Archive for May, 2011

Leon Cogniet (1794-1880), The Artist in His Room at the Villa Medici, Rome (1817)

Dear friends and readers,

The Admiral (aka Jim) and I returned this afternoon from a two day interlude in NYC of nearly non-stop delightful (really) visits and talk with friends, a birthday party, walking in Manhattan and Central Park (whenever it was in the way we went through or at least into a path), time in galleries (Neue Galerie on 86th to see an exhibit of startlingly sexually candid and disquieting Viennese art, circa 1890 to 1920ish), time in the Met museum, bookstores. During lulls on trains, the subway, when I couldn’t sleep at first from excitement and anxiety and generally (as I usually do) to keep my mind calm, I absorbed myself by reading Elizabeth Von Armin’s Enchanted April, finished an unfortunately nowadays unsung masterpiece in the Ivy Compton-Burnett vein, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and then Winston Graham’s nineteenth century historical novel, Cornelia (on both of which latter more perhaps next week).

This is a brief report on the exhibits we saw — whose centrality in most of my travel accounts I excuse by saying I am a lover of pictures. Maybe that’s why I so love films too. The Met as ever is overcrowded with people and nooks and crannies of unexpected new and rearranged art. The most memorable is Sabine Rewald’s (doubtless the daughter, granddaughter or niece of the great scholar of impressionism, John Rewald) Rooms with a View, several rooms filled with pictures which include windows. It is an odd exhibit. It is described by her and elsewhere as inspired by her love of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and his imitators, e.g., George Kersting (1785-1847, Woman Embroidering by a window) and Carl Gustave Carus (1789-1869, Woman on a Balcony) and as about views seen through windows in Romantic painting. The lead picture plus the blown up ones at the opening and end of the exhibit are of characters looking out a window:

However, most of the pictures instead show characters resolutely ignoring the view (one is even titled that) or for the most part oblivious to it except as the sun provides some light on their work (as in Leon Cogniet’s above). Funnily some of the pictures show the windows covered up by curtain. viz.,

Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), The Artist’s Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse (1851).

In some we are to see the artist is wasting time looking out, most of those having views show unreal perspectives because it’s most unlikely that the window would be so beautifully squared on just the picturesque angle we repeatedly see. Most appear wholly unself-conscious of this falseness; a rare witty exception is

Martin Drolling’s (1752-1817) Girl Tracing a Drawing (undated, early 19th century)

where it’s still not clear that we are to realize what we usually see through windows in paintings is artificially set up. Many of the pictures have windows because rooms do have windows. It is also disturbing that not one picture is by a woman though windows in pictures are so common in women’s paintings as to constitute an obsession, a melancholy sort of joke about how a woman looks out on the world through her enclosed environment,

Jane Freilicher (b. 1924), Casement Window (1974)

To be fair, Rewald acknowledges the woman’s angle in her lead picture, and she does show an interest in paintings sheerly of windows (many of her photos and studies of paintings are of windows, particularly when painted by Friedrich) and some of the views captured are original in feel, not pastiche,

Friedrich Wasmann (1805-86), A View of the Campagne (1832)

What puzzled me and Jim was how nothing was sorted; all the different motifs or types just higgledy-piggedly as if to distract the viewer from perceiving the contradictions and absurdities in the chosen paintings.

Among other pictures viewed a the Met we loved a room of very late 19th to early 20th century art, much of which we’d never seen before, neither impressionistic or anecdotal, not falling into any school at all. We tried to like the pastel portraits of the 18th century and did, but since most of the pictures were of people we’d probably have rightly disliked intensely in life (arrogant aristocrats flattered excessively), we were not bothered that we had to hurry through.

The Neue Galerie is the first private gallery we’ve ever gone to. Countless museums, many small, and we were therefore a little disappointed since the permanent collection was not on display. Jim is taken by the Vienna 1900 art and we stayed quite a while looking at Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele (see a sample). I agree they are important as breaking down taboos that uphold systems of privilege and power, that make for unhappiness through repression, and I did love the landscapes,

Schiele, Town Among Greenery (1917)

But some of the pictures of women masturbating, the complete absence of women artists and focus on genital sex, the harrowed imagery of trauma, distress, derangement, and cruelty were not exactly pleasant. I am not keen on gilded designs and abstractions either. In short, I would not have liked to own any of this and had no desire to buy a book, though I acknowledged that the choice of art books and literary accompaniment in the book store showed great care and money had been spent in putting together a learning experience. I could have bought myself a hard-to-get Zweig short story volume, Rilke’s poems, histories of Weimar. Instead I bought at the Strand (hurrah still going strong apparently) the book of the exhibit of Open Windows even if much less intelligently put together.

What else can I celebrate? My friend’s birthday party in Brooklyn took place in a non-pretentious restaurant in far Brooklyn (the stop on the BMT, the Q train, was Avenue U), with good food: 3 hours of good talk, a time filled with warm feeling among friends. I learned a lot about Brooklyn! We had two yummy meals with good friends originally met here on the Net, one brief phone call. As ever Central Park is this pastoral place fiercely protected by the Conservatory so as to be both beautiful and a public playground, picnic, idyllic exercise haven. Even the subway had its charm. I cannot recommend the Hotel Wales where we stayed: while the hotel is respectable, i.e., safe and quiet and mostly comfortable, the room was so small for the price we paid, it felt like a dark closet, and I couldn’t sleep the first night also because of the noise made by an inefficient window air-conditioner, but it was in a convenient part of town for us. One of our friends lives in an apartment from which we could view much of Manhattan around it, to the old fair grounds of Queens, the river and beyond. I began for the first time to “get” Starbucks. A place where you can wind down to appropriate music, drink coffee and consult your laptop as you watch the people around you and going by the windows of the store.

We did acquire a few new books beyond the Rewald’s Rooms with a View: Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall fantasy landscape, Castle Dor, two keepsakes from friends, L. I. Davis’s A Meaningful Life and a paperback single volume edition of Jocelyn Harris’s edition of Richardson’s Grandison (handy for working with on a paper and bringing to conferences).

I did feel the old urge to want to return to live in NYC. A fine place to live but hard to visit is my motto. It’s so vast with so many places with interesting things to see, hear (lecture series, concerts galore) and stuffed to the gills with people that one gets a healthier perspective on life than in a suburban homogeneous limited environment. We also have friends there and think we could make more and be much happier therefore in this environment. Izzy might find a rich life for herself there. Alas, we don’t have the money to repeat the kind of home we have here (Izzy would probably not have the same lovely airy large room with picturesque view), and most of one’s time is spent in one’s home. Still we said we’d think about it again …

And now to settle down to watching my two-hour version of Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant rarely happy documentary, Central Park (downloaded for me by Jim from Pirate EBay).

The first shot of the movie, accompanied by pleasant off-beat jazz


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A silver loving cup

Dear friends and readers,

The central riveting incident of this effective novel is the weakened Demelza’s journey down a dangerous mine to find and destroy the evidence of her son’s robbery (see The Miller’s Dance) of a huge sum and treasure trove of objects from the Warleggan bank with the help of Stephen Carrington (the stranger from the sea who in The Loving Cup will marry Clowance), and Paul Fellowes, a friend who shows himself an adept in dressing up like and imitating a woman.

As in previous blogs on Graham’s later novels because there has been no film adaptation from them, I take stills from the Poldark series and reproductions of appropriately felt paintings to evoke atmosphere or reinforce themes.


Kevin McNally as Drake Carne grieving still over the loss of Morwenna, unable to marry Maryann the woman he has engaged himself to (from Poldark, 1977-78, Season 2, Part 11)

The Loving Cup, Book 1, Chapters 1-5

I began this tenth Poldark novel last night and as with them all, just fell into it. I’m hoping I’ll like it as much as I did the early books because now at long last Elizabeth and Francis Poldark’s son, Geoffrey Charles, one of the characters from the earlier books, is central: the son of Francis (the alcoholic suicidal man, played so brilliantly by Clive Francis) and Elizabeth (frail finally, destroyed by the cage she let people put her into and then could not escape from the bully, George and possessive Ross, played spot on by Jill Townsend) comes to the fore. I did manage to engage with the “next generation” in the last book: the grown or young adult son and daughter of Ross and Demelza, Jeremy and Clowance.

I glance at what happens to Clowance (by mistake): in Graham’s final Poldark novel, Bella, one Graham knew he was writing eleven years after all the others, he worried lest his readership forgot what had happened and filled them in, so now I know that Clowance does marry the “stranger from the sea,” Stephen Carrington, but also is widowed and Jeremy dies at Waterloo. What interests me is how in this later generation, the characters remain alone, they do not marry, for good or ill: in this way Graham makes them reflect our own displaced worlds of the 1990s. Traditional marriage, conflicted or not is apparently no longer a viable metaphor. Knowing this ending makes me want to read on all the more.

A few notes: historically the central son, Jeremy, now of age, is involved in science and technology from The Miller’s Dance on. He is trying to invent a steam powered machine which will drain his father’s mine efficiently; the principle is the same as others are working on to make a horseless carriage. There were attempts in the 18th century to cope with such problems and we find Jeremy getting letters, reading periodicals. Miller’s Dance opened with parts of Jeremy’s machinery hauled up (painfully) into the mine; towards the close Jeremy was forced to see his material could not stand the pressure of the boilers. He’s trying again.

The Spanish or peninsula war from which Geoffrey Charles has returned with a Spanish wife. In my experience many leftist writers were deeply involved in the 1930s Spanish Civil war — like Orwell, and I’ve found that novels written in the 1940s and 50s will set events in that war. Graham’s unusual setting and visualizing, dramatizing of this peninsular war comes out of this interest.

We have some recurrent patterns in Graham’s fiction: the revenant who returns to the house in ruins was Ross Poldark in the first novel of the series; it’s now Geoffrey Charles at Trenwith. The man who has strongly amoral impulses, again Ross in the first series, controlled by his social patriarchal norms and his Jacobin ideals is reinvented in Stephen Carrington who is reactionary by instinct, as well as promiscuous, a liar, capable of remorseless murder, attracted to crippled vulnerable women, yet wants Clowance (perhaps status symbol).. The attraction that Clowance feels for him part of this myth that Graham buys into that woman can be allured by criminal amoral types (see in Marnie). At the same time a high level of violence by men inflicted on women is seen throughout the series.

An old man, Clement Pope, in the previous book, inflicted violence on his young wife and daughters from another marriage; Loving Cup opens with the young wife, Selina, falling from her horse and helped by Jeremy by (very like Willoughby in Austen’s S&S or Frank Churchill with Harriet in Emma) is carried home. Much more thoroughly realized; she’s heavy and hard to carry. The husband is vile and brutal, but also dying; Enys is called and a medical scene ensues, he dies cursing his wife. But she is now free and attracted to Jeremy and he to her. (We do not know why husband has cursed her; clues planted in The Miller’s Dance point to Valenine as well and it turns out her lover that night the old man’s heart failed was Valentine.)

A dinner party. Enys would like to travel with a group of scientists including Humphry Davies (yes marquee characters have begun to appear since Stranger from the Sea), but Caroline is stopping him.

Characters brought back: Ross is still evidencing wanderlust, Demelza weaker than she used to be with the birth of yet another child (now in her 40s), Caroline the witty gay lady at dinner has a counterpart in the forceful Lady Harriet Lee whom George Warleggan has discovered he cannot bully, cannot even force sex on. We are told Morwenna and Drake will be visiting Geoffrey Charles and Amadora — the attitudes towards Catholics in the era brought out.

The Loving Cup, Book 1, Chapters 6-11

What we have is a slow build up of characters, especially Geoffrey Charles interacting with his various relatives. As he and his new Catholic Portuguese wife go to visit others and are visited, we have a natural seeming way to re-introduce everyone under this new light a couple of years since.

At long last Drake and Morwenna come on stage, and I can now see why Graham kept them off in part. Drake is presented as genuinely working class, lower and not educated — so he was in the earlier books and now that he’s not a central refuge for a story of coerced marriage and marital cruelty, rape and betrayal, his character is not one with much conversation. Morwenna is presented as not recovered (how could she for real), however, making a tremendous effort to join in. Were Graham writing an inward narrative of these two, there would be much to delve in their lives and psyches but he does distance himself from too much inward pain. It’s only part of his landscape — and what is most disquieting while there and never denied or slid over is not central but at the margins of his books.

