Archive for October, 2011

Don Giovanni brooding (Mariusz Kwiecien)

I must say that I have seen nobody on stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty & Lust — Jane Austen, on a pantomime-burlesque, Don Juan, or the Libertine Destroyed, adapted from Thomas Shadwell’s Libertine, 15 Sept 1813

Dear friends and readers,

I am and was not alone in my enjoyment of Michael Grandage’s rousing rendition of Mozart’s masterpiece. All my neighbors around me, a full auditorium of people seemed totally absorbed and at the end (as in a few other movie operas I’ve seen) people jumped up to stand while clapping. (That’s enthusiasm and appreciation since the real live people can’t see it and it’s not recorded anywhere.) It was wonderfully well sung, where they could, well acted (within the limits of presenting comic types), rousing in tempo (they kept up a speed), and moving: I just loved the first aria by Octavio (Ramon Vargas), came close to tears. And while I’m not sure Mozart as Donna Elivra in love with Giovanni

Elvira (Barbara Frittoli),

there is a complexity to that character too that the Barbara Frittoli got across. The Claus Guth I saw two years ago now, while great and directly relevant to us today in ways this production was not, did miss Mozart’s original point (or glided over it): we are to try to understand this destructive amoral pest male who is the way he is because he was brought up without restraint. In his interview Kwiecen said he felt the character was filled with anger and hatred, and that was to the fore in the fierceness of his performance throughout. The male brought up without restraint is one of Austen’s and De Stael’s themes too.

Online institutionalized and professional critics have not agreed. Deferential and traditional (bad), tame and unimaginative (worse), timid (oi vay) or just plain lukewarm, were a few typical epithets critics resorted to within a few hours of seeing the new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Met this year.

Tastelessly, they seemed almost to lament that after a potentially crippling-for-life fall from a high balcony, and herniated disk, Mariusz Kwiecien overcame a full-scale operation and recuperation within two weeks to act and sing Don Giovanni with vigor, grace, athletics as compelling as originally conceived (except he was not asked to leap on high to the stage again). Anthony Tommasini was not alone in regretting that Peter Mattei (who just jumped into the part) had not been able to do the role on a film screened round the world. Mattei was just “superb, singing alternately with suave, seductive phrasing and menacing intensity. At 6-foot-4, he was lordly, cagey, heady with desire and glibly reckless.” Tomamsini clearly had given no thought to what Mozart wanted us to feel about the Don: a murderer, rapist (if he were not so often interrupted), brutal to his servant, a liar, reckless, ruthless, seething with fierce angers, someone whom it takes all the powers of hell by raging fires and terrifying ghosts to frighten and to drag down into the earth to a hell he has lived in all play long.

Final scene of the Don surrounded by bright fires, with Leporello (Luca Pisaroni) nearby — who has begged him not to go and responded to the commendatore’s dinner invitation, “sorry, they are too busy just now”

What they overlook (or don’t think or know enough to realize) is Michael Grandage (producer), Fabio Luisi (conductor) produced the opera the way Mozart probably intended it to be produced (including the final coda): a providential comedy where a vicious character is finally ejected from the body politic of its world, and the characters all around him learning nothing at all, but just carry on regardless as ever (rather like Ben Jonson characters). Being Mozart he saw his way into the legend’s characters to allow them to emerge as psychologically complex.

For the first time, and after seeing the opera at least 6 times before, I now realize that Mozart’s is as radically or at least full-throated a rejection of a central cultural figure as any I’ve ever have been. Cold, angry, domineering and indifferent to the feelings or lives of others, amoral, a bully without pity. To see the psychology acted out is to see the play is not misogynistic, the chief character is. Renee Fleming said the legend began with Byron. Byron’s sweet naive loving Don Juan has nothing but a name to connect him to the typology begun by Moliere Dom Juane and Shadwell (The Libertine).

Maybe they didn’t like it because they didn’t like an anti-libertine play.

Jim pointed out that many of the scenes and renditions of the songs and music were parodic of opera seria, and we (the audience) were assumed by Mozart to know what was laughed at and laugh. He loved the way the music was conducted with Leporello doing a continuo basso beneath the duets and trios of the Don, Anna, and Octavio, or Don and Elvira. He likened Mozart in the 1790s to Philip Glass, with the difference Mozart was at the start of a whole new version of middle European music traditions. I noticed how the character came onto the stage and walked off singly and in pairs like Restoration and 18th century comedy. How the characters were directed and dressed in such a way that the “buffo” characters (Zerlina, Masetto and Leporello) were dressed differently (stylized as peasants) from, and never on stage or had anything much to do with the upper class serio characters (Don Octavio, Elvira, Donna Anna, often in masquerade Venetian dominos):

Octavio (Ramon Vargas) and Donna Anna (Marina Rebeka) who seems singularly unkeen to marry her poignantly in love devoted suitor

Masetto (Joshua Bloom) and Zerlina (Mojca Erdmann) played as essentially good-natured, healthy sex is what we see they have off-stage

The Don is the linking character, belonging neither wholly to one or the other. I noticed for the first time that the Don has no family, not one, highly unusual for 18th century characters, and how many parallels there are.

The Don pulling Zerlina off — he never gets to rape anyone, ever interrupted

Elvira dragging Leporello because she thinks him the Don

I concede the opera-makers probably did not have fidelity so much in mind as pleasing a mass audience with playful stylization. They were not timid but daringly true to Mozart to stay within mainstream values today.

Giovanni (Kwiecien) duelling with the commendatore (Stefan Kocan) who rescues Anna from rape

(Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was done similarly, cautiously I’ll put it. So if you want to, you can see something homoerotic between Leporello and the Don, but then you need not.

The Met is out to make opera a mass art — that’s why they have expanded the interviews and make sure they get the stars backstage to the mikes — and they are going more traditional this year. Gelb might say damned if they do (imitates Broadway, popular high art) and damned if they don’t — and there are daring choices ahead (Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and the original concoction, The Enchanted Island, an extravaganza of fairy tale drawn from 17th century music whose title (surely knowingly) recalls Dryden and Davenant’s re-do of Shakespeare’s Tempest.


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The excavation of Herculaneum, 18th century print

He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha. Instead he saw other faces, many faces, a long series, a continuous stream of faces – hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves and which were yet all Siddhartha . . . He saw the face of a fish, of a carp, with tremendous painfully opened mouth, a dying fish with dimmed eyes. He saw the face of a newly born child, red and full of wrinkles, ready to cry . . .He saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other, all helping each other, loving, hating and destroying each other and become newly born. Each one was mortal, a passionate, painful example of all that is transitory. Yet none of them died, they only changed, were always reborn, continually had a new face: only time stood between one face and another (quoted by Olson [p. 238], from Hesse’s Siddharta)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been meaning for several (!) years to make sense of my lecture notes on Steve Olson’s important Mapping Human History, old subtitle: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins, new subtitle: Discovering the Past Through our Genes. Recipient of an award as “Best Science Book of the Year” (by Discover), it’s been reprinted at least twice, and is an important book because it is a popularization. Linda Vigilant reviewed it favorably, “Moving and Mixing,” Science, New Series, 297 (August 2002):775.


Mitrochondrial DNA

Steve Olson means to replace myth with scientifically found realities and documents to understand how we come to look the way we do, live the way we do, live where we do. His story is intertwined with cases based on the scientific method. His sources are centraally genetic studies of people today, archaeology, geology, linguistics; then fossils, digs, and written history. Animal studies too: Leakey, Goodall, Fosse, Gildikas (gorillas, orangutangs and chimpanzees). We are on a branch of a candelebra, a fourth primate (pp. 19-20).

Olson’s a brave book; he wants to get us talking about what people avoid talking about but what skews and poisons our world today. He will tell story of how a small group of anatomically modern humans (us) emerged in Northeast Africa, and how they moved into the Middle East, across to Australia; moved up into Europe; how they also made their way down the Americas (pp. 2-5)

We used to be dependent solely on archaeology and extrapolations out of Darwin’s theory of natural selection; now we have the DNA record to study, our genes. Problem is people can attribute to labels they get about their ethnic group an intense importance.

First of all is there a genetic base for race? This question is made difficult to answer because of all the baggage that surrounds it. People fear discussing it thinking it could lead to harmful discrimination. The truth is the discrimination is already there. It’s Olson’s argument that silence doesn’t help. Research shows that human groups are closely interrelated in all but superficial ways and our cultural differences do not come from biology but history (pp. 5-6).

It’s his strategy to demonstrate that there is no genetic base for race; that the salient features we pay attention to are tiny and not very important (texture of hair for example, color of eye). All the people on the earth have mitochondria which can be traced back to a single woman living about 150 to 200,000 years ago in Northeastern Africa.

Race not a useful category. A group of nucleotides on several chromosomes responsible for the physical features people make so much of (hair quality, skin color, noses); these form types called haplogroups; artificial and small, but systems of power, wealth, prestige built out of these today. Hierarchies have no basis.

All of us can trace back to one recent common ancestor. Important to remember that she was not the only woman alive; there were others. If we trace our mitochondria back she is our most recent common ancestor with respect to matrilineal descent in a central fueling of the way our cells work. People may look different, but the genetic basis of our functioning, everything central and basic about is is the same.

We look different because of sequences of nucleotides on some of our chromosomes; these sequences are called haplotypes and peoples who have them are in the same haplogroups or races (pp. 34-35).

Darwin in a nutshell (p 41), first full paragraph. By chance a gene mutates and produces a tiny change in genes or chromosome; most of the time it is meaningless; once in a while the mutation is lethal (miscarriage, which is common) but occasionally useful. That trait is carried on and after a while becomes one of the salient expected characteristics of a group. Better word for it is local adaptation. We as humans have been practicing artificial selection for thousands of years — to make specific breeds of horses, of flowers, of fruits, of dogs. Well natural forces do this too. Natural forces do not favor individuals; over course of time produce different species.

Three large categories in among native born US citizens: Asian-Americans, European-Americans, and African-Americans.

IBig story: lots of sex (p. 6). We have to be careful with this information as it can be used for cruelty and cause suffering.

One chapter of Olson’s book is on the development of languages. He discusses 19 Major Languages which correspond to areas and migrations of people across the earth; that’s what our hour long NOVA film will about. The theories behind what we study in language are speculative but they reinforce and substantiate what the archeological and historical records tell us.


