Archive for March, 2012

The hanging scene, far shot (1943 William Wellman’s Ox-Bow Incident)

Dear readers, students and friends,

This week when I and my students were about to start our discussion of Walter von Tilburg Clark’s Ox-Bow Incident, together with William Wellman’s faithful film adaptation, Thayvon Martin, an 17th year old unarmed black man was gunned down by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed “neighborhood watch” man. In Florida and other states in the US vigilante terrorism has been replacing the court and law system. These are given the misleading label of “stand your ground” laws; essentially anyone can decide when he or she has been threatened and kill in “self-defense.” Given human nature, it does not take long to see what have been the results and will continue to be of such usurpation of a carefully-wrought criminal justice system.

Clark’s Ox-Bow Incident and Wellman’s film are profound parables depicting the lynching of three innocent men (no crime, no murder was even committed) in the context of a dramatization of aspects of American culture that can lead to such an event. I like to tell my students that movies are so popular and are watched avidly because they mirror central aspects of our US culture, but rarely have I (in this case unhappily) been able to demonstrate this so conclusively by an even happening within a week of an assignment of a 70+ year old novel and film.

For once my blog can function as a set of lecture for my tudents as well as relevant explication and call for action of an immediate far-reaching injustice — for, as Arthur Davies says in Clark’s novel, if such things are allowed to happen, civil society is threatened.

Clark wrote his book in 1938 and it was published 3 years after. Nazism had taken a stranglehold on several European countries as well as fascism, and time and again when asked Clark replied that he was writing a fable about fascism with the idea that this kind of thing can happen here, and that the central violence and fear that Hitler whipped up in the 1930s was part of the US culture/psyche and could be manipulated by ruthless men into mindless mob cruelty.

It was not that long ago that black men were lynched all over the south as a terrorist technique and in the book Sparks, the black preacher, tells of how his brother was lynched for a crime Sparks never heard of. It’s a hard irony how this racism is relevant again. In the 1940s terrorism would not be a word Clark would have used, but his book is prophetic (as was J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country which I and my class read early this term where a contented ending is turned into an ironic one as one of the heroes is supposed going to to and dig and research in Baghdad).

Maybe it’s not such chance that there is a direct parallel between what this book really teaches us about US society in 1943 and 2012.

The author

Walter Von Tilburg Clark (1909-71)

While Clark persisted once he grew older in living in the most rural of western areas, and passed up opportunities for good jobs teaching with possibilities of tenure, he was the child of highly educated people from the east: his father a professor of economics and political science at City College, CUNY who later became president of a Nevada college. His mother graduated from Cornell and did advanced work in piano and music composition at Columbia. The parents moved to Nevada when Clark was 8. He spent much of his life living in the western part of the US.

So Clark was born in the east in Maine as far east as you can get and became the archetypal western. It’s too simple to say he reacted against his background, for while (very much like the Eugene O’Neill feel of a murderous family politics one sees in Clark’s other novel, Track of the Cat), Clark and his father did not get along, Clark’s father was a strong idealist like his son, and when it was proposed to turn the Nevada College into a place for producing workers for jobs, a business and farming school and get rid of a long tradition of humanities and natural sciences studied in a real way for themselves, Clark’s father fought it. He was vitriolically attacked and smeared and forced to retire. The father and mother both spent examined lives of integrity.

So Clark was strongly influenced by his parents at the same time as rebelling against the eastern world of his father. While highly intelligent, well read (the American male tradition of Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, and more modern poets like Robinson Jeffers), Clark was not bookish. He was interested and active in male team sports, particularly basketball. He also was very active in drama in college. Tellingly though, he did his dissertation on Robertson Jeffers a bleak pessimistic early 20th century American poet.

He was a man who immersed himself in American literature. He loathed commercialism and city-life it’s said. (He makes J.L. Carr look like a net-worker par excellence.) Clark would not send out resumes and applications and submit to interviews but relied on word-of-mouth, connections really to get him jobs where he’d teach and prove himself that way. There was also The Ox-Bow Incident once it was published and adapted by Wellman. But this is not the way to get promotion, for things work according to conventions, people want a team-mate and one swallow does not a summer make. He was only once offered a professorship an did not get it because he wore a black T-shirt under a jacket to the interview. He spent his life as a creative writing teacher — and that takes time. He had to teach 4 courses often and went to composition workshops for money. It got in the way.

He lived casually, loved talking, saloons, into the mountains camping; natural landscape basic, primordial; man messing up life on earth

Perhaps he was partly badly served by editors. They wanted his work to be more apolitical; at least I surmise that because after The Ox-Bow Incident, he presents an anti-materialism and anti-hierarchy point of view but nothing more than that. The Ox-Bow Incident formed a story because it is political. Clark was writing pro-environmental fables before the environmental movement. Most of his stories are about men and animals. Clark thought we could become better caretakers and inhabitants of the earth if we expressed and acted out compassion towards each other and the natural world: caring for others is what matters. It was politics though from a quite different angle than say George Orwell. Or some primal natural force set nature into motion; man has to have understanding of how basic nature is, how primordial — and dangerous as well as fecund and beautiful.

So the result are stories with little plot really. They resemble Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. A man and his burro, a man and his phonograph, a man and a cougar cat. This not the genre of the lone hero cowboy, which is what would sell.

If one reads what he says about his not writing he claims a writer’s block and that he hasn’t the time. But where did the block come from? That he didn’t have the time is easy to understand. For years he was a composition teachers, sometimes, teaching 4 sections, sometimes teaching 5 days a week. He also had to make money by traveling to conferences and teaching writing there. He says that too much academic-style “talk” (literary analysis) affected him adversely; it made him too self-conscious.

Later in life when he did achieve positions in Montana and Stanford, Clark gave over his original writing and began a mass editing project: Doten a newspaper reporter, editor, miner; the man and his way of life fascinated Clark who had this scholar in him.

Clark is not alone for having written one book and then be stymied by reactions to him and his book. Ralph Ellison the black man who wrote The Invisible Man and Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone with the Wind. The one categorized as a black writer and yet writing in European tradition as to style; Mitchell was derided as a writer of women’s historical romance and it is a racist book. Did not turn to alcohol which faced with American difference to culture a lot of American writers have

The Ox-Bow Incident is rarely assigned as a book in college classrooms, and except for New York Review of Book edition, it’d have fallen out of print. The movie is ironically famous as a success d’estime which was a financial flop — a kind of warning lesson to those who want to make money.

Apart from the hard-truthfulness and exposure of a stunning chapter in American history, the reason the book doesn’t get done in schools is its a cowboy story. As with feminine romance and historical romance, male cowboy stories are not much respected. They are low popular forms. Formulaic, like gothic.

Obviously this is not cheap degraded stuff, debased or exploitative — nor is Haunting of Hill House nor Ross Poldark (my class’s other two examples of popular genres). All three authors use the genre matter to bring out its central strength and potentially serious content.

The novel’s story and themes

The posse

The literal events of the story are retold concisely in a wikepedia article. In a nutshell the central events provide an examination of the interaction of law and custom to show how men behave in social situations where a macho image dominates without qualification.

Again and again in the book the words that are used as damning are “woman” like, female man, yellow (for cowardice). Anything effeminate which seems to mean tender love and protection is out. Competition, aggression, and a will to dominate, your ability to foresee what you will be suspected of (which Martin didn’t), sheer malice and stupidity (Monty Smith) win out over reason, any notion of evidence as a basis for a just decision. It’s exciting to go out in a group and kill someone. Their blood-lust is up and they have the excuse of a barely listened to story of the death of a friend. There has also been rustling of cattle.

But we are told the men themselves have rustled cattle; they don’t care for Kincaid much; what makes them form a group and go out to kill as a group? They are almost sidelined at the end of Chapter 2 but that Tetley shows up, says the “right” formula of words and off they go again.