Other characters re-emerging are Demelza who is again presented as having this warm relationship with all her children (an ideal), especially perhaps the son Jeremy. His visit to someone who is an inventor, lower class, to discuss his machine. Clowance and Amadora on the difficulties of integration. Bella is part of a conventional plot as a tomboy who pounds on the piano.

And we see Valentine again, again a lady’s man, again venal and apparently amoral, stubborn for what he wants, trying to get up a gambling table with Stephen Carrington. He shows nothing I’d call affection for the man he assumes is his father

The story element must also unfold. Warrants are out for the arrest of those who stole a huge sum from a coach; that’s Jeremy, Paul Kellows and Stephen Carrington — who returns to the story’s stage too. The three young men argue how should they use the money; Jeremy is most unwilling to spend his (it seems), but when he goes to dinner with Clowance to Trenwith he questions Geoffrey Charles on what is the life of a military man. This gives Graham a chance to present a realistic picture of this corrupt service where basically it seems rich people became officers on their own expensive until they won prizes or got plum offices. For Geoffrey Charles it’s been an escape from over-protective harrowed mother and cold brutal step-father.

Loving Cup Book 1, Chapters 7-15

Book 1 culminates in the evening party Geoffrey Charles and Amadora give at Trenwith to all the people around the community, mostly upper class and middling are treated, but we see the working class ones too — not separated out in the upstairs/downstairs mode but see within the rooms living and talking (occasionally) interacting with one another and more tangentially as servants to the other characters.

It’s an effective bravura piece because Graham has now brought alive all his new characters, and brings back the most powerful of the older ones. It culminates in yet another clash between George Warleggan and Ross, this time as a result of an angry quarrel between Geoffrey Charles and his half-brother, Valentine: Valentine has not only treated Amadora in an insulting way (rakishly) but without first asking permission of his host, GC, brought to the party Morwenna’s son by her previous marriage, Conan Whitworth, the very sight of whom distresses her to the point she falls into a kind of shaking terror. He looks like her first husband and approaches her abrasively and aggressively. He too product of loveless childhood (GC when his mother dies, Valentine ditto).

Several other couples and individuals in the midst of the dinner party eating pieces, dancing pieces (which now include waltzing) provide us with high tension, conflict, and occasional comfort and ease. Jeremy is become aware of how much his continued chase of Cuby Trevanion is an obsession ruining everything else in his life, and we see her for the first time from Demelza’s eyes (who is tolerant of the coldness and materialism as well conventionality of the girl) and Ross (who is not). We see how Lady Harriet controls George and (quietly) humiliates him when, among several acts, she dances with Ross. The Blamey son is going bad because his character and instincts take him to follow after Valentine, not only a rake, but a gambler. This Andrew junior is not going off to take his place on a ship that night but becoming part of a renewed smuggling and illegal trade expedition of Stephen Carrington who continues to the haunt the edges of the book — and Clowance.

To me very touching is the depiction of Music Thomas, a disabled young man. With real insight and persuasion Graham has an autistic young man who is used by others, and loves the daughter of Jinny and Jim Carer, Katie (herself tall, clumsy, awkward, not valued by others). A painful scene where others laugh at him (and maybe we are supposed partly to see why they laugh). Ben Carter befriended and appreciated by Clowance. The servants are not forgotten.

Also an image: Elizabeth’s old spinning wheel in an old set-up withdrawing room, the one Morwenna retreats to before she encounters this son of hers. It’s sitting there looking so out of date and yet once useful. It somehow has her spirit in it. Touching haunting moment. (Begin a new book there.) Demelza says she was a good person who made a bad mistake in her second marriage. Yes. George looks at it for a moment, remembers her but as she did not this does not contain his uglier impulses.

The plot thickens as some of the money the three young men, Jeremy, Carrington and Fellowes stole on their expedition has turned up in George’s bank and he has traced it to Stephen. Stephen can have gotten this bill from someone else, but it’s a trail.


The shore from which seals may be glimpsed (from An Angry Tide)

The Loving Cup, Book 1, Chapter 17, Book 2, Chapter 1

These two chapters have much about the realities of trying to make a change-over in mining from human labor to effective machinery which drains water, digs and smelts — through the story of Jeremy Poldark’s attempts at making his machinery work. The Poldark mine will miss him as he has joined the military service and is headed for the Napoleonic wars because he cannot endure watching Cuby Trevanion marry the rich and well-connected man, whoever he is, that her brother chooses for her. There is an effective conversation between Jeremy and Ben Carter (son of Ross, son of the long dead Jim) over this mine and what a shame it is that Jeremy is leaving where he does some good.

As with Andrew Davies, the screenplay writer, Winston Graham is strongly anti-war, anti-false patriotism. Graham exposes the utterly corrupt system, how officers paid to be part of it (lack of any salary of course means it must be plums and patronage)

The Poldark women are left without Ross who has gone to London too and we see Clowance deal with an upper class decent intelligent suitor. It’s not easy to bring off a scene where there is nothing to ridicule, no obvious evils. She just doesn’t love Tom Guilford enough. The scene is set for a possible return of Carrington who with Andrew Blamey junior is sailing back and forth from Gibraltor with contraband goods.

Much on the war in central Europe where Jeremy is and reports from. Jeremy writes letters to his fellow inventors, to his family.

Finally, a touching scene between Drake and Morwenna who have returned to their boat building place. Geoffrey Charles wanted them to say on at Trenwith for when he returned and Drake would have liked to. It’s a fine old house and he could work from there, but Morwenna finds her memories of his place — where she was coerced into marriage too much. We are told of how she is still racked with bad dreams. Two years of marital rape are not slid over as nothing.

The title of the book comes from the robbery that closed The Miller’s Dance — the one George is at work to find the culprits for. Jeremy half as a prank and to take revenge on his father’s enemy, and the father of Valentine whom Cuby might marry, and Paul Fellows (dressed up as a woman) and Stephen Carrington stole a huge chest of money and expensive objects. These included a loving cup.

The Loving Cup, Book 2, Chapters 3-6

What happens in this powerful sequence of chapters is typhoid fever hits Stephen Carrington and Andrew Blamey’s contraband ships. A common occurrence when one went abroad as they are doing, back and forth down the Atlantic to Portugal, around the coast, back again. Blamey comes to tell Clowance in the midst of her parents’ summer party and she cannot leave Carrington abandoned. She is told he is calling for her. Graham writes a close up effective sequence of this man’s illness with her as a nurse, the washing of his body, his vomiting, all his spells and miseries. The two of them acnknowledge this bond during this process — well it’s there clearly and when he’s better, she weds him. Ross and Demelza do not stop her; she wants their approval and they come to the wedding and Stephen realizes he must keep their respect and alliance if he is to keep Clowance. She is not rebelling against these parents in her love but in a way confirming some of the non-materialistic values they have exemplified.

Ross has come home from London, and the mine is doing better once again. A couple of dialogues between him and Canning in London about politics, between him and Demelza again at home which dramatize the local felt life of the time. I just love the descriptions of the passing seasons, the houses, the whole feel of the slow movement of time and place and diurnal rhythms. Aging character like Zacky Martin.

As in a Scott novel, Jeremy comes home unexpectedly too and we get more conversations which are strongly critical of the way wars were conducted (expose it), of the flogging and whipping, the pressing, and especially the way soldiers were thrown away when done with. Jeremy will go back for a short time to fill out his obligation (as an officer he apparently did not have to) but says he must have lost perspective, and will not do this sort of thing to escape Cuby or anyone around him again.

The suspense is ratcheting up since George now has a card party to which he thinks (hopes) he has invited the suspects of the robbery. He has managed to find a man who was in the carriage and says he would recognize the two robbers not dressed up as women. This would be Jeremy and Stephen. He is being paid very well, but at the last moment comes later than George wanted. George did not want Harriet his wife (who seems out of sympathy with him – he married a cold amoral woman like him, really cold and amoral which Elizabeth was not) to know he was planning this exposure. She would despise him for his concern over the money, his spite, his theatrics.

I was that worried I peeked ahead and discovered that after all this man missed both Stephen and Jeremy. It’s a mark of fiction we care about when we are so anxious for our characters. George suspects different people by the way, not at all Jeremy (who he’d love to hang) and only tangentially Stephen. The money trail of what Stephen and Paul Fellowes have been spending is ambiguous.


John Constable’s Hampstead Heath, looking from Harrow at Sunset captures the feel of the landscape of the Graham’s novels very well

The LovingBook 2, Chapters 7-9

Larger world politics conveyed at a dinner Ross and Demelza go to, plus local doings over the economic effects these world politics have on local money, trade, land deals. We see these things in Graham’s fictions. He brings the past into the present this way too.

A chapter concentrating on Music Thomas: this is the disabled character — autistic I’d call him — his difficulties in life. Startling that Graham should attend to this a couple of decades before autistic awareness in the general population emerged — at least in the US.


Fiercely hating George Warleggan (Ralph Bates)

Book 2, Chapter 10, Book 3, Chapter 1: another father and son

A powerful clash between George Warleggan and the young man he has told himself must be his son — since Elizabeth’s death — Valentine Warleggan. George is insisting that Valentine set the date for the coming marriage to Cuby Trevanion and Valentine doing all he can to resist his father. At last Valentine is driven to confess he’s married already: to Mrs Selina Pope. It was Valentine who was in Mrs Pope’s bedroom when the old man came upon her and a lover and keeled over and later died.

We were led to suppose it might have been Jeremy Poldark, but I knew it was out of his character and Graham wants us partly to know that — although as in this happening life is serendipitous and we never know what is going to happen next. Unexpected things do.

Graham does not literally dramatize the clash, just says things were said between them which would not be forgotten. We are led to feel George may just disinherit this boy — except were he to do that he would have no son to inherit his property as there is little love between him and Elizabeth’s older son by Francis, Geoffrey Charles.

Some new elements which keep this reader reading. Suddenly we are shown a side of Valentine’s character which while it does not make him likable or moral, makes him a non-ogre. He lashes out at George: when did he ever love him? Valentine can pinpoint the time when George grew cold and we know it was then that Aunt Agatha poured the poison in George’s ears that Valentine was a 9 months baby and could not have been his. It was Geoffrey Charles who just about then spontaneously remarked how Valentine was the image of Ross Poldark.

I am so involved in this fiction I found myself berating myself for a time when I was harsh to a daughter whose very different harder nature I could not understand and feeling guilty. This is where Genlis gets to me too, for she talks of having such a daughter and claims to have turned it round by her methods. I know she didn’t by having read what that daughter wrote later in in life of her feelings about her mother.

And we are shown a side of George we’ve seen before. He misses Elizabeth. Harriet is no sympathizer, is as cold and amoral as George, married him as performatively as Elizabeth but as opposed to Harriet Elizabeth had much sweetness in her disposition, was docile and successfully taught to be submissive to her husband, to be conventional. He comes into a room she inhabited where that spinning wheel still is. This leads to ambiguous feelings. He has sworn never to distrust that Valentine is his son and he wants to keep that up to keep up his love for Elizabeth but the strong memories of what it was at the same time renew the old worm of intense jealousy. This is George regretting his loss of Elizabeth:

Sometimes he fancied he saw her still, heard her; she had a particular step, like no one else’s. Doors creaked, floorboards as if some weight had passed over them. It was a long time now; she was long since bones and dust; like his father and mother and hers … as he would soon be — morbid thoughts for a heavy afternoon. Must ignore them — brush them away. Cobwebs in the minds (p. 430)

How the “worms of doubt” have been re-aroused over Valentine now that they’ve quarreled so fiercely, how he allows them “freer reign” though he cannot rid himself of his guilt over his promise to Elizabeth to believe her “he had sworn he would never doubt again, and whatever the provocation he must try to keep his oath” (p. 431).

Harriet his new wife has “amusement in her eyes” as she watches his losses: “Humiliation was something he never could endure” (p. 431)

Have I said there is no close understanding between Jeremy and Ross? (These novels a study of real next generation.) They are not longer hostile and Ross is trying to understand a nature different from his. Jeremy keeps his distance, to Ross’s resentment. Jeremy’s one confidante is Demelza who calls him (and her other children) “my lover”.