Chapter One: End of Evolution — for now. The earth has remained more or less the same for a long time; it’s changes in our atmosphere that might force changes in us (p 11).

Opens up with going over the basics through telling the story of Bushmen of Africa. Bushman have endured much prejudice. Groups of people use many factors to justify their systems of privilege and power: one of these is visual; it is by no means the only one. Power comes from technology as well as cultural development of group and its aggression, individuals in given niches networking with others: so class which includes access to education and jobs ad today control of public media, and money are central too.

Studying genetics of today’s human beings in conjunction with archaeology, geology, astronomy, chemistry enables us to outline a general history of the human species before we began to write.

At one point Olsen uses a neat metaphor of human beings as a pack of cards as in Alice in Wonderland (p 38). Homo sapiens emerged once (like all species) again — where we turn up alas other species around us become extinct and we begin to take over. In Africa; the species of homo we represent was finally successful against the others (neandertals and homo erectus were around coterminously — without a margin of say 50,000 years we find fossils and DNA evidence) and spread. He tells you to imagine a pack of cards, and the 6s, 7, and 8s left across Asia; a little later another group of cards, maybe new variants after they left of 2s,, 3s and 4s traveled upward into the Mediterranean and further north. But they didn’t just fan out; they fanned back; they went all around, and they endlessly repeatedly mated. They did not set forth as in an expedition, but moved planlessly living by foraging and hunting.

Common pictures in textbooks misleading (p. 19. pp. 20-21) Imagine an upside down candelabra, chandelier. Really a continual branching off.

Neodarwinism: correction of Darwin: punctuated equilibrium (p. 21). Newer species come from rich center. Various mechanisms inhibit free procreation: geography the main one, p. 22. In more recent times social norms keep peoples apart but not that much

Theory first broached in 1930s by Louis Leakey and his associated; Richard Leakey, his son, in 1967, discovered oldest known fossil in Ethiopia, p. 23. 130,000 years ago. But not until geneticists got into the act was there more persuasive demonstrable scientific or concrete evidence for us being one family which came out of Africa (p 4). 7,500 generations (Put on board row of women’s name and stress how those who have children have their mitrochondria die out.

Mitochondrial Eve and Y chromosome Adam. If a man doesn’t have sons, his Y chromosomes die with him. My husband has no sons; his Y chromosomes will die with him. My father had no sons. You can do arithmetic to get number down to 86,000 individuals are source in a candelabra (p. 27). Do you want your Y chromosome to carry on or your specific chemistry in your mitochondrial DNA; put that way such impulses seem silly

This is a book which attempts in ordinary and common sense language to introduce the reader to the latest developments in an exciting area of science which impinges on our world and self-images today. Olsen is a commercially successful science writer.

Harder concepts in Chapter one: A. Mitochondrial DNA, fuel of cells which does not combine with others, inherited directly (p. 24-25). You trace this mitochondria. Men inherit a Y chromosome that women don’t; it does not combine so they trace that back in men (pp 26-27). Coalescence ia tracing back lines through previous ancestors.


A segregated bus-stop

Chapter Two begins as several of the chapters do with the story of someone or a place (Stonehenge) or a puzzle (a fossil found which doesn’t make sense because it’s not supposed to be there). Here we have someone whose life has been maimed and shaped by human attitudes towards phenotypes (p. 32).

Chapters begin with a story, a character, an incident, an evocation description, a puzzle. Three begins with description of diversity in Washington DC (p 54). Chapter Four begins archaeology proper with a dig at Skhul near where both neandertals and homo sapiens remains found were (p 73), Chapter 5 (p. 90) opens on Jericho. DC remarkably diverse.

From talking of diversity he moves to how genetic differences remain localized in groups (p 33): mating is not at random; not only geography and migrations, but idea that some physical features are preferable to others. Practices excluding people. Sometimes sexual salient characteristics can get out of hand: antlers on deers are dangerous; male peacocks would be better off without that fan

How mutation changes in nucleotide sequence appear and spread. Most of the time they go nowhere (p. 36) You can study these mutations for genetic and migration history.

Point of chapter is groupings are result of culture not biology. Write that on board. They are continually mixing nonetheless. We are connected tightly to the past (pp. 47ff), but people who trace genealogy to find kings and queens or other individuals in their genealogical past are absurd. Your great-great-great grandmother was someone else’s great-great-great cousin, once removed. Key is there were far fewer people at one time; sudden exponential growth of people (pp 44-46)

Second part of chapter on immediate history of African, diaspora there, and some cultural legacies; movements of 3 groups of peoples: Bushmen, the Forest Dwellers, Central Africans also called Bantu speakers.


Group of DC students photographed off campus

Chapter Three. African Diaspora and Genetic Unity: same idea now brought out in specifics studying mutations (p 54).

Opens on diversity in DC and says given continual movements of people, the strength of racial prejudice perplexing. People moved between continents a great deal once trade routes and slavery particularly developed.

They have no scientific basis. I see it as rationales for power and fear. Set up elaborate systems of control and privilege is the way Olson puts it at the close of the chapter (p 69).

History of slavery: back to beginnings of recorded history (so too pressing for armies, exploitation of women, demands for infanticide in subsidence tribes). Why did Africa became central place for taking people into slavery (p 57): people could make more money selling someone than farming. Diaspora of Africans comes from slavery routes.

Olson does use muffled language: “momentum difficult to reverse” (p 57). Medley of of peoples in middle east and “old world,” where slavery strong until mid 19th century social habits and customs insisted on separation (p 60).
Laws against intermarriage continued in the south until 1960s.

He takes up issue of IQ. Intelligence has many complicated sources: interaction of many genes and of environment. Not a straight inheritance like color of eyes. No single mechanism (p. 64). Goes back to environment and evidence shows this (p 62)

Genetic history of group the result of the dangers of the places they lived in: these insect and bacteria, viruses are deadly (pp. 65-69). Why sickle cell anemia spread, Tay Sachs disease. The mutation which protected you from malaria also comes with a deformed cell that left you susceptible to anemia.

Africans homeland of all people had greater variety. Searches back to origin of one mututation, BRCA1. Much of this comes from mathematical computers studies using information fed in from people living today.


Neandertal skull

Chapter Four. Encounters with Others and Agriculture, Civilization and Emergence of ethnicity (p 75). Very important changes happened when human being settled down to cultivate land.

Encounters with the Other a strong chapter: on neandertals and how they lived in the same spot as homo sapiens within 45000 year period (p 73). Find in skhul and examination suggests that neanderthals occupied a single site before and after homo sapiens (p 74)

Many questions: how are they related? what were their interactions? DNA mitochondrial study suggests no current human beings have any Neandertal ancestors. Genetically separate; no interbreeding which lead to reproduction. He says this a mystery (p. 83). Animals from different species can mate; in some cases the offspring not fertile.

A great book on the subject listed in bibliography: Trinkaus, Erik and Pat Shipman. The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind. Olson trying to cover a lot tells what he can. Complaints of reviewers were he is superficial, but he is writing for common reader who he assumes knows little. He is a popularizer, a condenser. Important role for writer.

B. History of what we know about Neanderthals: 1856 quarry. Much found out as soon as we begin to have a theory to look for it. Before Darwin. Others working on the same area at the same time (p 76). Kring” super-delicate studies of DNA from, Neanderthal (p 80). DNA from ancient fossils of moderns similar to DNA of people today, much closer than to neanderthal presumed living in same era.

We are different species from them (p 83)

Why did we replace them? The usual hypothesis is we more more cunning. They had bigger brains than us; they buried their dead. No sense of different life style going on. Records left by homo sapiens show they used symbols: they drew; when they travel they leave tools behind; we think they talked, developed language (pp. 68-88).

Slow development of language is what he suggests with other social networks. Language then creates consciousness and then you can remember more easily, and teach something you know; people inherit culture. He doesn’t emphasize this enough: people inherit culture. You and I don’t know how to build buildings, but we grow up in an environment where over thousands of years others have learned and they pass this knowledge on. Birds can’t do that. Dogs can’t.



Chapter Five. Agriculture, Civilization, Emergence of Ethnic groups (p 90). In this chapter he begins with a place: modern day Jericho. Under a pile of rubble is the evidence of an ancient city; there was a siege (typical kind of warfare until the mid-19th century) which was recorded in mythic stories in the Bible (p. 91)

Since then there have been shown to be gaps in the record which suggest the history of the Jews in Jerusalem in the Bible may be fundamentally untrue — if so, let us hope it does not get abroad. It hasn’t much. Digging the Dirt by Jennifer Wallace.

He uses this as an opportunity to discuss the development of agricultural ways of life, and this leads to an explanation of tribal relationships, loyalties and cohorts. Hunter gatherers organize themselves into bands (a few closely related families, 10 to 50 people); bands organize themselves into larger units particularly when they stay still: called tribes. Several hundred members. People married within their tribe. It was at this time the physical differences between haplogroups arose (p. 95).

B. Kathleen Kenyon’s work (p 96).

Around 12,000 people began to farm (P. 96): stay still you acquire more stuff (p 96). It’s a harder way of life. Requires discipline, planning, daily work, but it can support more people in expected comfort. Why did this happen? Arose independently in each region. Can be seen in different plant life (artificial selection), different crops.

Lots of reasons obvious to us (I hope) but population growth was a factor, the end of the Ice Age coincides; greater social complexity emerges. Occurred independently in different places — it seems to me places conducive to agriculture like the Mediterranean basin. Also arose in more difficult to farm areas, but not the really hard ones — down in the arctic, in the desert (Australia and Africa are places with huge major deserts).

More DNA created; society becomes diverse groups doing different tasks. More cooperation, and more wars. Also more diseases (pp. 100-5).

We see cities and begin to recognize worlds not that different from our own: lacking our strong technological base.

At end of chapter he demonstrates that ethnic groups are larger than tribes once were, but analogous. Writing emerges; population grows. Ties to larger institutions, create allegiance by metaphor: king is father of group. Ethnic groups are not biological; they are cultural.

Greater social complexity and diverse narrow roles is what makes for what we call sophisticated civilization (p 104). Meanwhile people maintain ties with family group and small bands and tribes within bigger group.


