Archive for October, 2012

Johan Botha as Otello and Renee Fleming as Desdemona

Dear friends and readers,

We began our fourth season at the Met via satellite and digital technology with an older production of Verdi’s Otello, this season featuring Renee Fleming (one of my favorite singer-actresses) as Desdemona and Johan Botha as Otello, Falk Struckman as Iago. The movie-theater less than 10 minutes away from our house — a huge building which has something like 14 auditoriums — has taken to making the Met HD opera auditorium a wing-side groundfloor corridor, and there were some surprizes for us this season. Not all of them welcome. For example, the benches just outside the auditorium in said wing which allowed the customer (not guest as the employees have been instructed to call people who pay to see movies there) to sit just outside the individual theater while the deafening preludes of relentless glittering screen advertising are going on have been removed. My guess is the management noticed that some of the HD opera patrons were quietly eating food and drinks they had brought from home. Verboten. So I have now to sit in the front main area and be bombarded (though no where as loudly) by advertisements for coming movies on screens placed at regular distances from one another.

I do my best to ignore these TV screens against walls, stuck in corners high up, while reading whatever books or periodical I have bought with me. I noticed that other HD patrons on near-by benches (who are distinguishable from the usual movie-goer and not just by age) were doing the same.

The party-crowd scene with Desdemona in middle

More ambiguous was the change in camera work which defines and shapes, indeed is our experience of the operas broadcast from far away. As I came back into the by-then crowded theater (Otello is provides popular erotic tragic and violent melodrama; Renee Fleming what’s called a Diva) five minutes before the show was to begin, I steeled myself for the usual last minute Bloomberg commercials. For three years now I have heard how I am to be grateful to Bloomberg for this broadcast and then told in very high decibels with continually changing shots on a screen that subdivides and re-divides itself that Bloomsberg and his employees are working for me, watching over the globe everywhere in the globe that counts, every minute of every hour of every day. What am I to do? Huis clos (no exit). This revelling in Big Brother Watching Us All glides into the opera and and start as the theater goes dark. I could boo and hiss, and certainly wanted to when Bloomberg rejoiced over how he owned the police and they were his army to destroy the Occupy movement. (If anyone wanted proof of Vidal Gore’s comment that the top 25% in income in the 1990s despised everyone else, and the real elite spent their political lives making sure there is no democracy, he or she had only to listen to this man sneer at average New Yorkers’ response to his sending “his” cops to beat up anyone assembling at Occupy sites; their racism, only watch a YouTube of police stopping and frisking young men of color — humiliating, kicking, imprisoning them.) Still what good would it do? I’d probably be shouted down by at least a few people (if anyone bothered to protest) and if anyone else booed too, it’d be just silliness. (As the movie-theater for reasons that remained mysterious had no coffee available, and I don’t drink popular soda except in super-heat, I was in no danger of being caught with anything but a medium-sized drink.)

This year though the commercial had vanished, and instead I was informed the Neubauer Family (whose name had been prominently displayed before the Bloomberg extravaganza got going) and Bloomberg were the people (corporations anyone?) I was to be grateful to in a series of silent varied artistic print-outs playing over a screen which metamorphosed gaily from a lovely silk looking cloth (rather like the one that start each episode of the BBC/WBGH BB 1995 Pride and Prejudice), to suggestions of countries across the earth (we were one family of theaters across the globe) to galaxies back down to figure drawing suggestive of Lincoln Center, the Met theater and little people hurrying inside.

But before that we had noticed something else new. From the first year we have been aware that that the reason the audiences far away can enjoy close-ups in ways no one inside the theater can were robo-cams, really small cameras along the side of the stage which had no person attached to or controlling them directly, but which Jim had suggested to me where operated by people in the house at remote points in the house. At the back of the theater are (we have supposed trailers of equipment) into which all this feeds. These robo-cams may still be there. But now they are accompanied by two cameras on long poles positioned from the nearest boxes and operated directly by someone. We could see the two men.

And what a difference these made. Immédiatement. We saw the audience close up as I don’t think we had before. Some of the angles made me slightly dizzy. You felt you were in the theater. When we watched (one of my peculiar delights) the opera crews, riggers, people putting together the sets, electricians, we really saw details I had not before: one man high up on a ladder in a harness holding two parts of stage-y temple like structure together. It was as if we were on the stage with them. This is great fun. But when it came to watching the opera I’m not sure. One problem with a movie is the camera can control what you see as the stage does not in a live theater, and I remember feeling frustrated when we watched the dancing in a Carmen because the film-maker-director had decided I would watch those part of the dance the star was in when I’d like to have seen the whole figure. Now we dived into the stage deeply.

