Archive for January, 2012

Samuel Lawrence’s 1864 painting of Trollope — my favorite of all the images (I don’t have it in color)

Dear readers and friends,

Over on Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two, under the stress of the usual stigmatization and occasional spiteful harassment I have to endure where I teach as an adjunct lecturer, I turned to work again on my paper, “The Content of Ann Radcliffe’s Landscapes,” and found myself renewing my strong ties with what keeps me alive, makes my life worth working to sustain. Being alive is (as Austen tells us at the close of Mansfield Park) a “consciousness of having to struggle and endure.” And I wrote a blog telling of how I first read Austen and Radcliffe too, how I first came across both of them and why I have not tired of either (or Bronte’s Jane Eyre). I posted a URL to the blog to friends and readers, and was answered on Trollope19thCStudies at Yahoo so reciprocated with someone who had told of his experience with my first experiences of Trollope.

As I’ve posted so much here on the Palliser films, and by extension thus Trollope, I thought I’d continue the thread here and tell how I came to read almost all Trollope. I’ve read all his fiction, all but one travel books, most of his non-fiction and a good many of his essays. The centered piece is written in a different style than that of this or other blogs: it’s from my book where I worked very hard to polish and make bright my style:

Over on Eighteenth-CenturyWorlds at Yahoo a sweet woman has joined us, is reading away and enjoying herself She told of how she first encountered Austen at age 58 through a film, Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park (very unlike Austen’s book most feel). She felt a little awkward about coming to this now intense engagement with Austen through a film. So I told her that the Palliser films had been a catalyst for me. While I did not come to him first through a movie, my interest was deeply aroused on a second encounter by the Palliser films.

Kate Nichols as Mary looking out at her mother, Lady Glencora Palliser, Duchess of Omnium’s grave (favorite still from Pallisers)

From the introduction to my book, Trollope on the Net:

My first “real” to Trollope occurred when I was around twenty-one and in my third year of college. I took a course in the nineteenth-century British novel, and one of ten novels assigned was Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne. I didn’t forget this one. The memory of some amused calm in Trollope’s voice remained vivid to me. It would make me smile to remember how he kept making all these excuses for himself because he was forced to take two long chapters to tell us the previous history of all the characters in Doctor Thorne before his book could officially begin. I reread the green-and-white 1959 Houghton Mifflin edition I bought for the course, and Elizabeth Bowen’s introduction to it, more than once.

In it I can still locate all the annotations to my copy which I
took down as notes from the English professor’s lecture in the course. The professor castigates Trollope ‘for telling, not showing’. Trollope is ‘repetitious’. The professor admires a scene in which Frank Gresham courts Mary Thorne while she sits upon a donkey because the comedy of the donkey’s perspective and presence ‘undercuts the sentimentality’; a near final line in the book where Mary cries out ‘Oh, Frank; my own Frank! my own Frank! we shall never be separated now’ leaves the reader with ‘a clutch in the throat’. Nevertheless, the book isn’t ‘sufficiently centered’ on ‘the consciousness’ of its characters. It’s not even clear who the hero is. We are ‘bogged down’ in ‘too much detail’ and ‘too many stories’. He said we were reading Trollope as ‘a mirror’ of his age. Trollope was dismissed. He was uninteresting.

Hermione Norris as Anna Howe reading Clary’s letter (favorite still from 1991 BBC Clarissa)

Seven or eight years later while I was writing a long dissertation on Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa & Sir Charles Grandison, two very long eighteenth-century epistolary novels, and had become very weary of my task, the Public Television station in New York City ran a several-part film of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. I was so entertained by the first episode that I went out, bought and read Can You Forgive Her?. During the day. I put the dissertation aside. Then I bought and read Phineas Finn. Despite my real poverty, I went out and bought and read the novel I gathered came next, The Eustace Diamonds. Then I bought the next one and read it. And then the next. It was like some candy one could not resist. It was such a relief from Richardson. Sanity after madness. Trollope’s idea of politics described my daily existence. I began to grieve that I had chosen the wrong field. I should have studied Victorian literature so I could have written my dissertation on Anthony Trollope. I laughed at myself.

Jim read these Palliser novels with me. As I would finish one, I
would give it to him and he would read it. He was doing his mathematics Ph.D. dissertation on Kleinian groups and didn’t mind putting his down either. We discussed the novels and, when we had finished The Duke’s Children, we bought & read in tandem The Way We Live Now, but at the time I at least felt disappointed by it. My father owned Barchester Towerss and brought it over to me from his apartment. What a delight. I then read The Warden. I cherished Mr Harding. Still I had to stop. My husband had already returned to his work. I could not go on with this addiction. I too had to return to what I had already begun and finish that. I told myself that someday I would read The Small House at Allington because it was said to have more Plantagenet and Lady Glencora, but again life got in my way.

The fourth time, ten years ago now, something clicked in me. I
decided this time I would not put Trollope aside, but carry on reading him until I had gone through every novel or other kind of book he ever wrote. It didn’t matter how long it took. The thought that he had written so many books that it would take a long time before I would run out cheered me. It was Aug 1989. I just been had been in a frightening automobile accident, and had spent twenty-four pain-racked hours in a frantically-busy emergency room in Metropolitan Hospital, an underfunded hospital in New York City in Spanish Harlem. Two days later, when I finally arrived on a ward for women, and my condition had been treated so that I was on the way to beginning to mend and I found myself in a quiet room in a bed, my father brought to me a copy of The Vicar of Bullhampton to read. He said he had just read it and remarked ‘how wise Trollope is’. It got me through.

In my book I also tell of how I have a vague memory I did meet
Trollope once before. When I was 15 rummaging in my father’s books once again I think I must’ve read Trollope’s autobiography. I remember a story about a young boy’s father who was seen as a mad-man writing long encyclopedic books about nuns. And also how he was so badly beaten at school, the class humiliation. It was probably one of those small blue book Oxford books published in 1951.

So films have meant a lot to me because it was on a Trollope list I led my first group read, on a Trollope list I met John Letts who invited me to write a book for the Trollope society, published it, invited (and paid me) to give a hour lecture at the Reform club, the first time I ever gave a talk in my life — to such an exalted group too. My 15 minutes of fame came and went early.

Gari Melchers*, Penelope (1910) (AT’s Story-telling art: Partly Told in Letters)

Again my listserv (and nowadays facebook) friend replied telling generally of his earliest reading experiences and love of 19th century novels. And so again I responded in kind, again I quote the centered piece from the introduction to Trollope on the Net

Thank you so much for replying: our stories are parallel as they probably are not uncommon stories of reading American children growing up in households with access to books. We were reading children as we are now reading adults.

Mine differs slightly but I note neither of us came across Trollope or Radcliffe until later in life. They are not included in children’s classics abridged or otherwise — and in my story were not included in the 1930s and 40s sets of classics my father owned which he had picked up inexpensively by
belonging to book clubs at the time. Again I do quote from the opening of my book, Trollope on the Net. He told me these sets of books were produced by organizations at the time who were trying to spread education “to the masses,” left book clubs really. Tellingly, they did not distribute Sinclair’s The
or modern critical classics (say Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), much less any more radical or political book but rather the famous ones suitable to a school canon. Now older I surmise that’s because such books were out of
copyright, easy to get hold of, thought to be very good for us (the way the BBC first had education and uplift part of its aim). I thought and still think Trollope was excluded because his vision includes sex more overtly and Radcliffe suffered then and now from ridicule.

Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea planning for cottages (1994 Middlemarch)

When I was a girl my father owned old sets of these in editions published in the 1930s. Before I was fourteen I had read all sorts of novels by a number of the more famous English novelists: Oliver Goldsmith, Jane Austen, Emily & Charlotte Bronte, and then later in my teens William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Charles Reade, Richard Blackmore, Robert Louis Stevenson — & of course Charles Dickens. But no Trollope. Trollope was never included in these sets, perhaps for the same reasons one found in them George Eliot’s Silas Marner but not Middlemarch, Goldsmith and Austen but not Henry Fielding or Samuel Richardson, Robert Louis Stevenson but not George Gissing or Arnold Bennett. Depictions or analyses of adult sexual experience were not favoured — and also those authors chosen were those whose books are identified as romances or adventure stories, and those whose novels still regularly make it onto the syllabi in American high schools or colleges. Trollope’s books use adult sexual experience, and he is an author who schoolteachers and college professors think they can skip.

One reason for my writing this book in the way I have is to reach readers who, like myself, have not come into conscious contact with Trollope until they reached college, and those who, again like myself, once there, have had professors who’ve decided they have neither room nor time for Trollope or who belittle him. Anthony Trollope is one of the greatest 19th century novelists.

Twice now, once on the Trollope list and once on Trollope-l, I
have asked how others on the list came to read Trollope with real interest, if not devotion, and I have told how I did. Athough I never took a poll, it seemed to me that on both lists a large majority of people began to read Trollope on their own — that is, without first having been assigned to read a novel by him in school. Those who first read him did so in college or at a university. Unlike the nineteenth-century American novelist Herman Melville, or James Joyce, about both of whom it has been argued they are today classics and best-sellers (at least in college student bookstores) because of assigned reading in school, Trollope has survived in spite of how he is treated or ignored in schools. Most of us had also found that university teachers regard Trollope as a minor or second-rate novelist. My experience resembled that of others.

And finally, have I or does one tire of Trollope?