Chapter Seven. The Great Migration (by water) To Asia and Beyond (p 123). Asia and Australia: Middle East and Europeans Begins with a little anecdote. Bones in Tarim Basin, China. People with European features in long-established communities. Causes great controversy (p 124-2)5

In this chapter we find is great mixture of Asian and European genetic heritage in this part of China. A Mixing of haplotypes. Story of Li Jin (p. 126). Nationalists enlisting pseudo-science to justify their aims (p. 130).

If there are people with European features, that means ultimately an African heritage. Asian population does not want to believe this. Much preferable to think they came from Peking man, a homo erectus fossil found in Beijing. Erect a myth around it. People who publicly present different information at risk of losing job; even in some countries, going to prison.

Many scientists stick to older myths because it’s more convenient (furthers their careers) (p 130). Some northern Chinese people don’t want to hear they are descended from some group of people they consider inferior to themselves.

Evidence suggests that from coast of Yemen humankind spread out (p 127). Water-born migration. Expansion over many generations (p 128). From Australia spread again, p 129. Water was central way of travel in early Modern Europe (many records at that time); leaves no evidence.

About 65,000 years ago a number of huge Australian animals became extinct: sure evidence of our presence. Are aborigines or other Australians different: no. Same DNA as is found in other peoples in Asia (p 130) What about bones in and across Asia: again the same DNA (p. 131).

Why did people slowly move: weather, technological change, internal pressures. Local struggles for pre-eminence within a group. Hunting and gatherine (mostly gathering) keeps people on the move for food.

He provides maps (p 135). Genetic heritage of groups of people from Yemen to New Guinea shows African heritage.


Stonehenge; early 19th century sketch by John Constable

Chapter Nine: Who are the Europeans (p 157). egins with Stonehenge. Very ancient and built before Druids at the time the trauma of switching from hunting and gathering to farming. Neolithic monument.

Modern humans living in Europe for almost 35,000 years. Neandertal had been there before. New comers had much better tools and art (p. 160). Why did they develop technology that was elaborate? One of Europe’s advantages is mild climate and good soil. Forests, plains, animals, good for agriculture. Terrain divides people so nations develop (p 161)

Digression. Where does term Caucasian come from? Why are people of European genetic heritage called Caucasian in the older racial categories. Why name this large haplogroup (to use the modern term) after a small mountain range
straddling Europe and Georgia? From Stephen Jay Gould, “The Geometer of Race,” published in Discover (November 1994), 65-69, explains why.

The label was invented by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German enlightenment professor (referred to later in the book) A section of his doctoral dissertation to the medical faculty of Gottingen in 1775. Blumenbach’s way of dividing humanity followed Linnaeus’s categories, but in a way that ranked the groups of humanity. Linnaeus had divided human beings into four categories based on geography so there was Europeus, Asiaticus, Americanus, and Afer. He did not rank one physical type of person and their culture above another — though the way he described the different peoples did implicitly value the Europeus above the others.

The term “Caucasian” came from his idea that all humanity first emerged from this part of central Europe and as people spread out through climate, geography, and change of culture they evolved into different looks. Ancient bones were found there at the time (as they have been found since recorded time). He lived near that area.

Gould stresses that although Blumenbach’s taxonomy has been used for racist purposes, Blumenbach was himself someone who worked for the abolition of slavery and, unlike other scientists of this and later periods, did not think that the different race of mankind were fundamentally different or created at different times. Blumenbach was one of those scientists who argued for the fundamental unity of mankind. He wrote that he regarded the aesthetics he turned to as superficial; but he did use such categories and he also characterized the cultures of the different peoples with terms that (like Linnaeus) valued one over the other, and what he wrote was taken over and used invidiously.

Blumenbach’s nomenclature was very influential as his book was among the first in a period when not much published and intellectual world small: from his treatise we also get the terms Mongolian (for Asian people), Ethiopian (for African), Malaysian (for South Pacific).

The crisis of the ice age 29,000 years ago; people retreated to warmer areas, (p 162). Crowded. They returned and could not survive on hunting and gathering so turned to farming gradually.

Olson comes to Luca Cavalli Sforza: central figure in this story. A professor of genetics at Stanford University. He originally studied medicine (so did Darwin). Began again with bacterial genetics. He studied genetic drift in small population using parish records in Ital (p 165). He studied blood groups and sequences of nucleotides in this small area.

Blood type is a significant marker. I have A positive blood, very common for Slavish people; both of my daughters have the same (I know this from stays in hospital). So despite how I may look or my name I’m not western European (or Anglo) but Eastern European; I don’t know anything about my mitochondrial DNA but since it comes from my mother who is Jewish and I know a little of her family’s history (very late 19th century) I can say I also have recent Middle Eastern heritage.

My husband who you saw here has type 0 positive blood. Very common Western European; majority of people in British Isles have type 0 positive blood. Sailor background. Back to Celts. But will have come from Middle Eastern migration originally, just much longer ago.

One small group not enough. Cavalli-Sforza Widened out to Europe where protein data was more complete and he could get access (p 166). At first the reaction negative: no one likes new ideas much. What happened was later more sophisticated testing of mitochondrial DNA and further development of testing of archaeological and genetic evidence proved Cavalli-Sforza’s theory (more or less.

People also studying agricultural history, patterns of transmission. Agriculture the result of migrating peoples not migrating ideas. p. 169. Developed independently in different areas. Vast stone edifices came from complex social organizations which formed during farming. Farming triggered an immense social transformation (p. 171). People now changing their environment seriously. Nowadays we have vast cities.

While Cavalli Sforza doing his studies in Italy, in California, the mitochondrial and Y chromosome studies developed. Stanley Cohen and Herman Boyer. Every European can trace his or her mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosome to a pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer in middle east. Mixing is rule not exception. They look at tiny locations on Y chromosome — which also does not combine


Clovis points

Chapter Eleven: The settlement of The Americas. A controversial topic. Written records start somewhat later than those for Easten hemisphere. Less to go on. It also involves telling truths about groups of people who were mostly exterminated or badly abused and exploited (native people, mistakenly called Indians by Columbus).

B. He begins with Kennewick Man’s great antiquity. European features. Not only do people not want to know. They don’t want to know for reasons that go beyond pride and “false consciousness:” medical records, can and will be used against them. This information will not be used for their benefit.

Back to ideas of ownership. Then again who owns a particular corpse? What is this idea that a particular group of people alive today own some ancient keleton? If this particular group of people have the same DNA as that skelton, it seems that it’s an organization with its
particular members who are acting on “their” behalf. But are they?

Consider how the laws of burying people give funeral parlors great power over nuclear families. In this case the laws have been made by people protecting the funeral industry and various church hierarchies.

Theories. Three large families of languages encourage notion of three waves of migration. In this case study of language intersects with study of archealogy and DNA and genetic evidence. Basically we have successive waves of Asian immigrants; the question is when. Recent evidence suggests that people were in the Western Hemisphere well before the appearance of Clovis points (leaf-shaped arrowhead with concave base) (p. 199).

Notion of crossing Siberia very old: goes back to 1589 (p 195). Problem is there is little evidence besides these Clovis points to trace (p 197).

So again we turn to DNA, mitochondrial DNA and look at language groups (p 197) and map (p. 145). A three wave model emerges (also from studying teeth) but there are problems. Earlier studies in 1930s: by Douglas Wallace who was, as many do, studying for pragmatic reasons: looking for cures for diseases (pp. 200-201). He did find distinct patterns in people’s mutations, p 201 Mitochondrial Haplogroup X seems to descend from a much older group of Europeans, p. 203, not modern one (myths about Lief Erickson when I was young) but ancient, thousands of years ago.

Bizarre hypotheses: people from another plant, p 204.

Perhaps there was a much earlier pathway, one which lasted some 5,000 years (p 205). Note you need a long time because we are talking about aimless wandering here. It seems to me there were a number of migrations from different areas of Asia.

When we study scientific evidence, it doesn’t help social problems very much, (p 207, Feynman says the same). Important point: our genetic connectedness, the terrible history of group oppressions and exploitations still going on today cannot be addressed honesty without beginning with the realities insofar as we can find them out.

Root cause is money and class: but money and class are erected and justified on ethnicities, race, and gender.

DNA molecule

For rest of book, see comments.


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Jimmy Jackson (David Thewlis), Prime Suspect 3

Dear friends and readers,

This blog may be read as a continuation of my blogs on Lynda LaPlante’s Prime Suspect (1), starring Helen Mirren, and “New hook-up culture another name for “old” casual encounter. In the first I showed the first mini-series was feminist, progressive, advanced ideas of social justice . . . drew insights from the marginalized: the prostitutes, Marlowe’s (John Bowe) common law wife,

but there is a vision of collective hope and empowerment at the end when all do work together.

In the second blog I described our rape-prone culture in the context of its encouragement of exploitative relationships; how young women are driven to be somewhat promiscuous as the price of finding men to go out with. As in the economic public world, so this sexual world allows the worst values to reign.

Now I intend to show that the Prime Suspect series makes this sexual viciousness in our world the terrain of its criminality. It’s beautifully appropriate that a woman comes to the rescue and makes sense that a woman would write the script and another produce the films. Also, in all three Mirren has had a close woman associate helping her. These are indeed 20-21st century versions of heroine’s texts (the phrase is used to characterize the the first series of novels, 18th century with heroine’s at the center, just as often written by men in drag as sensitive brilliant women.

In Prime Suspect 2 the murderer is a pornographer; the people blamed are black.

So the subject is again gender, violence towards women, with a new turn on racism, and desperate poverty among working class whites part of the mixture. The places people live in are part of the text: an old white man suspected of one of the murders in one of these awful tall public tenement buildings. All the re-tellings of Series 2 you come across stress how Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) is having or had an affair with the young black officer assigned to her case: in fact there is one casual encounter, and just as important as race is that she is much older than he.

Sergeant Robert Oswalde (Colin Samuel) and Detective Superintendent Michael Kernan

It’s not overtly feminist, but the difference really is that we are now bringing aboard the full sexual panoply and more marginalized desperate people who are less idealized. The prostitutes of Series 1 were somewhat sentimentalized: the young man who hung himself had in fact participated in the brutal raping, beating and killing of the central victim — along with his sister. The searing moments were watching those black parents made to sit in a waiting room while this son was bullied, harassed, literally driven mad and then put in a cell to die. (This is absolutely the way the modern utterly cruel indifferent system works. If you’re lucky you get on two weeks’ vacation with pay.)