So one of the questions the book asks is, Why does one man gain power over others? And often the most vicious when social elements like rank, money, and future calculations on these vanish or become irrelevant?

According to Max Westbrook (a man who wrote a book which has a mystifying perspective on Clark’s work — it’s about balance, wholeness) and did one of the entries in our college Literature Resource Center, Clark feels this is not because ruthless amorality will win out by virtue (joke alert) of dense determination but because such people have not separated themselves from their primordial energies.

Tetley has not separated himself from the archetypes of the unconscious. He enacts them instinctively, like an animal. This helps explain the appeal of (and then helpless imprisonment) of female sexual cynosures (e.g., Marilyn Monroe). Rose Mapen, the woman Gil Carter was so attracted to, enacts female archetypes of sexuality and coquetry. We have a picture of a cowering man in front of an alluring big woman on the front wall of the bar. (If you think about the candidate for election, you’ll see how people will vote for these awful stereotypes in men. Monty Smith reminds me of Newt Gingrich; Santorum a refugee from a gothic novel.)

The individual with intelligent feeling is someone with an intuitive sense of how the primordial feelings of others, particularly in social situations, can be affected or manipulated. Ma or Mrs Griers is one such person, so too Gil Carter. They know how to appeal and make friends instinctively.

Arthur Davis and Judge Tyler lack it. Osgood, the white preacher, lacks it. To have such qualities doesn’t mean you’ll act for the good. If the black man, Sparks has this intuitive sense, he dare not use it. He must kowtow at all times or he’s a goner — alas it makes me recall Thrayvon Martin who did not kowtow probably.

Donald Martin shoved into position to hang in (Dana Andrews)

Donald Martin (the same last name as the young black man), is the victim partly because he is naive, has acted without taking into account how his actions will be seen by the unconscious of others. He did not keep his papers in order. He did not think how as a stranger in a society where suspicion and distrust is the order of the day (no melting pot here), he would disbelieved. This action can of course take the form of retreat and silence, but only someone
with rare luck never has to aggress. Most of the time at some point we must.

The group defines itself by its scapegoat: that is who we are not, and nasty skunks like Monty Smith egg others on, frighten the silent afraid of the group. The jeering type who swaggers is what Monte Smith is. No one wants to singled out by Smith. They fear derision and bullying. Newt Gringrich insulting the young black moderator on TV some time ago. Sometimes such people can rise high in politics, but they usually need money and smart people behind them, plus ability to pressure the media through surrogates.

When first published people persisted in seeing this novel as sheerly about Nazism; insofar as the way Hitler rose to power and the group dynamics that supported him are concerned it can be applied, but it can be applied to many situations — which we see here today. The injustice of “lynch-law” is the immediate reference but the subject is used to bring out how cheap male virtues — not deep, not protective — can be manipulated through the rage, anger, fear, desire to hurt by other people. Tetley is a half-crazed officer, the gallant confederate, but his behavior is within the compass of what’s allowed.

Tetley, a ramrod in front of his Tara-like house (Frank Conroy) — in the distance his son, Gerald (see below)

Fadiman in his introduction of New York Review of Books edition puts it well (p. 21): “We live mainly by forms, if forms are bad, we live badly.”

Important characters

Gil Carter (Henry Fonda), Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan)

Art Croft who is our narrator, Arthur Davies who is the man who presents argument for what justice is. See pp. 44-49 for the central debate on justice, conscience, law.

Judge and jury system do often make mistakes. But it’s better than feud and lynch law — and now I’ll add vigilantism. We agree to go through forms but forms can be subverted.

Gerald Tetley (William Eythe)

Gerald Tetley whose analysis of what happened we are to accept (pp. 100-104). At close of book Davis berates himself (pp. 200-217). He feels he is the guilty one. Obviously not, but he sees that sometimes you have to be brutal: he should have brought his gun and murdered Tetley if necessary. He couldn’t get himself to do that. Catch-22 situation: if he did that he’d be a murderer himself — that’s why we want courts. Do not want to be Grangerfords and Shepherdsons in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: story of endless feud, one side murders someone on the other and so there is a retaliation.

Sparks (Leigh Whipper)

Two themes are linked up to what is good in society and what we need to hold to: examined conscience (pp. 117-20). Here we have the remarkable character of Sparks. He is a black man and stands for belief in God and clinging to Christian or religious faith and really following “rules” or customs — at their best, not fanatic. He tells the story of his brother’s lynching. Brave and unusual for the time.

A morality play: real incident would be much more violent, cruel, and quickly over

Characters are opposed: here Tetley gets a sadistic enjoyment out of tormenting Martin by giving him time to explain himself all the while he is not going to give any fair hearing or real time

A sort of morality play emerges where the characters who are believable nonetheless can be marshaled to stand for views.

The evidence against Donald Martin, the Mexican and old man is actually suspicious. No bill of sale; cattle; the gun. Nonetheless, obviously no one should have hung them — they had no evidence whatsoever that there had been a crime. The waited until dawn because Tetley liked to watch people suffer.

Ma or Mrs Grier (Jane Darwell)

Voices which favor lynching: Major Tetley, the steely minded sadist who murders these three men for the pleasure of it as well as to try to inflict his ideas of masculinity on his son, to force his son to be macho male, emerges as charismatic leader; Monte Smith, town drunk, a sensualist (disgusting sex with Mrs Griers (Jane Darwell) suggested — in front of others), goes along for thrill; the man-woman older Mrs Grier, she proves herself a man; Mapes, brutal deputy who makes mockery of office; Gabe Hart, simple-minded; Winder resentful stage driver economics driving out of a job; Farnley, angry mad dog type.

Again lynching is ineffectual opposition: Davies, storekeeper (Harry Davenport really looks like the character in the book — a kind of Barack Obama); Sparks, African-American handyman preacher whose brother was lynched, a gaunt presence (hasn’t got money for a blanket; will not take a gun lest it boomerang on him); Gerald Tetley the son whose sensitive nature is revolted by what he is forced to participate. In the film Art and Gil also stand against the lynching

Art and Gil

In novel Art Croft and Gil do not move into center to stand against lynching. They are themselves frightened they’ll be blamed (as strangers or non-natives they are under suspicion); Gil Carter actually does not understand Davis argument and only when he sees the lynching begin does his imagination begin to work and then he’s appalled & sickened. In the movie the characters of Gil and Art are combined in Henry Fonda with Art (Harry Morgan given little to do). Stars include Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, and Tetleys (Frank Conroy the father, William Eythe the son).

In the film Fonda as Gil tries to appeal to Judge Tyler (Matt Briggs) [In the book it’s Art who goes with the intelligent boy, Joyce)

Judge Tyler hypocritical fatuous politician who doesn’t take responsibility (Mitt Romney is before us). Risley , the sheriff offstage. In the book he lets them go; can he hang the whole town (p 191): he passed them in a snowstorm and didn’t see anything.

The moving character is Donald Martin, high nobility within him, good man, but himself a dupe, and alas not capable of manipulation; Alva Hardwick, feeble old man who salivates and lies, and the Mexican man who enacts macho male ideal until last moment when he is strung up.

Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes putting on lipstick — she won’t stay young and beautiful for long)

Novel suggests women present themselves as sex objects as that’s the way to have power: through a man (P. 102. Wellman and Clark may think think so but would say this is a delusion. Mr Swanson is a dominating sort and seems to assert himself over Rose. His caste and education allow him to beat back Gil — Gil’s only defense is the physical.

