Archive for August, 2011

North coast of Cornwall, just above Crackington Haven, Boscastle

Dear friends and readers,

I recently read another Winston Graham novel, a novella really, The Forgotten Story, set in 1898, written 1945. I had not expected but found (once again) central to a Graham novel, a marital rape, and central to the atmosphere Cornwall. The heroine is a cross between Verity Poldark and Demelza Carne, married to Tom Harris, but having left him, having a boyfriend, Ned Pawlyn (who later offers to flee to Australia so they can live as man-and-wife without being known), starts the quarrel in the bar which appears to lead to her father’s death, she has no means of supporting herself decently. This is 1898 and the only professions open to a young woman still are wife or teacher. She takes a position as a strict girls’ school — we are in a mild version of Jane Eyre too.

The telling gripping incident of the story is a marital rape scene, which I’m coming to see as an obsession, a highly unusual one. Tom rescues Patricia from the bar quarrel and to assert his rights over her, rapes her. Grahame returns to this unusual motif again and again: presents a marriage scene where the husband rapes the wife and it is clear this is rape. Although Patricia has left Tom publicly, she gives testimony on his behalf in a courtroom which reveals her liaison with Ned, she is ostracized and there’s a scene of public humiliation.

All the while she is of course in her heart a virtuous heroine. We are to re-define what we mean by virtuous and it does not mean strict sexual fidelity although in fact Patricia never has sex with another man, a decent merchant marine sailor, but not because it’s forbidden, but because she does not love him enough to go off with him to Australia as a partner, though he would provide an escape from her bad situation once her father dies and spitefully leaves her nothing.

Graham chose to return to the end of the Victorian period to be able to show this paradigm, only Graham de-constructs the framing social circumstances and shows us how unfair they are. Tom Harris no longer has the right to demand Patricia back. In 1891 it had become no longer accepted since a famous court case for a husband to try to wrest his wife back to live with him. But he feels he ought to. The sense in the fiction is that this is wrong. This is at least one place where a woman should have real liberty. She is nagged by her (murderous we find) aunt to return to Tom using the conventional argument, she should. She is shamed by her community when she does not return to him. .

That this motif is returned to ceaselessly shows its centrality for controlling women in this set of social structures, and that it’s at a great price to her.

The ending shows Tom Harris who has all along been an ambivalent figure (he appears to be exploiting the boy to pressure Patricia) into a hero of integrity. He rescues Antony and brings Patricia back from the school. We discover that Tom has been responsible for her getting her job: he had the connections and respect by his family and position as a lawyer. Unlike Ned, he can take Patricia somewhere as his wife; they can afford to provide a home for Anthony.

To read more about A Forgotten Story: for a summary and coherent analysis please go to: Winston Graham as writer of the Poldark novels and A Forgotten Story.

The presentation of Patricia’s choice to return to Tom reminded me of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. How do they come to this decision. From the same standpoint as Toibin’s: the woman is married to the man and so she obeys the social convention, goes with it. In the case of Toibin’s Brooklyn he uses this obedience to convention to point up the coldness of people towards one another, how they can pick up and drop one anther ruthlessly to follow what’s their interest. The force in Toibin is grimly powerful. I have read Toibin’s The South (about a woman who escapes her family to go live in Spain and finds herself embedded eventually in another family group), Blackwater Lightship (about deep alienation within a family), and The Master, Henry James as a gay man, an outsider. After a while the books all do spin around the same concerns, and for me at least are gripping. I find I can’t put them down easily each time I start one up again. I get intensely emotionally involved.

For Booklyn I found I had to peek ahead to the last pages to make sure our heroine does what will eventually lead to some happiness for her, I was so anxious for her. I feel the same for Graham’s heroines, all but Marnie. Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn required enormous strength to get through so much did I worry for her because she seemed to be this good person, self-sacrificing and could be bullied into giving up what could make her life joyful. But then when I came to the end of the book I saw I had been mistaken. In fact she might have liked to stay in Ireland and not return to Brooklyn, that is, stay with her birth family group instead of the new one she had become a part of it.

Toibin’s Brooklyn‘s grim insight is what we think keeps people together is not their intangible feelings, but order itself, and their value for one another comes out of how chance has put someone near someone that fits his or her needs. And either you belong to the order or you don’t.

In Graham’s Forgotten Story in effect this young woman does follow her economic and social interest in going back to the husband who s a rising lawyer. It was due to him she got the one job she did get, a teacher at a school; he vouched for her. She is indignant when she first hears of it, but forgets the indignation during the force of the shipwreck, and re-finding Anthony alive. And if she married Tom, she can also take the young boy with her and protect, mother him. It is to her social advantage and people obey conventions, every one does.

Recent cover of Forgotten Story

It’s not an emotional adherence, it’s coolly done. And we don’t see her do it, we are told it impersonally as the boy sleeps. We learn the boy after all was taken in (his father had abandoned him, sent him back to his family because the father had begun a second family where the boy was not wanted). Tom, Patricia, and Anthony head out for South Africa to make a new life for themselves taking the boy.

The forgotten story is that of this rape, of this marriage. Swept under the rug, swept away as the storm which sweeps away Uncle Perry, the uncle who colluded with the aunt, swept away as Uncle Joe, the father whose real vulnerability we are never permitted to delve. Why he married Madge? what happened to Patricia’s mother?

The fiction remains conventional (in a way Toibin’s does not): Graham treats this decision not as a violation of feeling and he presents the woman’s choice with tact and sympathy. It reminds me of the central heroine of the Poldark books who also finds security, peace, respect from the community by agreeing to marry Ross Poldark, the landowner whose servant she has been and who she has been going to bed with for a couple of weeks.

Early cover for Forgotten Story,signalling it as a woman’s romance novel

But it is the same insight: the convention the society sets up pushes people to obey it as they get rewarded for it. It does not take much in the Forgotten Story to see that those who do not have such conventions on their side suffer badly. And the curious insistence that it’s on a rape that the whole thing turns, on the rape of woman’s body — as the whole trajectory of the Poldark series finally does (I’ll write another blog on the Poldark novels after all and this is partly one). I’ve written a review of two books which argue the order and stability of socieities also depends on their willingness to murder children who do not fit in: Child Murder and British Culture.

Angharad Rees (this promotional photo is of her as a modern woman) – an enigmatic sexualized heroine who does not tell

So, to conclude not only is Graham still unusual for presenting marital rape as a central motif in his novels, he is highly unusual for doing it repeatedly. I suppose we should not be surprised that this aspect of his fiction never comes up in discussions of the Poldark novels; when I’ve talked off list or blog with people who’ve read the Poldark books, they deny Ross raped Elizabeth. Of course she was consenting 🙂 — they can’t deny the rape of Morwenna, so there is the implication in the conversation that I’m morbid to dwell on this unfortunate (highly it’s implied) heroine, when her story is meant to be not that atypical, only her reaction.

When writing my paper on Richardson’s Clarissa and rape (“What right have you to detain me here?”), I took the common view how rare is the depiction of marital rape (well, except in modern African stories, mostly those by women). I was right there, but wrong to have left out this exception.

For more on Toibin’s Brooklyn, see comments.


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Charles James Fox (1790s?) by Karl Anton Hickel

Dear friends and readers,

As part of my project reading towards my paper to be given at the EC/ASECS, “‘I have a right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels,” I’m rereading the first 7 Poldark novels, reading a couple other historical novels which use the past to project a liberal-leftist and/or feminist point of view (e.g., David Lisse’s A Conspiracy of Paper, and Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin), texts on the concept of liberty, and some genuine background non-fiction books set in the later 18th or early 19th century. One is Charles J Esdaile’s The Peninsula War. I’ll be writing about some of this reading as I finish it, or the spirit prompts me.

Tonight (while the electricity holds out), I want to recommend David Powell’s Charles James Fox, Man of the People. Powell’s is an intelligent, compactly informative book, important because insightful and goes against the strong tendency in our era to interpret earlier history from a conservative point of view. Powell makes a strong case for understanding Fox most clearly as someone who in his later career (after his father died) worked hard an consistently for civil and social liberty for the individual in a real-life real-world political context, which means he had to bend, compromise, build coalitions according to party politics at the time (later 18th century), the way the British parliament and elections and monarchy worked under the impress of specific individuals and his own allegiances. Much that is written insists that Fox had no principle, or even castigates him, but as Powell shows Fox’s life makes no sense unless you see genuine open-mindedness, real toleration and liberalism as the real impulse underneath the various permutations. This point of view on Fox coheres with the perspective on the Lennox family in Stella Tillyard’s two books, Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, and Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald, 1763-98. Charles was son to Caroline Lennox and Henry Fox, cousin to Edward Fitzgerald.