No false uplift at the end. Instead of congratulations — for again it was she who persisted, she who would not believe the old man’s story he did it (to protect his truly lousy son), she who realized the young man who hung himself did it not only because he was driven by another black man ashamed of him but because he had done some of the crime. The belt, finding the photo with that belt. She is overlooked and the super-investigator given the spot.

The murderer was a pornographer and the accent was (Henry Fielding comes to mind this morning) how some people do have bad natures and their surroundings and others only if not deliberately work to make them worse. Every once in a while she is accused slyly of letting her feelings get in the way of her judgment — because she had a casual sort of encounter with the young black subordinate – which could not turn into anything because it’s not permitted.

Prime Suspect 3

I was riveted to the screen. I suggest the third and the first stories are more powerful than the second because the matter at hand is sexual abuse, sexual violence wrecked on the vulnerable, be it a woman or vulnerable gay male or a boy. And in the third season we were watching not only the victims but the people who do the abuse and the people who let it happen and know it’s happening. In the first season the victims were all dead and no one was letting it happen knowingly.

Sergeant Otley (Tom Bell) with abused rent-boys

I’d call PS 3 a kind of Oliver Twist: Lynda LaPlante was showing us what could have been the realities of a band of boys in the Victorian streets. Polanski tried to make a film of OT doing this and earned the vitriolic enmity of Dickens fans. What is exposed here is a pedophilic ring of men with collusive other men and women enabling them to carry on. No pious family in the wings waiting for little Oliver, and little Oliver who wins at the end is turned into a Connie who loses utterly.

To the high spots of Season 3: I really liked the ending. Season 1 had this silly uplift of intense cheers for all; Season 2 ended with the murder solved and all the bad people either dead or punished so the irony was Tennison was not appreciated, did not get a promotion, and was transferring out to a worse job or place, vice squad. What happened in PS 3 is the murderer, Ciarhan Hinds as Edward Parker Jones, a man whose job it is to run “Advice Centers” for runaway boys, orphans, abused young children is precisely the person who is abusing them; this position is perfect for his business of making money off of them with others who exploit and abuse them. Finally we learn that he set fire to the murder victim, Connie (played by Greg Saunders), an adolescent who, unlike Oliver Twist, was not an angel type, but wanting to get money for an transvestite operation was blackmailing Vera Reynolds, Jimmy Jackson and (very dangerous) Edward Parker Jones by selling photographs of them exposing them having sex with the boys or them as youngsters (Vera’s case). Jane Tennison has only circumstantial evidence and she cannot win the case on its merits. But who were they selling the photographs to? A sleazy woman reporter, Jessica Smithy (played also virtuoso-ly by Kelly Hunter). She is a total shit. Tennison has loathed her all along and the final scene has Tennison call in Smithy and deliberately leave on the desk a folder filled with these photos. In case the viewers are a bit dim, Tennison says your newspaper sells a lot of copy with photos like these. So the idea is Smithy will make splash headlines, sell papers and resmirch Parker-Jones so thoroughly that the state may just win its case against Parker-Jones.

The irony is this is sordid and a direct contradiction to the supposed principles of law where a case is to be tried without pre-judging. We all know what can happen to that. This summer a woman was accused of murdering her child; she was grossly treated by the press and TV and Internet and all was done that could be done to make the decision make her guilty. What happened in the courtroom we don’t know because we have to have been there to feel why the jury voted the way it did. Often such newspaper fouling of a suspect does work.

We are to hope it does in Parker-Jones’s case because we have been shown that the police and people high up knew very well what was happening in the Advice Centers and similar places. I noted that there had been a deliberate juxtaposition of the fat cat dinners of males high up in the police, detectives high up in the police department, lawyers, judges in tuxedoes to the vulnerable male losers of society and the boys. It was more than filmic happenstance giving meaning. In fact John Kennington (played by Terence Harvey), a superintendent and police man for decades had been himself a homosexual who was abusing boys. The other officers were afraid of what he was prepared to do to their careers and had been trying to keep Tennison from going deeply into this case; indeed they wanted her to fail. And they only let her go on when she made it plain she would not expose them for collusion and complicity.

From experience and what I’ve been told I know that drug running and other kinds of “sin” crime go on because the police not only collude but are themselves often on the take. Colonial officers from a powerful country often run businesses in the colonies where they make money off goods that are illegal; they pretend to want to arrest the local people involved; rather they control them.

The collusion and complicity as a motive go further. One of the best moments in Season 1 was when Tennison gets Moyra Henson (Zoe Wanamaker), the common law wife of the serial murderer-torturer, George Marlowe (John Bowe deliberately cast against type — he is often the good man) to half admit she knew what was happening all along and lived with it. So too in this film at several turns we are suddenly looking at a woman who is the sex partner of the bad man and she lets Tennison know she has known what was happening all along. John Kennington’s wife (Rowena Cooper) and Parker-Jones patsy girlfriend social worker, Margaret Speel (Alyson Spiro): as with Moyra these two women did not fnid it to their advantage to tell. It was nice being Mrs Kennington, so rich, with money for her sons to go to fancy schools (she lets out she protected her sons at least) and the fatuous believer in liberal ideas as controlling real people, Margaret Speel, who also had a job to protect.

Moyna Henson, George Marlowe’s long-time common law wife (Zoe Wanamaker)

Anyone reading this will laugh when I mentioned Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa where a key collusive figure is Clary’s mother, Charlotte. She lets it happen; she has become craven over the years from the bullying of her tyrant husband it’s anything for a quiet life with her. Whatever hypocrisy necessary she will do to get Clary to marry the horror Solmes. I’ve always felt that intuition of Richardson particularly important.

Tom Watson (David Harvey), the guilty father tries to take the rap for his murderous torturing son

In Season 2 the colluders were the parents of the porn photographer; they were covering up for him. This sentimentality is somewhat undercut because they were presented as half-afraid of this son, but it’s not enough. We do have two policemen who are revealed as decent. A man who leads Tennison to the right transvestite nightclub (I’d have to watch again to get his name) “comes out” and he is treated ugily by the other police officers, with distrust. He is not bullyable we learn and holds his own. A police officer high up assigned to drive Tennison; it doesn’t make sense that he(again I’d have to watch again to get his name) would be given such a job. Gradually she learns and then gets him to admit he is there as Kennington’s personal watch dog over her. He does help her too. So there is sentimentality here. In the case of the gay policeman I think the “good gay policeman with real integrity” a necessary counter to all the evil people we meet. We don’t need that family as counter because viewers will be pro-family members and want to believe good things of such people, such as loyalty to their son.

Mark Strong from Prime Suspect 3 (Mr Knightley in Davies’s 1996 Emma)

Jonny Lee Miller from Prime Suspect 3 (Edmund Bertram in Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park, and Mr Knightey in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma)

A sort of side comment which may amuse anyone who has gotten this far and knows I have worked hard on Jane Austen films. I’ve thought that Mark Strong (here in this episode as a firm strong at first anti-feminist policeman) was hired as Knightley precisely because he often plays bad guy strong men, torturers and — it was to give Knightley the “macho” qualities the TV people think the audience will find lacking. Johnny Lee Miller, on the other hand, played both Edmund Bertram and Mr Knightley who on the face of it seem different types (Bertram dim if moral; Mr Knightley all seeing except for his besottedness with Emma and jealousy of Frank Churchill who is still a cad in potential). But they both get the heroine? Why? Like Darcy they have a streak of intense vulnerability, and here Miller was, almost unrecognizable in modern dress, playing a young man who had been badly abused by Parker Jones and others set over him (we hear of nameless policemen either abusing the boys or telling the boys they must say they are lying or will regret it), who breaks down and tells what happened to him, but steely-like will not tell his story in court for at long last he is about to be promoted and wants nothing to get in the way of a decent self-respecting career. He is a colluder in potentia. Years from now he too will be at a dinner in a tux. It’s perfect for the man chosen to play Austen heroes both against and with type, for Austen’s Bertram and Knightley are paragons of virtue.

Mirren herself only breaks down once. There is a sentimental story fused into Season 3: it opens with her having a one or two night fling with an old lover she refused to marry who himself is now married to someone else with 4 children. Her refusal to see him again is treated like a sentimental love story partly. And late in he program we are to believe she’s pregnant. This is an old trope that won’t quite do: women are made to get pregnant after one night or two. It’s not probable though can happen. She gets the news from her doctor that she’s pregnant and makes an appointment for an abortion. We are asked to believe she had an emotional difficulty choosing this route. Maybe but it doesn’t seem probable to me. What does seem probably is the choice for an abortion and her bitter face. She will not bring a child into this world is the idea on Mirren’s face. I liked that.

Vera (Vernon Reynolds)

The third season also had strikingly virtuoso performances beyond Mirren’s, especially John Thewliss as Jimmy Jackson and Peter Capaldi as Vera [Vernon] Reynolds. You could say that this program will open wonderful careers for people who could perform such roles; I am not surprised that it has not. Such roles or character types are rarely wanted, plus there is the intuitive feel borne out by the two biographies that Thewliss and Capaldi are acting partly out of their life’s experience. Strong prejudice then gives people pause, for if Prime Suspect 3 wants to help dispel the prejudice, as in other areas of our society, dispelling prejudice is not readily done. Both have found work basically doing these “types” where they can be found. Thewliss is working class and his first job (before PM) was with Mike Leigh. No surprise there as Leigh does present unusual truths about down-and-out and low status people; he shows love for them and presents stories where we can see them happy even. Thewliss’s next great role was Damage where he plays the son of Jeremy Irons’s father who utterly betrays this son to the point the son kills himself.

So on the whole this third season was superior to the first even and both better than the second.

In Five Full Days the police procedure turned into a TV woman’s novel by Gwyneth Hughes and Anne Pivcevic: it similarly turned on a woman’s point of view of the cruelties of sexual life as experienced by people in our class, money and race ridden bigoted hypocritical societies. They represent a new form of heroine’s text.


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Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) and Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) on their first night together: he’s lying about Darcy at the dinner, and later they have sex (Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2001)

“New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large” — John Milton

“the progress of reformation is gradual and silent, as the extension of evening shadows; we know that they were short at noon, and are long at sun-set, but our senses were not able to discern their increase” — Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

Since I read on WMST-L a thread on a debate that has been taking place over “hook up culture” (see, e.g., Sandy Doyle’s reply, “The Boyfriend Myth”, to the reactionary Caitlin Flannigan,“Love, actually”, both in The Atlantic), I’ve been considering writing about “hook up culture” here on this blog.

