Archive for May, 2012

Mathilde Blind (1872) by Lucy Madox Brown (1843-94), chalks on grey paper

Dear friends and readers,

Frances Wilson’s summary of Mathilde Blind’s life in her review of Angela Thirkell’s book which tells the story of the four women-as-partners in Ford Madox Brown’s life, the last of which was Mathilde Blind, is unbeatable for vivacity and concision:

Mathilde was raised in Germany by an overbearing revolutionary stepfather who knew Karl Marx; her brother shot himself after failing to assassinate Bismark. In her own first attempt at revolt, Mathilde was expelled from school for atheism. A feminist, journalist, critic, poet, translator, novelist and biographer, she was a fabulously beautiful wild card (and most likely a lesbian) who shared with Madox Brown an interest in radical politics. She lived as a friend with the artist and his wife on and off for 20 years, until Emma’s death in 1890. Because none of their letters survives we cannot know the true nature of the relationship between Mathilde and Madox Brown; Thirlwell concludes that it “was probably not physical in the full sense”, but contained “a special erotic charge”. But had Mathilde felt any physical passion for Madox Brown, she seems the type to have expressed it. Mathilde is not only the most interesting of Madox Brown’s loves, she was also probably the most interesting woman in London at that time.

I’ve chosen her also because I found her poems in a book which choses unusual poets, provides a strong biography, and gives a lengthier selection than usual, Virginia Blain’s Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology. Blind’s are strong, passionate, electrifyingly descriptive and intelligently feminist, socialist. To begin with,

Manchester by Night

O’ER this huge town, rife with intestine wars,
Whence as from monstrous sacrificial shrines
Pillars of smoke climb heavenward, Night inclines
Black brows majestical with glimmering stars.
Her dewy silence soothes life’s angry jars:
And like a mother’s wan white face, who pines
Above her children’s turbulent ways, so shines
The moon athwart the narrow cloudy bars.
Now toiling multitudes that hustling crush
Each other in the fateful strife for breath,
And, hounded on by diverse hungers, rush
Across the prostrate ones that groan beneath,
Are swathed within the universal hush,
As life exchanges semblances with death.

A Winter Landscape

ALL night, all day, in dizzy, downward flight,
     Fell the wild-whirling, vague, chaotic snow,
     Till every landmark of the earth below,
Trees, moorlands, roads, and each familiar sight
Were blotted out by the bewildering white.
     And winds, now shrieking loud, now whimpering low,
     Seemed lamentations for the world-old woe
That death must swallow life, and darkness light.
But all at once the rack was blown away,
     The snowstorm hushing ended in a sigh;
     Then like a flame the crescent moon on high
Leaped forth among the planets; pure as they,
Earth vied in whiteness with the Milky Way:
     Herself a star beneath the starry sky.

She felt herself an internal exile; someone exiled from the rest of her society by virtue of her inner self. Towards the end of her life she wrote in her Commonplace book “I have been an exile in this world. Without a God, without a country, without a family.” Her series of love lyrics, published in The Ascent of Man (a Darwinian perspective made optimistic) is called Love in Exile. It begins:


THou walkest with me as the spirit-light
     Of the hushed moon, high o’er a snowy hill,
Walks with the houseless traveller all the night,
     When trees are tongueless and when mute the rill.
Moon of my soul, 0 phantasm of delight,
     Thou walkest with me still.

The vestal flame of quenchless memory burns
     In my soul’s sanctuary. Yea, still for thee
My bitter heart hath yearned, as moonward yearns
     Each separate wave-pulse of the clamorous sea:
My Moon of love, to whom for ever turns
     The life that aches through me.

She was deeply active on behalf of impoverished women and prostitutes, and her purview included non-western women. Blind’s poem “Mourning Women” describes, then addresses, the Muslim women of Egypt (from the volume Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient
and Occident

Mourning Women.

ALL veiled in black, with faces hid from sight,
     Crouching together in the jolting cart,
     What forms are these that pass alone, apart,
In abject apathy to life’s delight?
The motley crowd, fantastically bright,
     Shifts gorgeous through each dazzling street and mart;
     Only these sisters of the suffering heart
Strike discords in this symphony of light.

Most wretched women! whom your prophet dooms
     To take love’s penalties without its prize!
Yes; you shall bear the unborn in your wombs,
     And water dusty death with streaming eyes,
And, wailing, beat your breasts among the tombs;
     &But souls ye have none fit for Paradise.

Samuel Fildes (1843-1927), Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

Many many more poems at Matilde Blind (1841-96)


As to a more extended view of her life, I don’t mean to suggest she lived a solitary or at all reclusive existence. She’s much better known for her political and social activities. Her father had been a Jewish banker and she was born in Mannheim, Germany, but when he died and her mother remarried, the revolutionary leader, Karl Blind, the family moved to Paris, and from there to England where Matilde was educated at a London girls’ school. She tried to again admission to university lectures and her failure fired her first enthusiasm for women’s education. When she died, she bequeathed her estate to Newham College, Cambridge, to found a scholarship for women.

Her first poems were dedicated to Giuseppe Mazzini, and she supported the Italian revolutionaries; she was influenced by and admired Elizaabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot, about whom she wrote yet another life (1883). Shelley, Byron inspired her. Two poems show her time in Scotland, one set in the Hebrides deals with religious questions from an atheist angle (The Prophecy of St Oran, 1881). The Heather on Fire (1886) is about the shameful Highland clearances, razed villages, people driven cruelly into further absymal poverty and emigration. There is no false romance here: we see the “agonizing plight of a crippled old woman whom no-one removed from her home before” it was set on fire; we see the people herded onto beaches to set sail for Canada. The scope, sincerity, intensity and authentic concern made her poems admired. She was no favorite with critics; her poems were not designed for male readers. Her fallen woman poem of a prostitute dying in a hospital was seen as distasteful. The pains of childbirth were not their concern. But Arthur Symons did published a full Poetical Works in 1900.

John Everett Millais (1829-96), Blow blow though winter wind (a Scotland scene)

As to her prose writing, she admired Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote an article on her (1878) and herself spent her life as an independent woman. She traveled widely in Europe and Egypt and through Scotland, published translations from Goethe, and wrote a life of the French revolutionary, Madame Roland (1886), and (her most famous work today) translated the extraordinary Journal of Marie Bashkirseff (1890), herself a fine artist. Her one experimental novel, Tarantella: A Romance is online (18805). To sum up her social existence as seen by others, confident, generous, she had circles of friends in the arts (especially the Pre-Raphaelites), knew the radical novelists, Mona Caird, was friends with Eleanor Marx. Blain says that Blind loved to give “‘literary dinners’ in rooms in well-chosen hotels.”

Lucy Madox Brown, The Duet (1870), watercolor on paper

See wikipedia and recent articles:

S. Brown, “‘A Still and Mute-Born Vision’: Locating Mathilde Blind’s
Reproductive Poetics,” Essays and Studies 56( 2003): 123-144.

James Diedrick, “‘My Love is a Force That Will Force you to Care’:
Subversive Sexuality in Mathilde Blind’s Dramatic Monologues.”
Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 359-386.

James Diedrick, “A Pioneering Female Aesthete: Mathilde Blind in the
Dark Blue.” The Victorian Periodicals Review 36.6 (2003): 210-241.

Christine Sutphin, “Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints:
Augusta Webster’s A Castaway and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and
Women’s Sexuality.” Victorian Poetry 38.4 (2000) 511-532

As to Lucy, as will have been seen she succumbed to romantic pictures of actors playing Shakespeare. But then these sold. But she also wrote a book, on Mary Shelley and it’s online.