I was particularly impressed with Powell’s rare ability to get down to the nitty gritty, really tell in literal details what a bill was, how the various sides acted towards it, the individuals involved, at the same time as he gives the motives and whatever principles were or claimed to be involved — all in brief compass.

What follows are some rather more scattered and general assessment remarks than I usually do (I omit details since there were so many ins and outs) from my reading as I went along, and then a posting by Nick Hay where he too assesses the book and quotes ably and epitomizingly from it.


Henry Fox, later 1st Lord Holland (1705-1774) by Joshua Reynolds

This is an excellent study of the ins and outs of political life in the later 18th century, and how one man, Fox, moved from apparently being an orthodox politician supporting the king to a genuine radical working for modern ideas of liberty across a wide swath of people. Where Powell slides over one can fill in with articles. How Fox fought against Wilkes in the earlier phase of his history: here it was Fox’s loyalty to his father that came in. We see his early years brought up lovingly by his father, the encouragement he was given to develop his mind originally, his extensive reading when at university, a habit he returned to in later life.

Then how he came to switch from being pro-king over the marriage bill where the king demanded that his sons and all further heirs to the throne get permission from the sovereign is a case in point that shows unexpected twists and turns of thought. Here Fox was for sexual liberty for males and liberty for someone to advance him or herself by marriage. Also his father had died and he felt freed to be more radical.

The best article I read was by D. T. Johnson “Charles James Fox: From Government to Oppostion, 1771-1774,” English Historical Review, 89 (1974):750-84. Johnson takes this modern pro-conservative view that Fox didn’t mean his radical enlightenment politics seriously. The changeover relates to Mrs Fitzherbert: it came when the king insisted on the Marriage Bill which gave the monarch the right to veto any marriages of the heir to the throne. It would seem this is an odd choice to change one’s stance on over a life time. Johnson shows it was far more than that; it was personal: Fox had been overlooked and insulted continually by the jealous North; Fox allied himself with Burke as a friend too; yes there was jobbery and inveigling for property and wealth. But in principle Fox was for people having the right (apparently) to marry whom they wanted. It’s presented as venal and personal: he is defending his father and mother, his own desire to marry up, but it seems to me from the quotations far more than that.

Powell appears to believe in Fox’s adherence to real principles after his father, mother and brother died. Powell shows how other scholars and people at the time dismissed his early period of orthodoxy (supporting the king and status quo). Tony Benn’s introduction to Powell’s book sets the situation against our modern one, the differences and similarities. The similarities are self-evident, politics as personal power and riches-grab, with a new ancien regime holding on to what it has, and recently trying to extend it again; the differences too, genuine near universal suffrage with decent laws and customs for the relatively and full powerless or unconnected. It’s paradoxical that Fox came to stand for the rights of these latter: super-wealthy aristocratic, gambler, but also highly well-educated (from Henry and Caroline who we learned about from Tillyard). Benn writes:

The pressure of all these events [1780s through 90s, from “beneath” for annual parliaments, equal or real representation, the French and American revolutionary ideals and doings] made Fox sound like a voice in the wilderness [his point of view was so rare, so individual it seemed] though a century or more later his little minority had won the day – and therein lies the importance of Fox as a major figure in the period through which he lived.

So I conclude he sympathized with Mrs Fitzherbert as he took his stand against the bill that excluded her from being taken seriously. My favorite joke from Caroline’s trial is her answer that the only adultery she ever committed was with Mrs Fitzherbert’s husband.

Fox teamed up with Burke and they made these eloquent speeches and formed a solid opposition to George’s policies against the Americans in the Revolutionary war — which of course got nowhere as the king had the vote, and he was determined to carry on the war with the colonies as about his power and his perogative and bribed everyone with huge sums. In this book George does not emerge as this genial good man who became pathetically ill (the way he does in Alan Bennet’s play and recent books), but as a stubborn, venal, petty, vengeful man protecting his power first and foremost. The figure familiar from Junius at the time, from the early writing of Southey, from Byron and Shelley, from (come to that) Paine and Jefferson.


Elizabeth Armistead, later Fox (1750-1842), also by Reynolds

One reason I like Fox so much is he married Elizabeth Armistead who as a prostitute with no family and no inheritance was just nobody in this era, less than nobody as an unchaste woman – a very unconventional thing to have done, and was very happy with her in his later years. Like his father before him, he retired to live out a Horatian ideal. He had been a serious student when at Oxford and never lost contact with a rich intellectual life — despite all the years of gambling, promiscuity. A life of Armistead is included in Katie Hickman’s Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century.

Powell does not address the question of Fox’s attitude towards women as such or individual women. We hear he was a notorious libertine, but not one example of how he behaved, who or what the particular woman in question was or the “escapade.” It’s a strange treatment as it’s not irrelevant to Fox’s standing as a politician then or now. I’ve now read three articles on Fox and find 1) there is a strong modern (recent) tendency to want to deny that Fox was at all radical in his thought but to present him as utterly subject to local politics, his engagement with family and friends, and acting out of venal personal motives in part all the time. “Venal” is not unfair: the writers (two reviewers of L. G. Mitchell’s biography) seems to misrepresent Mitchell’s book. Mitchell in his ODNB presents a sympathetic view of Fox, liking him personally but not taking a stand on the sincerity of Fox’s later years in opposition and in defense of personal and other human liberties. The two reviewers both Fox emerges from Mitchell’s book as a horror, one even says Mitchell detests him. He doesn’t if the ODNB is any sign. Both these reviewers seem to react in the way earlier people writing about Fox did: they say they abhor his personal amorality. If so, they never say what the particulars are.

I am suspicious that what they can’t stand is his unconventionality. The man was unconventional in his core being, a reaction to his father’s life and understanding, the education he was given, his mother’s high intelligence and indulgence. I can’t answer Caroline’s question for I don’t know what is meant by th references to Fox’s libertinage. If it includes rape and crimes against women, then his behavior to Elizabeth Armistead is an anomaly. If it’s that he was simply unconventional and lived with equally unconventional people, e.g., he may have had a liaison with Georgiana Spencer; he was later in life close with Charles Grey, who became his loyal henchman in the last years fighting Burke. Also important was his close alliance with Sheridan, the book to read here is Fintan O’Toole’s on Richard Sheridan A Traitor’s Kiss. Not slender, and scholarly, it is also on Ireland (as one person on C18-l said, “a blindspot for many English theorists & advocates of liberty”).

But there is this oddity — which it shares with many books until recently — and perhaps books to come once again. Repeatedly we are told that X, say the Earl of Sandwich in the particular instance (p. 119) was “a notorious profligate” and it was held against him and hurt him politically. But we are told nothing of what this means. What women he was involved with, what he did to them, what gambling or cheating or whatever neglects he was guilty of.

This is strange if you think just a little. What crime did he commit? We are not told. What shameful things? we are not told. When someone gambling debts are known, and it’s usually general, we are told. This is part of the pre-feminist kind of book where women never appear except marginally. (The modern style book is Francine du Plessix-Gray where she pretends to write the book on Sade’s wife; she doesn’t but the wife is there a lot, say even 30% of the time is taken into consideration.). This would suggest no one in Powell’s era could give a damn about the women and also that in the earlier era no one did.

Well if so, why was it deleterious to the man’s career?

It’s also so frustrating to be told this kind of generalization repeatedly and then never told what it means, who it concerns.

The books which begin with Elizabeth Armistead for example or are about her, bring her in, but she is but one of Fox’s women and came later in his life and what he did with her may have been wholly unusual for him. Not so small peeves: when Mary Davies allows her book about Armistead and Fox to be titled The Harlot and the Statesman: The Love Story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox makes me loathe to buy it, plus it’s expensive, priced at $25 the least and only available from UK booksellers. Why is he the statesman? There is good reason to believe he did not act out of principle (actually Powell thinks he partly did – that he did really care about individual liberty). Why must she be referred to so stigmatizingly? The word would not have been used of her except maybe by Gillray in a cartoon (and he’s a cruel misgynist consistenty in his pictures)


Caroline Lennox Fox, Lady Holland (175), a reading, radical and intelligent woman – probably centrally important to Charles too, but marginalized in this book (except as the woman his father dared to marry)

Powell has persuaded me that Fox did work by principles, only that his principles were complicated (friendship came before an adherence in public to the principles of liberty) and shaped by the realities of party politics.