Signs of hope: people aren’t ogres; they have potential to have better sides come out. Landscape it opens and closes with. Early scene in gambling is parable of how such things can end in comedy. Guilt of nervous coach-driver who almost kills Art Croft (p 127): “you oughtn’t to have come barging out like that”

Astonishing that people should try to make a popular movie out of such material. But they did. Financial flop

Three act play

The three men are set upon by the pack

Act One, Chapters 1-2, pp. 1-94. Gambling incident; formation of posse. They almost don’t leave. Alas Tetley comes along. They set out. Speech on law and justice from Davis.

Act Two, Chapters 3-4, pp. 95-189. The long trek, a perverse quest for something to kill, something to wreak animal fervor on. They meet up with Rose and her husband. Alas, they find Martin, the Mexican man and aging man. Interactions of victims with posse. Climax in hanging. Speech on power and cruelty, on conscience from Gerald and about Sparks.

Act Three, Chapter 5, pp. 191-end. Almost immediately encounter sheriff and discover Kinkaid is alive. Denouement. Suicide of Gerald and then suicide of the father. Drunkenness of Gil. Remorse of Davis. In original screenplay the movie was to end in another inane vacuous
brawl between Gil and Swanson — really dark. Instead they have Gil appearing to take the letter and head off into the sunset with Art to replace Martin as family loving support. Book ends neither in black humor nor uplift. The two men simply move on.


Anthony Quinn as the Mexican (it made his career)

Like Robert Wise, we have in Wellman’s film an important movie accorded serious respect today (another is Lost Horizon with Ronald Colman). The screenplay has been published more than once and way back in the 1950s one of the earliest film studies book comparing books and film took this film and book as one of its pairs.

The conventional Western:

Broad hero story; forces of civilizationa and savagery struggle, expressed in oppostions of east v west, garden v desert, US v Europe, order v arnachy, cowboy v Indian, schoolteacher v dancing girl; the lone cowboy repeatedly restores order and then leaves, an uncivilized outlaw hero and his prostitute-saloon girl woman unite and go off to vision; he is outside of and protects community; usually not assimilated (must not be emasculated) when he is he settles down with say a farmer’s daughter. Of course real west nothing like this An optimistic myth. Has evolved from more simple to psychological complexity and odd stereotypes like McCabe and Mrs Miller (Warren Beatty). Poldark conforms to latter paradigm: he settles down and enables the community to try to thrive; often fails but tries again.

There are places where The Ox-Bow Incident conforms to this. For example, the brawls at the opening and close. The way Henry Fonda is presented as Gil Carter in love with a transgressive woman (Rose) and drawn to her sexually and she to him. Yet at the end we are asked to believe he is meaning to replace Donald Martin as protector and perhaps eventually husband.

Conventions broken: characters who appear before us with density of psychology and real past that matters – not simple at all: Tetley attempts to make sadism respectable by donning a military uniform; Mrs Grier makes a fetish of shedding feminine traits (not comic suffragette but a female lyncher), Anthony Quinn not lazy immigrant but wily intelligent man who loses; Leigh Whipper not shuffling black man has quiet dignity which ought to have put the whites to shame.

Questions asked are: what is justice? who is guilty of what happened? and what is real? (These questions and the rest of this section of my blog is indebted to George Bluestone’s analysis in Novel into Film.)

You have diversified characters carefully played against one another, a cumulative effect (p. 172); all the men are guilty who actively do it, but the sadist and damned man is Tetley; the ineffectual opposition. Gil and Art are outsiders and they must worry lest they be blamed as rustlers. The victims united in death, very diverse responses throughout

Past constantly felt as narrator tells of the characters; lynching is latest in what these people are capable of

We have a close unity of structure, themes and characters. Weather too: begins in daylight and serene, moves to night and storm, darkness and snow and return to restored gray light weather

Opening scene: they arrive

Gil and Art ride in light of late afternoon, a dog seen near them; when they leave a dog following; agitation suggested by dog.

Pictorial devices: an accumulation of close-ups, silence used as carefully as speech as characters size one another up: camera moves from mobile deeply emotional face of Andrews to cold hard Tetley; faces show anxiety, curiosity, cruelty, hatred, doubt.

There are also film noir elements: the darkness, use of black and white, the contrasts, the sense that something is deeply awry.

Changes between movie and book

The bar just before Gil reads Martin’s letter aloud

Henry Fonda is both Gil and Art, and must necessarily have inferential thoughts and does not know any more than others: we are to identify with him. Continual conversion of thoughts into dialogue and this is not scanted. They do produce it.

Most are trivial additions and much is kept from poker scene to last until we get to conclusion:

In fact in the book we never know the contents of Martin’s letter, only that it’s superbly moving, eloquent, and is read aloud. (In Month in Country we are not told Birkin’s lecture. I copied it out; not as probable as Birkin’s (comes from Davies’s earlier speech) but accepted as a convention (seen at end of Talk of the Town)

Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything peo­ple have ever found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have got a con­science, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s con­science except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?

Davies rightly aghast at end of book, if law doesn’t always work it’s better to let it go rather than sin against society, but this is dropped, partly because sheriff implies he will take some people in. Some of the bitter judgements are dropped.

In the film our attention drawn to anti-macho male struggle of Tetleys: father and son. In the book the Major runs himself through his sword; Gerald hangs himself and Gerald’s speech (see above) is about the violence and cruelty of human nature (said to Art Croft, the narrator). In the film, the father locks son out and shots himself; we see an exalted look on Son’s face. In book it’s Davies whowishes he had brought a gun and shot Tetley to stop him hanging these men; in the film Gerald cites the remorseful words of Davies, and Gerald says he is a coward for not killing his father to stop him.

The original screenplay had another brawl at the end: showing them not learning anything much as far as their behavior goes. In original screenplay, Rose and new husband turn up in saloon, instantly trouble is in the air, Swanson makes some remark and Gil swings for him, and again he is stymied, again smiles, this time at the picture. The wheel come full circle.

Instead this final statement of the letter, they all look sombre, a collection taken, and wife taken care of: it does seem she’s going to get Henry Fonda instead of Dana Andrews and maybe he’ll be wiser. Unfortunate I feel but romance not strong here, rather caring, responsibility shown at the end.

Larger view from Clark’s other stories and one novel, Track of the Cat

The horses beneath the tree: placed there and used that way by men

Nature savage and predatory; we are caught up in a struggle to survive; animals often personified, Hook is told from a Hawk’s point of view. Animals given respect. (I am again much indebted to Bluestone.)

Moral scheme only possible when people are controlled; only then humane behavior can emerge; cruel sadistic killing a sin. The merciless killer or sadist (the torturer) is outside realm of what we should tolerate; these creatures (animals, people) have to be reigned in. They do self-destruct (as Curt Bridges in Track of the Cat).

When Farnley talks about murdering the Mexican so impersonally, he is damnable; people exhibit gratuitous cruelty.

Without a compulsory system there can be no civilization; left to their own devices people cannot be trusted; it will be continual low level war

Caution is genuine response that helps and can be done by some.

A letter Clark wrote to Bluestone (who wrote a comparison of the book and film) in 1956: Clark said man has come to dominate the earth far too much; unhealthy; moral law cannot be set up without taking people’s natures into account

What influence has this movie had: the use of film noir techniques, environmentalism in his Track of the Cat; otherwise, not much: the films with men who are hard professionals are a mirror of our era: The Wild Bunch is another showdown like the shootout at OK corral in My Darling Clementine.


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The second shot from the first series and opening minutes of the first episode: luminous forest

Dear friends and readers,

This is a continuation of the journalizing blog I began in Under the Sign of Sylvia. The reverie on the still of Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton will be found there.

Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton in their life or non-costume-y clothes

Also the series begun here: A Crowded Canvas

For this morning, first, I acquired the scrumptiously produced book, The World of Downton Abbey, a work of careful filial piety, by Jessica Fellowes (doubtless she works in publishing in the UK and has been making a book this way). The quality of the paper is so expensive, fine grained, heavy that the colors of the photographs are intensely alluring in their subtlety. The book opens with a exegesis by Fellowes himself: how he came to do the program. A white-washed version but true to an extent. Features usually are. The prompt for the mini-series was Gosford Park. He is filled with the fantasy of how much has been lost when this earlier world was lost and how comfortable people were in “their places.”