No I’ve not tired of him. But I do know that when I read him, it’s not common for me to have the kind of intense release or delight I can still know with Austen and Radcliffe. It can happen though – and usually it’s rather when he really hits his tragic mode, sorrow, grief, twisted anguish often framed in a larger ironic way through the book and I do really appreciate his downright simply said hard truths. As with Samuel Johnson, I find this comforting.

Although (as I said) i’ve have have read almost all Trollope, including travel writing and a number of his essays, I would be willing to read again or read more I’ve not yet read. I think I would find real interest (knowledge) and delight in what I’ve not gotten to as yet. He really does mean to and offers knowledge, information. And an ethical vision that stands up — if it’s limited, it’s less so in some ways than Austen or Radcliffe because his experience of the world was so much greater than theirs and as a man was allowed to write of it in searing fiction.

John Everett Millais, Lady Julia and Johnny Eames, The Small House at Allington


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The actual table

Dear friends and readers,

Last night Jim and I went to the Folger Shakespeare theater to see an adaptation of Susannah Centlivre’s The Basset Table. I want to recommend seeing it, urge readers who live in the DC area or not far away to come and enjoy. They (everyone involved it seemed) gave it their all, and it’s a rare treat you won’t see again soon.

It’s not a great production which somehow conveys some deep inner life and feel of the play (the way the fairly recent Folger Clandestine Marriage by Colman and Garrick and years’ ago Dryden’s Marriage a La Mode as altered by Giles Havergal( were; but The Gaming Table is entertaining, pleasurable, funny and the updating does not change the play much at all, merely prunes and makes it more understandable to a modern audience.

I was sufficiently aroused to come home and read the play for the first time in my life — till after midnight. I had read Centlivre’s A Bold Stroke for a Wife and The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret previously and John Wilson Bowyer’s well-written, informative, insightful book, The Celebrated Mrs Centlivre (as you see recommended), but never went on to read any thing more as in these two plays (whatever Bowyer said and however unconventional her life until she married the king’s cook), Centlivre’s texts seemed to me so conventional, the language without inner poetry and the themes mildly cared about (lukewarm), but this rendition made me read anew. I now felt Centlivre’s proto-feminism, ardent witty defense of strong women and pleasure (including at the gaming table), the real theatrical possibilities of her scripts. The flaw in the play’s thematic stances (muted in this production) is its condescending snobbery to Mr and Mrs Sago, citizen and wife. The production did all it could to give it a forward thrust since Centlivre’s text also lacks the kind of clinching incident which makes a play a suspenseful experience whose ending we look anxiously or amusingly towards: they had for all the characters very colorful dazzling even costumes, using cliches to the limit, all the laughs were played up broadly, the acting was good and delivery of lines sharp and apt. Especially strong is Tonya Beckman Ross as Mrs Sago; she deliverered the new prologue and epilogue and starred in the Folger’s previous production of Marivaux’s Game of Love and Chance:

For a moment one felt a little of the fun between audience and actress that the prologue and epilogue tradition of the 18th century encourages. The verse was clearly a modern imitation of 18th century verse and referred to our theater, experience, lives and hers as actress-Mrs Sago too

The stage was a series of stairways up and down, criss-cross, with an upside light on one wall (that was never explained). There are so few stills from the production online that I can offer only this photo from a rehearsal:

But you can see the whole theater set up for this play here on the recent banner of their promotional ads for the Folger:

The loss here was a sort of Chekhovian lingering on the feel of the milieu in the text itself, an invite simply to feel awash in the diurnal sweetness of life (I allude to Tallyrand) which since I last saw it captured for an 18th century text in the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park film, the director (Eleanor Holdridgeg) and adaptor (David Grimm) are not to be blamed for. It seems the way modern productions usually feel the way to make audiences like 18th century plays is to as gaudy, antic, and (when they understand it) coolly ironic as possible. the refusal to try for depth of feeling (I admit) made me nod off during one lull where I could see how Centlivre was moving counters round on a stage, but it was not for long). Well the plays are that but they can be more.

However, not to cavil as probably the people putting on these productions knew their audience and the house was full and seemed very pleased by the end. Some of the funniest scenes were of the young ardent scientist woman, Valerie (Emily Trask) and her sweet lover who also wants to marry her for her money, Ensign Lovely (Robbie Ray), a kind Tom Jones avant la lettre character. Centlivre got in some early hits against cruelty to animals:

Lady Reveller: Oh, barbarous! killed your pretty Dove. [Starting]
Valeria: Killed it! Why, what did you imagine I bred it up for? Can Animals, Insects, or Reptiles be put to a nobler Use than to improve our Knowledge?

and perhaps was an early devotee of the English navy (she appears in this production to make fun of her dislike of the French). Michael Milligan did Sir James Courtly as a gay male and I think had in mind a performance by a brilliant English actor I saw a long time ago as Oscar Wilde (himself) in a Wilde play; he was all suavity and salacious self-control (he seemed hardly to move but with steathly nuance) and innuendo: his wig was huge and his costume glittered. Perhaps because I over-idealize or romanticize what Anne Oldfield must’ve been I was disappointed in Julie Jesneck as Lady Reveller; she didn’t revel enough, but was more intent to reject the lovelorn (abject in this production) Lord Worthy (Marcus Kyd). Ashley Ivey as Buckle, Worthy’s servant, stole some scenes and we feel for him very much (and are meant to) when Worthy slaps him hard (I hope not as hard as it sounded). Michael Glenn as the good-natured Captain Hearty and Micheal Willis as the stern tyrant father to Valeria did their easy bits.

Still I came away remembering Tonya Beckman Ross as Mrs Sago, and it is she backwards that the Folger has chosen to use as their gravatar:

There is an accompanying exhibit only a tiny part of which we got to see: of women writers and women in the theater. It had not yet opened! There was only the room with paraphernalia about Centlivre: real cards from the era, a frontispiece which showed this production imitated some of the details of the costumes, a life of Centlivre. Over at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a lecture on Centlivre is scheduled as well as a new show called “Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles and Other French National Collections.” (Centlivre’s plays are much influenced by early 18th century French plays, showing her dislike of French was not complete.) We mean to go. Probably the choice of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew is meant to fit in, but I would much have preferred and it would be even more fitting to re-do (as I once saw the RSC do at the Kennedy), Fletcher’s rousing Tamer Tamed

Perhaps Marguerite Gerard’s Angora Cat is something in the spirit of passages in Centlivre’ concoction.

See my Margaret Woffington and Francis Abingdon: hard-working girls in a material world.

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Caliban (Luca Pisaroni) in the midst of a nightmare

Dear friends and readers,

From the Baroque period we have had opera seria and opera buffa. Now we have opera mash-up. The Met is attempting to dignify their daring creation with a pedigree by using the word “pasticcio.” Not only in opera, but on the legitimate and not-so-legitimate stage long 18th century stage (1660-1815), adaptations, free-wheeling and close, re-combinations of old plays abridged with non-dramatic genres like pastorals, clever mocking farces, and parodies were part of the on-going repertoire. And The Enchanted Island consists of a number of da capo exit arias: as my husband, Jim (knowledgeable in the area of opera) told me:

Opera seria is this rigid opera genre which consists mostly of da capo exit arias; that is, the aria ends as it began and then the character leaves the stage. There is some variation, not much. So in Rodelinda, we had that marvelous duet (Renee Fleming and Andreas Scholler as Rodelinda and Bertarido), but there is just the one. All else da capa. Enchanted Island had a number of da capo exit arias, but they mixed in a whole bunch of stuff that was not from opera and from musical compositions there was music from oratorios, contatae, even a coronation anthem (Neptune’s song was Zadoc a coronation anthem by Handel, written for George II and used ever since). So we do not get this sense of rigidity …

And the Met has a website which tells you where the original music from many of the parts come from so you can (if you wish) discover the original context and see how it’s been transposed.

Ariel is also Puck directing traffic among the confused lovers in the wood

However, as Jim suggests this is just one aspect of this entertainment. The Met has people in it who want to do the Baroque repertoire and they were permitted to do it if all was done that could be done to defy the basics of its strict music forms.

So, the story or plot-design was lifted from two different plays by Shakespeare, not so much as originally conceived by him, but as seen through Restoration and 18th century adaptations: this was a Tempest as seen through the salacious and titillating perspective of Dryden and Davenant and his Midsummer Night’s Dream), into which was imported the four lovers and their forest scenes from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jeremy Sams, librettist, and Julian Crouch, director and set designer, were not content to stay with 18th century re-writes: Sycorax (sung by Joyce DiDonato) who does appear in the 18th century renditions, has become the true heroine of the story: Prospero (sung by countertenor, David Daniels) is not Shakespeare’s more or less exemplary alter ego, victim of his own goodness at the hands of an amoral cynical brother, but someone who took over Sycorax’s island and has oppressed and controlled her (somehow — don’t press this too far) ever since. She herself is a loving mother.

Sycorax listening to Caliban’s angry grief

Prospero and Sycorax are made into faintly into an Oberon v Titania pair with the right being on Sycorax’s side as the less powerful figure.

Prospero (David Daniels) and Sycorax (Joyce Didonato)

Joyce Diddonato had the last bow at the end, even though the concluding da capo aria of Act I was Prospero’s (who tells us how he has done wrong) and the epilogue was spoken by Prospero: Shakespeare’s famous good bye speech: “Now our revels are ended.”