They de-mystified the experience. It was like you were on stage. So we got up close to the extras and very minor singers doing things to pretend they were at a party. When seen from far, the effect is more illusionary. I could see the individual children prancing around Renee Fleming and her smiling sweetly at them. It’s long been known that the close-ups in HD format do not flatter the singers necessarily and they make the older, less attractive, let’s call it fatter people look inappropriate for their roles. This time I could see ripples on skin.

Maybe though it was also like being at a play instead of a movie. When in a small theater and sitting close-up I’ve seen the action at such an intimate vantage point. I’m not sure though that the film director credited does have the final say in what’s done on stage. When I’ve asked (at Castleton’s operahouse in mid-Virginia in question-answer sessions with directors), How does the increasingly wide-spread viewing of operas change the way they are directed? I am ignored, not answered, or told “not at all.” Really? if you believe that … Enchanted Island last year was aimed at the larger auditorium audience at a distance.

At key moments — say when Otello is singing of his broken faith in Desdemona, or that final poignant death scene, the camera stayed at a discreet enough distance to emphasize the tableau of dead bodies fallen on the stairs side-by-side.

It was really the breaking in on of ensembles where a general impression was sought, not scrutiny of particulars going on stage.

However, the photographic presentation of operas are changing, and there is this irresistible urge to use whatever new technology is available at the moment, and that is what we are seeing this year. Last year was the year of the Wagner’s Ring on a dangerous ludicrous machine.

Falk Struckmann as Iago singing of revenge, exploitation, greed

And what about the opera itself? This production manifests a reading Verdi and Boito’s text and spectacle and music that is familiar to me. In Shakespeare Iago descends from the “motiveless malignity” of an idea of evil, pure evil, reveling in itself seen in medieval drama. The destructive nature of nature itself. Othello’s sexual anxiety and humiliating jealousy is prepared for: Shakespeare’s Desdemona is, it’s insinuated, a sophisticated Venetian lady, and Othello a naif from magic-ridden Africa. Yet it’s fantasy too: for swift movement allows for no slow-build up making for believability.

By contrast, Verdi’s Iago is a venal man, sordidly murderous because he has been passed over for promotion and Cassio the up-and-coming man. Verdi’s famous arias for Iago show the figure was to sand for someone who lives his life without religion of some sort. That’s what makes him evil. The language of the opera is Christian religion-drenched while Shakespeare’s is not. Verdi’s Iago is a nihilist. IN both though Desdemona is hated by Iago, despised because she is so good and loving. In both it’s not realistic she would not catch on until too late that Othello is jealous of Cassio and she is needling him unconsciously by in Shakespeare her attempt to exercise power, and in Verdi her innocent appreciation of the sweet young equally good man, Cassio.

So, how what was the take of this 1994 production? Verdi’s and the most powerful arias are Iago’s on nihilism. Falk Struckmann as Iago was strong throughout, sordid and venal and petty when he needed to be, reaching out for allegories of meaningless and against Christian idealism implicitly. Struckman’s voice was ringing strong, nasal in just the right way. The young Michael Fabiano’s tenor as Cassio was very sweet. He seemed the youngest of the principles.

He looks tougher and darker in this still than he comes across in the production

James Morris’s baritone still has an uniquely beautiful sound and he acted the ambassador with asperity; Renee Tatum was a strong mezzo-soprano presence as Emilia. A small but significant role — though too much is cut from Shakespeare’s wry ironic woman.

I just loved Renee Fleming (so beautiful in one of her dark red dresses and swathed in lovely shawl around her white nightgown — I love in her aging), but her character was given much more depth as the opera went on, and she consequently had more to act out and was more and more effective as the opera went on. How scared she gets of Otello. How much she wants to live. I was surprised how moving, poignant was Johan Botha as Otello; his dream of this person lost. The two of them in the last part were breath-taking. At first they seemed too old but then since the first act is left out I just saw them as an older couple (like a 1948 movie with Ronald Colman as an actor who plays Othello in a play and really murders his wife – in the film story) who have had the crux of their belief in one another successfully undermined. I did have to forget Andrew Davies’s modernization of Othello where the principals were searingly Shakespeare’s in allegorical reach as well as contemporary relevance.