What a complicated story each phase of this man’s political life is. It takes a long time to read each page in order to comprehend what is meant fully. It’s revealing about the brutality of the politics of the later 1790s. The intense ruthless suppression of any dissent was as ferocious and relentless as anything done in France, short of the mass killings in the prisons and on the guillotine. I do love how Burke comes out for once as a neurotic mad-man — this fringe person despised for years and writhing under it, suddenly goes beserk when his order or group is threatened and how he is then used by the powerful for their purposes. To this we get these vivid vignettes of these arisocrats as violent thugs causing riots in the streets, not to omit really suggestiveness about Fox’s psychological motives: in parliament Fox was like someone on a listserv who can beat everyone else with eloquence; he can’t resist flaming others; there is a compensation for his looks going on too.

The ending written in this simple way, and becomes so moving as we watch the man die of dropsy. It’s deeply moving and and Charles James Fox’s last few weeks in power. He did on the last gasp speak extraordinarily for the abolition of slavery.

Nick had said the moving nature of the ending comes from the relationship with Elizabeth Armistead. I didn’t see that as any more central (or less) than from the time he began to live with her on and off at St Anne’s Hill. Like all women in this book she is barely characterized, kept in the margins. It is the one grave fault with the book.


Abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846)

And here is Nick’s fine assessment:

“I have now finished David Powell’s book Charles James Fox Man of the People (1989). Unfortunately, it is unscholarly – there are no notes, sources or bibliography. Of course it is designed as a popular biography, but that is no reason why a book should be unscholarly (as Jenny Uglow’s book on Thomas Bewick demonstrates). There are some things to be said in its favour…

1) precisely because of its light-weight nature it is an easy read and provides an introduction to the main course of Fox’s life, at least as far as his political career is concerned.

2) Fox himself is such a charismatic, and in the last 15 or so years anyway, of his life charming figure that I became fully involved with the narrative towards the end, and indeed was quite affected by the death-bed scene.

I am not going to attempt any sort of summary but very broadly Fox as a private man moved from hell-raising rake and gambler to devoted monogamist (he was completely in love with Liz Armistead and they were – especially by the standards of the late 18thC aristocracy – a truly devoted couple). Fox as a public man grew more radical as he grew older – a trajectory which always appeals to me, and goes completely against that nonsensical and absurd cliche about people becoming more conservative as they age. His courage in the 1790’s when he opposed Pitt’s repression at the cost of any sort of career, of his popularity, in the face of scabrous vilification and all the forces of the state is truly inspiring. It is certainly true that his earlier career did not suggest this kind of political dedication and there were and are plenty to accuse him of inconsistency – but what is very clear is that in the 1790’s he sacrificed any sort of ambition for the sake of principle.

The following are just notes on things which I particularly enjoyed.

Writing of the corruption of earlier 18thC politics Powell quotes an MP by the name of Hans Stanley who wrote…

If I had a son, I would say to him ‘Get into Parliament, make some tiresome speeches. Do not accept the first offer, but wait until you can make provision for yourself and your family and then call yourself an independent country gentleman’

which demonstrates that corruption in the British Parliament is hardly (as is claimed by the ignorant at present) new. Of course in terms of corruption Walpole himself set a standard which will never be equalled – at least he spent the proceeds well as anyone who has visited his Norfolk home at Houghton can attest.

One thing Powell does do well is to convey the stupidity, meanness and vindictiveness of George 3rd (the book is certainly a good corrective to that absurd Madness film); when Chatham died (the elder Pitt) George 3rd objected to his being buried in Westminster Abbey remarking….

This compliment is rather an offensive measure to me personally’

carrying his vindictiveness beyond the grave.

Reviewing the 18thC electoral system Powell gives a wonderful quote from Sir Philip Francis which shows that the election sequence in Blackadder series 3 (the Dish and Dishonesty episode) was not, in fact, so far from the truth. Here is Francis speaking of his election at Appleby….

I was unanimously elected by one Elector to represent this ancient Borough in Parliament….there was no other Candidate, no Opposition, no Poll demanded, Scrutiny or petition. So I had nothing to do but thank the said Elector for the Unanimous Vote with which I had been chosen

(actually thinking about it the election at Dunny-in-the-Wold was more democratic than this – there were at least other Candidates and a Poll in that case!).

Moving to Fox’s private life I want to cite a couple of passages illustrative of his devotion to Liz Armistead and the quietness of his domestic circumstances in later years. Here he is writing about Liz…

She is a comfort to me in very misfortune, and makes me enjoy doubly every pleasant circumstance of life; there is to me a charm and delight in her society, which time does not in the least wear off, and for real goodness of heart if she ever had an equal, she never had a superior…..The Lady of the Hill is one continual source of happiness to me’

He finally married Liz in 1795, though the marriage was kept secret for 7 years for reasons which are still not clear though it may be that he did not want her dragged into the extremely brutal political arena in which he was operating. Here anyway is John Bernard Trotter’s, Fox’s secretary, description of the Foxs daily round at their country home at St Anne’s Hill….

In summer he rose between six and seven, in winter before eight… After breakfast, which took place between eight and nine in the summer, and a little after nine in the winter, he usually read some Italian authors with Mrs Fox, and then spent the time preceding dinner at his literary studies, in which the Greek poets bore a principal part. A frugal but plentiful dinner took place at three….; and a few glasses of wine were followed by coffee. The evening was dedicated to walking and conversation to tea time, when reading aloud, in history, commenced, and continued till near ten. A light supper of fruit, pastry, or something very trifling finished the day, and at half past ten the family were gone to rest.

Now admittedly this is about as far from his younger hell-raising days as can be imagined, but I had no idea that Fox was like this in maturity – I had been utterly deceived by the popular (mis) representations. If for nothing else reading Powell has been worthwhile in correcting me in this misapprehension.

I’ll note for Ellen’s interest that Powell writes that Liz once had to ‘confiscate’ a copy of Fanny Burney’s Camilla when Fox began to read the newly arrived book aloud at dinner, and for my own interest that he maintained an acquaintance with Crabbe. Like Crabbe and Bewick (and it seems almost everyone) he became an amateur naturalist listing every flower and plant on his small estate.

Here is a poem Fox wrote to Liz on his 50th Birthday – the poem may hardly be called a classic but the sentiment is affecting –

Of years I have now half a century passed
And none of the fifty so blessed as the last.
How it happens that my troubles thus daily should cease,
And my happiness thus with my years should increase,
This defiance of Nature’s more general laws,
You alone can explain, who alone are the cause’

(in some ways Fox is a Byronic figure – the aristocratic rebel – but in his mature private life he could hardly be more different).

Fox was of course above all a magnificent orator – the greatest in a period of great orators (Chatham, Burke, Sheridan) and Powell quotes several of his speeches. I pick the following from 1800. Fox is replying to a suggestion that, rather than seeking peace with France, Britain should pause and see how events turn out. Fox replies to Pitt …

In former wars a man might at least, have some feeling, some interest, that served to balance in his mind the impressions which a scene of carnage and of death must inflict….But if a man were present now at a field of slaughter, and were to inquire for what they were fighting – ‘Fighting!’ would be the answer; they
are not fighting, they are pausing.’ ‘Why is that man expiring? Why is that other writhing in agony? What means this implacable fury?’ The answer must be ‘You are wrong, sir; you deceive yourself. They are not fighting. Do not disturb them; they are merely pausing. This man is not expiring with agony – this man is not dead – he is only pausing…..All you see, sir, is nothing like fighting – there is no harm, cruelty or bloodshed in it whatever; there is nothing more than a political pause.

This brilliant invective rings clear across the centuries as we consider the language used to cloak and soften the horrific realities of war.

In his very last speech in the Commons on 10th June 1806 Fox spoke in support of the abolition of slavery….

‘So fully am I impressed with the vast importance and necessity of obtaining what will be the object of my motion this night, that if, during the almost forty years that I have had the honour of a seat in Parliament, I had been so fortunate as to accomplish that, and that only, I should think I had done enough, and could retire from public life with comfort, and the conscious satisfaction that I had done my duty.’

He died on 13th September 1806 his last words being to his wife who was at his side ‘It don’t signify my dearest dearest Liz.’

Powell points out that by modern standards Fox was in many ways not a radical especially in his opposition to universal suffrage. However I found him a far more courageous and sympathetic figure than I expected and would certainly like to read a fuller more scholaryl book than this, which he most definitely merits.”