Thus this early 21st century creation brought home how adult and frank and playful sexually was Baroque & early to mid-18thc theatre. Cross-dressing, transvestites, continual breaching gender stereotypes: Dryden and all the 18th century writers who followed him re-did Shakespeare they did “sex” him up, make things titillating and salacious that in Shakespeare’s version remain restrained (or austere, grave, serious). There was a kind of mockery of enthrallment in heterosexual stories, especially in the thankless part of Miranda (automatically falls in love with whatever young man is put in front of her, inanely idealistic), which made me wonder had I been missing this in Shakespeare’s plays (after all from his sonnets we know he was bisexual). People interested in the early modern to 18th century from any aspect would learn by seeing this.

Helena’s outfit and its part origin

There were archetypes from novels well after the later 17th century: Luca Pisaroni played Caliban was as a wrenchingly moving re-creation of Quasimodo (he has a crooked back, is disabled mentally, mocked as ugly to his considerable emotional pain), not so much from Hugo but the famous poignant Charles Laughton’s embodiment from the 1930s film. I literally cried at Sycorax’s aria over Caliban’s grief when Helena rejects him. Tears coming down my face. The Met site tells us the music sung was a plaintive song by the Virgin Mary over Christ. The lyrics and situation transpose to a modern situation where the mother would do whatever she could do spare her child, but can do nothing. The whole sequence of Caliban’s nightmare (expressed through nightmare figures dancing) was to me the high point of Enchanted Island (and people who’ve written to me said this was true for them too). I was aware he was not singing; his acting out of anguish was enough.

Costume design came from the later 17th through 18th century: Danielle de Niese at the close had a costumed modeled on Louis XIV as Apollo, somewhat modified by memories of the high plums of headdresses by aristocratic women of the later 18th century (as seen in the recent movie based on Georgiana Spenser’s life, The Duchess, and the 1999 BBC mini-series, Lennox sisters in Aristocrats).

Danielle de Niese as Ariel taking her bow (how a person can be seen as achieving her liberty in that outfit is beyond me — to me such a costume is ironic; she is encased in hierarchies)

Allusions to the US as seen in the 18th century (a Tiepolo ceiling) abounded, but also as seen today: De Niese said she thought of Tinkerbell, the Mermaids hanging from the sky each time Neptune (Placido Domingo) made an entrance, were straight from Disney.

Dialogue — the funny remarks referred to in the interviews Deborah Voigt conducted between acts — came right out of today’s pop US & UK culture. Where one of the imported young men from MND, Demetrius (Paul Appleny), didn’t want to take “no” for “no” from Miranda, Lysander (Eliot Madore), the other, said something like “he said that last time” or ‘he always says that.” Going down to the bottom of the sea, Ariel wore a scuba-diving outfit that looked like something out of Flash Gordon (or Star Wars).

Along with Sams and Julian Crouch, a central creator was Phelim McDermott, all 3 all gay Brits; they had more than little help from a man expert in Baroque, William Christie, who chose rarely done music by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Purcella and lesser known composers, Campra, Rebel. The sensibility was gay, toned down. The extravagance was camp. This was “in your face” opera. The three men said they decided not to do anything moderate. They would concede no apologies. Opera is meant to be over-the-top and that’s what they were.

The Met as a group or team also simply want to sell their work and help operas reach a wider and younger audience. The hype of the interviews, the filming of staging backstage is all part of this. They must also outside the standard repertoire: you cannot keep doing the same 40 operas over and over in movie screens around the world, and new operas are not written very often. They were after a younger audience too. The singer chosen for the six young lovers were young handsome and/or beautiful and intended to please those who would not identify with aging divas and tenors close up. Helena was especially physically lovely; Hermia singer very moving (every time Shakespeare words used the production became much better and she was given mostly Shakespeare’s words), Lysander drop-dead beautiful in the Rufus Sewell mode. I could see Izzy was very taken by hijinks of the five in the forest.

I did find the girlish Ferdinand (very high counter-tenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo) downright embarrassing: his voice was very high and he was dressed like Ronald Colman as Rupert Hentzau when we first see him in Prisoner of Zenda (Ruritania, Knighthood was in Flower stuff). He was the only one of the six lovers altogether to wear an 18th century white wig; all the others had their own “natural” well, cascading and rich hair. Why he was so stigmatized, set apart I could not tell. (In film adaptations of older works, the older men and characters meant to be disliked regularly have wigs or heavy make-up; all the males meant to be entrancing wear their own hair. Ditto for the actresses.) The young woman doing Miranda was daffy. Maybe that had something to do with it, but as I say it’s foolish to try to find reasons for much that one saw literally. Often the makers were simply adding on whatever they could think of to amuse or dazzle.

One of several storms from the first act

I confess that by the end of Act 1 I was ambivalent: I felt I had not been moved; I recognized the Baroque proscenium stage, that the front of the stage was lined with shells (18th century stage used such forms to keep the candles in), but all the artifice, including the cardboard like ship going down in a computerized tempest just reminded me of how unreal what I was watching was. Ariel’s “duhs” and funny mock magic were amusing, but I didn’t like what I took to be making fun of Caliban in act 1; I am often turned off by over-luxurious, over-produced operas and prefer people sitting on chairs singing their hearts out so I can see how the music pieces relate to one another and really engage with the music and characters as somehow real enough.

But I was won over. I was turned round even to being deeply moved, admiration, enjoyment, respect by the end of Act 2. I’ve found this true of other later 20th-21stc staged productions: they start slow; Act 1 develops the situation to the point where in Act 2 we may engage deeply with what happens to this set-up situation, place, characters. That partly happened here. Mostly my engagement came from the Sycorax and Caliban matter. And the second half had far more lines from Shakespeare.

The four lovers waking from their dream spell

I cannot say I liked the long-drawn out triumphant happiness of all the characters at the ending: it’s tedious, repetitive, negates for me what went before. I’m told that is what you find in Baroque operas. But a couple of months ago, Jim and I went to the West End Cinema in DC to see Don Giovanni (Peter Mattrei the singer) from the Teatro alla Scala. Marvelously cynical and it ended almost immediately after Giovanni is pulled undergrown by the man who would have been his father-in-law had he married Donna Anna (Ann Netrebko). All we see is Leporello (Bryn Terfel) seeking a new place. Since this is patently a 21st century work, there is no need for this Busby-Berkeley let’s get everyone on stage beaming at the audience close. But then I did say this was kind of gay game.

I realize I’ve not talked much about the actual singing or music. The movie-theater I was in had the sound too high at times, but FWIW, I thought the singing of Daniels as Prospero effective, Didonato as Sycorax moving. It was ensemble and mostly no one but else but De Niese (marvelous) as Ariel emerged. It was more I was aware of the humor or sadness as I listened. The four lovers when first seen are singing a song about the pleasures they anticipate (over and over) and the innocent words become salacious; often the words seem ironically juxtaposed to the music provided or scene itself. We are not really scared ever or awed.

Claire (Helena) is someone often seen in secondary roles at the Met

I do hope there were not so many castrati as these Baroque productions suggest. Izzy says yes though especially in the Catholic Church. How cruel economic desperation and the search for prestige makes people.

See the Classical Review, the New York Times review and Clever Concoction from Yahoo.

Don’t miss it.

Ariel failing to blow on her shell


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Amy Clampitt

A Thrush singing in Dorsetshire

Dear friends and readers,

This foremother poet blog on Amy Clampitt, is done differently from most. I was so taken by her “The Hermit Thrush” after reading a review in Women’s Review of Books of a newly published book of her poems, that I wrote a brief foremother poet posting and then put this poem on Wompo — at whch there was an outpouring of Thrush poems in reponse. So this is Amy Clampitt amid the thrushes. I found 2 UTube videos where one can hear the thrush’s song and watch a couple: the one above and one at the end of the blog.

Jim and I don’t share that many favorite poems but one is Basil Bunting (Yorkshire poet)’s (part of which forms the epigraph to my Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two):

A thrush in the syringa sings.

‘Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things.

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things,
fear, hunger, lust.’

O gay thrush.


Syringa is sweet-smelling lilacs and Austen planted one in her first garden in Southampton for the sake of a line by Cowper that includes the syringa.


The latest issue of Women’s Review of Books (Jan/Feb 2012) is particularly rich and fine, and among its essays are no less than three on women’s poetry. One of these Amy Clampitt whose name I’ve heard before was written about in such a way I longed to read her poetry. In no time I found this masterpiece:

The Hermit Thrush

Nothing’s certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,

to where, a decade since well-being staked
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic—

the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons—there’s no knowing what the slamming
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,

the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass
and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw

but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.
Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there’s no use drawing one,
there’s nothing here

to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
(holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or
any no-more-than-human tendency—
stubborn adherence, say,

to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to
hold on in any case means taking less and less
for granted, some few things seem nearly
certain, as that the longest day

will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,

that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible
to be held onto—

that no point is fixed, that there’s no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor’s knots, such stays
and guy wires as are

mainly of our own devising. From such an
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as

in the end untenable. Base as it is, from
year to year the earth’s sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with

thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry’s cool poultice—

and what can’t finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.

Little is certain, other than the tide that
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic—today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet—

and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk’s-cowl overcast,

with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end

unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive—
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human—there’s

hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing

Amy Clampitt

Said to be a hermit thrush

A biography with reviews and poetry linked in.