Much of the opening of the book is filled with hard information about the grinding life of servants in such a world — accompanied by beautiful stills from the series and apt quotations (well-chosen) as well as little framed boxes of photos and information about real servants, telling the kind of outward facts of the lives that are publicly disseminated.

They are generous with the photographs. No doubles. With the emphasis on the women. So (to begin with our central young exemplary heroines), this is the only one of Joanne Froggart as Anna Smith in just this characteristic mode of alert intense and obedient (on the ready for work) Anna Smith:

On the left hand lower corner to the back of the glossy cover

And this the only one of Michelle Dockery as quietly deeply sensual (and of course anorexically thin, the image of frailness women must follow to be heroines in movies today) Lady Mary Grantham, here in a double fold, turning to her sisters in the drawing room:

Well, to continue from Sylvia:

The second couple on The Making of Downton Abbey (after Maggie Smith in her real life or non-costume clothes and Penelope Wilton ditto) are Phyllis Logan dressed as Mrs [Elsie we learn in the book’s cast list] Hughes and using the Scots working class accent slightly moderated and modulated she uses for the series, and Brendon Coyle as Mr [John] Bates ditto. Both in costume.

I noticed that in all the pairs afterward the initial dames the actors were in costumes and those playing the working or downstairs character kept their working class accents.

The series is so clever. The pairs are presented as natural but in the presentation the upstairs people are allowed their natural non-working accents and the downstairs people offer the versions of working class they have devised for the character in the show.

Who is paired is telling too. Mr Bates is not with Anna Smith — he is in 2012 terms too old for her and might just disquiet the viewer who is not thinking — as after all three minutes thought reminds us they are actors and not lovers at all.

As I’ve learned over the years the BBC makes the director the third important person in doing a mini-series. The central presiding controller is the script writer, Fellowes, and with him or her the producer, here Gareth Neames for both seasons. These two hire the director or various directors which is what we’ve got here.

The director for the most episodes of the first season said this: he shoots upstairs differently than downstairs. Upstairs he uses classic shots, much medium shots, still, symmetrical, the old stage type; far deep shots occasionally. For downstairs it’s hand-held cameras, and the latest in close-ups, zooms, quick and non-dignified.

The class and gender messages never cease you see.

So why do I watch these things — buy such books, want to write a book on the Jane Austen subgenre of them. Well, like I said on facebook to friends there this morning:

I know it’s delusional but I feel less lonely after watching a mini-series costume drama. Two people “liked” that utterance. A third wrote “I think it is the sense of entering a different world….”, to which I replied: Hmmn. It seems to me that is our world in disguise. When I watch Downton Abbey (as that’s one we may all remember know, all share), Daisy, for example I’m reminded of someone in an office who is the last hired and the youngest. That person will become dogs-body and do all the daily tasks for everyone else. Each of the characters reminds me of a type of person or a role in life; the second season now provides that for Thomas, Sarah Obrien (I will not insult her by not using her first name), and Lady Edith Grantham as the first season did not.

Jessica Brown-Findlay as Lady Sybil Grantham, as nurse — the third young heroine, note her contemplative priestess stance

For people who value grace, gravity (a grave tone, gravitas) slowness, careful thought, it substitutes for the sense of community deliberately reinforced and fostered by the control of public media by wealthy and powerful groups who will show no communities but small groups of friends or family life and insist on people as utter individuals and thinking no way else since the 1950s. (Compare a pre-1950s Henry Fonda film.)

Mini-series done with full soap opera aesthetics relieve our enforced disconnectedness — in the US here also the way actual spaces in cities are nowadays set up and built upon, to exclude, stigmatize, separate, make it hard or expensive to get from one place to another, as there is so little public transportation outside a few major older cities.


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Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced

The now dead Trayvon Martin in a hoodie

Dear friends and readers,

As many people know last month an unarmed 17 year old African-American boy or young man was stalked, gunned down, and murdered by George Zimmerman, a young man who by law had the right to take it upon himself to arm himself and murder anyone who (in his mind) deserved this. This is a return to the feuding Grangerford and Shepherdsons in a novel which (alas) fully mirrors American life and culture still, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In this profoundly pessimistic sequence about the nature of US cultural life in the mid-west at the time Twain shows two families who take justice in their own hands. The cause is absurd and dependent on utterly egoistic angers, resentments, injuries of class and sexuality; the reaction repeated murders which breed more murders. (See Olivier Nyirubugara’s monograph on the satire of Twain’s novel.)

You think I exaggerate. Last night I watched four people talking on the Lehrer news hour. Donna Britt, a black woman whose brother was similarly murdered 30 years ago; Dennis Baxley, a white man, member of the Florida legislature, who defended this law as enabling people “to stand their own ground” and “defend themselves”, clearly complacent about what had happened, untouched; Rheiham Salem, a black representative of news media, and Ta Nehisi Coates, Atlantic on-line black commentator and blogger. Coates made the important comment:

There was a case this week that was thrown out by a judge where a gentleman found somebody stealing a radio out of his truck. He came down and stopped the person, chased the guy down, and then stabbed him to death.

Unfortunately, he did not follow this up with a context that brought out what his aptly-chosen example shows. He mentioned his empathy with the person whose car radio was ruined.

But he retrieved his point quickly, came back to the larger issue:

My great concern is that there’s been a number of cases besides Trayvon Martin where prosecutors, cops are very concerned about this law and the broad way in which it’s being implemented. If you have a number of cases like that, it seems to me it calls into question how the law was written.

Again he was deflected because although the moderator, Jeffrey Brown, saw the importance of the anecdote, when he asked Baxley what he had to say to that Baxley was able blandly to talk of an “unfortunate incident” (so now we had two) and that these did not at all invalidate the law’s concept. After all Coates had seen the person who lost his radio needed justice.

What was missing was what I heard on Amy Goodman and three people discussing the case on DemocracyNow.org. They had statistics. They looked at this case in the wider context of other examples of freewheeling murder. Since the inception of this law in Florida the murder rate in Florida has risen by a frightening percentage, I think it was something like 100% rise. I can’t seem to find the exact figure this morning; it’s mixed in with the online columns here. The point was made several times through statistics, anecdotes (several others of over-reactive crazed angers) and the particulars of this case that what is happening is an erasure of a previous reasoned justice system for vigilant murdering let loose.

Let loose on whom? In most of these cases males of color. It may be that what we are seeing here is part of the large re-institutionalization of racism through the prison and harsh criminal justice system. A mass incarceration of black men has been proceeding apace for some two decades now. Instead of community policing, we now have police in neighborhoods who are not part of the neighborhood allowed to frisk without warning any young man they see, and take him into arrest. The result of finding drugs on anyone can be long years sentence. The prisons are privatized and the contracts given out include provisions where the prison corporations are guaranteed 90% filled. Such corporations lobby legislatures to pass draconian legislation. These young men if they ever get out are disenfranchised.

But while this is clearly in effect a re-replacement of a new form of slavery (Potter Stewart said look at the results of a law let stand and you will know what it’s for), a new racism, the incident is larger than this. As has been pointed out, Zimmerman was himself hispanic. It has not been emphasized how he was not questioned, how the corpse of the young black man was tested immediately for drugs, but nothing at all done to check Zimmerman’s story.

The whole society of the US is colluding in a transformation of our society back to forms of barbarism some people thought we had it not eradicated, at least controlled and found systems of reasoned behavior to cope and deal with.

