as long as Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis, a considerable novella so I’ll take three weeks. It’s another showing her great variety. The title refers to the night our heroine’s fafter, Mr Wilkins, by accident but out of a fierce fit of temper hits his clerk, Mr Dunster over the head with something or his bare hands and the man falls, hits his head on an iron substance and dies. The father was under pressure from the prospective son-in-law, Mr Corbet, to come up with a dowry for Ellinor, and when he asked this hard-working underpaid clerk, Dunster, who was responsible for the business, not falling under altogether, the clerk told him hard truths and sneered.

What’s unexpected is the old retainer who loves Ellinor and she him (Mr Corbet had tried to separate them) proposes to buy Dunster and try to pretend they know nothing of it. The burial is done in a dark night’s work.

So now we have a murder mystery stroy complicated by Mr Wilkins’s inability to run his business, his increased drinking, Ellinor’s love for Corbet (and innocence and need for this man) and Mr Corbet’s real enough but far more limited love for her. Corbet is an ambitious man whose relatives did not approve the match.

A gothic of family, money, sexual pathology, the nexus not so different from the matter Mr Whicher investigates, — like Dostoevsky

The story at first moves the story moves slowly and realistically — in the sense of psychologically complex enough characters, and we are beginning to get at the nub or crux of a crisis. It does not seem as if very gothic to me, more in her lyrical sentimental-realism style, with much depiction of real business in a small community, real social snobberies and dissensions, intimate human relationships. I was struck by this as I close the novella last night; we were moving towards the young man, Mr Corbett, finally asking for the hand in marriage of Ellinor Wilkins who he loves as much as he is capable (not nothing) and who has learned deeply to love him, Gaskell writes:

“And thus the sad events of the future life of this father and daughter were hardly perceived in their steady advance; and over the monotony and flat uniformity of their days sorrow came marching down upon them like an armed man. Long before Mr Wilkins had recognized its shape it was approaching him in the distance — as, in fact, it is approaching all of us at this very time; you, reader, and I, writer, have each our great sorrow bearing down upon us. It may be yet beyond the dimmest pot of our horizon, but in the stillness of the night our hearts shrink at the sound of its coming footstep’ (p. 28)

In the story Mr Wilkins has neglected his business and made enemies; he has not brought Ellinor up to know how to fend for herself or do anything to support herself. The sense of the sentence though implies we do and must all go to rot, and it comes unexpectedly — not so much like an axe waiting behind the door to fall in us, but insidiously.

She feels this because she’s seen it, living in a world of the 19th century with such small social net anywhere — and harshly set up too, never mind the lack of medical science.

It seems to me the story takes a turn that reminds me of Crime and Punishment. Ellinor, Mr Wilkins and Dixon just can’t live with themselves with that body buried under the flowers; she becomes haggard, ages, intensely ill: she thinks the three should have just told the truth and produced the body, but we are to see that as the population now castigates the dead man for absconding with the money (when for years he had been a hard-worknig decent type) so they would have anathemized Mr Wilkins and perhaps hung him — as much for his uppity ways and losing his money as anything else. Mr Wilkins proceeds to try hard to keep the lies up. Dixon sorrows. All avoid one another. Meanwhile Mr Corbet is having second thoughts about this marriage. A Mr Livingston who has a heart seems to me the hero at the margins of the story who may save our Ellinor yet (she too stupid to see him clearly, blinded by her own prejudice).

I realize that the story has the same problem Fran has pointed to: the super-self-sacrificing heroine, and while for the most part, Gaskell’s tact keeps her from moving into gush, she did not resist this parenthesis (which gives something of the deleterious game for women away): “(if anyone so sweet and patient could have been worried)” (in my Oxford classics A Dark Night’s Work ed SLewis, p 127). This is not an ironic utterance.

But it satisfies or gratifies some impulse in me to work through the underlying paradigm here: as dramatized by Gaskell, we have a young woman who undergoes a terrible trauma in and of itself (burying a man illegally in the garden her father has murdered however accidentally), which is made much much worse by the effect it has on her future prospects and life. It’s true that could she have ruthlessly ignored that body, she might at least have married Robert Corbet, the rich intelligent loving-enough ethical-enough suitor, but then she would not be Ellinor: she cannot bear to desert the father, which she would have had to do as he sinks into heavy drinking and bankruptcy and social misbehaviors sufficient to stigmatize him and all around him; she really can’t get herself to desert the long-time faithful loving servant, Dixon (who she stood up for when Corbet wanted to see Dixon let go. Anyway we see that once Dixon’s watchful surveillance over th piece of ground is broken, someone does dig the ground and find the body.

This effect on her real pragmatic and emotional needs and circumstances drives her wild; she becomes ill, there’s a line somewhere about her (or maybe Dixon too) not being able to sleep for worry, anxiety, nightmares, and the burden of it. What the story does then is show her coming to terms with this “crime.” (She was an accomplice to the fact.) I’d say while we are told Corbet’s breaking off the engagment is the “great terror’ of her life, for then she knows any successful life as such things are understood is out of the quesion for her — not having a dowry, being so sensitive and intelligent; nonetheless, when he does break it off, there is something of an intense relief. Ellinor is glad to be rid of the burden. When her father dies and she finds she must rent the house to survive, she resists intensely (because she wants to watch over the corpse) but she finds she must and when she does and her old governess, Miss Munro (a loving but dense woman) finds a job and a house for them at nominal rent, I put it she’s relieved. She’s glad to put off the burden of all this and retire to this cathedrale close.