Ross (Robin Ellis) estranged, holding himself apart (Part 11): he also in a believable grip of memory

Loving Cup, Bk 3, Chs 1-2: slowly accumulating memories

We have gone back four and five books here and then moved forward suddenly.

Then we turn to Ben Carter, the minimally educated son of Jim and Jinny (whose story is told in Books 1 and 2, Ross Poldark; Demelza), now rejected forever by Clowance, “a loner all his life, a man who preferred his own company to anyone else’s — or almost anyone else’s — His desire to “return to the lonely, carefree un-responsible life he had known of old” before he was promoted by Jeremy. He now had to “manage” others’ time, work within this system … a walk along the beach and memories accumulating from the past three novels (Stranger from the Sea, Miller’s Dance); this is how this fiction moves, is built up … As I say its equivalent in the film series is the slow pace of the theme songs, quiet of the background to sudden conflict, physical and adventurous.


Demelza (Angharad Rees) realizing the cost of holding her own in London society

Book 3, Chapters 2-4: Demelza’s courage

During his walk along the beach, Ben encounters Demelza and tells her something of what he came across in the lower levels of the mine. Three sacks, each labeled J, S. and P and he produces a seal he found in one: it’s a seal of the Warleggan bank. She begins to suspect that the clipped out newspaper article she came across a while back in Jeremy’s drawer about this armed robbery of a coach was her son, Stephen Carrington and someone else: Paul Fellowes might come to mind. However, we can’t tell since the text does not make her suspicion explicit.

Instead late that night Ross returns from a meeting over his mining, very late, and finds Demelza very drunk. He explodes with disgust. This enables the narrator to shape the narrative to point out how unfair this is: men are not confronted with disgust in this way. It’s a familyi joke that Demelza likes port and he’s seen her overdrink before, but not like this. It’s clear she’s also depressed and he begins to think something specific has happened to upset her. By dialogue he sees that something has but she will not tell.

He takes her to bed and tries to extract a promise she will not do this again or extract what happened. Neither gets much from her. His trip to London calls him of necessity away. We then get this strong chapter where she gets up early, brings dirty clothes and climbs deep into the mine herself. It’s very dangerous there. The ladder is in poor condition; the young men chose a place hardly gone to. Francis drowned in such a place. We ‘ve seen people have accidents. Ben going down suggests his depression and half suicidal thoughts. But Demelza is not suicidal. She gets down and finds the sacks, goes through two empty ones and finds notes galore in J’s (Jeremy) She burns everything but one silver cup she thinks particularly beautiful. Very dangerous. Then she has a helluva time climbing back up. At one point the ladder detaches from the wall and she is swinging a couple of thousand miles high from the bottom. She almost does not make it.

You might say of course she does, she’s the heroine. But heroines are killed off in Graham – as are heroes. Anyway I was all anxiety as I read. She worries if she doesn’t make it she will call attention to the place and there is evidence of burning and perhaps something will be found.

Another thread I’m beginning to see: she has had a fifth child, Henry. Julia is now dead and there are three living: Jeremy, Clowance and Bella (Isabella-Rose). Henry is a late child, born 1812. We are told Demelza was born 1770 so that makes her 42 at his birth. Luckily he’s normal but we have been continually told she had a hard time giving birth .The month leading up to it she stayed home; she was weak for a long time afterward. What happens during this climb up and down is her weakness, a form of illness is part of why she almost falls.

I surmise that like Trollope who killed off the central heroine of the Palliser series on the first page of the last novel, so Graham is preparing us for Demelza’s death. He doesn’t offer details like this for nothing. Perhaps in Twisted Sword which was intended as the last novel and the last one for at least 10 years, but in the last two years of his life, Graham wrote one more, Bella. So like Trollpe’s last maybe that one focused wholly on the next generation.I’ve seen a number of parallels between the Pallisers and Poldark novels be brought out through the film adaptations.

Book 3, Chapters 5-8

At long last I find I can’t put down the book. I’ve not experienced this with a Graham Poldark novel since Angry Tide. I read on to go with Ross to London and see him offered a position in a clique to run the borough of Cornwall, wrest it from Warleggan and Tory hands, or go to France at the behest of Lord Liverpool to in effect be a spy on what’s happening in Paris. By the end of the chapters it looks like he will take neither option. Selina Warleggan confronts the reality of Valentine: he tells her that he married her for her money and will now use her as he pleases. It’s not quite convincing in that it’s not nasty or awful enough and by contrast he told the man he thinks is his father, George, that he married for love. And he lost a lot of money and estates probably by marrying her: in Retif de la Bretonne’s Ingenue Saxancour, when the husband similarly tells the wife he means to do as he pleases in the marriage and is himself disposed to be violent, and do what he wants, the text slithers with fear, menace, startled horror. Here it’s calmer, but then Valentine is only telling, not as yet acting on it. He has certainly married Selina partly for her money — to escape his putative father.

Two chapters of confidences: Ross to Demelza, Demelza and Jeremy and then Jeremy and Ross. Jeremy comes home for Christmas and now must return to Belgium, Brussels. Jeremy sees the cup on his mother’s mantelpiece and has gone to visit the place where the three sacks were, all is gone but some evidence of burning. He realizes his mother knows, was there, what she did. He cannot as yet bring himself to discuss it, and confide in the one person he has confided all his life. The moment ends with a kind of ominous utterance: Demelza tells him to speak before it’s too late.

(Having read in the introduction to Bella, the twelfth and last Poldark novel that Jeremy did die at Waterloo, I know these are foreshadowings.)

Then Jeremy and his father. Ross almost tells Jeremy that Valentine is his half-brother, but punts and instead (much to my discomfort) offers him the advice to force himself sexually on Cuby the night before he goes. Ross is thinking of how he forced himself on — raped as far as I can tell — Elizabeth, and the result was the permanent bond of Valentine. Valentine being such a shit it might suggest this coupling was evil. This is the first time Ross has spoken of this incident as a positive — he told George when Elizabeth died of trying to make Ursula’s birth appear an 8 months baby that they had both of them together killed her. . This is Ross’s response to Jeremy’s telling his father some people feel things deeply and they cannot rid themselves or change the feeling. This is how Drake is presented, and also Ross’s feeling for both Elizabeth and Demelza.

Jeremy is understandably startled and even more so when his mother endorses this advice

I stopped reading when Jeremy has gotten into the compound of the Trevanion mansion, climbed the roof and was about to enter Cuby’s bedroom. It’s a parallel of Ross entering Elizabeth’s.

This justification of this kind of coercive behavior is disturbing. It endorses bullying. If the girl does give in, says yes, if Elizabeth did at some point that night long ago, this is a violation of a woman which deems that the man knows better and has a right at some level to the body of a woman he loves if she seems to like him.

For the conclusion of the novel, see comments to this blog.


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Jane Wymark as the older Morwenna Whitworth, now widowed, before she remarried (Poldark Season 2, Part 12)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been some time since I last blogged on a new (to me) Graham Poldark novel, The Miller’s Dance (Novel 9), 3 months to be precise. I have since blogged on Ross Poldark (Novel 1); and the pleasures and uses of historical fiction; and Demelza (Novel 2), but these were re-reads emerging from teaching. What I have made for myself is a thoughtful intellectual product and process I hope others will find enlightening.

I sent to the Eastern Region of the ACECS a panel proposal which has been accepted and sent myself a paper for that panel (which naturally I accepted). Here is a short version of the panel proposal. The theme this coming fall is liberte (liberty).

CFP: Liberty in historical, post-colonial and rewritten novels set in the long 18th century

In the last couple of decades a proliferation of historical fictions in a remarkable variety of permutations have been written, read, sold widely, gained prestigious prizes, and attracted an equally varied remarkable body of criticism. I invite papers on verisimilar Eurocentric stories in the Scott and political-regional-national and Marxist traditions; historical romances combining idealism with realism and addressing issues and concerns especially of interest to women, subjective heroine’s texts, gothic inflected; post-colonial, multi-cultural, queering and post-modern histories where it is said “the empire writes back” and challenges the perspectives, norms, and accepted stories as myths; rewritten novels where 20th century authors retell and re-present the events and characters of canonical texts, revise what counts altogether in fictionalized places and histories, and transposition, commentary, free and self-reflexive composite movies. This panel seeks to explore why and how these fictions intervene in our lives. I also invite papers which pair 18th century novels with modern analogous equivalents or commentaries on them, texts which may be said to rewrite one another, or may be connected in dialogic ways.

For my part I mean to exemplify the idea of liberty by a close reading of the first seven (7) novels. This will be my focus.

“I have a right to choose my own life:” Liberty in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels:

It is apparently not widely-known that after the 1995 BBC/A& E Pride and Prejudice (famously starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth), the best-selling video cassettes of a mini-series made for British TV, has been the 1975-76 and 1977-78 Poldark mini-series (not quite so famously starring Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark and Angharad Rees as Demelza). Sold in over 40 countries, all 29 hours of it was recently digitalized in 2009-10 after having been voted one of ten best TV mini-series ever made in a 2007 BBC survey (Wikipedia: Poldark). When in 1962 Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Marnie was first screened in movie-theaters (the originating novel is also by Winston Graham, the author of the seven novels upon which these two series were based), Graham remarked in an interview that “I was the most successful unknown novelist in England” (Memoirs of a Private Man, 117). This may still be true because although his twelve Poldark novels have never fallen out of print since they were first published (1945-2002), numbers of his books chosen as Book-of-the-Month club selections in the US, another six of them (mystery and realistic novels) successfully filmed for cinema, and he and various of his books the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for mystery (most notably his 1955 The Little Walls earned a Gold Dagger award and he an OBE in 1983), he and his novels are consistently omitted from every discussion of historical fiction I have come across except those specifically dedicated to him or his books.

I propose to write a paper calling attention to the strong value and compelling interest of the first seven books, to argue that they are unjustly neglected partly because of the unusual radical-leftist politics of books for a popular historical romance series, and partly because Graham himself never went to university, was never part of those circles where books are turned into canonical or modern classics, and allowed his books to be marketed as regional romances (redolent of Cornwall and thus linkable to Daphne DuMaurier). (I’ll omit the last five in order to keep the paper 18 to 20 minutes long.) I intend to demonstrate that unlike most popular historical fiction and romance, Graham uses adventure deftly, tactfully, graphically and continually to expose the workings and injustice of the ancien regime; that there is a thorough and accurate depiction of the economic conditions and problems of mining and agriculture in Cornwall at the time, the way elections worked, the use of monopolies by the English, and the poaching and game laws and prison system to perpetuate the in-place hierarchical establishment. Graham defends smuggling, the resort of subsidence communities to garnering food and whatever else was going out of wrecks on the seashore, but takes an Orwellian point of view when it comes to the revolution, terror, and emigres counter-revolutionary activities. Graham’s novels are instinctively feminist in their insistence on exposing marital rape and confiscation of some of his heroine’s lives in the service of heterosexual male hegemony. They are enormously enjoyable because of a gift for characterization that makes his subjective narration touch nerves in 20th century consciousness. Although they do not question the techniques of verisimilitude, and offer a vision of qualified contentment at the close of all but one of the first seven (Black Moon), there is a strong undertow of melancholy, disillusion and scepticism towards life’s experience then and now, a questioning of the objective reality of what is represented (Graham shows that he presents a “subjective reality” that comes out of his own mind, that he works from hearsay and invents his romances, Memoirs of a Private Man, 179) and a thoughtful working theory of historical fiction that holds up to scrutiny (Poldark’s Cornwall, 148)

The project will lead me to finish all the Poldark novels (there are 12, the late life Bella, and reread the first seven (in which Morwenna’s marriage is presented in bold imaginative depths (to escape George, to escape the tyrannical anti-humane attitudes I see continually. I also want to bring in (as relevant) the two mini-series, and last night I finished watching the last part (13) of the second season; that is, all 29 parts. Despite the manifest flaws of these nearly hour segments, most of them attributed to demanded inhibition to displace the tabooed content about women’s sexuality, I really loved these hour long adaptations.

Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) in Poldark Season 2, Part 8 realizing what a monster she has married when she learns George has been paying thugs to set fire to Drake Carne’s house, beat him up, poison his wells supposedly because Drake is Ross’s brother-in-law (from The Four Swans)

So what I plan to do here is post about the last three Poldark novels (The Loving Cup, The Twisted Sword and Bella) in the spirit I posted about the first nine. As I feel prompted, I’ll repost anew about the third through eighth novel as I reread them.