I note the legislation which provides harsh punishments for women seeking to control their own reproductive life, protect their bodies from rape and unwanted pregnancies. See the new legislation spreads like wildfire: women as dispensable and to be punished severely. These make explicit the values of enough people among US voters to keep politicians in office who regard women as secondary animals, secret sluts, containers. If enough voters didn’t have such views all along, such laws could not be passed. What had happened was these views were not the ones allowed to prevail in a society formed by a bill of rights and Enlightenment values which regard all people as equal, as having the right to liberty, dignity, a clear say in how they are governed and a way to make this felt. The court system and its justice officers were part of that.

Why is the neutral space of public life where religious partisanships have no place openly threatened in the US today? Santorum says the separation of church and state in the US constitution sickens him. Does he want to return to religious wars here in the US? Does he notice them in other parts of the world?

The open murder in the streets of a young boy, the adamant refusal of the authorities to arrest the murderer (for he has not yet been arrested and has fled) is one of two visceral instances of a return of atavism as a reigning set of customs. We have on tape the cries of despair of the young man as he is killed. The other is the story of Bei Bei Shuai, now under arrest for murder after she understandably tried to kill herself with rat poison as a reaction to the treatment people in our society meted out to her.

It’s crucially important to raise our voices against all of the above. We can vote for Obama as a man of reason, compassion, decency (systematic torture has ceased under Obama’s administration), as one who is for liberty, food, shelter, the right to health care for all (including women), but he cannot achieve even limited goals alone.


The worst betrayal of intelligence is finding justification for the world as it is.” — Jean Guehenno

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Dear friends and readers,

Hitherto I’ve put all my conference reports and news about my papers on this blog. Since the beginning of this year when I created a new blog just for Austen and 18th century studies and women writers, I decided that my reports of 18th century conferences, papers and Austen should logically go onto Reveries under the Sign of Austen. However, as I know I have a small audience for such reports here, I thought I’d cross post just the URLs to the reports of the SC/ASECS conference for which I read so much for an Ann Radcliffe paper and at which Jim and I had such a good time.

So, on the good time we had socially and what touring we did, and my paper:

South Central ASECS: The Nightmare of History in Ann Radcliffe’s Landscapes

The above photo is me giving the paper.

The first day and one half of sessions and papers:

South Central ASECS: Panoramas (gothic, animals in, the Biltmore), Scottish fidding, Rameau & Jane

The third day and evening, a panoply of papers, eating and drinking, ending in a dance:

South Central ASECS: Women writers, poets & actresses, and myths

Just today Jim confided in me that he took the above photo and this one of the central spa in the center of the hotel (whose three buildings formed a horseshoe surrounding the spa, which could be seen from anywhere in the building when you looked down:


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“Hill House” — a genuine house just outside London, chosen as embodying just what Jackson imagined, and then photographed as where all the outdoor scenes around it using infrared light (1963 The Haunting)

John Atkinson Grimsaw (1836-93), The Haunted House (1882)

Dear Readers, Students, Friends,

Tonight one of the great American gothic novels and psychological terror films of the 20th century: Shirley Jackson’s highly original 1959 Haunting of Hill House, and Robert Wise’s even more unusual rendition of the literary genre not as a horror film (what was mistakenly tried in 1999), but as a psychological film contextualized by

1) the domestic realism of Eleanor Lance’s character and circumstances;

2) the Citizen Kane representation of the Hugh Crain family (as back-story);

3) the quiet lesbianism of Theo (Claire Bloom);

4) and the undercutting sceptical mockery of Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) whose contingent of characters brings into the film the ordinary American upper class who’d love to make money on the house.

The blog will also delve the gothic as such and its history. See my review (evaluation and summary) of Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 (!) Years of Excess, Evil, Horror and Ruin Both Jackson and Wise’s works are in the Radcliffian mode, sometimes called the female gothic.


Eleanor (Julie Harris) turned down by her relatives when she asks for the car (half hers) for a vacation

Eleanor resolute, with all her worldly goods (come to take the car anyway)

When I first read the book I was struck by how it begins in a very secular modern feel atmosphere. Dr Montague (the name of the doctor in Jackson’s book) wants to investigate the supposed presence of ghosts and terrors at Hill House scientifically and he goes about to find people willing to participate in the experiment of living there together for the summer. He gets up a list of names of people from psychic societies, sensational newspaper stories — people who have sighted or been willing to believe they saw or are interested in “paranormal” (the “in” word today) experiences. He doesn’t want any crackpot and there’s a distrust of unknown uncredentialled people which remind me of the distrust of experience on the Net.

He turned up two single women, Eleanor Lance (it’s an “L” in the book), one who cared for her mother all the mother’s life until she died and now lives with a selfish sister and her husband; and Theo, the other who had fought intensely with her woman lover. He also finds the present owner insists he take in a relative. So there are four of them. Then two surly servants (as I said). Now his wife and her chauffeur, Arthur have been invited.

What emerges is something I’ve seen in astute writers of the gothic before. Hell is other people; the group has begun to gang up on Eleanor because she’s susceptible to bullying. It’s a it’s a gothic that analyses the psychic source of terrorizing and why it happens. But beyond that we are beginning to experience terrifying unexplained phenomena. Theodora’s dresses are torn to bits and covered with blood so now she sleeps with Eleanor. One night Eleanor listens to moaning and groaning of a baby elsewhere. Scary things happen in the landscape; all done very slowly you see. Eleanor is suddenly being called Nell and writing appears on the walls which demands she come home.

And we begin to get threats: Mrs Montague talks of being buried alive. She brings a planchette and we have a seance like experience where again Eleanor is picked on, picked out as the one words are hurled at. Slowly I’ve noticed the others are irritated and turn away from her need of them. In the book Dr Montague doesn’t want her around lest she ruins his experiment. (The movie is softer and makes Dr Montague and Theo genuinely concerned for her, and Luke put off by her suicidal impulses on the twirling metal staircase.)

to a sudden powerful close. I was stunned by the ending and yet it was coming at me all the time. The very last words might be said to put a close to a future of endless pain: “and whatever walked there [in Hill House] walked alone.” But …

Warning I’m telling the ending:

There is a constant repeat of lines from Shakespeare’s Twelth Night, the song of the fool: “present mirth hath present laughter” and especially the line; “journey’s end in lovers’ meeting.” This line runs through what I now realize is our heroine’s head: Eleanor. The question is whether when she killed herself by smashing herself and car against the tree, she does know peace or is returned to hill house to walk with whatever walked there.” Journey’s end in lovers’s meeting; the hideous writing on the wall and cruel comments written down are invites to Eleanor (Nell) from whoever or whatever riddles and warps the house — which under assault becomes a wild tempest (making me think of the emotions at the close of Ethan Frome by Wharton, a book I hope never to read again, especially its ending).

Eleanor’s story suddenly is seen so clear as one of a miserable wretched woman: sleeps in sister’s baby’s room and only shares that car, has no right to it, for no husband, no salary. When she loses it after Mrs Montague’s (meant to be obtuse funny — think Mrs Jennings from S&S) antics over a planchette, and nearly kills herself and others by trying to jump off a crumbling bit of gothic convention masonry, they want her out. They kick her out. She’d have to go back to that sister. Theodora has already refused to take her in at summer’s end.

So what were her options? Backstory of clan has two sisters in deadly frightening rivalry.

But what really is chilling is the sudden experience. No one does gothic like Jackson. The cold, the sounds, the wild weird evocation of what can’t be and can’t be explicitly but only allusively described.

The Gothic:

Eleanor and Theo (Claire Bloom) talking of their lives

Luke (Russ Tamblyn) thinking about the cold spot

First we need to understand the gothic. It’s been a major US popular subgenre since the 1790s — around the time of the French revolution, which can be regarded as a watershed in western culture (another is World War One).