The immediate prompting comes from my having on the same evening as that thread on WMST-l occurred spoken with a woman not far from my age (she must be in her 50s) and also white (race as well as class matters here) who told me of her daughter’s experiences going clubbing with the daughter’s friends whom this woman described as enjoying slutty-mean behavior. The woman said these young women think nothing of picking up or being picked up at a dance by a young man, going off with him, and having sex that night, with no expectation to meet again. They dress sexily to help this happen and regard it as a “good time.” They also were said to enjoy dancing with homosexual men, leading them along, pretending to want to dance, perhaps go out (and I suppose have sex), when they were just laughing at them. The woman said her daughter was appalled at this superficiality and shallowness. She also said she was aware that this is the way young women get to go out with, meet young men, and if one didn’t at least engage in this culture (even if with self-control), one would never go out with a boy (unless maybe you met on the Net). She never used the term “hook up culture,” but she meant the same thing that Flannagan, Doyle and the women on WMST-l were talking of. (See Gwen Sharp’s “The Promise and Perils of Hook-up Culture” in Sociological Images).

I thought of my own experiences in the later 1950s and early to mid-1960s and I told her at that time casual encounters were not uncommon — though if you told anyone you would be in danger of being labelled “tramp” and ostracized; you could also become a target of “enterprising” (aka nasty) males. In place of modern clubbing, we did go on dates, but one date could include a casual encounter. And casual encounters could occur as a result of meeting at school, going to park and for walk, in fact easily over the myriad ways people meet one another casually. I also told her of how my older daughter would take my younger daughter clubbing with the older one’s friends, and that the younger one disliked it, perhaps for the reasons this woman’s daughter did. That I find young women students come to me to confide and talk and I’ve found a number telling me about their dismay and conflicts at the experiences they’ve had clubbing. Interestingly, even Islamic or Muslim girls have told me they experience pressure to dress western style (from their mothers!) and go clubbing with friends who dress western style. As a humane teacher who is open to talk about these areas when they come up in my classroom (and they do, mostly in classes where I assign fiction or memoirs) I find that occasionally a girl will come to me with a composition or book to discuss from the class and we end up (especially if we meet a few times) talking about such central experiences for them (whether they realize this or not) in the space I am given to sit in in a large adjunct room.

I went on to say to my woman friend that the difference between today and the 1950s/60s is that nowadays in public we find young women and men claiming to enjoy it, and then in public one found young women and men claimed it was shameful, something only a despicable slut or tramp would do. It was part of the unacknowledged norm of this culture.

Well, as we know from all the controversy over the unfortunately named “slutwalks,” the word slut has not gone, nor has its cruel power diminished. (See, e.g., “The controversy”, a link round-up, some black women’s response). It’s worth noting we have no word which bad-mouths the young men who indulge in “hook up culture.” I see this phenomena as part of our rape-prone sexual culture, where if a girl manifests reluctance to have sex, but responds weakly or with emotional resonance and tact to his pressure or the pressure of the situation on her she can be raped. If this simple rape is reinforced by a bullying sufficiently distasteful or physically invasive (violent) such that while girl gives in (and perhaps at first in foreplay say experiences some sexual pleasure), she also understands as things proceed she’s being raped and later distressed, shamed, angry, dares to complain, she may be led to want to accuse him. She is then at a terrible disadvantage because the rules of evidence rule her experience to not have been rape unless she reported it right away; and she will find a cold guarded reaction most of the time if she complains when she does right away and very little understanding if she reports it late.

Hook up culture versus love actually made a joke of in the film of the latter name (with a cast who reprise archetypal roles, Love Actually 2003)

So, I’ve been in a quandary whether to blog because the issue is right now a topic of serious debate — because I feared going on for too long and because I don’t want to become too personal – I just may if I can get up the courage and emotional strength; I’ll then put it Under the Sign of Sylvia — and would probably be dismissed by some who bothered to read it (it would not get much readership) as subjective, personal, the priggish and hurt memories of an aging woman. At long last I come out with this (not very original idea) that I agree with both Flannagan and Doyle and think those who say this culture does not exist are wrong; see Jessica, in “Speechifying” in Feministing. I suggest Jessica is saying this in order to defend other of her agendas. Jessica says there is no such thing as hook up culture because she wants to encourage young women to have liberty to enjoy their bodies as they wish and sees any talk about the emotional pain and loneliness the aftermath of such an encounter brings as a kind of unacknowledged conspiracy to return women to the safety of repression. As Doyle says, the boyfriend relationship is no safer from rape and abuse than the passing date (or casual encounter). Of course I am speaking out of my own experience and reactions, but I am also speaking out of what I remember women friends have told me and what I’ve read in countless books and essays by women. As one participant in the WMST-l debate wrote: “Its negative impact on women can vary, but in general it’s not positive.”

All this is so important. It’s a continuing manifestation of our continuing rape-prone culture which puts most young women and some young men at a severe disadvantage, can maim them emotionally for life. I believe part of the stunning financial success of both Bridget Jones movies and the two Bridget Jones’s satiric novels by Helen Fielding is that Fielding and the film-makers after and with her made painful comedy from the predicament of young women and men today who want to have a meaningful more or less permanent relationship, to commit to one another as caring, loving, helping friend-lovers. As with the way the economic public world, so this sexual world allows the worst values to reign: so for Bridget and her girlfriends the problem is “emotional fuckwits” like Daniel Cleaver who use, lie, hurt, desert them; and the ideal they long for is the sensitive faithful Mark Darcy (modeled on anachronistic romancing of Jane Austen’s hero in Pride and Prejudice).

My central point in this blog is a subjective one: it’s this: that it is probably better for the public media to present young women and men choosing this mode because then we can talk about sexual life. When the experience was presented as shameful (and disgusting) and could be and was used to degrade and further exploit young women (or vulnerable gay young men), nothing was gained. No change for any kind of better way could be hoped for. By changing how we talk about this publicly, no matter if a new hypocrisy has replaced the old, we allow ourselves to bring out in to the open the cruelties and abuses of sexual experience of our various societies. Whether something can or will be done to improve life for all I can’t say. I even doubt it (I’m with Andrea Dworkin in thinking that feminism in the area of sex has often made life harder for young women), but we may at least hope (see my Samuel Johnson epigraph). And I say probably for it may be that the “hook up” culture merely shows young women and vulnerable young men at a worst disadvantage than ever. The bullying culture has taken over. The young woman cannot expect to be treated with the respect it takes to ask her out on a date several days before the time of going out; she will not be sought out. She has to seek the young man at a club.

Saskia Wickham as Clarissa fending off a threatened rape by Lovelace

I conclude on the larger or full picture, a rape-prone bullying sexual world: I wrote a paper on Rape in Clarissa, ostensibly about the depiction of rape in this and other later novels of sensibility in the 18th century, but the real urge or impetus to do it was to discuss rape as such then and now. I read literally for weeks and weeks not only non-fiction essays about rape by both sexes, but fictional and memoir accounts of rape — by women or men sympathetic to women. While I did some description on Reveries Under the Sign of Austen of the non-fiction arguments (see my “Michelle Fine’s Disruptive Arguments”), I did hardly any writing on the fiction and memoirs I had read.

Of all these, the contemporary novel-memoir I remember best now is Alice Sebold’s Lucky (she was not killed). Every women should read it. The opening chapter is a graphic account of a brutal assault on the heroine where the rapist comes near to killing her; the last chapter is a short but ample account of simple date rape where the young man bullies his fiancee (Alice’s roommate) into a crude full sexual encounter against a wall. The case is not taken to court because the roommate is not beaten up as brutally as Alice was; Alice witnesses a brutal date-rape where the girl does nothing as she feels she will not be listened to because the boy is her boyfriend and she was not a virgin. Sandwiched in-between we see how she was treated by others (they tried to silence, ignore her and then kept away from her when they could), how she changed inwardly, and what happened at the trial she was courageous enough to go through with. It is still true that it is aggravated assault rape that in western countries gets to court, and even here any circumstance which may be used to arouse the jury or other authority figures’ suspicion that the woman in any way consented that may be recognizable by law, can lead to a not-guilty verdict or dismissal of the case.

Some realities I learned from my research and reading: There is still no large general study of rape or its aftermath as depicted across many novels, though Jocelyn Catty (scholar of rape in early modern plays) shows that women as a group treat rape differently from men. Just covering prose narratives (fiction and non-fiction), where rape occurs and is treated seriously, when you find rape in nineteenth-century novels, outside commentators tend not to discuss the event as rape. For example, one area where rapes are found, colonial texts: in George Trevelyan’s 1868 Cawnpore, a history of the Indian Mutiny or (more accurately) Rising, we read of a woman, Miss Wheeler, giving into her captor sexually to save her life, and then instead of killing herself agreeing to live with him; this is not recognized as rape and the narrator is so uncomfortable he does not give her full name; similarly, Flora Annie Steele in her 1896 Anglo-Indian historical novel, On the Face of the Waters, wants us to see that her heroine, Kate Erlton experiences sex with her husband as rape, but does not make this explicit. One typical example from recent detective mystery fiction must stand for many many: Susan Hill’s disquieting The Various Haunts of Men. The novel elides the rape to concentrate on the murder.

Yet false accusations of non-rape stories circulate widely, and are popular. A modern popular novel turned into a prize-winning film adaptation, Ian McEwan’s Atonement attempts a sort of rewriting of Clarissa where the center of attention is also a false accusation. The wrong man is accused because he is lower class; the effect on a number of my students (with whom I read the book and studied the film) was to create intense dislike of the young woman and her mother who accused the young man, and discuss them as cold vengeful women. The real rapist was hardly discussed, partly because he is a marginalized figure in the book. We also continue to overlook real rape scenes when the targeted victim is a minor character or lower class.

So, gentle readers, hook up culture exists; it’s the latest version of casual encounters and much that occurs is abusive of humane and sensitive feeling and it’s significantly central to common male and female relationships as they originate, carry on, or are ended.