This underlying retreat is the motivation for the tale — to act it out. Gaskell wants herself to find some peace and freedom. Now Gaskell is not nice to herself (I have found Trollope writes stories where he flagellates writers for writing idealistically, not for money and then punishes them by starving them and making them give up writing — a similar kind of psychological exercise to justify to himself his own materialism at the same time as acting out his desire to be otherwise and then perverse, hittnig out at his character — the fate of George Bertam is a classic case, also Fred Pickering). When Ellinor now imagined surrounded by these friends who love and appreciate her precisely because of her inward fine nature and lack of pretension (yet you see a lady) and goes to Rome, she finds herself cheerful and uplifted and gay.

So our author has news sent that the body has been dug up and Dixon blamed. Ellinor must hurry home to try to save him from hanging, the gallows, and yet she is (faithful as ever) determined not to let people know her father did the crime.

I omitted a line: by having Ellinor told when she is away at Rome (without Miss Munro, having escaped her too now) and having this good time that Dixon is now being blamed for the crime, Gaskell punishes Ellinor for escaping (the way Trollope punishes his authors who write out of idealism rather than for money). Ellinor blames herself. It’s all her fault. It’s here that I see a parallel with Briony in McEwan’s Atonement: all her fault too! McEwan is aware that something is screwed up here, I’m not sure Gaskell is.

There is some improbability here too. It seems that Corbet is glimpsed over the years; Wouldn’t you know he marries into the family who live near Ellinor and Miss Munro and can be seen in this gorgeous wedding — to which Ellinor comes wearing all black veiled. (No flagellation too much?)
And now he is the justice in the case. We have reason to know from his character he still values Ellinor — so maybe it’s to him she will have to tell the truth.

And there’s a long-time suitor in the wings: Canon Livingstone who (much to Miss Munro’s dismay) will not pop the question as he knows very well Ellinor will say no.

For he knows (as Gaskell does) Ellinor wants none of this hard life.

I find myself mocking this story as I retell it; I can’t resist it as my mind or reason sees the absurdity of it. Yet as I read it, I fall in. Within its own terms all the characters are in character; especially the portraits of Corbet (the socially ambitious man), Mr Wilkins (Ellinor’s father who sinks into degradation), Miss Munro (who I became fond of though if I had to live with her I’d go mad with irritation at times).

And as I say I think it has a paradigm which appeals at a deep level: the trauma and the terrible things of life you see you cannot avoid and must know are lived out and then escaped from and the relief is strong.

Since I’ve been reading McEwan’s Atonement and know one way to read it is of an male author in drag writing apparently androgynously, I am struck that the real way to read this 400 page flagellation by Briony against herself is that it’s a parable not to do this to yourself. If you do a bad deed, you have two choices: live with it ruthlessly and ignore what you did, or escape somehow. Briony couldn’t pull off either; she was the prisoner of her own mind.

Ellinor too is the prisoner of her own mind and can’t escape but Gaskell lets her try and my argument is that is the unconscious reason Gaskell writes this story in the way she does.

Madness? yes. But who ever said the gothic was a sane genre.

The tale concludes with a familar paradigm to anyone who’s read much Gaskell: it was Mary Barton to the rescue; then Molly (Wives and Daughter); well here we have Ellinor to Dixon’s rescue. A fairy tale ending with the Canon Livingstone waiting in the wings. It’s carried by the depth of seeing — the landscapes — the probably felt deep psychological presence of Mr Corbet (however softened by the idealism he would remember and re-see and re-value).

Pauline Bourges, Winter (mid-19th century French)

Linda replied:

I liked your summary and analysis of this story.

All the tragedy in the story seems to stem from Ellinor’s mother’s early death. If she hadn’t passed away, the father would have stayed in line–and the fierce bond between Elinor and her father wouldn’t have come about.

The whole coverup was unnecessary. It was the father’s weakness–his alcoholism and spending habits which caused his panic. The death was accidental. Instead of burying the body, he should have reported it and faced the consequences. A matter of some unpleasantness instead of the nightmare that ensued for all three characters.

Dixon and Elinor’s tragedies arose out of their misplaced loyalty to the father. No one was thinking clearly. Corbet might have helped straighten things out if only Elinor could have brought herself to confide in him. How is it that Elinor could never even see her father’s problems with drink?

One almost thinks that Gaskell is implying this is the destiny of these characters–it was meant to be, since as you suggested, Elinor wouldn’t be Elinor if she didn’t follow these impulses.

That in the long run, there is somewhat of a happy ending is almost accidental. Elinor could easily have lived the rest of her life alone. Miss Monro did. Elinor is really lucky to have found a friend in her old governess.