Barbauld’s once famous political prophetic poem

I answered Nick thus:

McCarthy in his book on Barbauld gives an effective description of the 1790s so we see how not just the radicals, but ordinary people with let’s say progressive ideas were frightened, and punished for the least appearance of enlightened thought or protest. The government was behind the riots at Priestley’s house and it together with power local people across the country repeated the same kinds of acts backed by military might and local ostracism, firing, and scapegoating. The Barbaulds were the type that were affected here, and many of their friends.

She like Fox was brave in the 1790s, but not quite as brave, only of course she was a woman so it wasn’t possible to stand on the world’s stage. She published then famous works anonymously; it was known they were by her, and she was partly protected because she was a woman. Who cared what she thought. I have a parallel passage to Nick’s by Fox in the 1790s where her idea that’s use language truthfully and say the thing a thing is is brought to clear power. Here is she arguing that the still powerful cruel idiocies about calling the blessing of God on your murderous activities (war) is somehow a moral thing to do. She writes in Sins of the Nation

we have calmly voted slaughter and merchandized destruction” – and urged that things should be called by their proper names: “When we pay our army and our navy estimates, let us set down – so much for killing, so much for maim­ing, so much for making widows and orphans, so much for bringing famine upon a district, so much for corrupting citizens and subjects into spies and traitors, so much for ruining industrious tradesmen and making bankrupts (of that species of distress at least, we can form an idea)


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Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, pen-name Scholem Aleichem (1859-1916)

Dear friends and readers,

Izzy and I went to see Scholem Aleichem, or, Laughing in the Darkness late Sunday afternoon. Bob (on Trollope19thCStudies) had recommended it a couple of weeks ago now. So now I’ll repeat the recommendation: it’s a fine film, one of the best I’ve seen in a while (really all summer).

It’s a biographical study of the *Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich*, once a leading Yiddish playwright. Sholem Aleichem is the pen-name of his imagined narrator; apparently Aleichem presents himself as a disembodied persona. He is a part author and or owner of his sad-tragic-comic tales. His characters part respect him (especially the older/father figure): they know they like the tunes; they learn to know and love the words. They converse, and then argue. Mr Perry deplored that so now all Eliza Austen has to do is renew her relationship with William Radcliffe. He cares for real people mirrored in the book’s stories.

The film done with great finesse, candour and insight and sensitivity too. The film-maker, Joseph Dorman, has woven a life through the works in the way of recent written biographies. The viewer more or less follows the trajectory of Aleichem’s life filled out by over-voice comments and commentaries by educated people (and one relative) about these stories and their relevance to Aleichem’s character and life story. (The mode of interview reminded me of NOVA specials). We don’t get an interpretation of the stories for their own sake or a description of their aesthetics. Instead the work is made to reflect the life and used where it would come in the life and it takes up space: the writer is described as writing the work as it’s described. The result in this film is the life is illuminated and so are the stories. The quality is like that of a PBS series some years ago (maybe decades) about a group of American poets supposed to reflect also on American life.

The film done with great finesse, candour and insight and sensitivity too. The viewer more or less follows the trajectory of Aleichem’s life filled out by over-voice narrator storytelling and comments and by commentaries by educated people (and one relative) about these stories interspersed with the life chronology and representations of his works. The mode of interview, with the interviewee in his or her study, reminded me of NOVA specials.

The idea at the heart of the film is to examine the issue of individual identity as it relates to the person’s culture. The point is made the Jewish identity that Aleichem captured and spoke to in his work is now vanished sufficiently so that if you want to present any of them dramatically you have to change the values and what happens in the stories. So when his stories of Tevye, the dairy man, were transformed into Fiddler on the Roof, a successful Broadway musical and film, even the opposite meanings are projected. So when at the end of the story upon which Fiddler on the Roof is based the daughter does not leave the father; she does not go off with her husband in Aleichem’s story, that’s a happy ending (in a semi-tragic tale mind). People who have seen Fiddler on the Roof will recall the daughter does leave, leaves for the successful modern life and that’s the happy ending.

What was especially excellent was how the voice-over narrator, quotations from the stories, pictures, and commentators conveyed the quality of Aleichem’s writing. The theme they emphasized is caught up in the film’s subtitle: laughing in the darkness. Aleichem had himself been the son of a man doing somewhat better than the others in the shtetl; when he was 13, his father lost the money he had had and business. They were bankrupt. The father had sent his son to some sort of secular schooling and even after he found he had no money managed to send him to a high school equivalent where he was reasonably educated. The young man obtained a job as a tutor with a wealthy family and the daughter and he fell in love. He was ejected, but she followed him and they married. Eventually he inherited his father-in-law’s fortune. With that he and his wife moved to Kiev and he started up a periodical and lived the life of a bourgeois intelligentsia person. He lost his money (was not practical) and had to turn to his mother-in-law for help. Periods of poverty alernated with periods of relative prosperity. He saw much in life, the way much is conducted utterly irrationally. The vision of his works seems to be wild laughter in the face of underlying hysteria.

Nothing could be further from Fiddler on the Roof whose feel of the past is nostalgic, sentimental, and comfortable with life. I’ve seen the musical three times on stage and know it rejoices in being alive and suggests the future to come is good.

So I’m not sure this kind of change is from change of identity; often fine works when turned into movies have their essential meanings reversed, partly because the more intelligent thinking reader is only a small part of a mass audience, partly because reading alone to the self invites the text to become about vulnerable asocial experience while watching in a crowd must please the crowd so substitutes strongly socially-oriented perceptions of experience. But it seems to be obvious that the culture Aleichem recreated in his works is now gone from us, and the film was making the point that a new culture had arisen from the old. That people of Jewish ancestry have had to make new or different identities. I agree with that.

I know that I have created a kind of identity for myself and am moved by such stories of such attempts. Mine emerged from my reading of English novels and memoirs from the time I was an adolescent (P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park) to when I got my Ph.D. and went to England, and then married an Englishman. I like to read novels of hybrid-cultures, say Anglo-Indian where you find individuals struggling to find themselves, create some identity they can endure, bear with and the price of this. This is Jhumpa Lahiri’s powerful theme in Namesake.

But it is also a common theme in books today — or how we read them. In my classes last term we treated Graham’s Ross Poldark as about a couple who are individually trying to survive and build lives for themselves which are unconventional while they remain safe. We discussed Andrea Levy’s Small Island as about how one can’t escape a painful identity which is not you but used against you by the society around you. So maybe this modern take in the film tells us more about us than Aleichem. Or as much.

The tone of the talk in the film was upbeat throughout but if you listened to the content what was said was grave. The film’s least upbeat tones were reserved for the death of Yiddish. A library filled with books in Yiddish was filmed. The point was no one or few can read them now. A rich literature just “thrown away” the narrator said, without examination. It was that Yiddish was stigmatized and so it was not wanted.

I know that Yiddish was not the only dialect of Hebrew mixed with a local language across Europe. Yiddish grew up in Eastern Europe (my grandparents spoke Yiddish, my mother used to be able to understand it when it was spoken to her) and was found in German to the Eastern European countries and to Russia, but a different dialect, a compound of Hebrew and Spanish grew up in Spain called Ladino developed and spread across Spain and into Greece, Turkey, the Balkans. So Yiddish was not universal in Europe for Jewry; it could have become universal say through the publication of its newspapers (my grandfather used to read one as I recall) and books in the US and elsewhere, and Aleichem spent much of his genius, money, talents, time trying to create this literature from scratch. But it had no hegemony through power structures. Probably it needed to be taught in public schools run by state gov’ts and was not.

For me the stunning thing was the sheer amount of photos, and films of 19th and early 20th century Jewish life in Russia in the communities where Jewish people were forced to live and also some cities apparently individuals could live in (Kiev, where Aleichem during a period of strong prosperity lived for a time). One could see village life, the intense poverty of these people (often they are dressed in very heavy clothing, even in their houses, signalling how cold it is there), photos of the killings (corpses) left over from the mid-century pogroms which drove Jewish people out of Russia to the US (some stayed in the UK en route), photos of Jewish communities and Aleichem’s funeral in NYC (1913-1916). Of course many photos of Aleichem; one grand or great-granddaughter was one of those interviewed.

It was very moving. The auditorium was full, I’d say mostly of Jewish people, though the clientele of this West End Cinema movie house was there too. It’s located in Georgetown and is a genuine art theater. It’s the place where we have seen European HD operas. They had The Anchor (about a working class woman English writer who died young, she lived in the equivalent of welfare projects in the UK up north); next week they’ll have a film about the use of ballet in opera; Izzy and I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams there two weeks ago. People applauded Scholem Aleichem at the end. However, we saw the film in the only theater in all the Maryland, Virginia and DC area it was playing in. The usual supposed art cinema (independent) Izzy and I go to was said to be having this film soon: Cinemart he calls his theater. He is about 2 blocks (NYC style) from a local Jewish Community Center (where Izzy nowadays goes for a social club she enjoys) and in May each year his theater has a festival of Jewish films half-hosted by the JCC but I can see he’s hedging because he really plays semi-popular films and if a film doesn’t get a big enough audience quickly, it vanishes from his theater.