The value of Lynda LaPlante’s Prime Suspect series (starring Helen Mirren) is it repeatedly oncentrates on the violence of sexual relationships in our society, abusive (thriving) men towards weak men and boys as well as towards women.

“Hook up culture” is also a manifestation of the same set of values that gives us crony capitalism at its reactionary worst, the valuing of competition, aggression, triumph over others and effective connections to wrest yet more as success in life (with how much money and prestige things you’ve wrested, how many similarly successful well-connected people you know). And that’s another blog too.


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Henry VIII (Ildar Abdrazakov) and Anna (Anna Trebenko)

The historical Anne Boleyn (artist unknown)

Dear friends and readers,

Well the season started. Jim has bought tickets for the 3 of us for all but two of the Met-by-HD operas, and one of these Izzy is going to see on her own. We are planning on three operas-by-HD from Europe and two ballets. Two of these events we do enjoy will be around Xmas time.

I was especially interested to see Donizett’s Anna Bolena because I used to study the Renaissance and among the first books I ever read of the adult kind were biographies of Renaissance queens. I began with Henri IV’s mother, Jeanne d’Albret. I spent 20 years translating the poetry of two Renaissance women. I love to read about their life-writing. And I find the numinous archetypal ones to be central in women’s imaginative lives. I once wrote a review of a book of essays one of which was on these compensatory glamorized victims — who include Mary Stuart, Queens of Scots, Marie Antoinette, recently Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana. There will be more of these she-tragedy queens in the HD opera repertoire over the next couple of years.

They are perpetually presented as powerful and perpetually die young after allowing their bodies to be exploited … in European art the Catholic and sexually transgressive Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, a political failure, and probably an accomplice to murder, was depicted as a model of exemplary femininity while (as her rival), the Protestant and apparently chaste Elizabeth I, successful on her own behalf, and an effective powerful leader on England’s behalf, was depicted as a seething sexually frustrated Machiavellian. Like Arbella Stuart and Lady Jane Grey (the first imprisoned for many years went mad, the second beheaded when very young), Mary Stuart’s life could fit a stereotype which presented images of beautiful women coerced into renouncing power while they continued to wield it. Mary’s regalia of power endowed erotic interactions in which a beautiful woman submitted, resigned herself or despaired, with glamorized importance.

Once upon a time Elizabeth Tudor was too clearly powerful to be assimilated into such compensatory iconographies of victimhood. Her learning and unmarried state, which the majority of her audience would not identify with, were ostracized, and she became a grim projection of the miseries of unsubmissive women who do not aim to be loving wives. Nowadays she’s being turned into a sentimental icon of frustration. The flexibility and incongruities of these myths reveals the “normative” demand for female de-sexualization, domesticity, and submission or harsh punishment.

This is where Anne Boleyn fits and today as Miriam Burstein has shown (“The fictional afterlife of Anne Boleyn: how to do things with the Queen, 1901-2006.” CLIO 37.1 (2007), she is common figure in sentimental romance.

Anna Trebenko as Anna as this mysterious romance archetype

So how did this opera fit in? This Anna was a dignified angry saint; Trebenko played her as driven by despair at the close. Nonetheless as whole, as the NYTimes review had it, the play just won’t do. Especially debilitating and tedious was the character of Giovanna Seymour, supposed to be without ambition, just loving the king – and the queen. Ekaterina Gubanova as the tiresomely improbable remorseful Jane was dull. They could have cut some of her arias. She had no insight into the ambivalent feelings such a lady-in-waiting might have felt and acted upon. Myself I think she must’ve been one of these women without self-advocacy, never allowed to enact any.

Ippolito Pindamonte was the librettist. He was an Italian romantic poet something in the tradition of Byron and knew Scott’s novels very well. Well it was his play that Felice Romani turned into an opera. Felice Romani wrote many of the librettos for operas in this era. This was the first of Donizetti’s operas to be a hit, and it might be the “tragedy she-queen” who once lived, the world historical Figure, but it might also be the Pindemonte’s original play was better than most.

The opera as opera was much better than a Washington Post reviewer had it (the writer enjoyed the derision). Beautifully (stunningly consistently) sung by Anna Trebenko (Anna B), but if I was moved (I was) it was partly from remembering a real woman had suffered the terror of beheading.

Anna Bolena (Trebenko) and her ladies

Ildar Abdrazakov acted well a “mad” Henry, nasty, spiteful, vengeful, disdainful of this low woman he made a queen, he made some sense of the role, and while Stephen Costello probably didn’t read Scott, intuitively he recreated a Waverly hero.

Ricardo Percy (Steven Costello) and Anna (Trebenko)

Torture (doubtless done) was included by the costuming of Smeaton sung and acted well by Tamara Mumford. IN history Anne was accused of having a sexual affair with Smeaton. This has ever reminded me of how the court of these unrestricted monarchies is like a harem; the women are all available to the Master; any male around risks castration in some form, here it was beheading.

Smeaton asks for pardon (for having broken under torture)

The sets as prison were very good, the man who sung Hervey, a small part, important: to me today what stands out is how everyone around Henry let him get away with it. Why not update the play with some action. As it opened Henry was trying to get at Jane’s vagina by pulling up her gown. It made that scene more believable.

Still the truth is the sentimentality of the piece is not all that different from a costume drama I watched last night: a great crew of British actors doing Any Human Heart, nor the way everything is attributed to “love”. Nothing venal, petty, trivializing; no one acting for ambition, power, revenge. It should irritate anyone who knows about the Bolyen clan, how they climbed high as fringe court people, how the family pushed Anne and later Jane Boleyn — to hear Anne Boleyn spoken of as powerful.

I find it remarkable to notice that the conversation in the intermission was about the historical figures. People quoted the old rhyme about Henry VIII and his six wives. They half-discussed what little they knew about the era — next to or nothing. Not in any serious way, half-joking I suppose. The historical background or pretense of it helped put the experience across. The Met tried to latch onto that by hiring a costumer who regularly (for years) has been making costumes for Shakespeare’s plays. Her cosumes were beautiful. Often black (as they were in the era), sombre, heavy yet luxurious, giving the performers just the right gravitas. She said she studied Holbein’s paintings closely.

Good and serious books to read include: Retha Warnke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (excellent in every way); Julia Fox’s Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the infamous [the publisher gets to choose a title] Lady Rochford. For examples of recent romancing: Margaret Campbell Barnes, Brief Gaudy Hour [addressed to her husband no less] and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl.

Jane Boleyn, also beheaded, by Hans Holbein the Younger.

You hear the costume designer talk and look at her costumes in the recorded interviews that are now regularly at the center of these operas. They are popular. I love watching the crew put together and pull apart sets. I came across an article which said the Met’s funding from private donors was 182 million this year (or had gone up that amount since last!). Gelbe, the manager who promoted and then went through with these HD broadcasts, is now vindicated. In our local theater the auditorium was sold out.


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Miss Eleanor Lavish (Sinead Cusack) from Forster’s Room with a View (Davies’s film)

Dear friends,

This is probably my third blog on Donoghue’s Passions between Women, maybe the fourth in which I’ve mentioned the book. I wrote about it to suggest that Jane Austen, her sister, Martha Lloyd, and Anne Sharp all show a pattern of life that in the era was silently identified as lesbian spintershood; then I wrote about it to discuss liberty and women and suggest that women are answerable with their bodies and it’s this ownership of women’s bodies that precludes liberty; I wrote about how Donoghue made me see Sarah Fielding’s The Governess in a wholly new light so that it made more sense, was more interesting, consistent; finally I mentioned it in my blog on Donoghue’s Slammerkin.

Can there be anything else to say? Yes. Why say it? Because I have a whole bunch of texts to tell the reader he or she should read to re-see in a new vital or poignant way. What Donoghue does do is uncover a long history of evidence that lesbian life has been with us wherever we can find some written records of sex life. We cannot treat it the way we can male homosexual history or sex because we don’t have anywhere near the direct evidence, but through the persecution and silencing a poignant human story shows through now and again. She ends on the idea that the history can teach “us” — for she comes out as a lesbian with her use of pronouns at the end — something of how to survive.


Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), Maid and Mistress

Let us begin with the familiar theme of maids and mistresses, and what do we find? We are made aware of the inadequacy of the typical representation of the maid and mistress where the maid gives up all, even her life to the mistress without any qualm or resentment.

I feel I had not read Defoe’s Roxanne before — though I know I did (in a graduate class where we wrote about it). I have little memory of it, but don’t remember it as a story about a maid, Amy and her mistress, as a pair of partners struggling through life where one must ever be a prostitute to support the other. We see Roxanne use Amy, when things go badly Roxanne accuse Amy of being a devil who seduces her. The class distinctions melt as they turn into an “economic double act” with Amy the manager and Roxanne the goods sold.

What destroys them is Amy’s excessive concern for Roxanne – but also her own safety. Amy had previously pushed Roxanne’s children off on relatives (shades of Moll Flanders) and one day a grown daughter, Susan, shows up; Susan threatens to expose the mother, Roxanne and Amy plots to kill Susan. At first Roxanne is horrified, and Amy retreats from this solution, but as time goes on, Amy does indeed murder Susan. Roxanne throws Amy out, but it’s the loss of Amy Roxanne cannot get over, and Donoghue says the novel peters out in confusion — I do remember it just moving into a kind of shorthand drivel and ending.

Johnson’s Rasselas? A rare telling of a close loving friendship between maid and mistress is Johnson on Pekuah and Nekayah where Nekayah saves Pekuah from a life of concubinage after rape. Nekayah sinks into an intense depression and a big ransom is paid to get Pekuah back for Nekayah. Johnson does punt by saying no rape really took place after all. I had never considered them in a lesbian light either.

Then there’s “Unaccountable Wife” by Jane Barker in Patchwork Screen for Ladies. As read by Donoghue turns out to be a story like that of The Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Elizabeth Foster and the Duke (see blog on Amanda Foreman’s biography): two women having a lesbian relationship while both of them go to bed with the Duke too (separately I suppose). What happens is the wife begins to do all the housework and after a while refuses to go to bed with the husband while her maid gets pregnant by him and does no work. It would seem to be a story of a servant beginning to dominate the mistress, only the servant is eventually thrown out and the wife stays by her side supporting her in the most menial of ways. Janet Todd in her book on women’s friendship in literature read as the exploitation of a barren neurotic wife by her servant. I agree that’s not adequate if you consider all the parts of the story.