The gothic is easily identified by some repeating central characteristics: the haunted place, usually a labyrithine house with a past where much misery had occurred. Haunted: it is a genre which uses all the realistic conventions so as to make you believe in and enter the fictional world, and then there is this disruption, this intrusion from the world of the supernatural, at first mild, but then insistent and finally overwhelming.

It evokes in us atavistic beliefs we thought we had almost discarded; the fear of something under the bed, the dark, sudden ounds. We can say almost because many people believe in God or gods, and in supernatural realms, but our beliefs usually don’t unnerve us because they come in the form of controlled doctrines from churches. The church works hard to exclude this kind of belief and include that. The gothic undermines this.

Most deeply it’s a pessimistic questioning of what’s beyond the natural; it’s serious even if popularly treated frivolously. Robert Johnson (the actor who plays Dr Markway — Montague in the novel — the anthropologist-physician) and the director Wise in their voice over commentary in the DVD feature brought up the issue of belief centrally. From one of Johnson’s commentaries: the film prompts or comes out of questions about “what happened to the dead, to one’s relations who died … does it all just end like that; it’s all those things connected to religion as well ..I wonder about these things just like everybody else … where am I going … why am I here … ”

Dr Montague (Richard Johnson) introducing himself to Nell and Theo

The gothic is also metaphysical and asks question about the nature of the universe, about God, about justice and life’s value; Kafkaesque, paranoic and death’s effects are central to the gothic too:

Some sub-genres specialize in horror (violence, the vampire story which attacks people bodily; the werewolf story — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is ultimately a werewolf story); others in terror (spiritual undermining, psychologically traumatized) and that is the ghost story. Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story.

So first we need to define ghost and carefully. A ghost is a the spirit or soul of a living person who died and comes back to haunt those living, usually in malevolent retribution for irretrievable hurt. Very very rare is the benign ghost and it’s no coincidence since people like reassurance and optimistic stories the most famous ghost story is precisely this rare type: Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, where the ghosts come back to redeem Scrooge. Most of the time the ghost are not into redemption.

They form a kind of social protest: social protest books have victims in the center who expose the injustices and cruelties of a system or social/economic/sexual arrangement. I wouldn’t lean too heavily because sometimes the person victimized at the center is actually not to blame for anything at all and makes the mistake of coming to live in this house. Most of the time if you look you find the person has been treated unfairly, is sensitive, and in need of love and comfort and help — so the ghost uses them.

Jackson’s novel as gothic

Eleanor climbing the twisted metal staircase

Montague and others (we too) watching her climb

Eleanor Vance/Lance is the quintessential gothic heroine (it can be a hero): The gothic is about the patriarchal family, at its center is an exploration of its interior life, and the film is brilliantly inward. The house itself is alive: its past includes a number of exploited victimized women. Hugh Crain is like Citizen Kane — back story told up front in movie, brought out slowly in book.

Obviously Eleanor has been taken bad advantage of and is still being taken bad advantage of. spent the last 11 years of life caring for her mother; she is broke, has no car, no place of her own to live, no way to get an independent life; the two women in the story have lesbian orientations so they are just the kind of women our society marginalizes, will not even recognize the existence of

When it’s a woman at the center, she is imprisoned, buried alive, chased down, when it’s a man he’s made an exiles, outcasts; both experience pursuit, being hunted down, labyrinths. So the gothic critiques our society.

The fantasy element is an enabler because it sets up a false screen of frivolity.

Sex is often central — some sexual experience has been very bad — this is seen clearly in Vampire ones. But since we are not doing a vampire one let’s just stick with what we’ve got.

Films have genres and most scary films are horror films: they connect to vampire stories and are physical attacks with computer enhanced imagery today; often sadistic. Wise’s film is not a horror film. The 1999 film is a horror one and the second hour becomes ridiculous. Wise’s film is a psychological study in terror where a woman is slowly driven to lose her mind — other such films as good are The Woman in Black from Susan Hill’s novel; I’ve shown a number of hour long ones from short stories from the BBC archives (Afterward is one)

Shirley Jackson

A young Shirley Jackson

Her life in brief:

Shirley Jackson: in his book, Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, Darrly Hattenhauer tells her life well and concisely. The problem with most lives and the biographies is they have been slanted by her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a leading critic, publisher-editor, adept in the kind of critical readings that convince people.

The reality is her writing supported them in their life-style and she did write a lot of junk, meaning short crude gothic fictions, to keep the income flowing in. She did all the housework, had several children; he had affairs openly. She didn’t leave. This was the 1950s and very hard to get a divorce; if you may think the discourse against women today is bad, this was pre-feminism. She became very heavy and that’s a no-no in American society.

Mostly what has happened to her books is they are interpreted
apolitically; as if she has no social protest in them but is merely reflecting her own or other people’s neurotic condition (often women’s). Paradoxically that’s partly because her husband and she were once part of the Young Communist league in the 1940s so to distance them from any politics, it’s all erased. The one good book beyond Hattenhauer is Joan Wylie Hall, Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction.

She is also forgotten and all but her “Lottery” (a startle) and Haunting of Hill House out of print. Like many women her work regarded 20 years later as biodegradable.

She was the daughter of a middle class Republican businessman who sent her to Bennington College where she met and married Hyman in 1937; he did publish her works. Driven as she was and treated the way she was, with the conventional life in the suburbs (this is before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique exposed that), she became alcoholic; later
she used tranquillizers. She did find real comfort in her children. here’s often a sub-theme of protection of children in her books.

How does it reflect the 50s: the story of the woman is central; it’s proto-feminist before feminism became fashionable. Deep upsets in cultural rifts over religion. Like other popular sub-genres the features and characteristics of the kind often make its assertions feel more universal and about the genre.

She did what she could to avoid publicity. Like J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country) she was no networker.

Then on her work in general: What she is is a satirist within gothic, showing up human nature as the source or our unjust social arrangements. The society we live in is not some result of imposed conditions; people collude in it. What
we see at the close of The Haunting of Hill House is Eleanor is thrown out, really heartlessly. If the ghosts are after her, the others want nothing to do with her. She tries to suggest to Theo she could come and live with her, but Theo makes quick work of that. Go back to her sister?

I perfectly understand why Eleanor yields to the spirits of the house and crashes into a tree. We should regard her ending the way we do gods in Homer: the gods in Homer are projections of the inner lives of the characters and so when Venus prompts Aeneas to do something erotic, it’s because Virgil’s Aeneas wants to; but they are also there.

One of the most disturbing things I’ve discovered in the criticism of this book is the idea that it’s all in Eleanor’s mind. That is to blame her, see this neurotic woman and encourage others to despise her. The book is parallel then to The Turn of the Screw; Henry James insisted that the ghosts were malign and there but because he presented them subtlety, many readers insist he is wrong and she is this repressed angry spinster who hurts everyone around her. Can’t
take a joke you see.

It can’t be all in Eleanor’s mind. Crain’s young wife crashed into the tree. Crain’s family was blighted. Theo hears all that
Elinor does; by the end of the novel even Luke is persuaded, and in the movie he gets the last (invented line): “[this house] ought to be burned down and the ground sown with salt.”

The modern 1999 (Jan de Bont) film wants to blame the doctor: in 1999 Liam Nelson as the physician has this secret exploitative agenda to further his career; in the book, Dr Montague is a genuine researcher into psychic phenomena who is making no money on his investigations. He may be wrong to play with the spirits as many a person in gothic is, but he is not personally to blame except insofar as he doesn’t take responsibility for others he has brought here. We are our brother’s keepers. Jackson does not incline to Cain’s heresy (I refer to the Biblical Cain).

There is a semi-comic parallel plot in Jackson’s novel with the Dr wife’s Mrs Montague and her silly planchette board, but she is doing explicitly what lies behind the gothic: trying to get in touch with gods. Arthur is her absurd sidekick: there is a parody of the form, a self-reflexive feel to it.