I can contribute this brief life too:

Amy Clampitt was born on June 15, 1920, and brought up in New Providence, Iowa. She wrote poetry in high school, but then ceased and focused her energies on writing fiction instead. She graduated from Grinnell College, and from that time on lived mainly in New York City. To support herself, she worked as a secretary at the Oxford University Press, a reference librarian at the Audubon Society, and a freelance editor.

Not until the mid-1960s, when she was in her forties, did she return to writing poetry. Her first poem was published by The New Yorker in 1978. In 1983, at the age of sixty-three, she published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher.

In the decade that followed, Clampitt published five books of poetry, including What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), and Westward (1990). Her last book, A Silence Opens, appeared in 1994. The recipient in 1982 of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1984 of an Academy Fellowship, she was made a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1992. She was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and taught at the College of William and Mary, Amherst College, and Smith College. She died of cancer in September 1994.

I have read that she is accused of being bookish! if so, all the better (see poems in comments). If this woman be not a foremother, where are foremothers to be found?

And here is the outpouring of thrush poetry from the women poets and lovers of poetry from Wompo (Women’s Poetry list) whence we had an outpouring of thrush, with photos and another UTube performance of a bird. These were placed on Wompo over three days. Friends, were Congress to enact this draconian censorship bill on behalf of the movie and music industry and other powerful corporations who the Internet takes business from (narrow public media owned by a few) and other powerful institutions threatened by the Net this is the sort of thing they’d silence, black out.

By Margo Berdeshevsky (which she shared with us):

Of the Song Bird

Legend tells of the community of birds who had wings but no song as yet : of a contest offered them by the god : of the prize of song—offered to that bird who could fly the highest : of the tiny dun white-spotted-thrush who knew it had no powers to fly high enough to win and wanted to—

Who crept, instead, who hid her small self in a white eagle’s feathered crown to fly far higher than all others : who dozed there, dreamed there, concealed in her carrier’s flight, and longing—and when her eagle tired, she who knew, and bounded out and upward farther still—

Legend tells of the coveted prize of song she heard and learned there, in the heights : of the thrush who returned with the song of spheres in her thirsty small throat, who knew she had won by cheating : who saw the gathering of birds below—a community, receiving, each, their entitled songs—

Legend of the thrush who went away then, hid in the deepest of forests out of shame—but who could not help her song from rising, even in those stands of webbing vine and shadow—of a quest for beauty, of goodness as we barely know it but beg to receive it—that it brings us to longing, only—

Frailty, that rarely, like the thrush, the gorgeous song in us climbs, a bird ashamed of its arriving at a possession of beauty by unsanctioned means, a slouching off to such a dim-lit place where the song erupts in spite, its open-winged remembering, seining from the quiet—

We decided that these thrush poems project world views and tell us much about their poets:

The Laughing Thrush

O nameless joy of the morning

tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there

song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it

and the lost visages that hover
around the edge of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future

here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening

White-crested laughing thrush

W. W. Merwin


Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn,
More coiled steel than living – a poised
Dark deadly eye, those delicate legs
Triggered to stirrings beyond sense – with a start, a bounce,
a stab
Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing thing.
No indolent procrastinations and no yawning states,
No sighs or head-scratchings. Nothing but bounce and stab
And a ravening second.

Is it their single-mind-sized skulls, or a trained
Body, or genius, or a nestful of brats
Gives their days this bullet and automatic
Purpose? Mozart’s brain had it, and the shark’s mouth
That hungers down the blood-smell even to a leak of its own
Side and devouring of itself: efficiency which
Strikes too streamlined for any doubt to pluck at it
Or obstruction deflect.

With a man it is otherwise. Heroisms on horseback,
Outstripping his desk-diary at a broad desk,
Carving at a tiny ivory ornament
For years: his act worships itself – while for him,
Though he bends to be blent in the prayer, how loud and
above what
Furious spaces of fire do the distracting devils
Orgy and hosannah, under what wilderness
Of black silent waters weep.

Ted Hughes

A cruel poem, embodying the cruelty of the natural and human worlds.

A darkling thrush

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy

Turning back to women’s poetry and thrushes, it’s been suggested that in women’s poetry one finds women poets who identify physically and intimately with small animals. (See Women’s faery poetry). For a near contemporary we have Mary Oliver

Am alert watchful thrush

And to go back in time, two from my favorite era, the 18th century. This is in the spirit of Robert Burns’s To a Mousie, or a similar vein. It really belongs to an early part of the animal rights movement; other poems (often by women) against experiment and really empathizing with (for example) cats are part of this earlier context.

Elegy: On finding a young THRUSH in the Street, who escaped from the Writer’s Hand, as she was bringing him home, and, falling down the Area of a House, could not be found

Mistaken Bird, ah, whither hast thou stray’d?
My friendly grasp, why eager to elude?
This hand was on thy pinion lightly laid,
And fear’d to hurt thee by a touch too rude.

Is there no foresight in a Thrush’s breast,
That thou down yonder gulph from me would’st go?
That gloomy area lurking cats infest,
And there the dog may rove, alike thy foe.

I would with lavish crumbs my Bird have fed,
And bought a crystal cup to wet thy bill;
I would have made of down and moss thy bed,
Soft, though not fashion’d with a Thrush’s skill.

Soon as thy strengthen’d wing could mount the sky,
My willing hand had set my captive free:
Ah, not for her, who loves the muse, to buy
A selfish pleasure, bought with pain to thee!

The vital air, and liberty, and light,
Had all been thine: and love, and rapt’rous song,
And sweet parental joys, in rapid flight,
Had led the circle of thy life along.

Securely to my window hadst thou flown,
And ever thy accustom’d morsel found;
Nor should thy trusting breast the wants have known,
Which other Thrushes knew, when winter frown’d.

Fram’d with the wisdom Nature lent to thee,
Thy house of straw had brav’d the tempest’s rage;
And thou, thro’ many a spring, hadst liv’d to see
The utmost limit of a Thrush’s age.

Ill-fated Bird! and does the Thrush’s race,
Like Man’s, mistake the path that leads to bliss;
Or, when his eye that tranquil path can trace,
The good he well discerns, thro’ folly miss?”

——Helen Maria Williams



Ode to the Missed Thrush

Charlotte Smith

The Winter Soistice scarce is past,
Loud is the wind, and hoarsely sound
The mill-streams in the swelling blast,
And cold and humid is the ground[;]
When, to the ivy, that embowers
Some pollard tree, or sheltering rock,
The troop of timid warblers flock,
And shuddering wait for milder hours.

While thou! the leader of their band,
Fearless salut’st the opening year;
Nor stay’st, till blow the breeze bland
That bid the tender leaves appear:
But, on some towering elm or pine,
Waving elate thy dauntless wing,
Thou joy’st thy love notes wild to sing,
Impatient of St. Valentine!

Oh, herald of the Spring! while yet
No harebe1l scents the woodland lane,
Nor starwort fair, nor violet,
Braves the bleak gust and driving rain,
‘Tis thine, as thro’ the copses rude
Some pensive wanderer sighs along,
To soothe him with thy cheerful song,
And tell of Hope and Fortitude!

For thee then, may the hawthorn bush,
The elder, and the spindle tree,
With all their various berries blush,
And the blue sloe abound for thee!
For thee, the coral holly glow
Its arm’d and glossy leaves among,
And many a branched oak be hung
With thy pellucid missletoe.
Still may thy nest, with lichen lin’d,
Be hidden from the invading jay,
Nor truant boy its covert find,
To bear thy callow young away;
So thou, precursor still of good,
0, herald of approaching Spring,
Shalt to the pensive wanderer sing
Thy song of Hope and Fortitude.

The above too has a larger specific context from the time: poems about nature in a time of war (Napoleonic). It fits in with some eighteenth century poetry by poets like Thomson and Cowper, discussed by Favret (her last name) in a recent brilliant moving article in PMLA (“Still Winter Comes”, PMLA 124:5 (2009):1548-61

Just listen to that gay song and watch at the Metro Toronto Zoo with people commenting.


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Beth Hardiman, from Tamara Drewe

Alexandra, from The Night Bookmobile

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of years ago now I became aware of how graphic novels have grown up; they are no longer fancied up comic books; the art and words can be as complex and moving as many a sheer verbal longer novel. What happened was I went to see Tamara Drewe, a film adaptation of one of Posy Simmonds’s marvelous graphic novels, and I so liked the movie, I wrote a blog about it, then bought myself a copy of the book so I could really take it in, and discovering it to be a satire on literary life:

Posy Simmonds, from Tamara Drewe

as well as a moving account of several characters’ lives over one year (loosely based on a Thomas Hardy story), went on to get myself a copy of Gemma Bovary, which I liked just as much, again a moving account of a modern Emma Bovary who lives in London and moves to France, truly empathized with:

Gemma learning to shop sensibly in Normandy

Then I went on to buy myself a copy of a group of graphic novels called Gothic Classics, which included witty and pleasing re-dos of Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho (!), Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (female vampire story):

Emily St Aubert writhing from nightmare

Catherine Morland and Henry and Eleanor Tilney take their country walk

an Edgar Allen Poe story; and, for Izzy, Nancy Butler and Sonny Liewe’s Sense and Sensibility (strongly influenced by Andrew Davies’ 2008 film adaptation),
See interview with one of the authors

and a friend bought me Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of growing up in Iran, originally in French, whose strong content goes into real world and nationalistic politics:



Monksted, the ideal conference place (Posy Simmonds)

Now a few weeks ago someone on my WWTTA (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) list pointed to an article which suggested that while the typical graphic novel, even by women, had been over-sexed, done from a masculinist point of view, they were all beginning to change to be more like those I had so liked:

Ker-pow! Women kick back against comic-book sexism

The Guardian article also provided a list of graphics to find on the Net, published in periodicals, to buy, to find in libraries. A friend recommended Audrey Niffeneggar’s The Night Bookmobile (I had tried her Time Traveller’s Wife and Izzy and I seen the film adaptation). First I read the strips as they appeared in an online newspaper, and so liked them, got myself the book.