At the same time separately I will put onto the blog the postings I’ve written as I watched both mini-series. Thus far I’ve written only one blog about the films, Poldark: An 18th Century Che Guevara, and I assure my reader there is much to garner from these films, even at their weakest, and they are starting early on in the first series and throughout much of the second, very strong.

My next blog is on my experience reading The Loving Cup.


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Susannah Harker as Mattie Storin (1991 House of Cards)

Dear friends and readers,

As I wrote about 10 days ago, I have returned to my project and Austen movies book, and have determined to have a two part chapter on Andrew Davies Austen films. The first will be an interlude in Part Two, itself on the Sense and Sensibility films, “A Place of Refuge,” thus far 5 chapters. The interlude will be on Davies’s Austen films in the context of Davies’s oeuvre and it’ll be followed by the 6th and final chapter of the part: contextualizing Davies, Pivcevic and John Alexander’s 2008 JA’s S&S by the other S&S films and what I can discern of Pivcevic and Alexander’s work.

To do this I’ve been re-looking at all my notes, my blogs, re-watching some of the Davies’s films I had seen and watching a few lesser known new ones, especially those in a different genre, with a larger social vision, not romance films so much as politically and socially critical (or broadly aware) ones. I’m trying to see what really unites all these films. I find Cardwell’s division of Davies’s work into 1) films based on classic famous books and 2) films based on hardly known, semi- or popular classics obscures important qualities which the films share when you re-group them in other ways. My argument will be that Davies’s films are better seen as belonging to a genre, after that against their specific eponymous book, and only after that whether it’s a classic or non-classic book. It does matter if the book has a cult following; then he dare not alter the matter too much, but many classic books are not well remembered by the few readers who have read them anyway.

I also want to disagree with Sarah Cardwell’s book on Davies, or, to put it another way, qualify what she has to say by showing that Davies’s films are far darker and more pessimistic than she concedes, that they delve into the question of human and social evil, are sceptical, show a fascination with cruel sociopaths, and persistently present homoerotic couples and sex, as part of the subversion of the repressive unreal norms he finds so pernicious of enjoyment, happiness, fulfillment.

In my first blog on Davies this summer, I summarized what I had been watching since April and my findings on these, concentrating first on the romance visions (1983 Diana out of R. F. Delderfeld, 2007 Room with a View out of E. M. Forster. Then I had a brief excursis on Davies’s Tailor Panama where he is deliberately marginalized in the credits though it’s clear he wrote the script out of John LeCarre’s novel as it has all his trademarks, including a homoerotic couple at the center:

Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush) and Andy Osnard (Pierre Brosnan) (2001 Tailor of Panama)

Finally I discerned a pattern that many of Davies’s films of social vision share with other of these Anglo- film adaptations: a young man of a lower class finds himself invited to become or forced to appear more upper class, is brought to a huge rich house where he is at first uncomfortable and then taken in, though only for a time. To Davies’s three I described there (Diana, Tailor of Panama, Line of Beauty), I want tonigh to add a few notes about on a remarkable chilling dark romance or highly erotic film, the 2009 Sleep with Me (adapted from Joanna Briscoe’s novel) and Davies’s remarkable trilogy of mini-series (4 parts each) Davies adapted from Michael Dobbs’s political thriller novels, House of Cards, To Play the King, The Final Cut.


Lelia (Jodhi May) and Sylvie (Anamaria Marinca), the transgressive homoerotic couple in Sleep with Me

Andrew Davies and his film-making team concoct a powerful chilling movie out of Joanna Briscoe’s poor novel. Brisoe equates contemporaneity with crudity in gesture; a deliberately hard demotic style is cultivated. She is in no danger of any accusation of oversensitivity in nuances — though her conception of her characters and her fable feels compelling at first: it seems a young couple are gradually infiltrated by a quietly menacing ghost who sends the husband emails about her abject life with her mother.

Davies’s Sleep with Me is another of this type he did with Elizabeth Janeway Howard’s Falling — and also his re-do of Shakespeare’s Othello.

What all these movies do is concentrate on some character who others would call evil or “sick” and dismiss them, and show them to be very dangerous, someone the healthy and vulnerable must keep away from, but someone who is ill, really emotionally ill. In the case of Sleep with Me Davies has forayed into the area of the gothic — which the book does — to come up with Sylvie (Anamaria Marinca), a scary, creeply kind of character who we are asked to believe murdered her brother when the brother was a baby out of jealousy and now lives a socially isolated life (in part) and preys on others to wreak and destroy their relationships.

Sylvie and Richard (Adrian Lester)

It’s the ghostly and vampiric character of Sylvie that endows the film with its gothic mood and perspective.

One review rightly says that the film (and book too) delves into sexuality. Davies makes clear the most uncomfortable kinds of sexual experience people rarely admit to in front of themselves, much less talk about or enact even on stage.

For my part I found myself wondering (I’ll sound Victorian here) if this movie is not more unhealthy, far more than say The Piano Teacher. I wrote that that one was not pornographic and all that happened was justified as good insight into human character. I think I absolved that film of pornography because by the end I felt I had been given genuine ethical compass and help by the end of the film. At the end of Sleep with Me there was a justification of the cruelty and demand that we sympathize with the cruel person and respect the kind of sex she led others into (the type that can form dependency) that made me feel if this isn’t pornographic (it wasn’t, it was inhibited in the presentation), Sleep with Me did justify the basis of pornography, infliction of violence and cruelty by saying it’s just the result of someone’s emotional illness and so therefore somehow okay plus nothing we can do anything about. That may be true. If so, the world’s a dangerous place — gothic in fact.

Jodhi May had decided for this one (apparently), as Lelia, a young woman living with a black partner, Richard (Adrian Lester), she needed to appear young, and she had lost a lot of weight for this one. I almost didn’t recognize her at moments … well, only almost.


Roger O’Neill (Miles Anderson) visits Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson)

I was startled at House of Cards: it’s a fantasy, really over the top theatrics; the victim at the end is the reporter, Mattie, played wonderfully well by Susannah Harker. What was superb about this film was Davies’ connection with the Iago/Richard III/Macbeth Francis Urquhart played inimitably, unforgettably by Ian Richardson — and also with the victims: either the pathos of the alcoholic blackmailed weakling O’Neill, the man who can’t cope with the world (every family has one says the prime minister) and Davies’s insight that it’s because the man is a genuinely good and feelingful person he can’t make it, and Mattie Storin the girl who is led by the allurement and glamor of power to her destruction.

For me it’s particularly telling to see Davies insist that Mattie related to FU as her “Daddy”

Mattie offering herself to Urquhart (later as Daddy)

for this queasy incestuous motif is one Davies’s insists on, builds up in his 1996 BBC Emma

In the case of the first book, Dobbs had killed off the villain-hero, Richard III-Macbeth type (in Davies) Francis Urquhart and let Mattie live triumphant (so good wins out). Davies reversed that and so left room for more sequels. Upon the success of the first mini-series, Dobbs wrote two more novels, doubtless with Davies’s in mind (the way Helen Fielding went on to write another Bridget Jones Diary book after the success of the Davies’ film).

All three (To Play the King and The Final Cut too) are right in Trollope’s vein of high politics exposed. They are yet braver because Trollope eschews all particular comment and refuses to present a clear case for liberal or reformist measures; indeed his rhetorical statements by the narrator are often pro-landlord, adamently pro-capitalist. Not Davies. He exposes the hypocrisy and nonsense of berating people for not doing hard work: there are no jobs to do hard work for. The series anticipates his South Riding in this way; the social engagement of South Riding resembles that of his Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. All these movies come together in themes, perspective, character types.

To Play the King is very pessimistic and yet we have an ideal king in the center. We see how easy it is to sneer and decry people who are “lazy” instead of showing that there the way to make useful work is spend money through taxes on social services, communities, and agencies to build an make better lives for those without power.

The king (Michael Kitchen) addressing the nation on TV

A feature in the second DVD for To Play the King shows the ludicrous response at the time by some pro-Royalist people: they were indignant that Davies dared to allude to Charles and Diana, and imbecillically leaped on a single line in the three mini-series to argue indignantly Davies had implied Charles regularly had prostitutes in his quarters. It shows their bad sordid dreams for it’s a real stretch of that line.

Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson)

The third mini-series, Final Cut, is an astonishingly brave film. Like Trollope’s political books in the Pallisers, each one of the three books brings out another level or area of critique of the savagely unjust violent war we live in. Each novel and set of films seems to open another area of misery and corruption inflicted on people — so here in the last series, Final Cut, what’s exposed is the murderous personal ambition that fires all the lies and violence in colonialized areas. The realities behind the Falklands war is exposed absolutely.

We see many things Orwellian: how the rule of law is invoked when what is happening is brutal violence repressing the poor so that the natural resources of the place (Cyprus) may be milked by the rich in the UK and lucky in Cyprus. Among many small exposes, we see that the freedom of information act offers information as long as it does not give away what individuals did the horrors. So it keeps powerful individuals in the army and powerful gov’ts protected.

Davies beats out LeCarre for the clarity with which the political perspective is worked out and made insistent upon us.

Wonderfully witty and funny is Thatcher’s funeral. Davies was attacked for staging her funeral. It seems she was not dead yet. This is a satirist’s drive: Swift would imagine people dead who had not died and it made them nervous. As with To Play the King what was attacked openly showed idiots who didn’t get the point at all, not those who understood what was being exposed. How dare Davies not be respectful in the depiction of the funeral. It’s funny the stupidity of what people seize upon. Apparently the Thatcher funeral was not in the original book by Dobbs and he insisted on having his name taken off the credits if the film-makers went through with this. They did.

The technique of all three mini-series is to startle you. So Francis throws Mattie Storin off the roof, picks her up and hurls and with a loud thud she splatters all over a car. The body guard thug, Cordor (alluding to Cawdor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth), probable lover and sidekick of Elizabeth Urquhart (Diane Fletcher), Francis’s wife, blows up those who are going to inform the public that Francis killed Mattie — sudden firebomb cars. The Final Cut opens with Francis shooting his dog dead. It’s chilling. Of course the theme is he’s going to be killed or destroyed from old age. The series ended on a Hamlet note. Elizabeth, now emerging as a cool Lady Macbeth with a hired killer-thug, sees that Urquhart is a liability; has killed too, so instead of murdering those who know he murdered peasants in Cyprus ruthlessly and without cause, are not done away with. Urquhart is. And what happens? Makepeace (Paul Freeman) who had tried to act morally is put in charge, but we feel no longer will. He has the thugs working for him now.

A parallel is an incident the mini-series opens up with: thugs hitting the prime minster’s car. They are simply gunned down. When a cabinet minister asks for clarification in the report, he’s told more details can be had but the interpretation, that criminals in road rage were responsible and understandably kill, will remain the same.

So letting formation out does not help because power structuring remains the same.

Flaws: it’s all so individualized and we are made to believe only a few of these mafia type thugs kill We see British officers not wanting to murder children, wanting to do the right thing. So one could say see it’st he bad eggs that do this, not the nature of the nest and what happens to all the eggs in it.

Also again a woman is put at the center for a semi-sexual interest. It begins to be a cliche by the third time. Sex though is depicted so naturalistically I had to avert my eyes. Especially between older people. On the other hand by continually bringing back Mattie Storner’s story and death Davies makes us fear FU. We also have Nikolas Grace as a variant on the dependent aide — he’s a quiet gay type — the vulnerable male type from Nicholas Farrell as the King’s aide to Charles Collingride, the kind man:

Matty and Collingridge, a sense of their humanity strong here.

For the woman viewer and feminist reader it’s telling that all three films must have a scapegoat at the center who is either a woman the villain seduces & murders (or has murdered) or a gay (vulnerable male as a substitute.

I did find myself getting anxious for some of the characters in each program: Mattie and John (William Chubb), Makepeace, the Greek girl who is seeking to know who killed her brothers and where they are buried, lest FU (what a joke) kill them too. After all he has gotten away with much before. The power of fiction comes from our caring about the characters and I do in Davies’s films.