Go see it if you can.


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Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) gives birth to Valentine: season 2 begins and ends with Elizabeth in childbirth

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been reading away towards the paper I intend to write on “Liberty” (in the complicated 18th century sense) in the Poldark novels, which basically has meant finishing re-reading the first seven novels, and will include reading a couple more of Graham’s non-Poldark novels, a couple of popular historical fictions mean to provide liberal-leftist point of view with a usable (exemplary) past, and finally a few essays of parts of books that might be relevant (on historical fiction, on the revolutionary politics of the era, on specific subjects, say corrupt elections, the Peninsula wars, Cornwall).

I know that when I originally began reading the Poldark novels I watched the whole of the first season (1975-76) of the Poldark mini-series, and posted a long blog on all 16 episodes (based on the first four novels, Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan): An 18th century Cornish Che Guevara, but while I watched, and wrote a posting to Eighteenth Century Worlds for each of the 13 episodes of season two (based on the next three, The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide), I never wrote a blog. This second series had a hard time gaining the momentum of the first, but as it proceeded turned into equally intelligent well-done popular televisual art, and seems to be liked. I also watched the 1996 film adaptation of the eighth Poldark novel, The Stranger from the Sea, and discovered it has been wrongly damned and utterly misrepresented in the popular press.

So, what I’ve decided to do is thread in a few blogs on the films while working on this paper. Tonight the opening four parts of Season 2 which reprise some of the material of Season 1 and adapts with some changes The Black Moon. The second series ably fulfilled the role of historical costume drama as romance, adventure story, political and woman’s film too.

Episode 1

George, hard, wily, resentful, domineering

The episode sets up the antagonism between Ross (Robin Ellis) and George Warleggan (Ralph Bates) as central to the coming series; this in fact supersedes Ross’s homecoming. George has enclosed his land again, set up man-traps, is continuing to rack-rent and throw people out of cottages; after the loving reunion of Ross and Demelza (Angharad Rees), done very strongly so the two actors clearly got along (semi-joke alert), we are introduced to Demelza’s two brothers, Drake (Kelly McNally) and Sam (David Delve) their methodism and relative ignorance/innocence set before us and they are provided with a house, and jobs (Drake is set up as carpenter). Demelza’s brothers have gotten religion. A satire and exposure/satire but also much sympathy with methodism as a means of self-respect and rebellion has begun. Ross is again involving himself on behalf of the powerless and vulnerable, the miners, his tenants.

The character of Aunt Agatha (Eileen Way) and her antagonisms to George and his cruelty to her are well done as also (quietly implicitly) Jill Townsend’s Elizabeth. The actress had to get across the frustrations and miseries of a repressed conservative woman, not easy — especially without flashback or voice-over (which the series of the 70s eschewed). The best scene is the terrible childbirth where she screams: “I hate you I hate you” in the midst of her long agon, and we are not sure if this is Ross or George she refers to. We watch her give birth. There is a (for the 1970s) frank, powerful and effective scene. Unlike the Pallisers (5 years earlier), we just don’t sit outside with the (here putative) father and grandfather, but we are allowed in. Bloody, in pain, linen upon linen soiled and messed and used, hours and hours suggested and much misery and screams. The doctor, Behenna (Hugh Dickson) being there is seen as useful (as he is not in the novels) Even her ridiculously impeccable hair up to now, gets all wretched and messy.

Very good is the use of Jud Paynter (Paul Curran) and his wife Prudie (Mary Wimbush) as bringing in the doubts about Elizabeth’s birth, the obsession of George with his son. I’ve also put in the album a still of Warleggen bullying Elizabeth’s boy by her first husband (threatening to flog him). He is among several whose leg is almost done in by the mantraps — which are historically accurate. The actors for Paynter and Prudie go right back to the roles in the way of Ross and Demelza.

Some flaws: The writer is Alexander Baron, usually very strong, but producer has changed (!) to Anthony Coburn, and we do have less effective use of landscape; it’s as yet a backdrop rather than integrated as it was in the first season; the director is now Philip Dudley. They are stuck with some improbabilities beyond Elizabeth’s pregnancy by Ross (which comes from the conventions followed in the book): Ross’s re-appearance has to be explained; George and Elizabeth have to be provided with a new house. I’ve read since watching the first (Poldark’s Cornwall by Graham) that the film-makers did not succeed in obtaining as good a house as the one which served for Trenwith nor did they have full rights of ingress and egress. And Judy Geeson is back as Caroline Penvennen, just as absurdly overdressed, and the unfortunate scene where they all (Caroline, Ross, Demelza) greet one another again would be much better were they in their real 20th century clothes.

Episode 2

There is a repeating motif here: the revenant. Ross is a revenant. He first appeared at the opening of Season 1 a revenant from the American wars; now he’s a revenant from the French and Irish ones, and he’s preparing to return not to a war set up by a civil authority, but to smuggle out a man in danger of torture and death. This will give him a chance to be a revenant once again. It’s a powerful archetype: Martin Guerre comes to mind. This time though Ross is not leaving behind people who were glad to see the back of him as a young rebel, who sought to replace him (Charles and Francis Poldark), who hoped him dead (the Warleggans) but Demelza.

The series improves, markedly. Partly that’s because much of the hour is filmed on location in Cornwall. When they do this, the series often soars. It seems to fill the actors with intense energies as they act out these adventurous and romantic scenes among these sublime places.

Here Demelza’s younger evangelical brother begins a love romance with the governess hired by Elizabeth to care for her boy, a poor cousin, Morwenna Chynoweth (Jane Wymark); the two are defying the prohibition to live any life of her own.

As we have this couple beginning to defy the status they have been given, so there are scenes taking place in the established church where the local vicar, Rev Odgers (Esmond Webb) becomes angry and resentful at Demelza’s two brothers’ Methodism. In the church they do not wait for George Warleggan and Elizabeth to arrive and start singing on their own. George sees this as subversive and it is, disruptive of the establishment hierarhcy, ignoring who is supposed in power.

Dr Ennys (Michael Cadman replaces Richard Morant, and is somehow not as right for the role) has been captured aboard a ship, and is in prison, probably tortured, and Ross insists in trying to go free him — risking his life. Demelza’s understandably not keen. She’s pregnant and even if she weren’t, needs Ross — he’s the Captain remember, the one with property and prestige and now they’ve her brothers to keep too. These scenes between Demelza and Ross constitute a motif of the hour — they are taken from an important element in the books: Ross’s restlessness, which continues for all 12 books.

There are more scenes of George Warleggan bullying Aunt Agatha and her needling him. It’s hard to feel for Elizabeth when one sees her cold snobbish behavior to her cousin-governess, her lies, and her despising of the people in church. But this time through I know the actress is trying to show us a woman who has made a bad decision and can’t come back from it. She does not agree with George. She would not throw the Crane brothers off their land; she is pressured into signing a document which kicks them off. Ross didn’t want them either but to make up for his leaving Demelza he gives them land.

Ross and Tholly (Ducan Lamont) planning their expedition, making their deal

The hour ends with Ross’s planning his attempt to rescue Enys. He secures the help of Tholly Tregirls, a pirate renegade type (as Ross does in the book).

Episode 3

Drake running towards Morwenna and Geoffrey Charles, playing on the beaches

The stories that intensely resonate are in fact the new ones and stories that fit with cliched paradigms: like the young woman, Morwenna, forced into marriage, the young man, lower class, excluded. As I wrote, Graham sometimes (as many historical novelists do) imitates 18th century novels. So the new matter is that of Morwenna (Jane Wymark) who comes hired as a poor cousin to be the governess of Elizabeth’s son by Francis Poldark. She and Drake Crane, brother to Demelza, meet on the seacoast where she walks with the boy, fall in love — there are sublime scenes of them in caves, playing with the boy, filled with remarkable good feeling and a kind of controlled wildness.