Tonight I had intended to plunge into writing just about The Night Bookmobile, thinking I had written before here on this or my other blogs on Posy Simmonds as well as my other three treasures. And these would provide context. No such thing. I know I have brief and longer postings I sent to WWTTA over Gemma, Tamara, Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe (who I am chuffed to be able to say the authors’ treated in the more empathic spirit I did in my paper), Emily St Aubert, not to omit Marjane. But I can’t pile it all in here — something I used to do by mistake, make overlong blogs — I’ve already strained my readers’ attention with what I’ve referred to. So I’ll just begin with Niffenegger’s Night Bookmobile

It startled me:

Back cover left side

It was even more melancholy than Simmonds (it was deeply so) and reminded me of Guy Andrews’s free adaptation of Austen’s P&P as Lost in Austen and had allusions to Jorge Borges’s, depictions on the shelves of the covers and titles of the heroine’s favorite books from childhood, adolescent, young adulthood, and didn’t leave out books I read to my daughters in early childhood, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon one of them. and just hit home too.

The titles are not my favorite ones, more fantasy and far fewer of the heroine’s text and Anglophilic books I loved

It doesn’t matter. What I really loved was how it made no compromises with what the world says we are supposed to be made happy by and accept.

It takes one through the stages of a heroine’s life, each of which are marked by her simply being older and finding the book mobile again.

Each time she is drawn as much older.

Each time the shelves are stuffed fuller. Each time the librarian (a male) is more welcoming and she is led into other parts of the book mobile.

Towards the close there’s a version of a book reading room that reminds me of the one at in the Jefferson building in the Library of Congress, what I’ve seen of the old British Museum, a Jorge Borges circular place of rows of seats around a card catalogue with everyone reading.

No irony, no pretense of her being a misfit. The opening reminded me of Lost in Austen. Our heroine has such a boy, dressed so down, so flat, so lank, so unimaginative, watching TV. She wanders far grimmer streets.

She seeks out Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone

Amanda Price in Lost in Austen lives in London; this woman lives in some more provincial city or suburb of the US: nothing but malls, cheap stores, empty streets. She leaves said boyfriend. Who wouldn’t? But there is no Mr Darcy and fantasy land to escape too, only this book mobile with this librarian. Each time the books added are those she’s read though sometimes we hear of children’s books she’s read. Pat the Bunny (which I didn’t read as a child but I read to my children). Gradually she begins to ask if she can stay; and then can she be a librarian too. Alas, he cannot give her this position and he can only stay the night. We see the book mobile drive off in dawn.

By this time the model is Goodnight Moon in feel and several of the frames evoke it.

It seems the only way to become a librarian in this novel is to die; but upon taking a bottle of pills, the book mobile appears once more. The page has small frames of bottles and slippers and her looking at us surrounded by books she can’t reach, her in middle age.

Almost there (the title of the second volume of Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir)

And then there it is. The last line of the book evokes it, only the reality is she has died and yet at the same time become a librarian at last:

Note the words resonate with our present heartless economic system which leaves huge numbers of people unemployed or underemployed or menially employed or make tiny sums of montye. The words of congratulations in our world are: “You’re hired.”

At heart it’s partly a disguised suicide story.

The cover shows her cradling her book

I was so surprised as the open sadness of it. Also at how comforting it was at the same time.

She is reading for two

The Night Bookmobile made me remember my love of girls’ books and how much they had meant to me — even though my choices were so much different from Alexandra’s: Judy Bolton was the one I loved.

One problem is Niffenegger is not as good a visual artist as Posy Simmons. Not as lovely and pleasing. She also lacks Simmonds’s undercutting ironies that are so saturnine and capture our world just as surely. Still … this is so much better than most one comes across in steely feel and has its strong truth with no pandering or compromises.

It makes me want to try Niffenegger’s The time Traveller’s Wife once again. I have faced up to my not being able to read seriously at night and if I want to do this — and read other books I long to — I must go slower and do less projects, interweaving them with projects, papers, books, and teaching during the day.


A Heraldic map of Cranford by Posy Simmonds!

Thus do these things all come together. A tentative sort of conclusion: womens’ graphic novels keep the patina of humor, wit, jokes and/or fantasy on the surface and when they are advertised, that’s what emphasized. But the predominant mood in these all is semi- or outright protest, a quiet sadness to devastating melancholy. This fits in with a certain kind of woman’s novel that remains my favorite — and often wins the Orange Prize.

So, for example, Simmonds has done her typical artwork to illustrate the town of Cranford in the companion to the film series.

Did you know gentle reader and viewer she made the map and envisoned one of the stories woven into the Cranford (out of Elizabeth Gaskell) mini-series.

Posy Simmonds’s illustration for Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow

Now the film adaptation called Cranford Chronicles brings together a group of stories by a woman so tyipical of girls’ and women’s books: a self-reflective ironic re-do of My Lady Ludlow (also sympathy for the disabled narrator), Mr Harrington’s Chronicles, (the doctor whose first concern is the patient’s health) and the second season brings in Mary Smith, who left a governess autobiography.

As time and the spirit permits, I shall go on to write more of Simmonds and lesser known graphic illustrators and novelists.


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Gary Oldman (got up to recall Alec Guiness, but he himself resembles and is photographed to recall LeCarre himself): George Smiley now

Dear friends and readers,

I went to see this yesterday with Izzy and we both liked it very much. I recommend it as a superbly well done commercially oriented film — as were Mereilles/Channing-Williams and Caine’s Constant Gardner and Boorman/Davies Tailor of Panama — and doubtless the 1965 Spy who Came in From the Cold, famed from the cast of Richard Burton (and I’ll add, looking back), Cyril Cusack, Rupert Davies, Claire Bloom, Robert Hardy, Michael Horden, a Martin Ritt (director, producer), Paul Dehn (writer) product.

Probably few noticed that the screenplay here was attributed to Bridget O’Connor, with Peter Straughan; and at the end O’Connor was listed as having died and the film was said to be in her honor. LeCarre was a major producer so major influence. I’ve seen O’Connor’s name listed before — in the 1977 Tinker Tailor credits somewhere (it was written by Arthur Hopcroft, directed by John Irvin produced by Jonathan Powell) and again the 1982 Smiley’s People (written by John LeCarre himself with the assistance of John Hopcraft, director Simon Langton, producer Jonathan Powell).

All this does matter — at the BBC who wrote the screenplay is the dominating continuing presence and in commercial films who directs is in charge. The company matters so the 77 and 82 films were not sheerly commercial products, though made by BBC2 to be popular, with an eye of seeking a large adult audience, which they both did. Still they did not have to make a big profit and who produces — he or nowadays she gets to say what is spent. But LeCarre’s films have each time been commercial products and what’s more each time they are a roster of not just who’s who in English filming but who are the effective actors, the ones who give virtuoso performances and yet attract an audience: who are the big stars, the ones with “old” prestige, who’s up and coming.

One difference between this and those previous is even less attention to women; except Little Drummer Girl (which I’ve not seen) and Constant Gardner, women are a minor presence in LeCarre films (though not in the books). Ann (Sian Philips) does turn up critically in 1977 and 1982, and arguably Philips’s one longish scene with Guiness as Smiley in Smiley’s People is central to the film’s meaning — I’ve put it on the Trollope19thCStudies (@ Yahoo) website. Like so many other costume dramas, in the 1982 Smiley’s People (written by LeCarre remember) the landscape is central to the irony and force of the moment.

Sian Philips as Ann and Alec Guiness as Smiley: in the scene he tells her he never wants to live with her again; she wants him still to be there (he cannot get himself to say he cannot bear it) (1982 BBC Smiley’s People)

In 1977 we really did get to know Irene and Ricki Tarr’s concern for her felt so much realer; Irene did not exist simply to be beaten, fucked, and then shot up dead. The 1977/82 Ann had a personality.

It might be that the lesser presence of women is simply lack of time, for the 77 film was 7 episodes of 290 minutes (5 hours or so) and this 2011 film was 127 minutes (2 hours plus). But I doubt it: it was indicative, not of LeCarre’s misogyny, but our times which the film did reflect.

First its aesthetics: it’s fast-moving and you have to pay attention, epitomizing moments are swift, and except for rare moments — as when Gary Oldman as Smiley reports his scene with Carla — who does not appear and enacts it out for them both as memory in front of Bernard Cumberbatch as Peter Gwilliam — no soliloquys. (The 1977 had many.) It communicates through the pictures, the stills, the mise-en-scene which swirls around the actors. A hard mean tough environment; I can hardly recall a scene in the country except when we are with Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux and then the land looked as bleak and worn as Mark Strong. All city this one, all steel buildings, small rooms, cement places, dives, and the actors photographed to make them look seedy and however glamorous not pretty but with real hard skin and pocked marked and irregular features like the rest of us — for real. I don’t know how cinematographers manage this nowadays but they do.