I thank my good friend, Fran, for helping me find some of the above material and filling me in on her knowledge of Blind from Fran’s childhood in Lancaster and now life in southern Germany.

I had begun to place my foremother poet blogs over on Austen Reveries where they have mounted up to 18, as under the sign of a central women writer (who also wrote verse); but this one I felt really was not a life which can be placed with Austen as a gravatar, example. For the other (25) foremother poets on this blog, see the archive here.


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As Marilyn Monroe

A masquerade ball: life for women as gothic

Dear friends and readers,

There is a wonderful exhibit, a full retrospective of Cindy Sherman’s career as a photographer on right now at the Museum of Modern Art. It takes you through all the phases of her career, from the 1950s/60s imitations, to the later grotesques, to the more recent showing of the underlying reality of powerful and rich and patronizing women. This column by Hal Foster at the London Review of Books summarizes the consensus view.

For myself when I looked at this shot I saw what I was doing at age 15 without being aware of it:

Cindy Sherman (MoMa exhibit), circa 1950s

Me, age 15, 1961, Rocky Point beach

My friend, Diana Birchall was struck a while back by the uncanny similarity of one of her a year younger (14), also on a beach:

She says she saw herself as doing a ballet step, and she is not lying down. I was posed that way by a cousin, then aged 16 (to my 15) and he and I were not innocent by that time but as to making the icon, that is what we were unconscious of. One swallow does not a summer make. We have here two utterly disparate girls (from at the time different backgrounds) on two different beaches from different years should be doing the same thing is the telling thing. It’s necessary for Sherman to use herself, because she does understand what she is exposing: that’s why her photo of herself is openly kittenish. Bridget Bardot comes to mind..

The many images in Cindy Sherman’s photographs of women at the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art are mostly about how women show themselves to the world, and the inner reactions of their spirits as glimpsed through the social self. Sherman photographs herself to bring this out. As Marilyn Monroe, she brings out the anguish. Details — such as the shape and manipulation of our bodies, our gestures, small details — speak volumes about that.

One has to look and look again. This is the experience of seeing motion pictures, which are pictures moving with voice, stories, music.

A brief overview in pictures:

Sherman’s early work: accompanying, illustrating Betty Friedan

Exposing Andrew Wyeth’s cruelty to a disabled woman in the famous painting of Christina unable to reach the house

What it does to you, the type you must be, to be a patroness of the arts

We are asked to admire these patronesses (as in the Renaissance), well here you see the iron soul beneath the rich robes

She had a period of making grotesqueries, often using Renaissance imagery: this is a milder one as I don’t want to attract hostile attention to my blog

Push back

Now I write this blog because I notice what has been happening is dismissal and erasure of the meaning and function of Sherman’s work.

This is a sickening article from the New York Review of Books (59:10, 2012): a major show by a feminist artist and they give it to Sanford Schwartz — and quite deliberately chose the ugliest more unpleasant images which instead of exposing the feminist analysis of culture present us with mean looking women. It is online to all. Unusual for an art exhibit article for the NYRB. They wanted to make lots of people could read this. She’s an impersonator you see. Making it up. Reveling in herself. Yes she uses herself as a model. Lots of women have. It’s cheap.

I thought to myself, this is an aberration, it is the complacent NYRB with its usual male ostrichs. But no. Today I came across another similar column.

One might have hoped a woman reviewer would talk about the meaning of the exhibit. In Paula Marantz Cohen’s review for Times Literary Supplement (April 27, 2012, p 180), not available publicly online, but no big loss, the closest to an understanding she comes is “short of a hackneyed feminism, there is very little that one can say about what her art means.” Very little one can say? To expose our pornified culture is hackneyed. To bring home what drives women anywhere from anorexia and self-conscious manipulation of their bodies to simply feeling bad about themselves, spending huge sums to beauticians, hot-waxing, is meaninglessness, hackneyed. To be sure, it does not seem to do any good if change is our criteria.

For Cohen, Sherman’s art is again about her dressing up. She says the “curatorial decision” to provide explanations “seems particularly wrong-headed,” but we are not told what these explanations are for the most part. One of a middle-aged woman staring at herself in the mirror (bourgeois, Sherman herself) is described by the curator as something vain, filled with pathos, a “struggle with the impossible standards of beauty that prevail in a youth- and status-obsessed culture.” No, Cohen says it’s about the love women have of dressing up, and why shouldn’t they have that pleasure?

Last night I watched Lena Dunham’s HBO situation comedy, Girls and in two key scenes with men we see dressing up is not much fun. She goes over to her boyfriend’s apartment. She texts him, he does not text her. While there to keep his affection and interest, she allows him to bugger her and enact the position of self-tied up slave. In another a male boss who she attempts to please, and for which situation she has dressed up as the semi-bohemian graduate student fires her when she asks to be paid for her work. She is working there for no money at all. (See insightful review, NYRB, June 7, 2012, by Elaine Blair.)

Now Cindy Sherman has included the poignant self Lena Dunham is working out of for her show:

Wistful’s the word here

By damning with faint praise, by saying the exhibit makes him uncomfortable and there’s something grating and wrong about this sort of thing (Schwartz), by referring in an offhand disdainful way to what makes the exhibit important and never explaining this (Cohen), you do a hatchet job on the exhibit. Since to understand art, you must see it. In future, people studying Sherman’s work will have to go on such write-ups. This is how to destroy feminism, how to perpetuate what Sherman is trying to change through awareness.

It’s awareness. It’s seeing yourself, understanding what you are doing to yourself. Cindy uses herself as a model because she is consciously enacting the inner world of our culture and needs her own vision to stare out at us, to walk before us, in the social performances we enact.

Girl on Fence (see comments)


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I am glad that I have ended my revisal of this dreadful scene. It is not to be endured — Samuel Johnson, Othello [Desdemona. But half an hour! Othello. Being done, there is no pause. Des. But while I say one prayer! Oth. It is too late. Smothers her.]

I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time

1988 Pan edition (1st one I read for 1st time)

2009 source edition (the one I could get into the book store for my students and which I have now read with them twice)

Dear friends and readers,

An important side topic emerged on one of the Yahoo reading listservs I am grateful to be a member of, Inimitable-Boz, where a group of people are reading Dickens’s Bleak House, a few it seems for the first time, and most for far more than the 2nd or 3rd: why do we re-read a book, how does the pleasures of rereading, and re-rereading differ from the first reading.

It came out of one of these inevitable (it seems) protests from someone that as I am reading this book for the first time, I must not be told anything about what I have not yet read yet, which behavior I have learnt since coming onto the Net is regarded as a “spoiler” and must be labelled “spoiler alert.” Honestly as far as I was conscious of this I never came across this idea before the Internet, but since has become so familiar to me that I know many a reader protests in puzzlement against introductions and prefaces to books (carefully prepared for them by a publisher, paid for) and which [honored, respected] behavior may be found carried to the extreme of not allowing someone to describe a film at all before attending, lest knowing something “spoils” it for this person. Admittedly this last is an extreme response that I’ve seen trotted out by people mostly in order to silence any talk about films that might be serious, or prevent anyone from asking or discussing with the person some thoughtful or content-rich reaction.

One member of the listserv sent along an insightful column by Stanley Fish where for once (usually I dislike the personality he projects too strongly to read anything he writes), I felt grateful to Prof Fish for explaining the obvious: “What Do Spoilers Spoil”. What distresses me is the demand often has a chilling effect on sharing, talking about, and enrichening our experience of books.