To conclude: My days are adventures in following Andrew Davies. I was startled at the trilogy House of Cards/ToPlay the King/Final Cut. Great dark satire relevant to today because inbetween these he did the utopian Middlemarch. I can’t think of more different text-films. Today I’m reading another hard satire on wide ranges of society, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (Wilson) and am about to watch the movie for a second time.

Gerald Middleton (Richard Johnson) remembering: the film makes a social vision an introspective journey of a hurt mind (Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Part 1)

My next Davies’ film blog will be on briefly on a few films again, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Wilson’s novel as well as Davies’s film. And then I’ll move onto Sarah Water’s Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, Victorian lesbian novels – and Davies’s films once again (perhaps with his 2006 The Chatterley Affair).


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John Constable (1776-1837), Gillingham Bridge, Dorsetshire (1823)

Dear friends and readers,

I had planned to write this week’s foremother poet blog on Dorothy Wordsworth after reading a poem to her by Carol Ann Duffy this week. Just as I was set to write it, I began looking for a few pictures and found that as in the cases of Isabelle di Morra, Elizabeth Hands, and Elizabeth Carter, I’d already written about Dorothy in my previous blog. And once again I decided to go ahead anyway (and partly repeat what I had written before), this time because I feel so much sympathy for Dorothy, she is one of the three women Dorothy Homans centers her discussion of women’s poetry upon (Women Writers and Poetic Identity — the other two are Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson), and we had an even passionate discussion about Dorothy on Wompo this week. Today’s poetry readers care about Dorothy Wordsworth.

First Dorothy’s poetry, then a brief life with some citations of essays and books, and then a brief excursis on Carol Ann Duffy’s and other poems to and/or about Dorothy.

Floating Island

Harmonious powers with nature work
On sky, earth, river, lake and sea;
Sunshine and cloud, whirlwind and breeze,
All in one duteous task agree.

Once did I see a slip of earth
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold—how, no one knew,
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind,

Might see it from the mossy shore
Dissevered, float upon the lake,
Float with its crest of trees adorned,
On which the warbling birds their pastime take.

Food, shelter, safety, there they find;
There berries ripen, flowerets bloom;
There insects live their lives—and die:
A peopled world it is, in size a tiny room.

And thus through many seasons’ space
This little island may survive,
But nature (though we mark her not)
Will take away, may cease to give.

Perchance when you are wandering forth
Upon some vacant sunny day
Without an object, hope, or fear,
Thither your eyes may turn—the isle is passed away,

Buried beneath the glittering lake,
Its place no longer to be found.
Yet the lost fragments shall remain
To fertilize some other ground.

(1828-29; 1842)

[Note the last stanza, especially the last two lines: Iris Dunkle said they made her “me think of the lost fragments of foremother poets such as Sappho.”]

Grasmere—a Fragment

Peaceful our valley, fair and green;
And beautiful the cottages,
Each in its nook, its sheltered hold,
Or underneath its tuft of trees.

Many and beautiful they are;
But there is one that I love best.
A lowly roof in truth it is,
A brother of the rest.

Yet when I sit on rock or hill
Down-looking on the valley fair,
That cottage with its grove of trees
Summons my heart; it settles there.

Others there are whose small domain
Of fertile fields with hedgerows green
Might more seduce the traveler’s mind
To wish that there his home had been.

Such wish be his! I blame him not;
My fancies they, perchance, are wild:
I love that house because it is
The very mountain’s child.

Fields hath it of its own, green fields,
But they are craggy, steep, and bare;
Their fence is of the mountain stone,
And moss and lichen flourish there.

And when the storm comes from the north,
It lingers near that pastoral spot,
And piping through the mossy walls,
It seems delighted with its lot.

And let it take its own delight,
And let it range the pastures bare
Until it reach that grove of trees
—It may not enter there!

A green unfading grove it is,
Skirted with many a lesser tree,
Hazel and holly, beech and oak,
A fair and flourishing company!

Precious the shelter of those trees!
They screen the cottage that I love;
The sunshine pierces to the roof
And the tall pine trees tower above.

When first I saw that dear abode
It was a lovely winter’s day:
After a night of perilous storm
The west wind ruled with gentle sway;

A day so mild, it might have been
The first day of the gladsome spring;
The robins warbled; and I heard
One solitary throstle sing.

A stranger in the neighborhood,
All faces then to me unknown,
I left my sole companion-friend
To wander out alone.

Lured by a little winding path,
I quitted soon the public road;
A smooth and tempting path it was
By sheep and shepherds trod.

Eastward, toward the mighty hills,
This pathway led me on,
Until I reached a lofty rock
With velvet moss o’ergrown.

With russet oak and tufts of fern
Its top was richly garlanded;
Its sides adorned with eglantine
Bedropped with hips of glossy red.

There too in many a sheltered chink
The foxglove’s broad leaves flourished fair,
And silver birch, whose purple twigs
Bend to the softest breathing air.

Beneath that rock my course I stayed
And, looking to its summit high,
“Thou wear’st,” said I, “a splendid garb,
Here winter keeps his revelry.

“I’ve been a dweller on the plains,
Have sighed when summer days were gone;
No more I’ll sigh; for winter here
Hath gladsome gardens of his own.

“What need of flowers? The splendid moss
Is gayer than an April mead;
More rich its hues of various green,
Orange and gold and glowing red.”

—Beside that gay and lovely rock
There came with merry voice:
A foaming streamlet glancing by;
It seemed to say “Rejoice!”

My youthful wishes all fulfilled
Wishes matured by thoughtful choice,
I stood an inmate of this vale—
How could I but rejoice?

(1805 / 1892)

[This second poem to me to be a displacement of intense regret on how her life has turned out as Wordsworth’s sister. She wanted to be his wife; she is not the poet either. She thought this place would secure her her happiness at long last … how could she help but rejoice when she compared it to what she had known …]

After-recollection at Sight of the Same Cottage

When first I saw that dear abode
It was a lovely winter’s day;
After a night of perilous storm
The west wind ruled with gentle sway—

A day so mild it might have been
The first day of the gladsome spring;
The robins warbled, and I heard
One solitary throstle sing.

(c. 1807-1826 / 1987)

I’ve long liked Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals (what I read of them in a selection), and after reading Margaret Homans’s Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, and Emily Dickenson, where Homans attempted to and (I think) succeeded in defining a particular woman’s kind of imagination and sensibility and type of poem different from (most) men’s, was convinced Dorothy was no knock-off William. (Homans’s book was by the way dissed in the New York Review of Books by that much beprized academic woman scholar, Helen Vendler [who says gender is unimportant but may well know better as she tends to discuss all male poets, plus the usual suspects, i.e., Emily Dickenson.)

I took the above three poems from British Women Poets of the 19th Century edited by Margaret Randolph Higonnet. As my eye caught the name and I began to read, I felt better. I particularly like the last short lyric (“A day so mild it might have been …”); how beautiful must the thrush’s sound be: “O brave thrush” sings the Yorkshire poet (Basil Bunting). I’ve found often the selections of Dorothy Wordsworth’s poems in anthologies is not very good: the tendency is to choose these poems meant for children whose depth and reach is limited: perhaps these were the first printed by her and there’s a strong tendency for anthology makers to follow previous anthology makers in their choices of what to print. Only 5 of Dorothy Wordsworth’s poems were published in her lifetime, and those anonymously by her brother.

Bishops Court, a place Dorothy visited and described as “a great delight”

She was born Christmas Day, 1771, 3rd child and only daughter of Ann Cookson and John Wordsworth, attorney to Sir James Lowther. Upon her mother’s death, and at age six, Dorothy was sent to live with her mother’s cousin and 6 cousins in Halifax; Dorothy is said to have been a favorite there; there was a bookshop housed in the same building as the cousin’s haberdashery shop, and Dorothy read a lot — as well as learned to cook, sew, keep accounts, and manage a house (skills girls were taught).

When Dorothy’s father died (1783) without having made a will, and Lowther refused to pay the debts he owed the family, Dorothy lost her small income, and was sent to live with her mother’s parents where she was very unhappy; the grandmother was repressive and said to have found Dorothy “untractible and wild.” So Dorothy moved on to live for 6 years with an aunt, Dorothy Cowper, and uncle, William Cookson; she worked as a child-carer and housekeeper for them.

In 1795 William was able to rescue Dorothy from this (rescue is the right word), and they went to live at Racedown Lodge, Dorset; by 1797 she and William had established a close friendship with Coleridge. They moved to Alfoxendon House in Somerset and there began a period of great poetic creativity. I’m with A. S. Byatt (Unruly Times) and Molly Lefebure (A Bondage of Opium) and think William and Dorothy fell deeply in love (Lefebure suggests they were physical lovers for a time, particularly in the time they spent apart from all others in Germany). Dorothy does seem to have deferred utterly to William, worshipped him, and he did have a patronizing attitude towards women poets, and it seems to me obvious this damaged her identity, limited it, stymied her. William said of Felicia Hemans she was “ignorant of housewifery” (so much for her poems), and Dorothy praised Joanna Baillie for not simply being a poet but a person devoted to her house.

Writing and reading were nonetheless (as Paula Feldman says in her introduction to her selection of Dorothy’s poems in her anthology) “crucial” to Dorothy’s “self-definition:” she kept long notebooks, participated actively in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collaboration for Lyrical Ballads, and it’s said set up her poems in a format where they anticipate 20th century imagist poems.

One of Dorothy’s aunts, Aunt Rawson, thought the whole way of life “a very bad wild scheme”. Some of the neighbors voiced their suspicions Dorothy and William’s relationship was incestuous, and of course the three were not making money by going out to workin the competitive capitalist world. Beyond that William had an illegitimate child, Caroline, by Annette Vallon, whom Dorothy and William visited in France in 1802. As part of the typical conspiracy of silence about women who had children out of wedlock and real sexuality, this visit went unrecorded (a month is missing in Dorothy’s journals). Not long afterward William married Mary Wordsworth (their letters show they were intensely in love); Dorothy did not attend their wedding, but was somehow or other reconciled to this change, and became a second mother to the children that ensued.

Dove Cottage where the Wordsworths lived

1803 Dorothy made a tour of Scotland with William and Coleridge, and they met Walter Scott, and she wrote Tour books about this time which De Quincy described as “in very deed a monument to her power of catching and expressing all the hidden beauties of natural scenery with a felicity of diction, a truth, and strength, that far transcend Gilpin, or professional writers on those subjects … This book … is absolutely unique in its class.” I wonder if resembles Ann Radcliffe’s marvelous A Journey Made in Summer of 1794, the last part of which is made up of journals of her time in the lake district and does remind me of William Wordsworth’s journals. (Radcliffe’s travel and meditative book is available as a facsimile from Elibron, and I got it for $9.)

1805 John Wordsworth, the brother, drowned in Weymouth Bay, and Dorothy was now very depressed, and began riding a pony regularly. When in 1808 two neighbors perished in a snowstorm, she wrote a narrative account of their deaths and the courage of their children in seeking money for relief; this circulated in ms and was first published in 1936.

Over the years Dorothy wrote many short poems in verse for the children in her household. These were the ones William chose to publish (altering names and titles to distance Dorothy’s world from his own); he even added stanzas to one which imposed an idea about social classes. It’s said Dorothy rigorously crossed out the added stanzas in a notebook she kept of her poetry.

In 1810 came the falling out between Coleridge and William; 1811 Dorothy converts to Christianity, and 1813 the family move to Ridal Mount where they lived for the rest of their lives. Dorothy climbed Scafell Peak with a friend, and wrote of her experience; William stuck part of this in his much admired Guide to the Lakes (Radcliffe’s book is just as good) calling it “an extract from a friend.”

Between 1820 and 1822 Dorothy travelled several times, with William and Mary, with another couple, with Joanna Hutchinson; she went to France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy (the Alps), and wrote up these tours as Recollections, and it took a long time for these to be published too. In the later 1820s illnesses began, a gallstone attack, her notebooks become sparse; in 1835 the first signs of “presenile dementia” emerged. It’s said William and Mary cared lovingly for her in the last 2 decades of her life. She was able to write short letters, and would recite long passages of verse and obsessively copy out her own poetry.

Much of the information above comes from Paula Feldman’s introduction in British Women Poets of the Romantic Era, but I’ve added thoughts of my own as I went along.