Flashbacks galore – in order to get the complicated story line in. A use of music to quickly evoke a mood.

Then its big problem: the cold war is over. LeCarre’s book is much better than a tirade against communism; in fact it’s about how Karla and Smiley are alter egos, and organizations as treacherous. As everyone knows, what John LeCarre did that was remarkable was to endow the detective and spy story with serious political content for the first time. They are not frivolous Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes stories. They mirror the human condition in the world’s marketplaces, at business and how these deform personal relationships. He made the popular form carry serious weight. But still there was this “enemy,” the bad guy and that was played upon in the 77 film.

So “the enemy” gone. One result was to bring out LeCarre’s apolitical themes, the universal ones. This was a film about betrayal. The necessity of betrayal, not only did Bill Hayden betray his best, indeed homoerotic friend, Jim Prideaux, but to survive everyone seems to have to betray some one else. More you must betray your best self to survive.

The final moments were Jim Prideax shooting Hayden through the head at long distance. Yes Hayden had sent him on a mission where he was nearly killed and then tortured, and now maimed emotionally for life. Mark Strong did convey the loneliness of the man who has to recluse himself; he is good to the young fat boy who is not manly, but strains to do. He was made up to look at all sixes and sevens, distraught like Ian Bannen (the 1977 Jim), but somehow was different and memorable:

A coward’s act, mean somehow, made to feel right: he has been destroyed by the betrayal.

We also have Smiley coming home to Ann (who as I say we never see): she has betrayed him with lots of men (this is a theme of LeCarre, the hero whose pride is ravaged by his inability to keep his chief woman faithful to him); Oldman hesitated ever so slightly but then went forward, we saw him pat her hand and then he turns to go upstairs. He will tell her nothing.

This film stressed how Smiley lied to Ricki Tarr when Smiley did not tell Tarr that Irene had been murdered in order to get Tarr to go to Paris and risk his life again. Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr is emphatically made lower class, that class matters is made clear in this film.

Tom Hardy, 2011 Ricki Tarr, from another world

In 1977 Bennet as Tarr is told the truth, Tarr does not want a family as in this one — picking up on the need for sentimental haven in our world — but he did want to escape to Scotland with her and is made to see the ironic failure such a scheme would produce. He did not need to go to public school in 1977.

Hywell Bennet, the 1977 Ricki, a blonde Rufus Sewell (Ladislaw in the 94 Middlemarch; Clarkson in the recent Christianizing film on abolitionism)

All this — from the patting of a woman’s hand to the strong sense of hierarchy and bosses and no confidences in one another at all — reminded me of The Godfather and that’s the central thing I’ll emphasize. This was a Godfather LeCarre: harder, meaner tougher endlessly meaningless world than the 77 film. The lighting, the square way Colin Firth as the central traitor was caught again and again (evoking deliberately an aging Marlon Brando). Gary Oldman was dressed to remind us of Alec Guiness and he imitated him at times, but he never looked distressed, he never seemed upset inwardly, no tremors. Guiness had a lot of this. The males cried in the 2011 film, but it was sudden, over quickly and then they looked simply grim. At the film’s end when Smiley has betrayed himself, really to no purpose, he comes into the committee room and takes over Control’s seat. The outfit is his. Alec Guiness was an aging Hamlet, hesitant, wishing he didn’t have to, and he eludes the camera in the last scene, sneaking into his house; Oldman is Fortinbras, taking over and the ironic joke is the same one.

Something is lost when you do this, maybe a lot. In the feel, the quality of the humanity. I watched an interesting program on what happened to the movies in the early 1950s when they were purged of socialism altogether – there was to be no feel-good community type fable, none of this Good Companion J. B. Priestley stuff common in 1930s films and still be found as the iconic joking of “we are all in this madhouse together” the Carry on British films (Guiness was part of that era).

Well everyone in 2011 Tinker Tailor is going it alone. [I hope my reader realizes the human community could be presented very differently; as utterly interdependent and doing much in relation to another cooperatively; but this is a no-no politically since the 1950s. Yes, Mrs Thatcher there is such a thing as society.]

And yes the corollary problem was the previous film. Every time you remake something deservedly famous you have this. The film-makers opted for compromises. Sometimes they imitated and deliberately repeated. It was done so well the first time. The actors have to make a decision, whether to evoke the previous actor not not. Oldman did. Firth did not. In the two Sense and Sensibilties of 1995 and 2008: as Hattie Morahan doesn’t replace Emma Thompson as Elinor but is as good so Gary Oldman to Alec Guiness (who he nonetheless had in mind). But at least the S&S films had other films before and after. This one has only the one. It was also a transposition type: all the major characters kept, all famous quips, all hinge points (central turns in the action) faithful to the book in both 1977 and 2011 (and also 1982).

The result as a mixed bag for the second actors Cumberbatch was not a repeat of Jayston but he was not used in a new in-depth way. He was mostly just a hard-action kind of figure, except when he suddenly broke down in a flashback that showed us he was a homosexual and had broken up with his lover to keep his career looking like a heterosexual type, and a short dialogue with a girl who aggression at him he refuses is then explained. At film’s end he is grinning in complicity (smirking is closer to it) as Oldma takes over. This actor can do much better than that (see Small Island). Michael Jayston who had played Rochester brilliantly (1972 BBC mini-series) as Peter was a genuine “student-pupil” learning about the complexities of the world as he sat (several times) with Smiley listening to Smiley tell stories.

Guiness as Smiley talking to Jayston as Peter (who is made uncomfortable)

Ciarhan Hinds had hardly a moment before us (Roy Bland), the part of Toby Esterhase was cut severely (it had been Bernard Hepton) and instead of someone who broke under pressure and became a go-between we seem to get a kind of cartoon figure reminding me of Jacobean drama when someone could be so swiftly hired to murder anywhere. Just tell him where. Toby Jones as Percy Alleline was given more, and he was a kind of dwarf figure, a bully.

The two longer scenes for secondary actors: Ricki Tarr. Tom Hardy was brilliant as a broken man, very handsome and sexy, actually tender-hearted. That was maybe an improvement for Ricki Tarr in 1977 was the drop-dead beautiful Hywell Bennet, a matinee idol type and we watched him have a romantic idyll with Irene where he was clearly getting secrets out of her and nothing more until the last moment when he seemed suddenly to care, more for himself — to escape to Scotland (the old dream I have — let’s escape to Cornwall I is mine). LeCarre’s last book with Smiley had him in Cornwall with a cottage where Ann visits a lot.

And Connie Saches. Kathy Burke. Old and fat and not getting “fucked” enough — so she says. Women are allowed some weight and presence when they are not bed-able it seems. Her scenes were moving. She had been discarded; she had memories. She was like Liv Ullman in some Bergman film going over the family pictures. It was done by Dorothy Tutin in 1977 and 1982, and in the later with a cat. No cat here. One can measure the distance we’ve gone – where we are ambiguously in the presentation of women in commercial films — by looking at their typology; Kathy Burke is in type like those who played Helen Mirren’s sidekicks as decent police officers in Prime Suspect; Dorothy Tutin was costume drama heroine in the 1970s, doing starring roles in South Riding. Burke was never a heroine type like this yet she is accorded much compassion.

She is at her finest reminiscing in front of her computer — that was an anachronistic moment folks, but it’s okay (like clocks in Shakespeare)

Hard to say if Colin Firth as Bill Haydon was a secondary actor. He emerges first as a continuing presence towards the end. He was not given as much as Ian Richardson who does evil very well. Rather Firth was a hard man, hardened by the world, sitting there in his elegant suit when he is exposed. I thought to myself (as we all take these stars across roles) it must be a relief for him for once not to be the suffering hero, all moral, but he was oddly more vulnerable than Richardson. When he smiles at Strong, he looks like he means it. His last lines were something new: he asks Smiley to look after the young woman in his apartment, give her his bank account and oh yes at least tell her he loved her (looking like this was the necessary).

Looking back with remorse

It was Charles II’s let not poor Nelly starve. And oh yes there’s a young man there too, let him off softly. We never knew about Bill Hayden’s bisexuality in 1977 (it’s in the book). Richardson and Hayden both care nothing for Ann, they use her.

I’ve skipped some, John Hurt as Control. He was hardly there enough, so much going on around him as the film provided five things happening at once.

One place this film was better, much, than the 70s was the “faux” immigrant types were gone. None of this kind of “twisted human beings with funny accents” that mar the 1977 and 1982 films; they are gone by the 1990s. So there’s an improvement in filmic outlooks.

Last night I finished watching the 1982 Smiley’s People. People may not remember that ends with Guiness as Smiley setting a trap for Patrick Stewart as Karla and two of them confronting one another at end. The core of the book is the total destruction of a potential family unit ruthlessly: Karla’s, the woman who was his mistress (Eileen Atkins) and a daughter, now a permanent inhabit of a mental asylum. Karla is caught because he wants to reach the pathetic daughter. In that one a (much weaker) Peter Gwilliam says to Smiley something like ‘perk up,” you won.” To which Guiness says: “Did I?”