Among the points Fisher makes that I want to repeat:

In August 2011 two researchers at the University of California at San Diego reported (in the journal Psychological Science) that in a controlled experiment, “subjects significantly preferred spoiled over unspoiled stories in the case of both … ironic twist stories and … mysteries.” In fact, it seems “that giving away … surprises makes readers like stories better “perhaps because of the “pleasurable tension caused by the disparity in knowledge between the omniscient reader and the character.


The positive case for spoilers is even stronger if you are persuaded by those who argue, in the face of common sense, that suspense survives certainty. This is called “the paradox of suspense” and it is explained by A. R. Duckworth: “1. Suspense requires uncertainty. 2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty. 3. [Yet] we feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcomes of

I like when Prof Fish talks of different kinds of pleasures, as the one you have on a second time reading when you know what’s going to happen and can see so much more the ironies and how things are working out, appreciate the skeins of imagery and also his theory of a paradox of suspense even when you know. I experience that — or I’d call it a paradox of engagement. I had begun rereading Winston Graham’s Warleggan for the third time the other night. I came upon the long terrible (hard to read) sequence where Francis Poldark, a major character, one beloved by me, who when not simply (justifiably) angry, depressed, embittered, suicidal, is man with gifts to be cherished, a tender heart,when he dies – slowly — hanging in the end to a nail to prevent himself drowning while he waits for people to realize he’s gone missing and come and rescue him. I knew he was going to die, had not made it. It didn’t matter. I suffered just as much reading the text, maybe more and felt the last lines as keenly — though the first shock or surprise was over.

I leave my reader to go over and read Fish to see how this is.

Equally dismaying, if you take these protests seriously, you are not allowed to talk of anything in the book, story or characters as that’s not yet known. There is, I submit, an inexorable intransigent anti-intellectualism at work here. I should not tell stories revealing how blank some students can be but one a propos comes to mind: I had a student last term who when she realizes I had read Sense and Sensibility more than once looked just amazed. Really. “Why did I read it more than once? whatever for? I knew what was in it.” What can one say to this? I can’t make up my mind if it was faux naivete, surely it was. Or was she coying me, quizzing, mocking at some level.

And yet those wanting to talk are made to feel they are sociopaths trespassing.

Another member of Inimitable-Boz suggested

Spoilers ought to be with mutual consent. Otherwise they can be received as deliberate aggressions. The first pleasure of discovery is like (male or female) virginity. Once lost it is for ever. Why do we re-re-read? perhaps it is to recapture what we nevertheless know is lost for ever. Or is it in order to experience better what we missed or did ill the first time?

I find the demand for spoiler warnings intimidating, aggressive in itself, imposing on others one kind of reading and making you avoid discussing the book as a whole seriously. The solution of everyone reading the book first before even beginning is in fact the one way you can avoid stifling discussion. But that’s unrealistic in terms of realities of people’s way of using cyberspace reading groups (it’s a way to get oneself to read a book in the first place for some). I wonder how much discussion people have after the book was read and closed or movie seen and ended. My feeling is people like to discuss a book while they are reading it.

There’s also this: an author will often not tell us something explicitly but expect us to know it. He or she may not tell it explicitly so we will respect the character may, enjoy the paradox of suspense more or certain ironies. For example, Jane Austen does not tell us until near the end of Northanger Abbey that General Tilney has not imprisoned his wife in chains and left her half to starve. She expects us to know that Mrs Tilney is really dead, died 9 years ago, this is not a cover-up story. Thus when Catherine goes wandering about the abbey looking for her it’s funny. She is absurd. Austen doesn’t tell us explicitly in order for us to empathize with Catherine’s upset and distress. In Bleak House we we are expected to know who the disguised woman is (Lady Dedlock) and by Chapter 5 what her relationship is to Esther Summerson (her long-hidden mother) and who Nemmo is: the father. Dickens doesn’t tell us explicitly.

I did have students in my classes who expressed disappointment and dismay when it turned out that Mrs Tilney would never be on stage. One of them said to me, you said Mrs Tilney is an important character. Yes, that does not mean she has to be alive. These are unsophisticated readers who have not gotten into the conventions. I know that Woodcourt will be the hero who loves Esther shortly after he comes on the stage and Dickens expects me to know this. It’s not giving anything away to talk about it. In the case of Lady Dedlock she is powerful and upper class and she makes Joe’s life a misery after she leaves him. We are to see her ignorance about these sorts of things. I suggest the novelist gets that paradox of suspense Fisher talked of, plus that if it were made explicit we would not respect the characters in the same way. It gives them a distancing integrity; we take their views seriously, now Lady Dedlock wants to remain secret; she is disguised.


On to re-reading & recurring characters.

1988 Pan edition (the 1st one I read for the first time

2009 Source book (the more appropriately illustrated Pan 2008 for Demelza is not available here in the US)

I’m just now struggling — gentle reader, truly struggling — to fit in the Poldark novels by Winston Graham and the 1975-78 two season mini-series film adaptations as part of my serious reading this summer while doing two linked projects on Jane Austen. I’ve discovered I must carve out 1 1/2 to 2 hours every couple of days genuinely to go beyond where I’ve gotten to take in the novels more fully. Or I’m going through grazing the surface and not taking in the structures and rich content specific to each book. As to times, I’ve probably read Ross Poldark four times, Demelza three, Jeremy Poldark three, and Warleggan twice (all written just as WW2 was ending to 1953); the second quartet, The Black Moon, Four Swans, The Angry Tide (1973-77) merely twice each, with the later quartet, The Stranger from the Sea, The Miller’s Dance, The Loving Cup, The Twisted Sword (1981 into 1990) and coda, Bella (2003), once each (see handy list).

I don’t re-read just to experience better what I missed before or read ill last time. Maybe that is true for a second or third reading but after a while one doesn’t experience that. I don’t re-read to recapture the surprise either. (In life I’m not particularly keen on surprises, dislike them in fact and reassure my students all the time we will not have any surprises in our class and I will work hard to ensure your grade is no surprise to you. [I know that’s not possible for all students as some delude themselves.])

I re-read simply because I love the presence in the book, the author implicit there, or the characters, or the world that’s created and want to experience it again.

I say of Austen she never fails me. It would take a lot of words to say what I mean by that but that’s why I reread now — even when I’m tired of her, and sometimes think her very narrow and even over-rated, when she irritates me. I’ve just started Trollope’s Kellys & OKellys; I’ve read about 2 times I think and it’s not failing me at all. I’m just gaining strength as I read; it’s like iron in the blood. Some books make me feel better. I’ve read a number of Trollope’s Barsetshire and Palliser novels countless times. I love Mr Harding as he appears in his first novel, The Warden, comic-tragic political fable. And I love his trick of recurring characters.

In Trollope and other novelists who write very long novels of social critique peopled densely, there’s the phenomenon of recurring characters. By that is meant a character who exists in one novel turns up in another – and what’s more they fit. So, for example, Dolly Longestaffe (a cynical useless drone type male who lives off others and does nothing himself) is first seen in The Way We Live Now but then turns up at the racecourse in The Duke’s Children (an entirely different book in spirit mostly except this one sub-plot where suddenly there’s Dolly). I’m not talking about series of cycical novels (sometimes called romans fleuves) for then the story is kept going and so the characters naturally are evolving too. Modern detective fiction uses the central detective who is the focus of novel after novel and he or she comes with other characters.