There were a number of very close brother-sister relationships we know about among the romantics: Charles and Mary Lamb (Charles supported her by job long-time drudgery job); Bryon and his beloved half-sister; I’d add Jane Austen and her brother, Frank (only I’ve no proof as the three packets of letters she wrote to him were destroyed by his granddaughter as soon as he
died). It was not atypical for women of this class to end up in such a close relationship as they were kept apart from non-biologically connected men who were of lower class status and didn’t have the money or connections to meet men of their own or higher class status. The one man they were encouraged to be comfortable with was the brother. You see the remnants of his in George Eliot’s really plangent sonnets to her relationship with her brother, Isaac, and to me at any rate there is a perverseness in her rejoicing over how he forgave her once she married (very late in life) John Cross; he would have destroyed her life by his norms if he could have, and is the brother Eliot has her heroine make a martyr of herself to in The Mill on the Floss.

It interests me that Dorothy was born 4 years before Jane Austen and there are real parallels between the outward circumstances of her life and milieus and that Austen knew but she lives in (as it were) a different world as to feelings (“zeitgeist”). What interests me (though I don’t say it) is it reminds me of my work on Margaret of Navarre and Vittoria Colonna. Their lives are exactly the same span (1492-1547) but although both are people intensely involved in the Renaissance and religious reformation, people who corresponded and exchanged poetry (well Vittoria sent Margaret or had someone send Margaret a ms of her poetry), Margaret writes medieval poetry and writes highly guarded letters, while Vittoria writes Renaissance verse and her letters reflect the counter-reformation directly.

There’s a standard biography by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton: Dorothy Wordsworth. The account of Dorothy in Kathleen Jones’s A Passionate Sisterhood is masterful. In my blog on this group biography, the reader will find an account of Sara Coleridge, Samuel’s gifted poet daughter. Very worth while is Francis Wilson’s creative approach in The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth.

On Dorothy’s poetry and prose, see Lucy Newlyn, “Dorothy Wordsworth’s Experimental Style,” Essays in Criticism, 57:4 (2007):325-49; Jill Ehnnen, “Writing Against, Writing Through: Subjectivity, Vocation, and Authorship in the Work of Dorothy Wordsworth,” South Atlantic Review, 64:1 (1999): 72-90: many of her students become convinced Dorothy and Williams were physical lovers. See too Susan M. Levin, “The Grasmere Journals By Dorothy Wordsworth,” The Massachusetts Review, 21:2 (1980):345-63

They exist read aloud by Emma Fielding:

For anthologies, see Paula R. Feldman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology, Jennifer Breen’s Women Romantic Poets: An Anthology

And finally the occasion for this blog:

On Wednesday of this past week I came across this poem in an issue of Times Literary Supplement:

Dorothy Wordsworth Is Dead

who came to lose every tooth in her head;
fierce maid, who saw the columbine
as a spinster friend; found, in the russet fronds
of Osmunda ferns, fervour;

feared cows;
on all fours crawled
home through a thunderstorm;
walked five miles each way, each day,
in hope of letters; thin scrap, work-worn,
her black frock mud-hemmed;

green gold of moss in her loose purse, gatherer,
who thought strawberry blossom brave
in its early grave of rock; had quick birds
for her own eyes from watching them:
the robin’s blushing bounce,
the magpie’s funeral chic,
the heron’s grief,
grief …

whose tongue travelled her empty gums
on her long lake treks;
but was loved yet,
sharp lass, noticer; all ears, years,
for the wind’s thumb on the latch;
first to spy – 0 sister –
the moon’s eye at the glass, two stars squinting . . .

and cold in her bed
uttered flowers, hepatica, daffodil, anemone,
as a corpse in its manner does
in St Oswald’s churchyard under the yews
her brother planted;
and trudged or lay by him till he kindled.

—–Carol Ann Duffy

It seemed to me to have much bitterness in it. Dorothy gave up all for her brother, lived such an impoverished life, hardly wrote but fed his poetry. At the end she had Alzheimer’s and he took care of her until she died, but it was a terrible last three years.

Many women poets like to remember foremothers :). I do. On Wompo we have had lots of threads on poems which are about earlier women poets. Now often these are celebratory. Perhaps Duffy is doing a kind of rewrite or comment on this type darkly, i.e, X [fill in name of woman poet] is dead, and see her life too … Duffy often writes subversively, she has a gift for raucous mockery.

A number of the poets on Wompo disagreed; two contributed their poems on Dorothy:

“Ellen, I’m wondering if this is a case of knowing too much about the poet and putting that glass up to the reading eye. I just read the poem without such preconceptions, and didn’t find it bitter in tone at all. I read an homage to someone who might more likely be left unheralded, a recognition of how DW served as a kind of muse or instructor in the ways of nature to her brother. I didn’t feel any hard edge to the diction in this poem; indeed, I found it tender in its details, honest in the litany of them.”

R. Joyce Heon

I don’t think Duffy is “hard and bitter”! I think she’s wonderfully incisive.

I read this particular poem as a moving, difficult portrait. Dorothy Wordsworth had a difficult life with many years of illness and mental deterioration, and as a young woman, she made sacrifices for her brother and his art, yes, but her journals and letters are wonderful. She had such a profound love for nature and an amazing eye for image, detail. She was not a Poet, and not truly recognized in her lifetime, but her writing has garnered much critical attention and praise in our time. She’s certainly read as part of the British Romantic canon, as well as a forerunner in the lineage of creative non-fiction.


Matlock, engraving by J. Bluck (1791-1819) after Thomas Barber (1768-1843), from T D. Hofland, Six Views of Derbyshire (1805)

Dear Wom-Pos,
I have been waiting for a good opportunity to introduce myself to the list and here it is: Duffy’s poem about Dorothy. I teach American literature and Women’s and Gender Studies (especially early American poetry and women’s poetry), and though I have always written poetry, have just started to publish. Since I wrote an essay about post-colonial haunting in Jamaica Kincaid’s “Lucy” (remember her nightmare about being followed and buried by daffodils?), I have been haunted by the knowledge that Dorothy first wrote about seeing the fields of daffs in her journal, and then brother William stole?/borrowed her words and turned them into a poem that has had a long career and profound afterlife in British cultural imperialism. How many times this has happened in literary history? men appropriate what women think/write/share and get lauded for it while the women do the laundry. Below is a poem that appeared last February in “The Nation,” that absolutely tickled my sore fancy about Dorothy. I am glad to see that she inhabits poetic imaginations, even angry and bitter ones. I especially love the first line.

Dorothy Wordsworth

The daffodils can go fuck themselves.
I’m tired of their crowds, yellow rantings
about the spastic sun that shines and shines
and shines. How are they any different

from me? I, too, have a big messy head
on a fragile stalk. I spin with the wind.
I flower and don’t apologize. There’s nothing
funny about good weather. Oh, spring again,

the critics nod. They know the old joy,
that wakeful quotidian, the dark plot
of future growing things, each one
labeled “Narcissus nobilis” or “Jennifer Chang.”

If I died falling from a helicopter, then
this would be an important poem. Then
the ex-boyfriends would swim to shore
declaiming their knowledge of my bulbous

youth. O, Flower, one said, why aren’t you
meat? But I won’t be another bashful shank.
The tulips have their nervous joie-de-vivre,
the lilacs their taunt. Fractious petals, stop

interrupting my poem with boring beauty.
All the boys are in the field gnawing raw
bones of ambition and calling in ardor. Who
the hell are they? This is a poem about war.

Jennifer Chang

Ivy Schweitzer

Janet McCann:

WHAT a cool poem! I needed that this morning. Did not think Duffy’s was bitter, though. I think this is lovely, too:

green gold of moss in her loose purse, gatherer,
who thought strawberry blossom brave
in its early grave of rock; had quick birds
for her own eyes from watching them:
the robin’s blushing bounce,
the magpie’s funeral chic,
the heron’s grief,
grief …

whose tongue travelled her empty gums
on her long lake treks;
but was loved yet,
sharp lass, noticer; all ears, years,
for the wind’s thumb on the latch;
first to spy – 0 sister –
the moon’s eye at the glass, two stars squinting

I think Duffy’s poem is wonderful. I do think its ending does leave us wondering about gender power relations, as Duffy’s poems often do. Dorothy did after all subordinate herself to William, enabling his poetry, taking care of him, inspiring him, sharing in his friendships, perhaps even collaborating on his poems, who knows? What I especially like about the poem is its fronting of so many intimate details from Dorothy’s journals, so she comes alive as a distinct and separate person. This makes the ending more personal, poignant, and tragic. Eileen Moeller

“Bassenthwaite Lake,” from Interesting Views of the Lakes (c. 1796) by James Bourne


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Catherine and Tom Cookson, later in life writing together

Lichfield Cathedrale, a drawing by Catherine who during WW2 became a commercial artist

Dear friends and readers,

Having embarked on my summer project to read historical novels, popular, post-colonial, romance, time-traveling, rewritten (and all about them), I quickly came across the name of Catherine Cookson as a famously popular, widely-sold popular historical novelist. I had never heard of her, and when I tried to find out about her novels, I discovered from the packaging they were sold as silly women’s romances but from a website that they had real excellence and interest. Which was it? I queried the people on Women Writers Across the Ages at Yahoo and got no answer, so I decided to try Kathleen Jones’s biography of Cookson. After all Jones had written so superbly well of the women in Wordsworth, Coleridge’s and Southey’s lives and of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

When the book arrived, I started to read it, and quickly saw here was a third powerful biographical work of art about a woman whom everything around her conspired to turn into that proverbial rose who blushes unseen in the desert air, who withers and dies, about whom, whether distraught or not, no one cares, but who against all odds wrote her heart and intelligence out, fulfilled her gifts in visual art, and left a large body of valuable fiction and non-fiction (over 100 books). Cookson died an enormously rich, somewhat respected historical novelist, much beloved by women readers. She had had eventually the kindest of loving husbands but before that a grim grueling punitive life such that she never was able to free herself of depression, nervous anxiety and a need to reach other people as a form of compensation and release to herself and for others.

Back streets of Shields where Catherine grew up

Chapters 1-5 tell the story of Catherine’s devastatingly destructive childhood. Her family was impoverished and she illegitimate, her mother, Kate treated so ill, beaten and berated, she became alcoholic and embittered very early in life. No or very low paid employment, the lousiest hardest kinds of work for demeaning wages that don’t hold body and soul together. Catherine was Catherine was bullied and taunted in her schools: illegitimate; she got caught up with the ugly fierce bigotries between Catholics and Protestants. The book reminds me of Jones’s The Passionate Sisterhood in its very frank portraits of Cookson’s mother, grandfather (a total hypocrite, sexual abuser), grandmother (cold and mean, she makes Austen’s Mrs Norris look benign). It’s a wonder Catherine survived with any self-esteem, any strength, and could later on — after a strong nervous breakdown — pull herself together to aspire and create.

Chapter 5 tells of sexual abuse both Catherine and her mother Kate endured from the brother/uncle and the grandfather/father. We see that Kate, the mother’s response to all she had endured and was continuing to endure was to be so embittered, she struck out against her daughter and could not love anyone. Kate, the mother, did have a lover/companion for a while, but there seems to have been no relief for real.

Thinking about the text, I’d like to say that probably this life of a working class impoverished intelligent sensitive young woman in early 20th century is probably not unusual. What unusual is Jones’s refusal to mince words, to present reality under some kind of rose-colored glasses, stubbornly to present endless qualifications and justifications for the horrible outrageous conduct around the girl. Had Austen been able to read this book she might have been startled, but it would have (I like to think) commanded her respect.

By Catherine’s late teens (by which time she had her first hard job) she had begun to take books out of the library and write. She wrote short fictions on what paper she had and a couple of stories survive. Her earliest books mirror what happened to her in her childhood, the first published (later on) were electrifying successes. Interestingly, at the time she did not see that she was writing about what had happened to her literally; it was only when her mother pointed out to her that this was autobiography that she conceded she was writing from memory. It does appear to have been the case she erupted the basic or fundamental matter from her repressed consciousness and subconscious. Its popularity could be its function as releasing for readers all their real experience which much had been done to repress or tell them to see in ways that justified the way the world had treated them.