Karla and Smiley looking at one another (1982 Smiley’s People)

Well this core complicated apprehension was the idea at the heart of this film too. Loyalty: Smiley was loyal to his organziation, his institution in all three films (77 Tinker Tailor, 82 Smiley’s People and now this). Le Carre has said Smiley is not a hero, and should not be admired. In an interview in 1982 LeCarre said:

Another reason for my impatience with George Smiley is that I am no longer able to resolve his excuses. There is something specious to me now about his moral posture. . . . We Empire Babies were brought up thinking that we messed with things so that others could have clean hands. But I believe that someone who delivers up responsibility for his moral conscience is actually someone who hasn’t got one.

Le Carre apparently thinks in heroic terms: “Real heroism lies, as it always will, not in conformity or even patriotism, but in acts of solitary moral courage.” Who’s a hero and who’s not.

An intelligent critic of LeCarre’s Smiley stories (Myron Aronoff) has written on this: “One might also ask whether Smiley’s anguished soul-searching mitigated the consequences of his actions? Is it preferable to withdraw from the arena & leave unsavory activities to those who lack moral scruples & who are therefore untroubled by the ethical implications of their actions.”

This is the old problem Thomas More saw in Utopia and Robert Bolt repeated in A Man for All Seasons. Co-opted if you join in, only shaping or modifying events, destroyed probably if once you come in, you opt out, unless you can flee very far.

I say, well yes — so did More, so does LeCarre through the books. It does matter for there is no hope if you don’t, and in this 2011 film Strong, Firth, Oldman, Tom Hardy all grieve over their actions. They all regret what they have done and what they continue to do. What I liked about the Boorman/Davies Tailor of Panama was Geoffrey Rush as the Jewish tailor gone anglophilic regretted intensely much of what he did and was an utterly unheroic (even dancing with the he-man star type, Pierre Bosnan, a Double o7 type).
Regret for one’s life as lived, remorse is central to all LeCarre’s best fictions. LeCarre bettered Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in his book and this film took that one step further.

The point of LeCarre’s fiction to start with was to counter the absurdity of James Bond films. I fear in that vast audience of people (every seat in the house taken ladies and gentlemen) many will not come away understanding this at all. That’s the worst of it, along with the minimum portrayal of women.

What has Peter learned? the film says not a moral lesson …

Ellen Moody

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An imagined portrait of Margaret Woffington’s first interview with theater-owner and manager, John Rich (whose theater harbored many cats is the joke)

Francis Abingdon as Lady Bab in in Burgoyne’s Fair Maid of the Oats by John Hickey

Dear friends and readers,

On and off for the past couple of months, I’ve been reading Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance and the Eighteenth-Century Theater with a view to writing a review for publication in an academic journal on it. When I write reviews, I not only read the book with great care, thinking about it as I go, but (unless I really am an expert in the area or, conversely, when I find I can’t stand the book or the material and will still write briefly on it because I promised to), I read a selection of the materials the author read to write it. In the case of Nussbaum, I was eager to read more than I had. I had read some contemporary biographies of the actresses (e.g., Anne Oldfield) and memoirs by them too (George Anne Bellamy), and a few modern biographies (of Oldfield, of Bellamy, Dora Jordan [Claire Tomalin’s], Hannah Pritchard, Elizabeth Inchbald) and a few essays on and texts either by them or intended for them to act out (Catherine Clive, Sarah Siddons), and also a few general histories, but this was my opportunity to read more. And I did.

I’d like to share some of this with my reader as it’s just fascinating stuff, relevant to our world today in so many ways, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to write up coherent notes as I went, plus I was partly directed by my reaction to Nussbaum and my task to check her out, see how accurate were her readings and who disagreed with her and why. I chose to write up two because one swallow does not a summer make and if two don’t either, the pair do reveal the tragedy, pain, and ambivalent lives of loss as well as triumph both women lived.


Woffington as Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple

Margaret Woffington (1720-60) is one of the women Nussbaum focuses on and like other 18th century actresses still remembered for their supposedly exciting sex life and transgressions on stage, it’s not hard to find sites which purport to give a gist of her life and pictures of her on the Net. Unfortunately, like many of these (and Nussbaum too) what is available is filled with falsifying glamor and puffery, which obscure what was Woffington’s experience of life.

The only full-length book that exists is Janet Dunbar’s Peg Woffington and Her World (1968). On one level, it’s a poor book. It’s a story outline of Woffington’s life interspersed with potted biographies of those she worked with, and imagined thoughts she gives them, nothing of which contains any real insight into the characters of the people. What’s also missing is the keen ethical perspective of Mary Nash’s Provoked Wife (a life of Susannah Cibber in the context of her family, era, musical and stage theater).

OTOH, since meager records (playbills, lists of plays performed from memoirs of the era and various documents) and gross bogus history and legend, calumnies that make Woffington into a monstrous sex-made half-prostitute, and recorded silly exaggerations that idolize her are mostly what’s left from Woffington’s life, Dunbar’s book is a unexpectedly sober, respectful and coherent narrative from which one can draw a probable understanding of Woffington’s life.

What else is available? a very few articles which treat Woffington from an author’s agenda-driven point of view (nowadays a favorite is her penchant for cross-dressing); the ODNB biography; A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800, ed. Highfill, Burnim, Langhans (1993); Nussbaum’s chapter in her book and the first writing; and a 1760 biographical memoir (Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington). This memoir is disgraceful, a document which testifies to the shameful tone of writer’s mind. Suffice to say that as an adolescent Peg was perhaps “discovered” by a French impresario woman who was looking for talent for fair-ground, and this memoir presents part of this time as Peg, an 11 year old giving herself up to disgusting fellatio and other forms of oral and anal sex to young men out of sheer love of it. The tone of the memoir throughout is crude, leering, voyeuristic.

Margaret Woffington spent her life as an actress living on her own and now and again she lived with different well-known males and she did not attempt to hide this. None of them had the high friends that Anne Oldfield’s first choice did — Arthur Maynwarning was attached to the Queen and high gov’t Whigs. Garrick’s popularity and position did not cut anywhere near that high. Peg really defied many norms: she did not even try to appear chaste or virginal when not married. Like Clive, she seems not to have had any children. Woffington did not weave total lies of improbable virginity and chastity like Elizabeth Farren. She just let her life be seen.

Several times she found herself ousted from her theater group: sometimes from the London group and then she’d quietly turn up in Dublin and then after a while the journey would be reversed (she’d be ousted from Dublin and then be found playing on a London stage). Her specialty was the transvestite role: dressing as a men and playing a man’s role nearly straight, dressing as a man and playing it as a travesty (with her woman’s body emphasized): what we can see in this is this the outsider and perhaps a bisexual or lesbian person. Her one long-time liaison with Garrick is not atypical in that she apparently did want to marry him, but he found her unacceptable as a social choice. Once Margaret educated her sister, Polly, and managed to marry Polly into Walpole’s family (Horace sneered at the man who married the girl) the sister more or less dropped Margaret.

The way Nussbaum treats Woffington’s collusion with the powerful authorities in Ireland (Duke of Dorset) to encourage men to go to war reveals Nussbaum’s agenda: Nussbaum’s goal is to counter those who have said women had no effect on politics. Nussbaum seems not to care what kind of effect. Woffington “influenced the political imaginary of the time.” One famous instance of her pronouncing an epilogue (as a “Female Volunteer”) we know about it because the playbill of Woffington has her dressed as a soldier with a low cut blouse that emphasizes her breasts and a bunch of cloth that shows where man’s phallus would be; she spoke an epilogue which reminds me of WW1 posters urging women to send their sons to fight. Nusssbaum is just all ga-ga about how this shows how important and powerful Woffington was (!). Woffington was then invited to a dinner at an exclusive club with the Duke of Dorset — Dunbar describes this and provides the sycophantic poem Woffington recited, and then quickly tells how not long afterward Woffington was hooted from the stage by an Irish contingent and fled to London. Nussbaum chose Woffington because Woffington was especially known for this kind of “patriotic” cross dressing. For one of her epilogues see comment.

Nussbaum argues such enactments show Woffington bringing together cross-dressing, sexual transgression and patriotism; she was answered by a satirical pamphlet that defended the English soldier against this attack on their masculinity. It dismisses Woffington’s piece as sexual contamination not genuine patriotism. A later tract, Guide to the Stage (1751) maligned Woffington by claiming she rather than Jacobites lures audience “into a clap”.

Woffington apparently spoke another epilogue, one to the Non-Juror (by Cibber) where she appears as feminine and again nags the audience to be English protestants against “vile banditti” from “Church of Rome” (Charles Stuart). She thus distanced herself from Catholicism, critiqued the festering Jacobitism of Scotland, called French “henpecked” and effeminate.

At the time in Dublin Sheridan was playing one of Voltaire’s radical plays Mahomet ou le Fanatisme and Woffington was in it. The audience was heavily Irish Catholic; they cheered for the villain-hero and insisted he re-say his speech. Sheridan was livid at the actor who did this. The next performance Sheridan forbad this. What emerged was the hostility and anger of the audience towards the players who were co-opted by the Anglo-Protestant establishment into doing such a play to flatter them at the same time as they had Woffington (paid her of course and Sheridan) do these “patriotic” epilogues. They booed Woffington and threw eggs at her when she came on stage. Sheridan fled. The theater inside was smashed. The theater was fixed and within a few months everything but to normal but Woffington found herself not appreciated by anyone after all and returned to London.