To distinguish Trollope’s art from Dickens’s, it would be rather say if Esther Summerson from Bleak House would re-appear in say Our Mutual Friend to offer Lizzie Hexam advice. We would know for sure this would be very good advice. In Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie Lady Glencora Palliser shows up running a successful auction. She would. In Ayala’s Angel, the hunting set are a bunch of characters we first met in The American Senator. They live nearby. Mr Harding turns up in the very late Kept in the Dark as a sort of joke. Someone wonders if he has married a harridan, and we know it is just not possible.

Readers often love this. They get a great kick out of some favorite or memorable character recurring in another novel by the same author.
What I’m getting it is how real Trollope made his world to him and how interconnected: a vast oeuvre which he writes bits off of in different moods, then you would or might see this phenomenon, but we don’t do we? Asked how many novels or books he had written, Trollope replied he’d written 88. Some such number in the 80s. He did not say I wrote 47 novels, so many short stories, so many this or that. But 88 stories. I think he really did see his work as continuous and the novels interconnected even if they are not set up say like Proust’s or Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

It’s not cheapening characters to do this — or not necessarily but they come out of the “larger context that defines them …” (Bob’s phrase over on Inimitable-Boz). Now Winston Graham has made a world of 12 novels with the same central evolving characters for the first 7. And I’m drawn to nearly all the central characters quite intensely, but especially Ross, Demelza, Dwight Enys, Jud, Elizabeth Chynoweth, Francis Poldark, Drake Carne, Mowenna Chynoweth.

This feeling is not true for me for Dickens. I don’t go to him for this. I like Andrew Davies’s two adaptations and Sandy Welch’s Our Mutural Friend because they correct and improve and turn Dickens’s into an experience I can return to again and again. I’ve taken Davies’s film adaptation, Little Dorrit with me on trips the way I do some novels, in order to get me through bad patches. I find travel very difficult and vacations also a strain, a displacement.

The experience need not be a novel. I feel this way about Samuel Johnson who is his best in his life-writing and essays.

It can happen for just a specific book that grabs one over and over again. For many women including contemporary African-American this seems to be true of Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell’s central woman’s historical novel classic of the mid-20th century turned into The Wind Done Gone). Jane Eyre. For me Byatt’s Possession. Some are so intense or painful it’s hard to read them a second time but I do. My husband has read Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time countless times. He never tires of all 12 books.

Some people can feel this way about a movie or a film-maker (Bergman never fails my husband; we go to all the Bergmann films.) Some filmmakers are highly uneven. I find this to be true of Woody Allen.

There are books written about reading that talk about this: Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone I’m reading really ought to be called Rereading.

Then another person commented:

Ultimately, as far as I am concerned, I reread or re-reread because of a drive to understand human experience, which, in the last analysis, is my experience. If the issue of identity and self identity has any meaning, it lies here. Who am I? means what values do I stand on and embody through existence AND what urges and drives push me on consciously and unconsciously in the present world.

Reading, re-reading, re-re-reading and so on matters to me too, in this way and also re-seeing, re-watching, and then watching again very slowly (using the vlc media player so I can slow down the film and capture stills and take down words). Where am I in the fiction or whatever it is is an important question and what does this text bring home to us. This past week I saw a magnificent performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes (HD opera transmission from Teatro alla Scala, Milan, with mostly British cast). What matters here? what are the artists showing us too? Then I went home and reread the Crabbe and then wrote a blog so as to understand what I had experienced and also express it. Get it down.

But I think we have to take into account something irreducibly personal. The book or books and the author works at some level into our deeper personal experiences, background, belief, longings and soothes or teaches us what over and over it helps us to be reminded of. Or have articulated for the first time, and then again and again.


Nell Blaine (1922-1996), Summer Interior with a Book

Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading. — Logan Pearsall Smith

Books are our friends too. I read to be with like spirits. Contra this is the idea we must not re-read for there are so many yet unread a first time. Life is short and soon we’ll die. Also when we re-read a long time afterward (or even a shorter) we may be so disillusioned, dismayed by what we liked.

I tell myself it’s a fatal puritanic (using the word in its ordinary condemning sort of sense, self-flagellation) super-work ethic kind of outlook that has to as a kind of appetite somehow get as much “new” experience as we can before we die. We must not waste time. (Self-improving for me does include listening to books in my car; I started partly because I hated the waste of time in the car, the hours driving my daughters and driving to and fro to work; the whole world outside NYC where I can’t buy a milk without getting into my car.) I have that impulse I must learn something new.

It’s silly. New experiences come from older known things and facts do not necessarily enrichen us. Facts are constructs too. Last night I finally found a book I can read at night! Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I caught myself saying to myself I can read this because I know all this already, and wishing I could read instead a book in Italian by Elsa Morante. But what do I mean know all this already — Tudor history. I don’t know what she has to offer me in her vision and she is just superb in recreating a living world at the opening of the 16th century.

I too have had the experience of disliking a book I once liked. Sometimes I can get sick of Austen. It’s more coming back at another time in life or in the world. We see the earlier work differently. It’s that way for me with Richardson’s Grandison. I find I have no patience for it, and once I loved it, wrote a long chapter in my dissertation on it.

There I suggest no use fetishizing a book. We don’t fetishicize people. If we don’t like to go clubbing any more and indeed dislike what we see, well we’ve gone on. Though I admit I like to remember reading as something special.

It’s revealing what we long to re-read. Sometimes such longings (favorite books from when we first began) bring us back to our original selves before we became so “adult” and we find our primal emotions and what counts to us again.


Joshua Reynolds, His niece, Theophila Palmer re-reading Clarissa

On Eighteenth-Century Worlds someone is reading Richardson’s Clarissa for the first time and sent in a passage by Clary she found riveting, significant:

Oh, my dear, ’tis a sad, a very sad world! -While under our parents protecting wings, we know nothing at all of it. Book-learned and a scribbler, and looking at people as I saw them as visitors or visiting, I thought I knew a great deal of it. Pitiable ignorance!-Alas! I knew nothing at all!

I responded that I have a matching passage which I keep in a sort of online commonplace books:

What a world is this! What is there in it desirable? The good we hope for, so strangely mixed, that one knows not what to wish for! And one half of mankind tormenting the other, and being tormented themselves in tormenting…

I liked hers; it had a moral turn in it of fighting back (implied), of at least having the salutary gain of knowing more. I added it to my commonplace book.

I first read Richardson’s Clarissa (in the Angus Burrell abridgement) at age 19-20 (I was older than 18, probably some 2 years older). It gripped me like some disease, a fever in the blood. This is the third edition and it does include some dazzling letters by Lovelace; said to have been written earlier but kept out because he thought they blackened Lovelace too strongly. Rather they are so colorful, such ripe fairy tale fantasies of exhilaration in triumph and escape that they make Lovelace more appealing, though if you think about it even less capable of any feeling for others. I began not to look in corners lest I see Lovelace lurking there. Then I reread it in graduate school in the unabridged Everyman edition. On this 5 year later re-reading I did a talk in a class and then a paper where the teacher suggested I had a dissertation topic here and he would be my advisor. Robert Adams Day was the man’s name, now dead, he died more than 10 years ago now. I did the dissertation and called it Richardson, Romance and Reverie (about the special super-alert pictorial-dramatic visions a poet must conjure up to write a novel).

I didn’t make up my mind then but after another year of graduate study and more courses in the 18th century I decided I would not “do” the Renaissance after all, but the 18th century and make my dissertation Clary.

I read Clarissa countless times while doing my dissertation and also read _Grandison_ at least twice through. Then coming onto the Net I lead a group reading the book in 1995 — we did it according to the calendar in the novel. Started January 15th and ended December 18th. Some days the texts were so long it was very hard to read it all in the time allotted. It was after that I made this region of my website. Just scroll down and you’ll see the postings.