Morwenna and Geoffrey Charles (Stefan Gates)

This would be like Romeo and Juliet but for the realistic vile bargaining between George and Whitworth (Christopher Biggins),the vicar who buys Morwenna as his wife. George is led to bribe the vicar with a large dowry in order to set up this alliance. These scenes have real bitter resonance as they show the money and class and patronage systems at work. Morwenna is susceptible to bullying because she cannot think of how to say she wants someone of a lower class and doesn’t want someone like Whitworth, who will aggrandize her status and that of her family and bring her much money too.

George Warleggen, husband to Elizabeth, stepfather to the boy, loathes Ross Poldark, Drake’s brother-in-law, especially for his sympathies for the poor; he stands for the new kind of capitalist. Elizabeth has learned a wrong lesson from life: it’s not so much that you need not marry for love and marriage has nothing to do with love, but rather that you, as a woman, should not sell yourself for money and for family aggrandizement.
You need not follow romance in order not simply to sell out for position. We see in these episodes that Elizabeth learns she made a bad bargain after all: she’s not being taken to London and being forced to do things that are cruel and wrong to the tenants, to Drake, to her son, Geoffrey Charles (for whom she does care very much) and she does feel it.

However, she does not see what is done to Morwenna is equally a violation. So get the story where Elizabeth and George are trying to coerce Morwena into marrying an unfunny Mr Collins type, more like Solmes from Clarissa, only instead of a fatuous ass, we have a genuine obtuse male who thinks it’s his right to demand sex from his wife, even when it’s plain she loathes him.

Great anxiety is created for the characters we sympathize with, just as in Season 1. Again the central characters — Morwenna and Drake — are so appealing, decent, idealism, loving — they meet in a church to talk, the boy facilitating this by his presence. But the acting and scenes don’t quite come near what’s needed: the problem is the books are have too strong tabooed material sexually and the point of view and acting of the 1970s is not inhibited enough to pull it off. Ellis does have a much easier role than say McNally or Biggins; he is the action-adventure rebel-hero, the man of high integrity who is also a dream-revenant and his rescue of Enys is partly out of love for the coquette-gay lady, conventional romance, e.g.,

Ross promising Caroline to rescue her bethrothed, Enys

What will come in Four Swans (the next four episodes of season 2) is the transgressive story about Demelza’s adultery with Hugh Armitage (Biran Stirner) whom Demelza falls in love with but also uses out of insecurity and despair over Ross’s continuing real attraction to Elizabeth, and sense he still owns Elizabeth. This is really kept up as interesting sheerly because he is intent on rescuing Enys partly out of love for Caroline — another woman again. And Demelza is pregnant. There is much really sore material here, but the series writer (Alexander Baron) did not have the insight into sexuality or didn’t want to present it on TV (limited view of what one could show).

Episode 4

The casual near-execution of Ross

George Warleggan throws Drake Carne in prison for stealing his stepson’s Bible. Drake did not, he is accused and has no recourse. Warleggan is the magistrate. He wants to put an end to Carne’s love affair with his cousin-by-marriage, he loathes Carne as Ross’s brother-in-law. George will prevent the stepson from testifying and hang Drake. And we get a scene which implies the necessity of threatened (and real) violence. George will not listen to Ross’s pleas for justice or truth and so Ross says he will not stop another retaliation of the men thrown off their land or out of jobs through George’s use of enclosure and substitution of flunkies at the mines. So George lets Drake go.

We see Ross (active-adventure hero) rescue Dr Enys from a vile prison where most are dying just as he did Jim Carter in Season 1. Here it’s complicated because Ross travels as part of a envoy of emigres in the counter-revolution. Now we see as the previous episode Orwell’s dictum: all torture and kill and all lie about it. In the previous episode Ross was almost executed by the emigres who caught him, now it’s the turn of the revolutionaries to be those determined to keep people in prison to die and kill anyone trying to free these men. Again we are bucking whoever is in authority. (Very Graham this.)

Poldark and his men are almost killed by the French soldiers, and one thing I admired was that the violence was not overdone nor underrated. Ross has made the mistake of trusting someone to help him get in; he pays this man who then turns him in while in the prison. Now I know this is not in the book and Ross’s near execution is not either. It’s an over the top piece of drama which allows a climactic close and to show us next time how both sides do atrocities. Baron would know this: he was in Franco’s Spain, wrote about it, so in this disguised drama we see a significant point about torture and execution then and now made.Ross himself kills others lest he be killed (they can afford to take no prisoners he says), and one of his band is killed: but it’s not glamorized and (as in the first season) feels realistic. The head of the emigres is brutally killed — his family had been guillotined. A hard role not that well played but at least it’s there.

Ross and his men’s boat was spied and an ambush set up; since they are our heroes spy the spies and kill them first. I felt also some knowledge of what warfare is (marauding bunches of men, bonded together, destroying and murdering) was before us. As with another mini-series from this era, To Serve Them All My Days, we are to feel that pacifism won’t do — each person is out for himself in this new France and is just as egoistic.

They do outdoors or location scenes in this second season as brilliantly as they do them in the first. The actors appear to enter into it fully. Robin Ellis does ride his own horse and we get closeups of him exhilarated. The scenes of the boat by the coasts are not computer generated but photographed scenes the actors really did.

The whole sequence takes up much of the fourth episode. It’s sandwiched with the opening cruelties of coerced marriage backed up by Morwena’s having bought into how she cannot marry Drake as beneath her and being sneered at, berated as “loose” and “a wanton” for meeting Drake in church. The same pastor who drove Sam Carne from the church to make one of their own snitches on the pair to make brownie points.


Elizabeth’s hand: pressured into signing documents by her husband

In the two central books on historical fiction and historical romances I’ve been reading (two yesterday) I’m again and again told popular fiction rarely avails itself of an opportunity to expose the injustices and outrages of established orders, that (among other things) it’s demanded of a huge majority of people to labor for very little at hard long jobs to support the wealthy luxurious life of the few. Well, not so in Graham’s fiction and in the best of these mini-series episodes not so at all too. In the fourth episode of Season 2 Poldark finally takes off, comes into its own and offers the sweep and passion of the last 10 or so parts of Season 1 by just just exposure.

Both Season 1 and Season 2 could taken straight from E. P. Thompson, Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh’s Albion’s Fatal Tree. One learns there that The reason for savage laws executing anyone stealing a small amount of clothes was to keep up the appearance that law was equal. Each rare time a wealthy person was executed a great deal was made out of it. The use of formalism was also to fool English people into thinking the courts worked by some high principle. Season 1 had the long episodes about poaching and smuggling; this one has more on prison life, corrupt execution of the laws, enclosure and later we see a man hung who rioted to keep food prices down. Graham’s book show despite Draconian ferocious punishments groups of people continued to smuggle, pick up food and whatever they could from wrecks on the British shores, poach (vast lands were enclosed and these had huge numbers of livestock — intense temptation to those on the edge of starvation), and write menacing letters threatening hard violence both on their own account and in general on behalf of their class. So it wasn’t such a deferential society after all. Nor blandly pro-law and order.

In both season 1 and season 2 we get scene upon scene of the horrors of prison life with an insistence that many people were thrown into them for long periods to die miserable, at the will of magistrates intent on making an example or personal vendetta.

What is not done justice to are the subtler politics; the elections, the discussions in the film (taken from the book) of the French revolution, the connections between the enclosures, the bribery and coercion using loans and the political choices made by George Warleggan and his father (less in evidence in Season 2 because the original actor was not brought back).

The Black Moon and these episodes also contain some obsessive patterns across Graham’s other books: the coerced woman and raw deal she gets, rape (both marital and as part of love relationships), illegitimacy which threatens a male protagonist’s identity. In Poldark, much is intertwined. The baby born to George Warleggen, Valentine, is really Ross’s because Ross raped Elizabeth, and we know Ross could have been the heir to Agatha’s property, not Warleggan. Unless Ross ends up hanged or dead, or transported.


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Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxborough as Yelena and Uncle Vanya

Dear friends and readers,

Last night at the Kennedy Center we saw a supposedly comic Uncle Vanya. The Australian company whose best known actor is Cate Blanchett is touring again. Upton, her husband, the translator, so it’s his text. Last year they brought Streetcar Named Desire. It was curious to see the play done for sheer nervous fibrillating laughter and the audience (natch) wanting to laugh along. When are there not such people in an audience? Polonius: “he’s for a gig or he sleeps.”

I bring it up because this rendition will be touring and it seemed to me that in 2011 yes these people’s troubles may seem silly (absurd) to many people. After all they are not being threatened with losing their houses, not having any income, being murdered or imprisoned for subversive activities. (The director, Tamar Asher, set the action not in the 19th century but during a communist regime.) The harder attitudes of today which preclude sympathy were also on display.