If Donoghue is right, I have to go back and reread Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows where she shows how power corrupts and given unqualified power over someone else it’s the rare person who does not abuse it — whether mistress, maid or master.

Donoghue finds and praises the few stories where real conflict between maid and mistress is seen – or between upper and lower class woman. I’d say that Austen’s Emma takes advantage of this convention that the lower class women is all gratitude — and only at the end of the story has Harriet irritated and moving away and never does deal with what must have been a residual of deep resentment in Jane Fairfax. We only get her gushing. It might be Emma’s blindness but we are not encouraged to read the last encounter between Emma and Jane that way.


Emma (Romola Garai), Anna Taylor Weston (Jodhi May), Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan) (Sandy Welch’s Emma)

Let’s backtrack from this to sentimentalized treatments of true friends. Donoghue’s treatment differs here because she considers pairs of women where things did not go smoothly, women who differed a lot. These are mostly famous and not-famous pairs of women friends who left letters.

I’ve mentioned in the previous blogs Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill’s story: the great irony is that Anne and Sarah have come down in memory as the lesbian pair, when it was Abigail Masham who won Anne finally and the story one of betrayal and pressure from impingments of other status, prestige, money circumstances. Also how Charlotte Charke’s long-time partner, Mrs Brown is just ignored even to today so the memoir is misrepresented.

Poignant is the section on Mary Astell: apparently she could not get close friends to reciprocate and would tell herself this was God’s punishment on her for not begin content with him. Finally she meets Lady Catherine Jones and she is so overjoyed to find someone who does not find her unlovable. Jones was wealthy and became a lifelong friend and patroness. In fact in her old age Mary Astell might have ended up horribly but for Jones taking the the sick woman (she got breast cancer) into her house and providing nursing.

Also The Memoir of Sophia Baddeley. Written by her long-suffering, loyal friend, Elizabeth Hughes Steele, the story is one of what happens to women whose passions the society deforms and will not honor or respect, to women who the society also encourages to be masochistic. Baddeley kept latching onto male “keepers’ who would beat her, and savagely; then she’d retreat to Mrs Steele (who also married and had a child). They have terrible rows and are finally parted. With Elizabeth what matters is a resistance to heterosexuality. The unhappy Elizabeth died young of consumption (37). I’d now like to read this one.


Jane (Samantha Harker) and Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) turning to one another (1995 P&P, by Davies)

A third grouping: Sincere and Tender Passions . Anne Damer as a lesbian artist and Elizabeth Farren fit in here (since Donoghue’s Life Mask) What distinguishes Donoghue’s treatment is she also quotes letters from contemporary people who recognized the sapphism; that includes Mrs Thrale. We also see how much competition from other women Damer had with respect to Elizabeth Farren. A chasm of mistrust was easy to start up since the society was so against these alliances (pp. 139-42).

Donoghue often quotes Fielding’s The Governess in this part of the book in passing: there is a book about a girls’ school. I was startled to see Lady Pomfret, a familiar (to me in the letters I had access to) dullard, a friend of Lady Hertford. I remembered that Lady Pomfret left three thick volume of these dull missives. That I had xeroxed a bunch and was disappointed when I finally took them home. I wondered if I xeroxed the wrong ones. Maybe. But now I see they are censored and why Lady Pomfret wrote so much to Lady Hertford and so insistently.

Frances Seymour Thynne, Lady Hertford and Henrietta Louisa Jeffreys Fermor (I mention all her names so we won’t get her confused with someone else), Lady Pomfret were faithful correspondents for years and this verse epistle (a favorite with me) is from Lady Hertford to Lady Pomfret:

We sometimes ride, and sometimes walk,
We play at chess, or laugh, or talk;
Sometimes besides the crystal stream,
We meditate some serious theme;
Or in the grot, beside the spring,
We hear the feathered warblers sing.
Shakespeare perhaps an hour diverts,
Or Scott directs to mend our hearts.
With Clarke’s God’s attributes we explore;
And, taught by him, admire them more.
Gay’s Pastorals sometimes delight us,
Or Tasso’s grisly spectres fright us:
Sometimes we trace Armida’s bowers,
And view Rinaldo chained with flowers.
Often from thoughts sublime as these,
I sink at once – and make a cheese;
Or see my various poultry fed,
And treat my swans with scraps of bread.
Sometimes upon the smooth canal
We row the boat or spread the sail;
Till the bright enveing-star is seen,
And dewy spangles deck the green.
          Then tolls the bell, and all unite
In prayer that God would bless the night.
From this (though I confess the change
From prayer to cards is somewhat strange)
To cards we go, till ten has struck:
And then, however bad our luck,
Our stomachs ne’er refuse to eat
Eggs, cream, fresh butter, or calves’-feet;
And cooling fruits, or savoury greens
‘Sparagus, peas, or kidney-beans.
Our supper past, an hour we sit,
And talk of history, Spain or wit.
But Scandal far is banished hence,
Nor dares intrude with false pretence
Of pitying looks, or holy rage
Against the vices of the age:
We know we were all born to sin,
And find enough to blame within.
(written 1740)

Now these women were married so they had “cover” and a rich fulfilled life in other ways too. Lady Hertford was especially close to her son whom she did not send to public school but educated at home herself, and he grew up to be a fine sensitive well-educated man. Bi-sexual women.


Florence (Jodhi May) and Nan (Rachel Stirling) in Tipping the Velvet (novel by Sarah Walters, movie by Andrew Davies)

The penultimate section of Donoghue’s book is titled: What Joys are these? — Donoghue proposes to pay attention to all those scenes in erotic novels where women are having sex with other women: these are usually ignored. She argues that one quality in most of them which distinguishes them is that the two women do not punish one another where later pornography usually shows the women punished severely and humiliated.

I know I was surprised by the lack of violence and punishment in Cleland’s Fanny Hill. The punishment of Suzanna in The Nun came from her refusing to become a nun, not her getting involved sexually with the mother superior, from her refusing to obey not what she did sexually. There is a scene in Les Liaisons Dangereuses where Madame de Merteuil pleasures Cecile. I too have been guilty of ignoring it.

The first pairs of active lesbian lovers that have been overlooked by readers are gotten by reading against the grain passages mocking and ridiculing women: for example, in Richardson’s Pamela, Mrs Jewkes’s attacks on Pamela — it is true that Pamela evidences a very unladylike knowledge of what Jewkes attempts. Donoghue then moves on to Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of Count of Grammont: a more unpleasant book shaped by a set of nasty attitudes I’ve never read — I do have a copy and have tried it more than once. I fully believe and would have noticed had I gotten that far that there are lesbians who are mocked and burlesqued, humiliated as fellow rakes to males. Madame Merteuil’s experience on the sofa with Cecile comes under here.

It seemed to me the book was returning to the ugly material Donoghue had begun with in her opening section: the earliest glimpses of lesbian in texts are the lurid imaginings of lesbians as women with somehow damaged penises.

I want to tell her, Emma, this is desperate stuff. What joys are these is a good title for this material though. But I admit What interested me in the “what joys are these section” most is how Donoghue never seemed to escape in it from the early ugly salacious kind of texts she began with. It seems until very recently (let’s say Sarah Walters) no one presented lesbian sex as fun, pleasurable, tasteful even. Tales of wooden dildoes (because in print it’s so rare for sex to be taken seriously without a phallus, same sex whippings, and unkind orgies close the chapter. Donoghue says we need to remember much of this is male fantasy: women did not get to write erotica at the time.

So one criticism of her book is it is not sufficiently (hardly at all) informed by 20th century texts. She ought to write a volume 2.


Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800, painted 1762)

And so we come to Lesbian Communities. Here again it’s a matter of countering an insistence X just doesn’t exist, in this case communities of women who are aware of themselves as lesbian in orientation. Were Jane, Cassandra, Martha and Anne Sharpe aware of themselves that way? If so, how did they read The Governess? Again the books to show as incorrect is Janet Todd’s Women’s Friendship in Literature and Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. We can’t know for sure.

So it’s a case of Margaret Cavendish’s plays (fantasies though), Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall. She does find a long passage in Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” celebrating what seems to have been a group life for women which was lesbain at least in feel, texts on nunneries, convents of pleasure, but it must be admitted again nothing historically real … as yet.

Donoghue’s catalogue and examination of texts which show that women did form lesbian communities, active in sex as well as anything else. And it continues to be the case she has to resort to these lurid texts to find this kind of material, specifically a long section in Delaviere Manley’s New Atalantis and Secret Memoirs. And the attitudes evinced of the women towards one another continue to be sort of adversarial, punitive (threats if you break away; she has a number of types of lesbian too: cross-dressing comes up. And the initials of the characters can be linked to real women at the time – at the court, in the theaters. The characters are mostly anti-heroines.

She also repeatedly shows us a scholar who has written or worked on these who denies active sex. Trumbach for example says the women cross dress in order to pass unmolested; in fact her passages quoted show they are trying to make contact by so dressing.

Sources for some of these depictions of lesbian networks are French: Grimm’s famous Correspondence litteraire and semi-pornographic French novels, Histoire d’une Jeune Fille published by Pidansat de Mairobert.

She ends on a long piece on how what the documents show of Sappho’s life (a genuine lesbian or perhaps bisexual life) and the ways she has been presented. Again it has been a matter for most writers of either erasing her active lesbian feelings altogether or presenting them as secondary and overcome (rightly) by her heterosexual romance (mostly a concoction, especially the suicide) which is seen as the right and proper and comfortable thing. Pronouns changed in the two full poems we have (as was done with Shakespeare)

But again in the forefront of respected writers now and again she finds a truthful witness: Pierre Bayle. And outside the mainstream those who write frankly, but alas often derogatory or sneering kind of texts that have this lurid tone or attack Sappho or mock her.


Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), bluestocking spent her life studying women of letters (Davies has a Christine Kavanagh in his film, Room with a View)

Donoghue’s larger point that the reason we have no history of lesbianism is not that there was not one and probably very different in feel from these books is made over and over again. I’d say it was really more like what we find in the Bath bluestocking spinster groups and their texts which however are so severely censored (e.g., Sarah Scott, Sarah Fielding …)

So, gentle reader, the next time you hear the word “spinster” or “bluestocking” or phrases “maid and mistress” and “sentimental women’s friendship,” maybe instead of drawing away from something asexual, tedious, dull, you’ll turn to the texts as richly different.