I’ve re-read Clarissa twice since, two years ago and the year before that. I did a paper defending the film adaptation and finally dealt directly with what for me counts centrally in the book and makes it relevant today: its treatment of rape. I’ve not tried to publish either beyond this. Why drive myself up a wall to please some editor and have to change (ruin partly) my work when if anyone wants to read and to learn whatever there is to from the paper, it's there. I also put up the proposals with them and some of my findings about the scenes and letter relationships. Always it’s the letters, the relationships between them that the final keys or clues to the book lies somehow.

Now this last time (two years ago) while I see all Anna Howe’s flaws and inadequacies, I began to like her — especially since Nokes’s movie. I also was very moved by the visit of HIckman to her. The movie is utterly inadequate on Hickman. Male made movies often cannot get themselves to do justice to the sensitive ethical man. Nokes hired a tough-looking actor but did not present the inner core of Hickman’s character at all. At the same time his substitute of Belford for Colonel Morden as the man who murders Lovelace in the climactic duel is brilliant, just right.

And this time through book and film I was with Clary all the way fighting Lovelace after the rape. His attempts at further rapes. I loved when she ran away and when she kept saying no, she will not be coopted by anyone. She's not even for rent for anyone.

Infamy? to give way to them is to conform to rules made up by evil-minded people and then you surely will be destroyed by them when you put yourself in their narrow grasps. I have ever rejoiced for her when she died — not that I believe in any afterlife or God but that she knows oblivion at last. Is safe.

The film of course emphasizes the intense grief and waste and ends on the stone. The heart of the film, the basic unit of the grammar is the still picture.


2008 Pan Jeremy Poldark (the only one of this text I have)

1988 Pan Black Moon (my favorite of my two Black Moons)

So, gentle reader prepare yourself for more meditative accounts of the Poldark and other re-read and re-listened to books, books not necessarily fashionable at all, and detailed accounts of Downton Abbey the second season and Poldark and other mini-series and good films. As long as I can get up the energy …

Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza Poldark (Angharad Rees) on the night before he must return to prison for the trial (Poldark Season 1, Part 9, no equivalent scene in Jeremy Poldark)

I do love these films. The central heroes & heroines are gentle at heart. I can put myself to sleep dreaming of them and their landscape which I long to visit.


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Dear friends and readers,

Not only is “Intertextuality in Simon Raven’s The Pallisers and Other Trollope Films” published, but the volume in which it occurs, Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation, edd. Abigail Burnham Bloom and Mary Sanders Pollock, introd. Thomas Leitch has been reviewed by Kamilla Elliot in the online academic review journal, Review 19. While Elliot’s review justifiably critiques aspects of the volume, she signals out mine and one other, Gene M. Moore’s “Making Private Scenes Public: Conrad’s “Return” and Chereau’s Gabrielle (see my analysis in another blog), as superior, the best in the volume:

Welcoming theoretical and methodological variety, I find value in older approaches, especially when–as in the essays by Gene M. Moore and Ellen Moody–they rest on a substantial body of scholarship and research

Some of Elliot’s criticism of the volume derive from her strongly theoretical, post-modern point of view (see her Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate). I liked her suggestion that I should or could “step back from [my] meticulous microanalyses of screenplays to present a broader perspective of how screenplays mediate between literature and film?” I shall keep this kind of comment in mind when I return to my book, A Place of Refuge: A study of the Sense and Sensibility films (working title).

But I should say (and I think this an important point, fundamental even) that I disagree with her main perspective: insofar as the essays in Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation use a high amount of theoretical (packed) language and jump from general statement to general statement they lack content, and are insufficiently descriptive of their subject matter and convey less information and insight about their chosen films and books.

William Powell Firth (1891-1909), (monumental) The Railway Station (1862)

So, speaking plainly, for those interested in Victorian/Edwardian films, the volume contains 2 essays whose subject matter is Jane Austen films (arguably Victorian in the way the novels are treated); one on the generation of Jekyll and Hyde films (Leitch); one on Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (partly out of Wilde’s play); Dickens’s Christmas Carol; one on Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, an adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel, using, as does Egoyan, Browning “The Pied Piper” as an intermediary text (a superbly insightful essay by Mary Sanders Pollock); one on Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (another genuinely enlightening informative one by Louise McDonald); one on several versions of Dracula, one on the 1939 Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films compared to recent analogous and free adaptations, and mine on Trollope whose original more accurate and grammatically sound title was “Trollope on Television: Intertextuality in the Pallisers and other Trollope films:” it focuses on Raven’s Pallisers (and two other of Raven’s mini-series as intermediary texts), but also covers Plater’s Barchester Chronicles, and uses aspects of Herbert Herbert’s Malachi’s Cove, and Andrew Davies’s The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right, to suggest how centrally Raven’s perspective on Trollope has influenced those films made after his (recently in reaction against).

Elliot said she didn’t understand the three major divisions of the volume. The third follows its subtitle: “Teaching Books by Reading Movies.” The three essays tell of how the writers as teachers use film and they make concrete useful suggestions for those embarking on such teaching. Read the screenplay with the students (emphasize intermediary texts), concentrate on the beginnings and endings of films (often different from the originating book), multiple versions or films of the same story unmoors students front their tenacious adherence to the originating text as a primary standard. The second part (in which my essay appears) had essays which focus on the alteration of values in the content of book and films, but it is true that the third essay on the first part (on Dickens’s Christmas Carol) locates the persistence of the story in its content of the retrievable, rejuvenation, generosity, charitableness. The first part is supposed to be about filmic-techniques, tropes, typical procedures, the exploitation of at least generally favored paradigms and myth. Jean-Marie Lecomte’s on Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan is about technique, and Thomas Leitch’s on the many Jekyll, Hydes on the necessity to develop some understood relationship between source or eponymous text, film, and intervening film and verbal texts.

John Malkovich as Hyde (1996 Mary Reilly, an adaptation of RLStevenson’s novel & Valerie Martin’s novels of the same name)

Julia Roberts as Mary Reilly (the film includes as intertexts Victorian painting, Orson Welles’s Moby Dick, Dracula films et alia

It’s hard to differentiate theme from form. My essay covers both aspects of film adaptation of texts found to be centrally meaningful since their first reception as books. I argue that the Pallisers was an important noticed sociological event (year-long) which fixed Trollope in the TV public mind as a paternalistic Tory (like his hero, the liberal whig politician Duke of Omnium), and that in these “Raven’s scripts shape Trollope’s novels into a filmic, disillusioned political vision, which justifies patriarchy in an ameriorated inegalitarian society, itself dependent on the self-erasure of women whose emotional and social support is needed to sustain it.” I also argue that Herbert’s and Davies’s films turn Trollope’s texts into critical exposures of Victorian systems of privilege, and replace Raven’s cynical Tory Trollope with a humane, liberal Trollope, partly in reaction to Raven’s characters (who differ considerably from Trollope’s). But to show this I compare texts from Trollope’s Phineas Redux with Pallisers 8:15 and 8:16:

Lady Glencora Palliser (Susan Hampshire, 8:15, see also Mid-point)

From the Duchess’s dinner-party (8:16)

and bring in Raven’s previous film adaptations (Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, The Blackheath Poisonings). In moving onto the recent films have to take into considerable that recent film adaptations do not conceive the material as filmed stage plays, but sequences of juxtaposed stills, and I compare the wistful feminism of Susan Hampshire as Signora Neroni in Plater’s Barsetshire with Trollope’s desperate unscrupulous Signora.