Something lost, a lot lost, a whole idea of what matters in life lost. The Louis Malle version (he was the director) with Wallace Shawm as Uncle Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena (he’s a tragic-poignant figure in the great movie, Vanya on 42nd street) was a real doing of the matter; so too a local DC rendition I saw some time ago done by the Arlington Washington Shakespeare company where a local fine actor, Brian Hemmingsen, played Vanya brilliantly as angry as well as depressed.

I remember we read a parodic dectective story by Chekhov on Trollope19thCStudies a few seasons ago: The Shooting Party. Chekhov had apparently been reading Dumas, Collins, Dickens, and other mystery writers — perhaps Poe in translation too. And he wrote a tongue-in-cheek version of this genre before it began to bloom and form with the full excrescences we see say in Sherlock Holmes — with the parodic or ironic aim of beating them all at their own game. Such novels include beautiful descriptions of rich landscapes and houses, well, he has them; they include super-smart detectives and investigators, well he has one but this being an ironic fiction, we are to see our narrator is a moral fool. They are male clubby in atmosphere (this being a work by a man of superlative perceptive he anticipates the feel of Sherlock Holmes). We are to have a victim heroine done in by sexual abuse, and she appears. The remarkable thing is this story appeared before the Sherlock Holmes series: Chekhov ferreted out the central features and absurdities of the detective story very early. There the comedy was intended, he saw the masculine tropes of the Sherlock Holmes paradigms — intuited them as they were just developing.

Uncle Vanya is by contrast a serious, inexorable and even grim play. The fine ethical idealism of Uncle Vanya helps destroy him. And Sophie chooses to stay by his side. If one were to generalize from this 2011 Sydney Theater treatment of this play, it would be a disbelief in the ability of human nature to do anything useful or feel for one another. Well, not everyone is quite this way even if the public structure of things just now and all rhetoric seems to embody this belief. Ruthless selfishness, performativity what is pushed on everyone if not as a good, as a necessity.

The way the play was done reminded me of Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939.” People remember and repeatedly quote lines from the first stanza which this morning seem to be a good description for what has been done in the powerful echelons of gov’t in the US and their result since the later 1990s and this first decade of the 21st century: “As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade:/Waves of anger and fear.” Auden though move away from the strictures of the world as he hears them:

“The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again,”

to add his voice to those raised in opposition:

“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”

Across the way, in the great hall itself at one end, between 6 and 7 there had been a countervailing force. On the Millenium Stage (for free), the Ebony Hillbillies, an all black band of people dressed down: shabby clothes worn with panache, hats with flare, hair done jauntily, the one woman in the group, heavy, and dressed extravagantly with lots of material swathing here and jewelry galore. The talk from the lead singer/talker was quietly honest: he spoke of slavery and the lies told about it: they were not happy campers and ran away a lot. The songs mostly rollicking, exhilarating forms of release. The music was marvelous, much percussion and bells. She got up to do one number half-dancing where she told us to get ourselves a “big fat daddy” (a fat lover) and enjoy ourselves in our kitchens. A high point. The audience had more black people in it than usual and most people appeared to be having a very good time. It was crowded; we found room on a stair. Two elderly black ladies not far from me, dressed very primly, hardly reacted; perhaps they disapproved, hard to say. The laughter of the Hillbillies was good-humored, kindly as opposed to the meanness to come of Uncle Vanya across the hall.

A promotional shot on the roof of a building (appropriately enough)

The sky comes through often enough. The evening outside in the portico and along the terraces was balmy, the colors of the air a lovely twilight coming on. This way of doing Chekhov’s play refused to recognize that heart-break has any validity. It must be laughed at. I cannot find any adequate stills on the Net of Shawm and Moore, only of her crying with the sneer under it “Julianne Moore loves to cry; she loves to be naked too”), just one thumbnail.

I didn’t get much to eat. The way the cafe was set up I was not permitted to pick and choose from different dishes, but must take sausage with the pasta (I dislike sausage, it makes me sick) and could not have the good salad unless I chose that. In the event Jim said plates near by showed there was little sausage. I didn’t want an expensive beef dinner and haven’t got the teeth to eat hard salad. So I had a small plate of butterfly-shaped pasta drowned down with lots of wine.


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Birds feeding (Frederick Wiseman’s Central Park, 1989)

Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed … In solitude we have our dreams to ourselves, and in company we agree to dream in concert — Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

In Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital (1970) a doctor is trying to help a homeless woman who has been thrown out of her house; her family will not have her with them; her mother will not return any phone calls. It seems she is either a lesbian or transvestite, she has no skills, no proper clothes, no certificates of any kind, and she has no job. To survive, she prostitutes herself. She has attempted to get welfare for herself and been denied. We watch and hear this doctor talk to a Miss Hightower who ignores all the details of the woman’s plight and demands that the woman’s mother come in and fill out papers and tell her income. Miss Hightower will make no promises that she will help this woman for real. First her mother must show and (apparently) “they’ll go from there.” The doctor tells Miss Hightower that the woman’s mother will not come in, will not report her income, is not sharing it with the woman in any case. Miss Hightower appears not to hear. He gets testy and demands she commit to helping the woman so he can send her over there, secure for her eventually a tiny income. If not, he feels he must put her in institution for her safety (she is beaten up badly). If he does this, given her depression and what the institution is like, she will deteriorate and probably never get out. He keeps asking for this, keeps asking Miss Hightower does Miss Hightower want to help this particular woman who needs help, want to address herself to this woman’s needs. Miss Hightower hangs up.

The rules used to exclude this woman and throw her on the streets are deliberately put there to exclude her. If this one didn’t work, there are others further down the line.

Of course she doesn’t want to help this individual. She wants to get paid, and she is paid as a front, a patsy, for pretending to do what she has not been given the wherewithal to do and what she herself probably doesn’t want to do, probably does not know how. She herself probably despises this woman — that shores up her self-respect. The segment put me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s two part Rambler on the History of the prostitute Misella.

For the past three or so days I’ve been reading Maggie Mahar’s Money-Driven Medicine, and have watched some Frederick Wiseman films: Hospital (1970), Near Death (1989) and Central Park (1989); a few weeks ago I saw most of Juvenile Court (1973). I’ve mentioned these films before in a comment to a blog on New York City and a blog where I outlined Marcia Angell’s important articles and books showing that no longer can anyone trust to any published research in US medicine so much has the profit motive & cost of overhead come to trump all other general motives in American medicine.

A Metropolitan Hospital doctor telling an Administrator at New York Hospital they sent a patient to them in such a way as to endanger her life (no papers, no explanation, nothing done that needed to be done), something he does regularly (Hospital)

I’ve come back to Wiseman and medicine because I devote one-third of the course I teach (Advanced Composition in Natural Science and Tech) to how people practice, and really experience medicine in our world, to what is modern medicine, what is sickness (how do we define it, how treat what we consider or define as illness). The couple of hundred pages of Maggie Mahar’s book demonstrate the chilling truth of Angell’s work (and that of many other writers on medical science). The brutal treatment meted out by society in general through the powerful groups that together make up the medical world, which includes outright direct victimizing of patients, systematic lying (my experience bit home here: I am regularly referred to services the person knows is no use or won’t help), bizarre injustices are glimpsed and dramatized in Hospital (not by the staff who I rush to say are trying to help people suffering from them, but do not begin to have adequate funds or equipment); the dominance of technology is one of the themes of Near Death.

Tonight I want to begin a different angle, simply or more generally attempt to characterize Wiseman’s films for themselves — not apart from the issues and places and worlds he chooses to film as one cannot, but as a body of great filmic art. I read a surprisingly hostile article, Bill Nichols, “Fred Wiseman’s Documentaries: Theory and Structure,” Film Quarterly, 31:3 (Spring 1978):15-28; two worshipful books, Frederick Wiseman, edd. Joshua Seigel and Marie-Christine de Navacelle, a series of interviews, which begins with one long one of Wiseman; Thomas W. Benson and Carolyn Anderson’s Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman, analyses zeroing in on a few of his films, and a book of screen plays of the toughest of them, Five Films by Frederick Wiseman, transcribed and edited by Barry Keith Grant, foreword by Wiseman (Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, High School II, Public Housing).