Harton workhouse where Catherine worked as a laundress and checker of laundry

Her first jobs — Cookson’s. She got a job as a counter in a laundress place. She had real abilities. We are given enough to see how hard it was to be in such a place, how Catherine was at first disliked intensely and how she learned to make herself more socially acceptable by being more tolerant, laughing, accepting silently more of what she saw around her, we see her learning to disguise herself, going to take books from the library for the first time.

She was from a family where to take books from a library was an unusual and therefore suspicious act.

She endured terrible things: ostracism frank and brutal because of her illegitimacy; insulted to her face egregiously. She had to endure suspicion about her sexual behavior enough to make anyone choke and repress them altogether. All the while she and her mother were supporting men at home who tried to sexually use them (brother and father) and they dare not tell. Catherine did have a boyfriend and he humiliated her and was unfaithful and she thought that it was her duty to take it and to hope he’d change and eventually love and marry her. It seems she had the luck that he did not marry her. What a thrown away horrible life she would have had then for the pregnancies would have done her in immediately.

Perhaps most electrifying are the descriptions of the workhouses where some of this laundry work was done. Every punishment possible wreaked on people unlucky enough to end up there — and many did. Married couples treated like criminals if they wanted to have sex. Everyone continually monitored, supervised.

What makes people so cruel to one another? I ask myself can the powers that are turning the US and UK (and Germany and France and other places) back take us back to this? I know these cruelties are found in US prisons (terrible sexual abuse for women in prisons nowadays). I know the military endorses vicious values today. I meant to see the Danish film, In A Better World as it were to endorse its critical exposure of bullying but it was on at such a bad time for me during the day and now is gone from the theaters altogether.

Hastings by the sea, down south

She left the head laundress of a workhouse job (that’s what she rose to) in her home area and moved to Hastings. This was once and again is a spa, vacation resort. It has a lot of history, from a castle left over from the battle of Hastings, to 18th century spa, to lower middle to anguished poverty (Catherine Cookson’s time) to today a renewed holiday place. It’s like Rome then a palimpsest.

Again Catherine confronted the cruelties and counter cruelties of the work house system. She did make a loving friend, a woman who was probably a lesbian and it seems that there is no evidence that is clear that Catherine and Nan Smith were lovers says Jones. At the same time Jones says they slept together. I think she is being discreet in order not to offend still living relatives and the estate. The friendship with Nan was good for her, but not what resulted: Nan followed conventional norms otherwise (outside her sexual orientation), and the mother, Kate, was in trouble.

But then Catherine made a bad mistake. She allowed her mother to come to Hastings and stay for long periods of time. Nan turned into a jealous horror, and before you know it the mother’s conduct deteriorated into cold abusive behavior. The mother was exasperating, apparently dense and passionate as ever, and Nan became overtly dominant and manipulative. The three-way paradigm Jones says “almost wrecked Catherine’s life. It also became part of the fuel of the electrifying feeling in the best of her novels.


The Hurst, a lodging house in Hastings that Catherine bought with her savings

By age 31 Catherine has at last met someone she can spend her life with who will be emotionally supportive and is deeply congenial to her: Tom Cookson, a younger man (he’s 24) and (alas we find) a Protestant. She met him because he lodged with her mother.

Catherine had taken steps to rid herself of her nightmare life with her mother and her lesbian-dominating lover-partner, Nan. First she found another place near her for her mother to live and it was big enough for her mother to have a lodger (Tom), and cheap enough for her mother to afford it by renting bits of it out. (That’s how people used to live, and they are returning to it in the US.)

Then she realized by her hard work of many years as a head laundress she has enough to buy property at Hastings and she does so, The Hurts. Very bold for her. A beautiful older Edwardian house and another and these she fixes and sets up as lodgings. She realizes that she can live without working as a laudress and quits her job! This gives her genuine time to read and to write.

When her mother returns north, she thinks perhaps briefly to see her awful husband die, Catherine will not let her mother come back. I gather then that Catherine is supporting the mother in part.

The one nemesis now is Nan. Tom has gone to live in Catherine’s boarding house and their relationship is growing: the obstacles now also includes letters between Catherine and Nan. Apparently the man was not broad-minded enough to accept a woman who had a sexual relationship with another woman. Here we see how Jones’s saying there is no proof of lesbianism is a feint to please someone as this blackmailing shows that indeed the two women were lovers and there was once or is still proof from letters. Nan is threatening Catherine.

And he is Protestant. A great no no.

Catherine has to throw off the prejudices of this religion and see the great friend is also poisoning her life. This is a very great struggle for her. At each turn, this book teaches the woman reader important lessons. The overriding one is the obstacle deep into the psyche beyond how you are treated by others which birth into a lower class or as a woman leads to. Also how socially gendered sexual norms function harmfully

Catherine and Tom on the day they married, June 1, 1940

Tom Cookson’s life is a parallel story to Catherine’s. Born working class, his father a verger died when he was 3, his mother remarried and his stepfather treated him well. He was highly intelligent but in the environment this isolated him; he was physically short, ugly and emotionally sensitive. Happily for him this was a time when the UK gov’t had put in place ways for such a boy to rise, so he made it to Oxford, was supported there, but because of his accent (cockney) and social snobberies he could not overcome, he got a job only as math teacher at Hastings Grammar School. This was the only post he ever held but he held onto it for a very long time.

I know no one will knock it, it was easier than laundress and then head laundress in a workhouse. And he was not maimed by cruel sexual abuse the way Catherine was.

Once they are living together in her new lodging house, it took quite a time and intense pressure within herself for Catherine to bring herself to marry him. Her friend Nan was an enemy here. While on the one hand, she was proud of her new legitimate identity, the baggage she carried was a terrible destructive force. When they married, she did not have full sexual intercourse with him for a quite a time and then only once; hence, when she got pregnant she could not believe it. . She could not easily go into a shop to buy things; she’s become nauseous with anxiety. She did stay home finally to have her baby (she was not well – super thin — perhaps anorexic) and read away. Alas, her baby was stillborn, it seems she was Rh negative. She blamed herself.

Then we get another load of social cruelties. Astonishing what people do to one another. Why? Because the baby could not be not christened because it was born dead, it was not considered to have existed. She had to place it anonymously with another corpse in another grave.

She is writing, has drawers full of it, but unfortunately except for Tom when she shows anything to anyone they scorn or dismiss it derisively. She can’t spell very well. She begins to draw.

All the while WW2 is approaching and in 1941 Tom is called up for the RAF. Without him she is now lost; he has become all and all to her.


St Mary’s Psychiatric Hospital where Catherine was admitted after her first major breakdown

The story of Catherine Cookson’s experience of WW2 continues the history of grief and trauma. She had gotten to the point where she panicked if she was parted from Tom for more than a day so she went to live near his base and he lived off-base with her. Basically what happened is with the horrors and trauma of the time, Catherine’s religion, her Roman Catholicism and her desire to have a child tipped the balance so that deep distress from all her years of rejection, hardship and twisted family pathologies made her go to pieces. She kept getting pregnant and since she was RH negative, she kept having miscarriages, and stillborn fetuses — she never got as near term as she did the first time. She then blamed herself as sinful. Her priests were no help: after all she had it coming to her because she married this protestant. Tom even went so far as to offer and begin to convert, but she stopped him (had some sanity) and began to distance herself at long last from this noose around her neck and blindfold around her mind and heart.

She was subjected to electric shock treatments and spent time in a mental hospital. All her hatred of her mother came out; she said she wanted to kill her mother. Jones surmises from the published and unpublished autobiography that Catherine is omitting something — partly Catherine keeps talking of secrets she’s not telling. What could they be? Sexual abuse. Jones says it’s just taboo and verboten to talk of mothers sexually abusing their children, but the few times BBC radio has invited open talk a flood of message are seen where it emerges that women sexually abuse their children, older sisters their younger. Catherine was at first brought up to think her mother was her sister.

The war is finally coming to an end and Catherine and Tom returning to the lodging house she bought. Not all bad as her drawing had begun to become so good that when she took some illustrations she did to be copied to send it to a friend or relative, the commercial person advised her to make copies and sell it. She actually had an art show where her work was exhibited alongside Laura Knight (Dame Laura Knight). Tom was a saint of a husband.

I’d like to say that it seems to me Catherine was also a victim of the medical system of her time and would be of ours today towards the mentally distressed. There was no medicine worth the name and the “professionals’ as well as the priests made her worse.

She couldn’t throw off the conventions and norms around her.

I am puzzled why she knew nothing of Rh negative in the blood for women who become pregnant with a husband who is probably RH positive. I remember learning about this in the 1950; Did no one know of it in the 1940s? Was she in a total backwater? Oops! In the later 1950s I would have been 13 and in the ninth grade where we learned some “biological” science it was called — some sexual topics were included and that meant pregnancy

Catherine with her paintings at an exhibition of northeastern women artists

She is now coming to live in this house and at peace with her husband and beginning to be a recognized artist, she writes poetry (not very good) and it seems she is about to turn her life around by beginning to write and publish fiction. The photos in the book show that Tom was her right hand man and editor.


Tom late in life

Chapters 13 and 14 take us finally into the time of Catherine’s life when she becomes a successful novelist. It came very hard. First of all she had to dredge, pull, excavate from within herself her terrible experiences and present them in forms that were acceptable: admirably, she never resorted to glossing over, justifying the world that she found, but this made it hard for her to get published. One area that she had to get over was she could not deal with the demand that she write grammatically or as an educated person. She was not. This just got in the way of her producing. It does seem she and Tom had bunches or at least groups of friends and when she would read anything she wrote to some of these people, silence would fall. It seems their attitude was one should not mention, much less write books about such realities. She sent her stories out to publishers and agents galore, and was rejected continually; but finally someone (a friend) did put her into contact with an agent who did like her work. Then what happened is after the success of the first novel, Kate Hannigan, basically the story of her mother, her second which was on herself (Annie) was rejected so soundly that she was devastated. She did go on to write a third, The Fifteen Streets where the protagonist was the world of the streets she grew up on. Along the way she had some harrowing experiences.

For example, she got all dressed up to go to a publisher (of course she’d dress up) and took that train in a mood of dread, anxiety, and when she arrived was told she was there on the wrong day. I’ve heard that one before. Maybe sometimes it is a wrong day or time but often it’s that the person has the gall simply to change their mind. She was fobbed off by the secretary who I suppose had a heart or Catherine insisted. Then the meeting was awful.

This is just one small example of the kind of thing she had to endure. I imagine the writing was so satisfying and since she had not much to do during the day (she didn’t work for money and finally gave up on this business of having children), she carried on.

There were many strains in the marriage during these years, and on top of that she continually would have her mother to stay. Jones suggests again that the mother sexually abused Catherine to try to explain the feelings of sheer hatred Catherine felt. Over the whole course of Catherine’s life her mother drank and is called by Jones an alcoholic. Catherine seems to have hated this drinking, primarily (Jones says) because it brought out the violence, domineering and nasty tongues of her mother. But it’s hard to say; in my experience people often dislike someone who drinks heavily; Jones brings enough to suggest it was much more than that — from notes for her novels for example. Often when her mother did come to stay she would become depressed and unable to write. Cookson also can’t throw over this religion of hers altogether even though she says she no longer believes in its doctrines and there are statement about the pernicious of the Catholic church’s policies.

I do have to say the passages from the novels quoted are not alluring. They do seem crude, with grammar or stylistic errors. They don’t attract. I have not gotten up to the years where she won the Winifred Holtby award for one of her books and where another one was filmed, so perhaps she improved. There is a list of novels at the close of the book which shows Cookson to have written over 100 novels before she died, sometimes 3 a year.

This last section of the biography proper begins with the agonies Catherine went through in writing and rewriting her autobiography. It appears to exist in several versions in manuscripts, and in each different kinds of censorship are afoot.

What appalls me in this chapter is how much pressure her editors at her publishers had over her. They were able to dictate (it seems to me) what she could and did write. She did produce some more light-hearted (that’s what they are called) books swirling around the same heroine and these sold very well indeed.

But it seems to me (Jones does not put it this way) that this listening to these conventional people eager to make loads of money limited many of Cookson’s books. At a couple of points when something didn’t sell or a movie failed, her publisher would stop publishing her books.