Very refreshing is the lack of a love story. I am sorry to say the 1963 film does project an implicit thwarted love story between Eleanor and the doctor: Eleanor yearns for him. There is no sense of that in the book. If anyone, Eleanor years for the companionship of Theo is made into a closet lesbian – Wise was aware of this and tried to hint at all. Theo is briefly chased by Luke but she quickly debunks and pushes him away.

Outline of novel, followed by how the 1963 film adaptation differs

Eleanor’s Thelma and Louise moment

The novel:

Chapter 1, p 3:

The opening paragraph with phrases that end the books: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” Introduces the characters, Dr Montague, Eleanor Vance, Theo, Luke.

Eleanor’s escape from her unkind exploitative relatives with her car (half hers) and we see the working class world of the US; its malls, family types; past the bullying gatekeeper, Mr Dudley

Chapter 2, p 34

Eleanor gets in, Mrs Dudley, her blue room, meeting Theo, the walk in the landscape — a difference from the film is in the film all takes place inside the house once Eleanor gets past her car ride; the idea was to be claustrophobic. In the novel the characters wander about the landscape — with hope; they hope to have a picnic even. Eleanor buoyed by her new relationship: she hopes Theo and she will be like sisters; Theo does at least say they shall be cousins.

Chapter 3, p 56

Luke, Dr Montague, the explanation. The first night’s dinner. They are to take notes (making fun — like Ashima (Namesake) shelves books as opposed to reading them). What are the good of notes if you don’t have any brains. Bits of the back story begin to emerge: p. 67: the first woman crashed against a tree even before she got to the house. Pp. 71-82: the rest of the history; the growing up of two daughters, their fierce rivalry over money (very common in US life), how the younger was married (Theo persists with invented story she cut out the older – a common happening) and envied the older for her dishes. Older loved the house, grew old, companion came to live with her: parallel with Eleanor and perhaps neglected her. The companion inherited the house and the Saundersons are the heirs and relatives of the unnamed companion. Often women are unnamed in gothics. Like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca where we never learn the name of the narrator. We learn Theo is lesbian in orientation; Dr Montague reads Pamela; also likes Sterne, Fielding, Smollett

Chapter 4, p 93

First breakfast; investigating house; more talk introducing characters, interrelationships; first terrifying night: the knocking begins.

Chapter 5, p 136

Dr Montague’s first statement he will turn Eleanor out of the house. Histories of ghosts (o. 139ff); the writing on the wall; the cold spot in the hall (p. 150); Theo’s clothes covered in blood, she removes into Eleanor’s side of their shared space; evil spirit puts ugly thoughts in Eleanor’s mind (p. 159); where she slips backwards on the terrace and could have fallen. Eleanor talk to Dr Montague with great sincerity about how she hates to see herself slipping away; they smell in her a potential victim and they begin to circle her (p. 160). About a third of the way in central sequence; Luke finds handwriting: Help Eleanor Come Home; the night of terror where Eleanor thinks she is holding Theo’s hand and it turns out not so

Chapter 6, p 164

Eleanor learning “the pathways of the heart.” Book for daughter Sophia Craine by Demond Lester Crain found, p 168. Fearful illustrations. Theo curses Crain (p. 171) They wander in the landscape with Luke (pp. 173-80).

Chapter 7, p 179

Mrs Montague coming; again Eleanor is outside. The comic inadequacy of her insensitivity; Mrs Montague goes to live in hursery; the planchette with Arthur again produces a message about Eleanor and home. The four caught in the parlor, and terrible pounding, and cannot reach the nursery (pp. 196-205)

Chapter 8, p 206

The landscape, jokes about rabbits, Eleanor begs Theo to take her back with her, Theo harsh and unkind, Eleanor followed in landscape while Luke and Theo joining forces

Chapter 9, p 227

By this time Eleanor has lost her sanity in effect; the sequence in the hall, the statues, her climbing the stairway, but no one is sympathetic, and they seek to rid themselves of her and she smashes into tree.

The 1963 film: it is not a horror film, but film noir: see comment: The Haunting as film noir

The last seconds of the film: all look at the wreck

All happens inside — significant change. Mrs Montague comes only in the equivalent of Chapter 9, her face at the top of the stairway used to terrify Eleanor down and again to drive her into driving the car into the tree.

The back story is simplified in the film: Hugh Grain now has only two wives, not three, and just one daughter, not two. Also, Wise gives us our history lesson immediately after the opening title sequence: An unidentified speaker (who we soon discover is Dr. John “Markway” [Richard Johnson]) provides voice-over narration to accompany what we can only assume is an objective/omniscient montage of Crain’s first wife dying in a carriage crash, of his daughter Abigail spending most of her life inside Hill House’s nursery (an extraordinary temporal ellipsis is achieved here via special effects as Abigail’s face transforms from child to adult to elderly woman without any apparent cuts), and of old Miss Crain’s female companion committing suicide in the tower. By way of contrast, Jackson’s Dr. Montague does not share his knowledge of Hill House’s dark past until much later.

Dr. Montague a slim, clean-shaven, and decidedly romantic figure in the film; Dr. Markway to take the object of Eleanor’s (Julie Harris) affection, with the result that their scenes together operate on multiple discursive levels: They converse not only as scientist-subject, teacher-pupil, and doctor-patient, but as potential lovers.

There are three additional differences: 1) Dr. Markway’s wife plays a much smaller role in Wise’s film than does Dr. Montague’s wife in the book, and the latter spouse’s hyper-masculine (though quite possibly asexual or lover-friend) Arthur does not appear in the film at all.

Theo’s relationship with Eleanor: in the book extremely ambivalent, is in the film here rendered in somewhat (though not entirely) more straightforward lesbian (if implicit) terms. On the one hand, Jackson’s Theo, although probably gay, expresses only a mild attraction toward Eleanor, and by the end of the novel seems to be hitting it off quite well with Luke. Wise’s Theo (Claire Bloom), in contrast, makes a number of fairly obvious passes at Eleanor and evinces a strong negative reaction toward Luke. Going in the other direction, Theo’s insensitivity, if not outright cruelty, toward Eleanor becomes manifest as The Haunting of Hill House proceeds (“I don’t understand. . . . Do you always go where you’re not wanted?” [2091]); in the 1963 film, Theo only becomes angry in response to Eleanor’s own expressions of jealousy and animosity.

Finally, Eleanor’s last moments alive are handled quite differently by Jackson and Wise. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor’s death drive is, at least until the “unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree,” a) indisputably self-willed–perhaps even suicidal–act: “I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel. . . . I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself” (245). Gidding and Wise, almost certainly under pressure to rule out suicide as a possible motive for their protagonist’s demise, make it cle ar that Eleanor is not trying to kill herself, that the wheel of her car is being controlled by an outside force that she cannot resist, despite her strongest efforts.

Movie is less sympathetic to Eleanor’s dread of going home; makes more of the Crain presence in the house; the house becomes a chief character, a malign alive presence. In book Eleanor seems to alienate them all from her; they seem to feel she has in her the spirits of the house; in the movie they are protecting her from these spirits and thus themselves.


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Janet McTeer as Prue Sarn and John Bowe as Kester Woodseaves (1989 BBC Precious Bane)

Dear friends and readers,

I watched this powerful two-hour film last night, partly because I’ve had it so long and it has Janet McTeer in the star role, the disabled heroine.

We read and discussed Mary Webb’s Precious Bane and Gone to Earth on WomenWritersThroughtheAges ast Yahoo some years ago. It’s a woman’s take or version of Hardy through Lawrentian-Freudian lenses. They were shallowly made fun of by Stella Gibbons in her famous Cold Comfort Farm.