I want to emphasize one aspect — a dual note — that characterizes all those I’ve seen and read about thus far. An at once pervasive and unacknowledged compassion for, a tireless patience with all living creatures, from plants and animals and the notorious (often mentioned) shots of passing people doing unstaged things upon which no apparent meaning is imposed

Morning walk, walking the dog (Central Park)

together with, an unflinching willingness to look at the hard realities of life, no compromises with demands one accentuate positives (what’s there from the camera eye is there), scrutiny of privacies normally somehow obscured (people somehow are not allowed the usual hiding in full view), which includes ignoring tabooes and presenting what makes us queasy if it’s part of the scene. Now of course (reminding me of Diane Arbus) he does choose matter and places, often institutionalized space (where we are made to see the institution working out through its agents and customs) which are harrowing. In this blog I am myself flinching, not showing the people near death on their machines, people (in Hospital) vomiting; I did not snap many pictures from Juvenile Court:

The young man is being sentenced

I choose quieter ones:

The waiting “room,” corridors in Metropolitan hospital with gurneys lined up

or shots of people trying to help one another, in teams:

One, two, three heave … a patient is anesthetized; we see how labor intensive hospital work in and how many people have to be available all at once and then disperse (Near Death)

I just love the films for trying to get us to reflect on life as it really is and to care. The films are rich in life, and they celebrate life too.

Thousands are watching and listening in the grass; there’s an equivalent series of shots of Pavarotti singing in twilight

One essay by David Denby, “Comfort for the Tough-Minded,” where Denby says how Wiseman is angry too, and not just at injustices, but the difficulties of being alive, intractable social behavior, but then focuses on Wiseman as “a poet of the unheralded people of good will,” people “doing difficult thankless work.” Frederick Wiseman, the Samuel Johnson of films: Johnson continually offers tough-minded comfort.

Thus, I couldn’t understand Nichols’s hostility because of course the films are constructs; the individual shots are framed, and then the juxtaposition set up by Wiseman, and then the choice of what to include and exclude, how can they not be? It’s not a trick not to have a narrator; the camera is a non-imposing narrator who leaves the viewer be. Wiseman does capture people acting the way they feel they must or ought to in crisis situations and tries for instances where they can’t shape their behavior (not altogether successfully — there’s a lot of playing to the camera in Neath Death and the political group scenes in Central Park).

Wiseman did come from a privileged background (he went to Williams College and Yale Law) but he has left conventional structures to make his films and distribute them (wikipedia). He’s very smart and keeps returning to those people he recognizes as articulate, perceptive, and with power in a situation and those people whose natures make them speak and emote candidly. While his early work is filmed in public places where the dispossessed, powerless, hurting show up on their own or are forced to show up, his later work takes us to places the rich and their servants inhabit (Neiman Marcus as Store) and he is examining issues beyond that of power: in Near Death we are confronted with the problem of what to do about or with terminal illnesses which defy our understanding, dying people, and then death. I’ve not seen Ballet, Aspen or La Danse.

Resuscitation (Near Death, 1989)

I even long to see Domestic Violence because I might learn something new about an important problem.

But I must to sleep now (it’s near 2 a.m.) and have to come back to this after watching more of his films and then add to the blog or write another because one blog cannot do justice to Wiseman.

So will end on a few thoughts I had after watching Juvenile Court and thinking about the invisible institutions that make Central Park what it is — on institutions. How do institutions impinge on our lives? We meet them in the form of people; they are embodied that way; in school it’s a teacher or administrator or some official in an office with power; in hospital doctors and nurses, in corporate headquarters people in charge; when we want a job, it’s personnel. We want benefits and we have to go to Social Security or some agency supposedly empowered to help us. The police and court system constitute an institution. What happens when a policeman (or woman) stops a person who is jaywalking and begins to dislike the person because they don’t seem obedient or are not conforming in some way the policeman asssumes all should? not interacting as expected? People end up being punished for what they are.

All the intense dislike of bureaucracies in the films are a reaction to coping with powerful institutions that shape our lives from the moment of birth. We might say the obstacle is the illegitimate and unfair norms of the institution’s biased and self-interested agents who act out exclusionary and disciplinary practices.

Now the institutions are precisely the kinds of places Wiseman films:

Agencies empowered to help us
Medical establishments: hospitals, doctors’ offices
Stores – store where we buy things when they are very big operate like institutions
Arts places — where art is done, achieved, funded

And then in his film we watch people coping, both the agents and those acted upon. Those made to conform to the institution’s needs — in one sequence in Central Park a communist group is forced to shut down because desperate for money they were trying to sell things. It was allowed for them to present their cause but not be vendors. The Conservatory which runs the park cannot allow the place to be run over by salesmen. How is the thing set up? fairly? We are (I think) supposed to see Central Park is and love it tenderly for its inclusiveness, its beauty for all.

Teaching students Shakespeare’s sonnets — the man is aware a camera is on him. but he does not make up his techniques falsely and they consist of a repetition of words forcibly said in the hope of getting something across to students sitting in a row on a bench (Central Park)

If the place or experience is set up fairly, if it’s cruel, crushing, what should we do about it. (See at opening of blog incident where Metropolitan hospital doctor phones Welfare)

An ICU nurse towards the end of Near Death avers she believes in all she does as helpful, she cannot but do it.

As I say, this is not the only central issue of his films, but it is one many of them encompass.

Woman who is near deaf and can’t see very well, she needs medication and can’t afford it; the nurse-clerk appears to be asking her to fill out a form which will eventuate in someone aiding her. The woman tells the pitiful sums she must get up for rent, phone, heat, and says she wants to remain self-supporting. We don’t know that the woman did get any effective help.


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Helen McNicholl (1879-1915), In the Shade of the Tent (1914)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been meaning to tell people who come here that I’ve moved and changed my other blog and invented a third.

First, I moved my Reveries under the Sign of Austen to wordpress. This is a more appropriate space, as many blogs here have themes and are essay-like, and people can subscribe to this blog, but I moved because I became unable to cope with the constant disappearance of livejournal and the freakish working of their software as it was attacked repeatedly this summer.

So here’s an explanation why I moved it and that it is really a continuation of the old blog, with the difference I’ll try to keep on (however widely conceived) topic:

A Continuation

And two first typical blogs:

Women’s friendships and the gothic in Davies’s Northanger Abbey films

Jane Austen’s Letters: Letter 35, Tues-Wed, 5-6 May 1801, from the Paragon

The space in which my older Austen Reveries blog lived (so to speak) is now a blog meant to be personal, autobiographical, seasonal: Under the Sign of Sylvia. My gravator or icon is now Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane. I first explained my pseudonym once again: Why Sylvia. Then I wrote a new blog in the new style intended, it’s about a central breakthrough in conception about myself I had this past year:

Upon realizing I have many Aspergers traits.

I used Nell Blaine’s Cookie Shop once before on this blog in an attempt to talk about myself and my conversion experience into feminism: This long morphing life so have used a different picture to capture a summer’s day (what it is as I type this) in a mode congenial to my own, an woman impressionist unfortunately not well-known, Helen McNicholl, In the Shade of the Tent (see above): one woman is reading, the other painting; I like to think they are friends and wish the image had come out with a little less yellow.

Now this blog will be for Everything Else! and I conclude with Claire Genoux’s Saisons du corps as translated by Ellen Hinsey, New European Poets, Miller & Prufer eds.

If I had loved better
these days with their good smell of bark
these copper twilights
the mountains exposing their toothless jaws
if I had walked more upright
along trails that lead toward dawn
where faith shelters us from doubts and time

if I had known how to savor the full laugh
of the river that rocks in its fleece of leaves
my head held to the trunk’s pillow
my cheek cast amidst thyme
if I hadn’t fled like a coward to the back streets
and believed in the false lights of the city
in its burning waltz of noise

perhaps I wouldn’t–stumbling
rake my wooden head against the walls of night

The French original:

J’accepte Vie d’être votre hôte
de manger votre terre jusqu’à l’indigestion
de boire dans vos gobelets de craie
la lumière cachée des saisons le miel refroidi de vos fleurs
et mille liqueurs grossières

vous voyez j’obéis
les os bougent parfaitement dans le cuir de ma peau
et je colle mon ventre au ventre des hommes
j’obéis même si je me mouche dans votre nappe
que je crache dans vos plats

quand j’aurai bien ri bien usé la corne de mon cœur
j’accepte oui l’effroi
docilement dissoudre ma détresse de cadavre
mais durant cette sieste
enrobée dans votre drap de ravines
mon ventre bombé contre le ventre de la terre
que je jouisse de vos rêves de lait et d’astres
que tous ces repas de fortune pris jadis à votre table
aient la légèreté sur mon crâne et l’ivresse folle
d’une petite neige de printemps

Go gentle reader into the world here, of lakes, of houses and the past hidden in the woods, and what lies all about.

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93), Evening, Knostop, Old Hall (1870)


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