Signora Neroni (Susan Hampshire), melancholy, disillusioned (1982 BBC Barchester Chronicles)

Intertexual texts for Davies are films as much as books. Davies’ hero, Paul Montague in The Way we Live Now, refuses to treat the heroines as of right the natural property of the older males; Davies’ depiction of the Jewish themes of Trollope’s book exposes the bigotry of the hypocritical upper class English in their anti-semitism by taking one of Trollope’s inset epistolary correspondences and turning it into dramatic scenes of great power.

Davies’s 2001 The Way We Live Now: Georgiana (Anne-Marie Duff) treats the noble if Jewish Breghert (Jim Carter) in the most insulting inhumane terms

My view is a close comparative analysis which does not privilege the eponymous book or previous incarnations of it in films but includes these and the screenplay, and whatever other source and intermediate texts a film-maker necessarily must form the basis of any understanding of a film and its sources. I suggest that theoretical language is more than a blight linguistically; it can be a substitute for the hard work of close reading and a thorough grounding in the history of the era the eponymous book was written in, the era the movie is made in, its genre and all the work the film-makers (including production design and actors) did in other films. Elliot complains in her review of several “thin” and under-researched essays. The person spent all his or her time (maybe not a lot) on reading and writing these sentences of sometimes impossible to decipher packed theory.

Donald Pleasaunce as Malachi and Veronica Quilligan as his grand-daughter, Mally (Herbert has in mind previous Cornish films’ motifs, 1974 Malachi’s Cove)

Well enough. I won’t summarize my colleagues work nor go more into the details of mine. Much is on the Net in even more “meticulous microanalysis” than is permitted in a published book.

I am chuffed and proud to see my work in the same volume as that of Thomas Leitch whose Film Adaptation and Its Discontents has long been one of the books I keep on my library table near my desk and who I corresponded with by email during the time of the book’s making, shared work with and was very generous to me.

Rev Gibson (David Tennant) trying to evade Arabella French (Fenella Woolgar) (from one of Marcus Stone’s original illustrations to Trollope’s HKHWR)


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Psychologist [the black woman the 1st episode of the 1 season began with, Ella, played by Tanya Moodie]: “Why today?
John [Martin Freeman]: “Do you want to hear me say it?”
Ella: “18 months since our last appointment.”
John: “You read the papers?”
Ella: “Sometimes
John: “And you watch tele … you know why I’m here … I’m here becau … se … [cannot speak it]
Music starts.
Ella: “What happened John?
[the theme music for this series in minor poignant key]
John: “Sher … ummm … [looks up] …
Ella: “You need to get it out
John: “My best friend Sherlock Holmes [very faint on that last syllable] dead
[Harsh raucous music, rhythmic begins and we switch to that busy city neon-lit street, and the city with the ferris wheel] Sherlock BBC 2012

John Watson (Martin Freeman), first shot, close up

John and Ella (Tanya Moodie), second & far shot

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes was distinguished — Arthur Conan Doyle, The Final Problem

Silent, restrained, dignified grief (we do not see David Burke’s face), 1988 The Final Problem

Dear friends and readers,

The contrast is striking, no? the camp, contemporary, steely-edged sarky Sherlock opens with the intense distress, unguarded, of a man left alone. The 1890s bravura short story with an impersonal distanced grave memorialization (as seen in the 1988 Final Problem).

Not that Conan Doyle’s text has not got the usual pizzazz: Moriarty was first introduced in this tale (intended to kill off this character) thus: “He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson.” His reach makes Osama bin Laden look feeble: insidious inexplicable evil everywhere. Wild crazed paranoia? Literary and historical critics tell us (in speaking of where Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde gained its popularity, Dracula its force) of racism, the tiny embatttled middle and upper middle class of the great cities of Europe understandably terrified by the underclasses they made and exploited. All Conan Doyle can reference is this inexplicable spider with paid agents so ubiquitous, several are ready by the Reichenbach Falls (Switzerland) to lure Sherlock to his death (after duly separating his faithful supposedly sane friend Watson back to the nearby hotel inn).

But except for this important direct parallel of demonizing Arab and Southasian people (for similar reasons, today’s 1% making huge sums off their wars, weapons, exported industries, imposed infrastructures), we must forget the literal details of the originating story. And for me also forget its 1986 transposition in the Jeremy Brett version, scripted by John Hawkesworth, as the IMDB reviewer says “beautiful scenery, thoughtful reflective,” with just that note of doubt: one which turns the first story into a personal rivalry of psychological dimensions. (I’ve not seen any of the other versions.)

The 2012 Reichenbach Fall by Steve Thomson is not an external chase, but an inward one. In brief, Moriarty drives Sherlock to suicide by heaping infamy on Sherlock, by shaming him, by disgracing him. Sherlock is revealed to have been a fake. We open with a montage of cases solved, good done, grateful near- and ex-victims. Sherlock has much to be proud of. Then the topple. It matters not how this is managed only that Sherlock himself at the crucial point of the episode suddenly confesses. Yes yes. He has been lying all along. He is no genius. (Shout this at the top of your voice, anguished tones.) And we see him fill John in on how he researched his disquisitions before he flared out with them, apparently on the spot, spontaneously.

W. Turner, The Upper Falls of the Reichenbach (a Turner was used in the episode)

St Bartholomew Hospital, showing its name on the side

Well, who can live with this? The final moments need not be in Switzerland; they are on the roof of an ancient hospital in Smithfield, one still going strong, St Bartholomew’s (recently expanded once again). Sterling performance by Andrew Scott as Moriarity of seething hatred (cool, self contained, camp) as he goads, needles and jeers Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) into jumping. Actually the argument is offhand: “oh just kill yourself it’s a lot less effort.”

No need to go through the ins and outs of Sherlock’s infamy. I suppose the reference is to the way we live now — the public image all. Juvenal (the Roman satiric poet), asked “What does Infamy Matter: when you get to keep your fortune?” Well to Sherlock his fortune doesn’t matter. Apparently in this world we are really supposed to care what other people think. Why?

Mycroft separated himself from his brother. Why? Because others do and he fears what? he will lose what? Lestrade too.

To the point that what intimate beloved friend believes and feels doesn’t count.

Surely reactive defiance was the way to go, turn and laugh at Moriarty in turn. I thought again of Orson Welles on top of that ferris wheel in The Third Man laughing at the idea he should imitate Ronald Colman (“it is a far far better thing …”) and jump.

I agree with Judy Shoaf who commented on my second blog on this series that these films are disturbing, disquieting, especially in their depiction of Sherlock:

The question posed is whether Sherlock himself is good or bad -– capable of friendship or merely manipulative.

At graveside, we have to listen to Mrs Hudson fall in with the crowd. Now she is complaining about her lodger, Mr Holmes, all the trouble he caused her. But John doesn’t. John believes his best, his one friend is dead.

Standing there John says it was okay by him that “you weren’t a hero. There were times I didn’t think you were human. But you were the best man … human being I’ve ever known and no one will convince me that you told me a lie … so … [music starts, soft, harmonic] there … ” He goes over and pats the gravestone.

“I was so alone and I owe you so much.” Turns and walks away. Turns back. “Oh please there’s just one more thing, one more miracle for me, don’t be … dead” (tight voice), “just for me” (light tones, strained) stop it, stop this.” These games.

Cries, the poignant theme comes back. Deep sighs. Stands up straight. Military person suddenly at attention. Turn right. Turn back. March off.
Then the camera shows us the POV has a statuesque, expressionless Sherlock Holmes as the music turns lightly raucas.