She had absolutely no prestige and no respect — that’s the key to this — and she never got any for real from the people publishing her.
She was very sensitive I concluded and for the first 30 or more years of her life hid it and controlled it. When finally she had some compassion and a chance to flower (from marriage to Tom), she went to pieces for a long time and was then the subject of medical establishment horrors. Then finally she broke free, but the fundamental class attitudes never changed, nor gender dismissal of her type of fiction.

In this last chapter she does have the relief of her mother’s death and her reaction afterward (again the guilt trip) is likened to Anne Sexton’s daughter who I now learn wrote a truthful autobiography in which she told how Anne Sexton sexually abused her. This is in line with the character of this woman in her poetry. Linda Grey Sexton has been attacked for telling the truth; she is courageous and I admire it.

For the conclusion: Catherine’s last years and an evaluation of her novels see comments.

Catherine in Allendale where she set many of her novels


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In France alone woman has had a vital influence on the development of literature; in France alone the mind of woman has passed like an electric current through the language . . . (George Eliot, “Woman in France: Madame de Sablé”)

George Eliot, 16 March 1877, Sketch by Princess Louise

Dear friends and readers,

I’m yet later this week for my foremother poet posting. Since I’m listening to a splendid reading of the unabridged text of Daniel Deronday by Donada Peters (aka Nadia May, Wanda McCaddon, Ann Miles, Leonarda Stafford) I thought I’d commemorate Mary Ann Evans (pen name: George Eliot) today. I realize from talking to people who love Eliot’s novels and have read all of them, that many people today are unaware she wrote much poetry and some magnificent narratives, not to discount the eloquence, intelligent perception and compassion, wonderful characters, dramatic scenes, description, in short the beauty and poetry of her prose.

Here though I concentrate on Eliot’s verse.

Her Spanish Gypsy, a long dramatic poem (story) was a bigger hit than a couple of her novels (especially Romola, written around the same time) and was reviewed lovingly by Henry James. It’s strongly effective psychological poetry, though the politics are dismayingly reactionary, and the heroine immolates herself (which gives insight into aspects of her novels). Eliot has a sonnet sequence called Brother and Sister (about herself and her brother). There are many poems of the Browning or Tennyson type (monologues, stories) and lots of Martial-like epigrammatic pieces, and lyrics too, the latter mostly (to me) overdone or solemn, arising from Wordsworth and Shelleyan conceptions. Most are too long for me to describe or begin to type out here.

One long dramatic poem titled Armgart was much read and discussed and still is analyzed by critics; it’s about a woman artist whose career is destroyed by a combination of illness and social pressure.

Here is a good passage people often quote from Armgart:

I would rebel and die in twenty worlds
Sooner than bear the yoke of thwarted life,
Each keenest sense turned into keen distaste,
Hunger not satisfied but kept alive
Breathing in languor half a century.
All the world now is but a rack of threads
To twist and dwarf me into pettiness
And basely feigned content, the placid mask
of women’s misery.

Her poetry has been collected; I have a copy of a dissertation that is an edition of the poems. Here I found rows of fragments, little pieces of verse left over as it were, never worked up or placed into a large poem (or as epigraphs to her novels). The reader has to contextualize them him or herself. Here are two:

Suggested by Pindar:

Deeds are the pulse of Time, his beating life;
And righteous or unrighteous, being done,
They throb in after-throbs till Time himself
Be laid in stillness, and the universe
Quivers and breathes upon no mirror more.

Perhaps about her and Lewes, who was very ill for a long time before he died, and who was her life in effect: he made her writing of her novels possible, he negotiated the contracts which enriched them so they could travel, live well. He supported her very inch of the way lovingly, and she him.

Master in loving! till we met
I lacked the pattern thy sweet love hath set:
I hear Death’s footstep — must we then forget? —
Stay, stay — not yet.

George Henry Lewes, 1876 (see Trollope’s obituary)

This is from her sonnets, Brother and Sister. She had a tortured relationship with her brother (reflected in The Mill on the Floss; she just couldn’t get herself to dismiss his cold malice and rejection of her, and late in life tried to make up with him after she married Cross).

In the first as a generic sister she mourns the loss of her brother’s love and seems to say she placed the very meaning of her existence in her memories and past with him:


Our brown canal was endless to my thought;
And on its banks I sat in dreamy peace,
Unknowing how the good I loved was wrought,
Untroubled by the fear that it would cease.

Slowly the barges floated into view
Rounding a grassy hill to me sublime
With some Unknown beyond it, whither flew
The parting cuckoo toward a fresh spring time.

The wide-arched bridge, the scented elder-flowers,
The wondrous watery rings that died too soon,
The echoes of the quarry, the still hours
With white robe sweeping-on the shadeless noon,

Were but my growing self, are part of me,
My present Past, my root of piety.

In the second you see a woman as a young girl led to worship the male; at the same time there’s a suicidal wish:


THOSE long days measured by my little feet
Had chronicles which yield me many a text;
Where irony still finds an image meet
Of full-grown judgments in this world perplext.

One day my brother left me in high charge,
To mind the rod, while he went seeking bait,
And bade me, when I saw a nearing barge,
Snatch out the line, lest he should come too late.

Proud of the task, I watched with all my might
For one whole minute, till my eyes grew wide,
Till sky and earth took on a strange new light
And seemed a dream-world floating on some tide —

A fair pavilioned boat for me alone
Bearing me onward through the vat unknown.

There is just so much on George Eliot’s life one doesn’t know where to begin. I strongly urge though beginning with Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s The Real Life of Maryann Evans, based as it is thoroughly on Eliot’s texts, especially her wonderful letters; Peggy Fitzhugh Johnston’s The Transformation of Rage is also very good. I find Ashton a normalizer and basically she just gives a redo of Gordon Haight. Also very good are the books by Jennifer Uglow, Gillian Beer and William Baker. The edition of poems I spoke of is a Cornell dissertation by Cynthia Ann Secor, and I wouldn’t miss Eliot’s brilliant essays, especially the one called “Wonen in France” (a review of a book of letters in the 17th century) where she for once talks about the birth of feminism in literature and situates in the later 17th century in France (from which I took my opening quotation). Her “Silly Lady Novelists’ shows her anti-feminism side and is unfortunately endlessly reprinted; there are countless silly male novelists who should be equally skewed.

I include here a passage from an essay I published partly on George Eliot in Studies in the Novel, “Taking Sides” (it includes a bibliography for Eliot):

A close reading of Eliot’s novels in the context of her autobiographical writing and non-fiction suggested to me that for the most part George Eliot’s politics is voiced in a language of painful personal experience. Her last book, The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, includes rare instances of outright political language. There she dismisses an ideal of “common humanity” as hopelessly elitist “cosmopolitanism” or “universal alienism.” She argues that individuals cannot identify with one another as simply as people: nationalism is not a social construction; anyone who thinks differently is a blind idealist. Her assumption is that the only way to achieve toleration for any group of people is to give them power over themselves and other groups of people or equal power with other groups in a specific area (Theophrastus Such 146-49, 165). In Eliot’s stories her intelligent and sensitive heroes and heroines are thwarted and punished, and are made to submit to the desires of dense and passionate characters who far from earning any right to ask for submission, have maimed and will probably continue to maim these heroes and heroines because she despaired of finding any other way for them to achieve a peaceful integration into an ordered world. In her fiction, she articulates this idea in words which show she came to it through giving in to painful imperceptive pressure, and she urges the reader to see this kind of pressure as rooted in irremediable weakness which moral strength should yield to:

The stronger will always rule, say some, with an air of confidence which is like a lawyer’s flourish, forbidding exceptions or additions. But what is strength? Is it blind wilfulness that sees no terrors, no many-linked consequences, no bruises and wounds of those whose cords it tightens? Is it the narrowness of brain that conceives no needs differing from its own, and looks to no results beyond the bargains of to-day; that tugs with emphasis for every small purpose, and thinks it weakness to exercise the sublime power of resolved renunciation? There is a sort of subjection which is the peculiar heritage of largeness and love; and strength is often only another name for willing bondage to irremediable weakness (Felix Holt 78).

Eliot’s stories are shaped to show that characters who subject themselves to others by overriding vitally-felt obligations to themselves or others also get something of pragmatic value in return. The rewards include gratification because the group professes admiration and respect for the individual, a highly compromised or grudging and grateful love, and safety (Middlemarch 586-87, 664-66; “The Antigone and Its Moral,” Byatt and Warren 365-66).

It is the great merit of Eliot’s imaginative work that she poses questions of serious and large import with which we are today only beginning to deal frankly. It may be its great defect that she repeatedly opts for dramatic resolutions which cruelly deprive her exemplary characters of some natural fulfillment or worthy goal on the grounds that it is right for them to violate their instincts. However, when she does this she provides an earnest agonized record of what was lost: Daniel Deronda’s mother unrepentantly puts before her son how her father egoistically used the patriarchical norms for a mother and daughter to pervert humane obligations between individuals and to repress her talents and nature as an individual (e.g., Daniel Deronda 535-48;Wilt).

It is true that Eliot’s stories occasionally end shockingly with an immolation of what is estimable, humane, and productive of genuinely beneficial decency, sometimes on behalf of an egoistic illusory tribal nationalism (The Spanish Gypsy). The Mill on the Floss ends on Maggie’s semi-suicidal act on behalf of a brother who has throughout the novel been as repugnant, narrow-minded, and vindictive as she has been pleasing, open-minded, and forgiving.8 More frequently, though, her endings are consolatory. At long last her characters find themselves in, or create a situation where one of them or the situation itself permits a dramatic resolution which defies the materialism, genetic tribalism, and the sheer cruelty and stupidity of unjust social arrangements rooted in human nature. The close of Silas Marner gives us a young girl who refuses to leave the old man who has brought her up and invested everything he valued in himself in her, not on the grounds that she would feel uncomfortable in upper class society (as the BBC/A&E/WGBH 1995 film adaptation of Silas Marner would have it), but on the grounds that her biological father has forfeited his rights over her.

In one of Eliot’s letters she writes:

I cannot tell you how much melancholy it causes me that people are, for the most part, so incapable of comprehending the state of mind which cares for that which is essentially human in all forms of belief, and desires to exhibit it under all forms of loving truthfulness … the only affect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but in the broad fact of being human (Haight, George Eliot Letters 3:111, 5 July 1859).

Eliot infuses her pictures of earlier eras with nostalgia; painstaking research mitigates the idealization. The goal seems to induce a belief in a time and place when individual acts had significance. Her choice of historical fiction seems rooted in her religious sensibility (Anger).

Eliot’s novels powerfully focus on characters who have lived apart, for whom isolation produces severe mental distress and destructive behavior. Her later novels are prophetic because she lived and wrote as a displaced alienated woman who lovingly narrated her experience and that of others with absolute earnest literal truthfulness “as if I were in a witness- box . . . on oath” (Adam Bede 177). Her complicity is expiatory propitiation. To close ourselves off from her torment is to close ourselves off from that of other women writers whose work hers resembles (and who have been castigated similarly). George Eliot’s past is not another country.

I close with a deliberately provocative passage from A.S. Byatt’s Whistling woman (now A. S. Byatt is much indebted to Eliot, herself a pastiche novelist of power in her Possession):

“”Eliot punished her beautiful characters, Julia said. No, said Frederica, she punished those who exploited it, who lived by it. Hetty, cold Rosamund, chilly, terrified, power-crazed Gwendolen. Her warm-blooded heroines were beautiful too. Dorothea, Maggie. But they wanted something else out of life beside sex and marriage, and sex and marriage defeated them. She punished them, said Julia. She punished Dorothea for high mindedness and Maggie for throbbing with emotion. She made Dorothea decline into marriage with a second-rate journalist, and punished Maggie for sex, with drowning. She couldn’t make a model of a woman who could be free, and creative, and sexy. She couldn’t give her readers any hope.

‘She was free and creative and sexy’, said Frederica. ‘She must have been the most public adulteress in England, and in the end Queen Victoria commissioned a series of paintings from her books and they tried to bury her in the Abbey’.

‘She had no children’, said Penny. ‘She knew about contraception, sponges and vinegar.

‘She looked after GH Lewes’s sons’, said Frederica. ‘She earned their school fees’.

‘Like a man,’ said Julia. ‘she earned money. Like a man.’

‘She couldn’t let Dorothea found a universiity, or Maggie write a book’, said Frederica. ‘She was telling it how it was. How clever women’s lives were’.”


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