Gaskell tells us again in this story of the importance of money in leading a satisfying life. She also suggests in many ways the class distinctions that dictate our standard of living. She points to the prejudice toward Mr. Dunster, because he was unlikeable–and how a group feeling rose up against him, making his disappearance a matter of no concern to anyone. There was also the prejudice of the gentry when Elinor’s father did not seem to know his place as a lowly lawyer in the early part of the story. I think Gaskell writes more of class issues in this story than she does in most of the other stories we have read.

I like Linda’s more objective take on the matter of the story too. I was (in a way) following the inner psychology of the author writing such a story: Gaskell’s inward trajectory of emotionalisms.

But yes the story itself: on the one hand, we could say it (gently) suggests to us all this loyalty to Mr Wilkins, the father is overdone, severely overdone. He was a weak man, self-centered utterly, partly because of his own class-ridden obsessions overspends and destroys himself; at the same time class protects him. I suggest Dunster was not liked also because he was a lower middle office worker. How dare he? As long as he’s not around to explain and defend, the people side with the man on the upper rung: Mr Wilkins. Note how Dixon was despised by Corbet early on and almost hung (– still goes on, in Atonement, who is suspected and sent to prison, the working class male, uppity too you see). Class is at the same time the woman’s protection: see Deborah Kaplan’s book on Austen’s conservatism; she identified with her class first as it protected her (up to a certain point as Eliot’s Mr Brooke would doubtless say).

Money too — as central as with Austen and Trollope, only no specific sums much given.


I finally managed to finish this text and then catch up with the past mails I’d been saving, so thank you for all the very constructive thoughts on the story so far.

Like Linda, I was struck by the emphasis on class and class consciousness in the story, but also thought that Gaskell was sending out mixed signals: on the one hand she seemed critical of the snobbish, upper-class, knee-jerk rejection of upwardly mobile families like the Wilkins; on the other she seemed to confirm that prejudice by having Wilkins Jun. proceed to ruin himself and his dependents in parvenu extravagance and excess.

She also seemed to imply that part of Wilkins’ own knee-jerk aversion to Dunster was based on the fact that the latter was also successfully in the process of rising through the social ranks and perhaps intensified by the fact that on order to do so he was practising and preaching those virtues which had helped Wilkins’ own father succeed professionally and which he himself had fatally turned his back on.

There seems to be an strongly Oedipal element to the story in general: the absent/dead mother, the father fixation and the father’s instinctive rejection of Elinor’s suitors and competitors for her affections until it can’t be helped etc.

Linda also mentioned the element of destiny: still staying with the Greeks, it was interesting that Elinor’s father should bring this idea into play – even seeing himself as a (somewhat unlikely) Orestes, driven to madness by the vengeful Furies, while Elinor herself is often shown as driven to sickness and near madness by guilt and remorse. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad – mixing plays equally madly:)

Interesting, too, that the ‘gods’ use a modern instrument to bring the dark night’s work to light: the railroad, paired with capitalist greed. The mixed blessings of industrialization again.

At least Ellinor gets her peaceful happy end with her Living-stone far away from Hell-ingford….


Gaskell’s “The Grey Woman” (From A Dark Night’s Work)
Anton Menschel, his sister (18th century, German)

We did read this story on WWTTA before and I wrote a full posting then.

What we feel about something at any given point is probably a reflection of recent experience — for me often reading. So I was struck by how much this is a Bluebeard tale. I’ve now read so much about female gothics, and “The Grey Woman” fits this paradigm to a t, with its nexus or emphasis being this continual feeling of terror, anxiety, helplessness. Another super-good passive heroine — or perhaps Gaskell splits her heroine in two so the Molly-Maggie to the rescue type is Writ Large in Amante.

I was struck by how much the Radcliffe paradigm (the labyrinth, corridors) is made particular, non-formula-ized by the setting in Germany and all its particulars.

Uglow’s take on the story is strongly about it from the point of view of women or feminism. Amante ends up dead and the murderer gets away with it; Anna ends up a grey woman afraid to go out and sees her husband — still at large (reminding me here of Nader on Bush at large) — looking his right age and strong.

Uglow sees this story as among many by Gaskell where women become — are made to become, are trained to be — natural victims of the systems their required obedience supports. Until they have the courage to defy and then they may not survive. Amante and Anna are indeed a team, and could only escape by one behaving like a man, dressing like a man, working like one. Uglow says Gaskell never loses her urge to speak for the outcast.

I’d add “woman” or often the “outcast” men in her stories are criminal types soaking the old parents and relatives back home for their plessures in the city (a Wordsworth theme). Domestic hells of marriage — sometimes brought on by passion (as we saw in Manchester Marriage are here too.)

Again I’ve been much surprised at these stories, not the abject heroines nor the misery of women’s lives. The latter is simply probable when you think what the average life was under such customs and laws. What surprises me, what I had not expected is the intense depression of these stories. Varied they are but all so sad. I like that only some of these are so very painful, many of them.

How many sided and varied and interesting Gaskell is 🙂 I thought the deeply felt descriptions and psychologies at times elevated her over just about every book I’m reading just now.

Claude Monet, Seine at Bougival (1869)


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