What to make of this? he is betraying his one friend. Causing him intense grief. Lying to him. Does Sherlock not trust John?

A film exists in its own right. It may be next year we will have some explanation. The next season has not only been announced (see The Empty House which will be the first episode) but the makers know most readers of Sherlock Holmes stories know this is the story that came half-way through the set), but the gap is long enough to let this moment sink in. Years will pass of loneliness for Watson. What excuse can there be for this? is the way we are pushed to feel.

It’s not too much to see it as the image of the broken vet and a rejection of marine mentality that glorifies war and invents, indeed makes evil. Of hollow men. The pale face is vampiric and come to think of it the way his long coat flares out cape-like as he falls.

Either a stunt man (action-adventure movies are stunt movies), or computer generated

The Reichenbach Fall with its comic pun is still an anti-costume costume drama where historical fiction with all its luxuriant nostalgic ambivalence presents us with a usable past to comment on our present.

What should we take to heart? what should we steel ourselves against? The episode does not really make a joke of infamy (or paranoia).


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Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Uttered in the original story, in the 1988 version and now again in 2012

Holmes (Jeremy Brett) comforting the rescued Miss Stapleton (found on stairwell beneath great house, 1988 The Hound of Baskerville by Hawkesworth)

Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) questioning animal experimenter Dr Stapleton (top secret laboratory, military compound, 2012 Hounds of Baskerville by Gatiss)

Dear friends and readers,

How the new Sherlock is ensemble camp art. The 2012 Hounds of the Baskervilles is also different content: the rape gone; we are in a world of top secret military compounds, laboratory experiments (on animals) and ruined landscapes.

I must retract what I said in my previous blog on The Latest Sherlock: while it’s true that in A Study in Pink (the 1st episode of last season), Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat wrote a script which really did follow the plot-design of at least the opening and middle phases of Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlett, so that the two and Jeremy Brett’s films in general move along in tandem and may be paralleled, when we come to the new, this year’s Hounds of the Baskerville and compare it with Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Jeremy Brett’s 1988 The Hound of the Baskerville, the new Sherlock departs so radically from the central buried or back story that the whole whole plot-design is changed and we have new content.

The film is not even an analogous adaptation. It appropriates (to use the fashionable term) the iconic character of Sherlock and his partner Watson, our memory of the general terrifying encounter of a ferocious huge glowing (phosphorescent) dog with a nervous fleeing victim in a vast wooded landscape round an ancient rich house and makes a new story for our time, and a few of the most memorable phrases to new purpose. In the comments to The Latest Sherlock , someone linked in a blog where a writer was (justifiably enough) angry at the erasure of strong women in the new series, and went on to talk about the ambiguous or fluid sexuality of the characters in a number of new mystery series, including this one.

The story of the abuse of woman is replaced. Conan Doyle’s original Hound had at its core, the mysterious tale of a cruel ruthless abuse of a young woman imprisoned in a room to be raped, who then flees the aristocratic rakish males who would abuse her again, only to find herself torn to bits by a supernatural hound. This core is paralleled by the front present day story of the amoral Baskervilles, and in the 1988 Brett version by John Hawkesworth the deceptions practiced on a modern day Miss Stapleton (Fiona Gillies). I wouldn’t call the Brett version feminist, but rather sympathetic to both its female and male vulnerable servant characters.

Rather than this, at the center of the Cumerbatch Sherlock is a military compound inside which is a vast laboratory in which top secret experiments are going on. When Sherlock and Watson penetrate their way in, they discover a very different Dr Stapleton (Amelia Bullmore). She experiments on rabbits, and we see all around her other frail and helpless animals (mostly small monkeys) in barred cages, attached to wires. The substitute is as relevant to our time as rape (especially since if we are telling the truth, the rape is kept marginal in both previous versions I’ve mentioned here): I felt distressed to see these animals and remembered Frederick Wiseman’s Primates and all that he and Jane Goodall and Sy Montgomery have taught me about the frighteningly impersonal cold cruelties wrecked on helpless animals in labs today. What is a more important threat to all of us today? Henry Knight (Russell Toyvey), the young man who is the victim of the hound in the back or buried story in the past may be paralleled to these small creatures. In this version we eventually learn that there was no hound, it was a psychological projection, helped along by what seems to be a fog machine, foisted on everyone, including Holmes and Watson.

I won’t go into the twists and turns of any of the three stories, nor compare the 1988 Sherlock with this. Why not? well, the Jeremy Brett series as produced by June Wyndham-Davies is gothic realism, heavily dependent on virtuoso acting performances at length, especially Brett’s. This is not. It’s ensemble playing: it reminded me of the relationship of Rachel Weisz in Whistleblower to Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect. Whistleblower is also ensemble art, Mirren’s detective shows focus on her, she carries them. In addition, in this new Sherlock what happens happens centrally to Sherlock and John. They are not watchers on the side, coming in; they see the hound, they suffer madness; the core or back story moves alongside them.

So to turn to this new concoction, suffice to say that we are taken through a rigmarole which in the new version tests the friendship of Sherlock (while Brett was called Holmes by Watson in this series Cumberbatch is addressed as Sherlock by John Watson) and John (not called Watson by Sherlock but address as John). Everyone on a first name basis just about immediately in 2012. At one point Sherlock fools John by luring him to go into the laboratory and watching John’s distress and confusion and misery as he stumbles about confusedly and in increasing fear.

John lost and wandering (still partly lame), POV Sherlock from another side of a glass

An interesting side effect of this is we are (I think) supposed to feel alienated from Sherlock; he is behaving like Dr Stapleton (who may well have petted her rabbit and like the people in Wiseman’s film actually talk soothingly to the animals they are torturing). They really do quarrel over this.

Sherlock: John I don’t have friends. I have one.
[This softens John who is at heart as needy.]

I’m not making up or inserting into the story this animal rights matter. Among the deceits at the cosy inn is an attempt to cover up the high amounts of animal meat by ostentatiously offering vegetarian dishes. The poor rabbit is given the name bluebell, and Henry Knight often looks like some frantic animal caught in the headlights of an on-coming car.

The blogger who complained angrily about a lack of strong women should really not have much of a quarrel here. To me the superficiality of these demands for strength, no matter how used, is exposed in this episode. We have a second woman, Dr Mortimer (Sasha Behar), Henry’s psychologist who John Watson flirts with to get information out of her:

A Study in Pink opened with a hard-nosed woman psychologist (black) who similarly was there to make the man in front of her fit in, cope without disturbing others, and would have been more than willing to manipulate him, withhold information.

In a sense this ought to be a disturbing story. That it’s not is the result of another quality to this new Sherlock I want to bring up this time: it’s camp in Susan Sontag’s formulation: there’s a constant parodic element, strong artifice and stylization which makes what we see a game. One might say this is part of its gay sensibility — for there is one. The film-makers allude to all sorts of Sherlock paraphernalia: Sherlock is asked where is his hat? he is not recognizable without it. (The deerstalker hat is not in Conan Doyle but was a feature in some of the early illustrations and of picked up for Basil Rathbone’s costume along with the Inverness cape.)