The film is pre-1991 (turning point, the BBC Clarissa) and thus the old style BBC type in that the actors have been chosen for type (not against it), because they seem to embody the author’s conception physically as well as emotionally and intellectually. It’s not over-lavish, not over-produced. John Bowe made a debut as the loving tender sane man who rescues Prue Sam from the madness of a primitive world. Several actors made their debut here beyond Bowe: Clive Owen (rather chubbier than he is today) was Gidebon Sarn, the rigid cruel brother who exploits, bullies, frightens Janice Beguildy (Emily Morgan), his fiancee, Prue, his sister (who works selflessly for him), his mother too (whose death he engineers).

Janice and Gideon against the wide seascape

He is not alone; the other older men beat their daughters and wives; Janice’s father tries to sell her more than once. The women have nowhere to turn and grieve intensely when they lose their tyrants to death or alcoholism. Jim Carter (an established character actor by this time, most recently Mr Carson the butler at Downton Abbey) makes a memorable brief appearance as Prue’s resentful damaging father who dies of heart failure at the film’s opening. Milton Johns ever the sneak, spiteful, vile (he was in the older Poldark films, as John Dashwood in the 1971 S&S) is good form here: he almost manages to have Prue drowned, and is shown up (yet again) for a coward.

Here was a strong feminist thread — far stronger than the original novel — where we are shown how used and abused the women are, beaten, murdered, vilified and abused (the last two reminded me of the Republicans running for and in office around the US today). The woman are loyal to one another and quietly try to help one another, but as they must obey and follow the men their relationships are not primarily to be with and for one another but to and for and through the men — as in Webb’s desperate desolate book.

Janet McTeer is one of the recent actresses who chooses her roles to embody this kind of agenda. The heroine comes near total destruction, nearly drowned as a witch. Her portrait reminded me of George Eliot’s heroines: Immolating herself before her family, conventions, brother, with the difference we see clearly she does it here out of desperation not because her feelings lead her that way totally. And she comes near drowning; as she is plunged in and struggles I remembered so many Eliot heroines (Romola pushing off into the sea, Maggie drowning herself trying to rescue her bully brother, Hetty in Adam Bede starring into a black pond.) Janet McTeer would make a fine Romola. Well here she was impeccable; a tall calf.

It’s also story of how people treat disability (and there we pick up Gaskell); how she becomes idiotic, becomes without power in herself, can be turned around to be so much more competent, hopeful pro-active when those around her change their attitudes towards her.

Maggie Wadey also has had a career of feminist and woman-centered critical films. She did the remarkable 1987 Northanger Abbey, a kind of Anne Radcliffe film.

The film does not glorify or revel in this primitive world romantically the way I remember Webb’s book (and Lawrence) doing. The natural world is an ambivalent one: hard work, hard to make a living, easy for people to set on fire and destroy all one man makes as revenge. The women in this film may stand quietly but they are not abject (see critique of book). Stella Gibbons would not have satirized the book had it had the slant of this movie. It’s for education as a way up: Kester Woodseaves leaves Prue (and she is almost drowned without him) to learn a trade. This reminded me much of Hardy: indeed the film was made into a strong Hardy-type fable (rather like The Return of the Native than Webb’s original, though Webb’s work is rooted in Hardy.

It’s so tightly realized; the actors move so swiftly and live in one another’s flesh, blood, seem to dwell within the forces of nature, just are so thoroughly immersed.

It was a darkened Shropshire

I can see too why the 1996 Poldark angered its audience; the way this film is done is the way the 1996 Poldark was and the original books and films were not about primitive nature, landscape and people, but an enlightenment political fable. John Bowe was the man chosen to do Ross Poldark — that I do understand.

I recommend seeing Precious Bane; it’s more relevant than ever — and perhaps its book newly relevant as we seem to lurch backwards if some very harmful people get into power that’s what will happen in the US.


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Gabriele Munter, Breakfast of the Birds (1934). For more images (her work continues the tradition described by Deborah Cherry)

Dear friends and readers,

Soon winter will become a mythic time and pictures of snow and frost will have to be explained: today our temperatures in the DC area reached 80 fahrenheit and we are in for repeat heat for 2 days, then soar up to the 90s, after which the heat will break on Saturday. In front of my window all the lovely daffodils Laura, Izzy and I have planted are now in bloom, and the pink tulip tree to the side of my window is beginning to shed its petals so heavy-laden is it.

This is really to remember the good time Jim and I just had this afternoon at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and recommend to others to go and see the exhibit called Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles and Other French collections. We saw some pictures we had never seen before, artists we’d never heard of and got a sense how hard it was for a woman to have a professional career: yes they did have to paint conventionally acceptable subjects, and they had to make their connections through their families (so it was important to be born or marry luckily). We saw a number of good paintings. Some landscapes had strong individual feeling; there was one of a dog I really liked; portraits, historical paintings, a husband’s studio, woman patrons who were daringly sexy. Antoinette Cecile Haudebourt-Lescot seems to have a strong presence. This one by her was not there (I did not buy the book as it was $45) but is typical of her work, contemplative, quietly sexual (her body is clearly emphasized as fecund), psychologically intense:

A woman reading (I don’t know the title)

I really liked a room devoted to showing dress-making in the “haute couture.” Celia Reyer and her assistants who had put the show of painting and sculpture together filled the room with patterns, materials, bodices, corsets, a mannekin dressed in a typical later eighteenth century outfit, and they told a little of their own careers.

Then we walked around the rest of the museum and really did spend an hour or more enjoying ourselves. We had not been for a while so there were some new works to see; some works had been brought up from “the basement” (or wherever they keep excess) and replaced ones we were familiar with.

A lush and deeply sensual one we had not seen before by Constance Mayer, 1775-1821 (known as a pupil of Prud’hon

Some were placed in better spots; we got into a conference room where the curators keep some of their favorites, one American one of a woman painter painting her sister and the sister’s dog, later 19th century, exquisitely lit and realistic surface. Alas I didn’t take down the title of the painting or name of the artist, so put this one by another American artist we did see that I liked equally:

Mary Nimmo Moran (1842-99), The Haunt of the Muskrat, East Hampton (1884, etching on cream parchment)

Moran’s techniques of foliage and landscape, the background use & knowledge of Dutch landscape, using unconventional proportions she creates haunting scenes.

We saw one exhibit of unreal glittering gowns and shoes said to have been inspired by Princess Grace of Monaco. Jim said it had a strong feel of “gay” aesthetics.

We spent some fun time in the shop too: we looked into books and I bought a book about the museum with samples of the permanent collection. On sale for $20, it enabled me to feel I was contributing something beyond the entrance fee. The museum has far more paintings by Remedios Varos than I thought they had, and Jim and I spent time reading and looking at the pictures in Surreal Friends — he could see more there, as well as images by Leonora Carrington. One learns by reading books with such reprints and information and insights. I may yet buy that book if I can find it on the Net.

Our interlude away from our usual activities, work, routine, was not yet finished.

We walked uptown for about 10 long blocks and over two avenue blocks to reach the West End Cinema where we planned to see (and hear) an HD opera from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden: Massenet’s Cendrillon (Cinderella). It has the marvelous singer who sang Sycorax in Enchanted Island from the Met last month: Joyce DiDonato. (The opera itself left a lot to be desired, hard comedy with offensive typologies that amused some in the audience. Oh well, one can’t have everything: the music had this minor key mysterious feel.) On the way there we stopped off to eat out and drink at an attractive friendly pub and the meal was good. At the movie house I got into some friendly talk with people like ourselves (retired) who told me about courses in opera and other subjects at American University for $200 for 3 for retired people. Maybe we’ll look into it.

There are many museums in DC and we told ourselves we don’t go enough to them and would try some we’ve not yet been to and keep our eyes for shows on in those we have.


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