As to Donoghue’s perspective, it’s deeply somber if you think about the stories the books tell of how women suffered from silencing, controlling them severely, erasing what they wrote or misrepresenting it, and ridiculing and treating as sick a whole subset of people.


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David Tennant as Gerald Colthurst (Lesworth in Bowen’s book)

Dear friends and readers,

My daughter, Izzy, is taking a course in Irish Literature this term and I find myself enjoying the books — and connected films — with her. (See Irish Authors!) I’ve long loved hyphenated-lit (Anglo-Indian, French-Canadian, Anglo-African) and two favorites are Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Scots (and vice-versa). I re-watched the marvelous Huston film, The Dead, after she talked of Joyce’s Dubliners, and now I’ve returned to a favorite novelist, Elizabeth Bowen.

I have a whole bunch of her novels, travel books, memoirs and literary criticism; I’ve assigned her The Heat of the Day which conveys supremely what it is like to live in a city bombed daily and in daily anxiety for your life, watching daily people killed (and shown the film with Michael Gambon, Michael Yorke and Patricia Hodge). I used to say — before I got on the Net and widened my knowledge and world so and allowed me to reach so many more books I can love — one of the great books of the 20th century is her Death of the Heart; I now think it’s one of the great novels in the mode of l’ecriture-femme, and still a favorite with me, but understand better that Bowen’s reactionary politics limits her work. Her Bowen’s Court is a love letter to her house.

She’s a kind of Virginia Woolf & Edith Wharton crossed by Jane Austen. Bowen is a supreme stylist, writes an evocative poetry in prose at the same time as she ironically, with distance records the domestic lives of her characters. No one writes better of green people in blue woods than she.

I still remember lines from her books that resonate in my heart:

outside [one’s beloved] lies the junkyard of what does not matter.

The best known of Bowen’s ghost stories is one called ‘Demon Lover’ (1945); like many of her best fictions, it’s set in London during the Blitz; a stolidly middle class woman comes to her house in-between bombs and is abducted by a lover who was killed in first World War; there’s a gradual build up of terror until we begin to suspect he’s a vampire.

She’s a good critic of ghost stories and novels: she says the trouble with realistic novel is it excludes the crazy; it’s a calm and orthodox form; once realism turns into the gothic by which she means includes the supernatural, it can reach into the psyche as well as reality which she suggests due to the nature of our minds always contains strong elements of fantasy; much horror lies below the surface of life, much terror, much cruelty. I agree with her about the limits of realism. She was very much influenced by having lived through 4 wars: Irish, Spanish, WWI and WWII. She also writes interestingly on
how to write fiction.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) looking out a window from (idealized) Bowen’s Court by Patrick Hennessy RHA (1915-1980)

On top of reading Last September and returning to other Bowen books, I’ve watched a second fine film: Ceborah Walker’s Last September, one of these film adaptations with a brilliant cast, intelligent script, beautiful images and much serious meaning.


Bowen’s Court — as will be seen, it’s very large and was expensive to sustain

So to The Last September: Bowen said it came close to her heart, among the novels it meant a great deal. It’s unusual for being a “historical novel,” if not 60 years since, set 10 years earlier than the writing, which is unusual for her. Here is wikipedia to fill you in on plot-design, characters, circumstances.

One of the powers of the book is to convey what it’s like to live in a place where you are silently surrounded by a war going on around you which remains undeclared. Thus the book has parallels with the so-called War on Terror in the US only in the US it’s mostly poppycock. The elite here got scared when Bin laden and his lunatic fringe managed the stunning feat of murdering huge numbers of people in a highly symbolic building by a suicide flight mission. Most of those killed (as usual) were not elite, but working people, office people, but the elite saw they could be hit back as they have been doing outside the US since say 1948. In Ireland the Irish Catholics themselves were taking back their country from the small “tribe” the film calls them of Anglo-Irish, rather likes the Tutsis in Rwanda. So in the novel we see these people desperately carrying on while just outside their door, raids, murders, burnings, all sort of small scary and deadly incidents occur. An early scene is of the family group deciding to sit outside on the lawn — braving what’s out there. Well the film at the close did bring the Irish killers to the fore and now and again incidents we are told about are dramatized before us.

At the same time the situations are much different. These Anglo-Irish are now the powerless (well they are still wealthy); the state they live in is controlled by Catholic Irish and they are not wanted by the Catholics. Their protection we see comes from the British and Protestants. A serious question is asked, Are they not Irish too? They had not wanted to identify with the “lower orders” and now they find they do connect as people and want to remain on the level of human connection even if they represent all that deprived the Irish of decent lives for three hundred years. Bowen seems to have believed if only the various factions could get together under one large capacious roof such houses could have a new function. It never happened.

Sir Richard (Michael Gambon) and Lady Naylor (Maggie Smith) welcoming Francie (Jane Birkin) and Hugh Montgomery (Lambert Wilson)

I recommend this film, and (if you can get it to work) the DVD features which accompany it. It’s a fine and mostly faithful (transposition type) adaptation of Bowen’s powerful book. It’s labelled a “film by Deborah Walker” who was the director. The screenplay writer was John Banville and producer Yvonne Winter (with a few other producers – this is a recent film so it’s a number of companies getting together to fund it).

It’s beautifully atmospheric, hauntingly shot. Films are collaborative events and very important are the performances of Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon as Sir Richard and Magda Naylor. Unlike the book (I feel — this is a reading or interpretation) Sir Richard is made intensely aware that he is Irish, not English, even if Anglo-Irish and we feel he is sympathetic to the lower orders as people and will be at a terrible loss if he loses this house and world. Maggie Smith makes Lady Naylor more sympathetic than the book too — though a hideous snob to the young English officer, Gerald Colthurst (names Lesworth in the book) who the adopted niece, Lois Farquar falls in love with with. A 19th century style humiliation of him by Lady Naylor goes on when he asks for Lois’s hand (in the book and in the film).

Innocent Lois (Keeley Hawes) and Gerald, with a servant carrying a victrola behind them

David Tennant was very good as Gerald and Keeley Hawes fit the part of the naive girl, Lois. Fiona Shaw was an Irish woman come to the house, Miss Norton, who is marrying a wealthy English Londoner for his place and money; she becomes a (corrupt) mentor to Lois who admires her.

Hugh Montmorency with Marda Norton (Fiona Shaw)

There is a sexual story too. In the novel it seems that the pair of people visiting, the Montgomeries include a philandering promiscuous man, Hugh Montgomery who chases after Miss Norton and Lois (and anything in skirts). Jim said this was the way with the male English aristocracy when they had nothing to do but hunt beyond that. Jane Birkin was his much put upon wife, Francie. they have just lost their house to dire economic conditions. As far as I can tell there are hints that Lois may be the daughter of Hugh (not sure) who did not marry her mother, Laura, now dead; Laura married someone still alive who no one speaks of — “below them.” The terrific snobbery of this set is that of fringe insecure people. That’s in the book and film.

My feeling is Bowen sympathizes intensely with these people while seeing what they are. Again, her book is utterly relevant to us today — in the economic realm, only the elite have the poor on the run, not the other way round (at least in the US). There are real victims. One is the English officer – who in another scenario would be a brute. Here Tennant is an innocent sort of Hamlet used and his ending is bad. So too Francie Montmorencie, the weak Irish woman who lets her husband so what he wants and is going down down down. Jane Birkin has found meaning in her life as a French woman I know and in the feature one learned how she constantly phoned home.

A film which sympathized or book with the Catholic Irish would show them – not just as the put-upon servants which this does do. And there silently serving while we see them (scary you see)

Marda Norton with Captain Daventry

Fiona Shaw did two of the features — her part in the film was played up and developed more than the book. In one she discussed the book intelligently. She comes from the area of Ireland the book is set in — as did Bowen. Danielstown (the name of the house) is Bowen’s Court which Bowen found so expensive to keep up and in the end sold — to see it pulled down immediately by the owner. She did live in dread lest it be set on fire — an important dread in the novel. In the second feature she read wonderfully well from the book.

The other feature was Walker who discussed how she made the film and saw it. Very seriously. She did turn it into a love story and is aware of that; that is, she made that the central drive of the film while in the book it’s important (we see the book often from Lois’s point of view) but only a central thread. Walker does capture Bowen’s idea that the characters are themselves Irish and can’t escape it, her valuing of the house.

I think there is such a thing as Anglo-Irish Literature: Maria Edgeworth wrote it, Anthony Trollope (whom Bowen admired), Sheridan LeFanu, Bram Stoker, and Irish-Anglo lit (Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw). Anglo-Irish is gothic, melancholy, elegiac somehow. Pure Irish (like Synge) is a more robust comic strongly ironic-satiric austere mode. Mood even more central.

This the first book by Bowen I’ve read in a long time. I know Bowen said it was very important to her and I see how that is now. Her techniques are in place — a startlingly intelligent incisive way of describing people’s psychological stances towards one another, the world, themselves inside their minds. A subtle creation of atmosphere. But here they are serving a central political alignment of her life. She was a Nazi spy one must not forget and her The Heat of the Day no matter how great comes out on the side of making the world run by Nietzschean men and women,the superior men and women as these deserve the best of lives because they can grab and make them so-called beautiful. Actually in the book the hero kills himself and the heroine ends desolate so as with Last September you could read the book as undermining the Nietzchean point of view. There too it’s a matter of a loss of a house. It opens up with the desolating “to let?” the hero’s family has been driven by lack of money to let their house. It’s a come-down in status too.

Robert Kelway (Michael Yorke) and Stella Rodney (Patricia Hodge) in Heat of the Day, the screenplay is by Harold Pinter

I should say that I’ve a house I live in which I value, a safe harbor, from which the scariest dreams are that I’m locked out. I can understand Bowen’s love of her house, to me it’s not property or money either; it’s a place of memory, it surrounds me and I and Jim and Izzy shape it.

What runs on most through a family living in one place is a continuous, semi-physical dream. Above this dream-level successive lives show their tips, their little conscious formations of will and thought. With the end of each generation, the lives that submerged here were absorbed again. With each death, the air of the place had thickened: it had been added to. The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms . . . because they already permeated them. (BC 451)

And I can understand and value some of the outward culture of the characters in these books.


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