The fun is in the exaggeration: this Mrs Hudson has liaisons, but alas the men she goes with have other women; as Sherlock gets into a cab he tells John that Mrs Hudson has been unlucky with another male again. After the opening terror of the boy attacked by a terrifying dog, we move to the cosy flat in 221B Baker and find Sherlock half-hysterical because he wants his usual stimulus — the word opium is coyly avoided and instead cigarettes are instances, but we all know what “the seven per cent solution” he’s talking of is. John scolds Sherlock from his desk that Sherlock must control himself. The performance of Cumberbatch is high theatrical body gestures and facial expression, as he swirls in his chair. The film-makers imitate a modern trope of romance drama and gothic since the 1939 Wuthering Heights and become de rigeur in Pride and Prejudice: like Catherine and Heathcliff, like Elizabeth Bennett, Sherlock stands high on a neolithic looking rock mountain:

This camp element is toned down during the moments of cheer and camaraderie between John and Sherlock — as when John is drinking his coffee at the close of the story and Sherlock walks over to a nearby set of tourists in cars near the inn where they stayed. It may disappear when neurotic upset characters are on stage (Henry Knight) or Sherlock goes into one of his long rapid-paced monologues regaling us with the banal misery of the lives about them , as when he and John are in a restaurant and nearby sits an unemployed man and his over-dressed costumed, bejewelled mother. Here is a pair like us, the 99%. Martin Freeman is very good at conveying a comical surprise whenever he finds himself in luxurious rich places so typical of these costume dramas (in this series highly modern looking — lots of glass walls). Henry has to admit, yes, he’s rich and that’s why these rooms are so large and empty.

It’s provocative to camp the Sherlock matter up. When Sherlock and John question the lab people about possible near-by monsters, they are told the last ones they saw were Abbott and Costello out after some monster.

Is there some safety in nihilism? This is post-modern nostalgia and the reassurance such as it is — with a calm ending so we seem to come back to Square one where we began (221 B Baker, the cosy inn, the car park, the cup of coffee) — comes from the spectacle, the enactments we’ve seen before. It’s the joke of timeless survival and repetition. Also oddly this two hours had some beautiful visuals against the ruined landscape around the half-buried military looking temporary buildings.

It’s not the dog that is scary; it’s the people who create false visions with their scientific equipment. This is not the first time I’ve noticed modern movies to be anti-science, even ones which seem as pro-high tech use as this one.

Never without a gadget


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Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried against the paper-mache dragon

Dear friends and readers,

We saw the re-play last night. We enjoyed it: I only feel asleep briefly during one of the interminable conversations setting forth what happened before the opera opened (why then have two previous? because, Jim told me, this was written before the first two), who was who. All sung and acted subtly and effectively. The best thing about the opera itself for me is for the most part there is little action; it’s a pastoral at heart, with a young man appearing, talking, wandering about, about three acts quickly done (murders, killings) and then orgiastic sex at the close. These do not take up much time and the music is then allowed to be so leisurely, lyrical, meditative.

Wotan (Bryn Terfel) bullying the now craven dwarf-father, Mime (fake, Gerhard Siegel)

I was alive to it as a Nazi story though: the way to become a man is to kill; evil is some mystic force making inexplicable hating monsters. Stand here mean. And the portrait shots of Morris could come from the violent film, The Gladiators:

Do read Bob Dixon on male adventure stories and the popular fantasies distributed by the publishing establishment, made movies of (Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, Ursula Le Guin’s religious paranoias). Or the hero can find a sleeping beauty (originally a rape story) and have sex with her. I was surprised at the virulent hatred of the parent, but then I remembered Kalus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, an eye-opening explication of the roots of fascistic thinking (the word is becoming over-used lately I know). It’s not true that he argues macho masculinity simply comes from fear of women. Siegfried does know no fear until he sees a woman. I admit that. But it’s more fear of weakness, of empathizing, of sympathy, of emotion, family life; the young man is to follow appetite. (See Michael Rothberg, “Documenting Barbarism: Yourcenar’s barbarism, Theweleit’s Male Coup,” Cultural Critique [1994-95]). Isn’t this over-reading what is a baby-child like story? dragons to be killed and birds as mothers who take you by the hand (wing) and lead you to joy? But it’s not a baby-story, not when such money is put into it and it’s played before thousands across the globe.

Mime, the false father with the broken sword (Gerhard Siegel again, an important character, there a lot)

All this was mightily deflected – and it was a feat — by Jay Hunter Morris’s remarkable performance. He played the whole thing as the most innocent (witless one critic described the character) of eager boys. Total sweetness — and if he hated his father (Mime, the ugly dwarf), well then the father was a false one, deserved to be hated and had hated him, indeed stole him from his mother (Sieglinde), acted out silently at the opening of the opera. His continual self-deprecation and stance of wonder at all he was seeing almost did the trick — helped along how quick and rare any action was, swift. Blood was red light running across planks going up and down. Morris kept up this persona in his interview with Renee Fleming. I’ve read again and again in film studies how a single actor at the center of a story who is allowed to dominate it can make a huge difference. I saw that in Natalie Dessay’s Traviata.

But note: it’s hard to find close-up stills of Morris with that baby-look look of wonder on his face, so awkward, clumsy, unaware that makes him appealing on stage and in interviews.

There was some fall-out. Against this young man in his (what? later twenties is what he looked? early 30s at most), Deborah Voigt was too old. She looked like his grandmother, not his aunt. Heavy heavy make-up, tight tight sleeves, much exercise, an auburn wig, a corset-like slip, and still she was a woman more than twice his age too viscerally. She tried her best and acted the part well, but she can seem a daughter to Bryn Terfel’s Wotan because Terfel is older. It is not common for such a young man to be given such a central role so early in his career.

Fire amidst the greenery

What more to say? the planks. The light show. It was appropriate and the machine obviated the need to have different settings and scenes. Writhing forests, human-faced trees which turn into snakes, bodies which seem to emerge from the earth, the fires and at the close a landscape of burnt blue, dessicated (appropriate enough of you think of this as an opera for our time and then what fracking is doing). The computer technicians made a lovely bird out of light computer graphics and behind the scenes an exquisitely melodic soprano voice was heard. Still those planks did keep going up and down, they creaked and I felt I was watching a group of people made to run up and down and around dangerous cement columns. It might have made sense had this been a military raid or some modern version of a temple where the threatening “terrorists” (as all enemies are now labelled by those controlling the insides of gorgeous modern spaces like to do) are effectively kept out. But it was not. This was supposed to be a natural pastoral forest turned wasteland.

The hat Terfel wore and held and twirled (as “Wanderer”) was to me the best prop and piece of costume in the whole production

This is the only still I could find with the hat and it’s not perched perkly on Terfel’s head in quite the jaunty way that helps

The audience was small. Jim need not have worried we would not get there in time for seats. The Hoffman (it’s in Alexandra City, off Eisenhower Avenue) where we go proved itself once again utterly indifferent to its customers. The tickets all said 6:00 but the management had decided since then to make the movie begin at 6:30 pm. So many of the few people there came way too early and had nothing to do and nowhere to go in the sterile noisy palace outside the auditorium (which soon after cleaned began blast the space with ads). One man told me some of the tickets for Valkyrie were printed Tuesday when the movie had played on Monday; so he was cheated of seeing his favorite Wagner opera. A woman nearby as we were walking said she had had the same experience. I civilly commiserated and hoped they got their money back.

Nickel-and-diming. In the hour and one half where there was no line in front of the concessions (it was Wedneday night) enabled me to discern you can buy coffee at this theater. I discovered that the sugar and milk are not placed nearby so the customer can take as many packets as she pleased. Oh no. You must ask for how many you need, and then they are dispensed. The coffee is poured for you too. The new policy is to put the printed program telling the story, names of singer-actors, and opera-makers and how many intermissions online. You must yourself print it out and thus pay for the paper and ink.


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