Nussbaum does present this but as a triumph by not telling us the details, not telling us the realities of what Woffington was enacting and for which side. Does it not matter? Again I cannot see how this is admirable if that’s what Nussbaum wants me to see. I see an actress maligned and castigated, doing reprehensible kinds of urging for money in clothes that make her body a salacious joke. Not that Dunbar is any better, for she does not mention the true or full context; the reader has got to be politically aware, knowledgeable him or herself to understand fully what is happening.

There is at this time nothing written about Woffington that conveys her reality, that tells the politics of it with any humanity or decent values and relates it to our time as I have just done. I suppose it’s in no one’s interests but perhaps the Irish who however will today have a nationalist agenda anyway.

Margaret died young (perhaps a heart attack while on stage) because she ceaselessly worked. People who’ve studied her playbills mention how she seems hardly ever to have taken off. Night after night ceaselessly.

She did make money, enough to support her probably illiterate and very low-in-class mother in Ireland. Surprisingly Nussbaum does agree openly with the earlier biographers which have Woffinton the daughter of a bricklayer and laundry-peddlar woman. Woffington bought a nice house in Twickenham area, Teddington. Several times like Clive she found herself tricked and pressured into taking a much lower salary and she refused. She never wrote defenses of herself. I assume she was not sufficiently educated. In fact we have hardly any writing by her about herself.

Nussbaum presents a version of Woffington’s life which is all success and power and money and achievement. Nussbaum is of the idolizing school. She omits what Dunbar presents under the wraps of conventional dullard speech: such as for example, that Owen M’Swiney, a Signor Angelo, and later in life a Colonel Caesar functioned as her protector-males (M-Swiney and Caesar probably capable of the necessary thug behavior) from other thugs who might and would attack a woman living alone. From my reading of Anne Halkett’s memoir and other 17th and 18th century women who lost their respectability and had no family or friends or connections to support them (who would have to be answered to), I know a woman living alone was continually at risk for any bully male to break in and try to harass and rape her.

She apparently suffered a stroke while playing Rosalind in As You Like It; she retired to her hard-won house, a villa in Teddington where she was cared for by Colonel Caesar for her last three years.

My favorite picture of Woffington F. Haytley’s as Mistress Ford (from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor). I fancy her courage and intelligence shines through:


Mrs Abingdon as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love by Joshua Reynolds (1771)

Again there is no good modern biography, a few articles which push an agenda; the ODNB and the Highfill, Burnim and Langhans Biographical Dictionary; Nussbaum’s chapter and an earlier biography, this one written in 1888 (The Life of Mrs Abingdon) – which is however not bad. Like Dunbar’s life of Woffington, this 1888 life of Abingdon provides an outline, some imagined suppositions, and is based on documentary evidence, including this time a revealing series of letters between Garrick and Abingdon, which letters show them to have had high quarrels and frequent bickering.

Frances Abingdon (1737-1815) also rose from very poor people, spent a period as a young girl surviving and promoting herself in whatever way she could, and slowly took on distinctive roles: in Abingdon’s case, they were often a strong, cool, guarded fashionable woman. She became rich men’s mistresses more manipulatively, and used dress as a costume to distance herself from others. She wanted people to forget her origins. She quit the stage more than once. Like Woffington, forced out of London, she went to Dublin and unlike Woffington had a unqualified success monetarily and from the point of view of her reputation. Unlike Woffington, she got two men to leave her big legacies and retired. She was not short lived either as she didn’t exhaust herself the way Woffington had.

From the 1888 biography a complex woman who dressed the way she did out of intense pride emerges. The comic roles she took were quite different from Clive’s (hoyden, chambermaid) or Oldfield (aristocratic witty lady); she took on middling women who were super-elegant and highly intelligent. Her intense engagement with such roles was the result of her perpetually beating back her background to show how she was as good as any one else. The facade became her protection.

About 2/3s the way through the biography the anonymous biographer suddenly dumps a huge cache of letters between Garrick & Abingdon on the reader. They are mind-bending. However corrected, they read as real. Abingdon was continually taking offense, tirelessly defensive, ever accusing Garrick, paranoic some might say. If he wanted control, strong respect from her, and profit, she was tremendously touchy and probably was often slighted. They fight over each iota of status, monetary gain or loss continually. She quit several times. Abingdon’s constant complaints, anger, go beyond something pragmatic, well beyond. She was hurt and angry from within from her experience of life.

She paid the one husband she married to stay away: his jealousy reminds me of the Frenchman who beat his actress wife to death: it’s not sexual or even plain jealousy of her success; it’s something more dangerous; he cannot bear that his wife should do better than he since for him too the rest of the world was despising him. Perhaps that was their initial bond. She too had many epilogues written for her and these do provide a fascinating take on her which somehow emanates from her even if she didn’t write them. (I reprint a typical one in a comment.)

For a narrative life once she gets successful the 1888 biographer gives us the gist of each of her famous roles, then little paragraphs about the play’s production, then a contemporary review and then we move onto the next famous role. And after all what were her waking hours but these? It’s wisdom to make this the central text rather than the marginal love and sex stories that occurred in the interstices of time or even her social support network — fragile without the legacies she got from her two lovers. It’s revealing that Mrs Abingdon called herself Frances and made it stick. Not Fanny. I see in that her intense desire for respect.

The most interesting thing Nussbaum tells is that Abingdon was “reputed to have been a servant to a French milliner in Cockspur Street where she learned dressmaking and design.” The actresses were supposed to get their own costumes. Nussbaum suggests the rumors of prostitution in youth might have come from her having been a milliner (here she resorts to old-fashioned language: milliners the “prey of unsavory men,” regarded as morally suspect!). Abingdon would know how to make all sorts of articles of clothing, what was liked when it came to her to commission clothes for others once she rose to have a good salary and fine clothes herself. I remember that George Anne Bellamy mentions sponsoring a milliner to go to France to learn the art of making clothing of all sorts.

Abingdon’s epilogues bring out her role as an icon of fashion. She combined a material milliner with lady of quality she aspired to be. She was adroit in the use of accessories, like fans, pins, flowers (as a girl selling flowers she was known as “Nosegay Fan”). Rather than asserting sexual power through body anatomy she manipulated accessories. The biographer of Elizabeth Inchbald and Sarah Siddons wrote that Abingdon commanded space. Nussbaum insists that Abingdon was not trivialized and lists her famous roles: Widow Bellmore, The Way to Keep Him; Lady Bab in The Maid of Oaks, Mrs Candour in School for Scandal. Abingdon combined a nostalgic or traditional femininity with an avante-garde/modern femininism.

Abingdon did dressed just spectacularly jewelled and overdressed (she wears Satin as Prue), got up as a kind of Madame de Pompadour. Abingdon broke with a tradition of generic type dressing and when she could dressed individually and sumptuously for each character; we see these outfits immortalized in paintings which do justice to her costume. A contemporary is quoted saying that Abingdon was consulted as a physician, paid as an artist, people of fashion treat her as an equal (the 1888 biography, p 232-33). Other women were copied this way: Anna Cartley, Woffington. I remember that Pritchard came from family of staymakers, costumers for stage, said to be consultant to Queen Charlotte; the Pritchards had a warehouse.

I remember reading in Bellamy’s autobiography that she lost a wardrobe worth hundreds of pounds in New Theater at Glasgow; ladies of Edinburgh loaned her more than 40: “some new … as well as very rich” Nussbaum brings in Bellamy’s intense quarrel with Elizabeth Furnival over Bellamy’s outfit to be Cleopatra, which ended in outrageous insults. Furnival stole clothes for Octavia that Bellamy intended for herself as Cleopatra; seamstress fell on her, Bellamy complained to Sheridan.

Nussbaum wants us to believe that Abingdon “mobilized nation’s fashion industry.” One thinks of Bette Davis who in Now Voyager becomes beautiful and sexy by dressing glamorously. Carole Lombard movies were sales pitches for clothes in the Neiman Marcus mode.

What I’d end on was how Abingdon got writers to rewrite Jacobean and Caroline plays for her (by Fletcher, by Massinger) so as to present earlier hard types, strong, abstract female characters, who (if in the end humiliated) give as good as they get for most of the play, e.g., The Capricious Lady out of The Scornful Lady; an updated version of an updated version of the heroine in Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. Abingdon wanted to enact fantasies of power and one of the famous portraits of her (by Reynolds) comes from her role in the farce, The Sultan where we are asked to take seriously that she reasons the Sultan into changing the nature of his relationship with women and his court, (absurd) Orientalist fantasy. Nussbaum says she “reforms the seraglio, erases erotic power of tragic Eastern woman, and replaces it with comic female sway.” She forgets how the play teaches us to despise the eunuch. Well, one can’t have everything.

My favorite story of Abingdon: Samuel Johnson liked her so much that he sat in the pit to watch a play he could neither see or hear very well. Boswell pictures Johnson sitting there gravely and attentively.


The interested reader is invited also to look at my Anne Oldfield as actress, and foremother poet-writer blog on Catherine Clive; and what I managed of an etext edition of Bellamy’s autobiography before I discovered this 6 volume autobiography is readily available on ECCO. These women I also bond with. I’ve put some notes on Susannah Arne Cibber as revealed by Mary Nash’s Provoked Wife and briefly defended Sarah Kemble Siddons in my comments too.


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