Which gets me to the staging. It creaked. Too much fuss. Too much tawdry when up close phony attempts at apparently luxury and power seen in the lavish costumes and then the temple-like settings. We did see how scratched the bed-boards on the side of the bed were by this time. The opera needs to be re-conceived along the lines of last year’s Willy Dekker’s Traviata. The power of this opera is not in the politics, or the crowd scenes, but in the transformation of intimate life so aptly shown most readers and viewers can enter right into it. This was the focus of Andrew Davies’s updating of Othello. And the best moments in this opera and for the actor-singers too were in the initial love duet of Desdemona and Otello, the gradual poisoning, disillusionment, her growing terror, and his obtuse madness.

I recommend seeing it as a traditional production.

A word on the interviewer to this one and these interlude interviews in general. Sondra Radunovsky. Dressed in this too tight-for-her big body glamorous-polyester scarlet red low cut gown, Miss R was not talking to anyone but enunciating a memorized speech filled with cliches at us, and making hardly any eye contact with the interviewees. it was sort of funny, especially when Radunsky interviewed Thomas Ades, composer of the new opera The Tempest. He half made a little fun at the way she was mouthing her cliched pronouncements. I suppose it was bad of me not to feel for the person slightly mocked but I found Sondra R’s whole demeanor grating — it felt so false, so mindless. I detest false glamor, false cheer. How happy and lucky everyone is, and all the interviewees insisting on the genius of everyone around them. Jim maintains there are cue cards and the “host” or “hostess” is partly reading these, and even that those who come out to be interviewed are given suggestions (partly scripted). If so, Renee Fleming and Deborah Voigt are very good at simulating conversation when they are hostesses.

A friend on facebook suggested it was a sort of culture clash: Ades was not prepared with canned replies or not used to be asked canned questions, and his discomfort came out in ironies that distanced himself and half-made fun of the conversation. In the HD Euro-operas we’ve seen in DC theaters, there is nothing like this Met hype. The talk may be scripted but if so it’s kept a lot more low key. The Met is continually selling itself, positioning itself. It’s the American opera house. I much enjoy seeing some of the singers; they do give themselves away and I especially enjoy watching the crew people but I know that when I go to a Euro opera I have thought to myself, I’m glad to be left to myself to enjoy or react however to the the opera in a quiet screening.

I confess I find laughable when the hostess suddenly turns round on you and tell you the only truly “real” experience of an opera is when you are at the Met theater. The “local” ones count too of course (but since when is the Met not also a local place.) Go there rather than sit where you are. (Actually another aspect of the implicit elitism of what’s broadcast.) If so, why are you now so determined to make us feel we are there with your cameras, up on stage with the performers? or is this just an unexamined development of technological innovation overdone.

I now know what these operas are about from the subtitles. I’ve really seen and taken in 3 seasons. Still the occasional wince & sense of aggravated ostentation is not a bad price to pay for these richly artful experiences of song, music, drama, costume, production spectacle, a friendly non-pretentious audience all around you. $20 for each of us a time. We are from the 99% in the movie-theaters.


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I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light …
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress–he died.
— Byron, inspiration for Shelley’s The Last Man

The Gothic Wanderer by Tyler Tichelaar

Caspar David Friedrich (1174-1840), A Monk by the Sea: a sublime picture Stephen C. Behrendt uses when teaching the gothic (from Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions: Approaches to Teaching, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller

Dear friends and readers,

As someone who has been reading gothic books ever since I began to read books meant for adults, and has taught gothic books many times, constructed a course I gave several times in different versions, Exploring the Gothic, and dedicated part of my website to the gothic, I found myself a little startled to discover that of some 19 or so novels Tyler Tichelaar analyses with care, I’d read through only 5 of them (!), and never finished another 2 — until I turned to the MLA-sponsored Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller, to find my ratio there was just as bad, maybe worse. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain capable of swallowing up a variety of forms (novel, poetry, film, story, opera, video game) and conveying a themes diverse enough to be popular across several centuries. Sometimes the same book at the same time can be accurately interpreted as reactionary-conservative or radical progressive (see Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 Years … ). Nevertheless, as those of us who love the mode know there are a number of images, plot-, and character types, moods, emphases that repeat like a formula. That’s why it’s easy to make fun of. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient (preferably partly ruined) dwelling, one cavern, a seashore, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past …

It seems most teachers begin a course in the gothic the way I did: by attempting to immerse students somehow or other: I used a short gothic novel, Susan Hill’s Woman in Black and the 1989 film adaptation, a genuinely unnerving experience whose central figure students told me they feared seeing afterward, or (for brevity as well as power), Edith Wharton’s short story, Afterward, with the BBC 1 hour film adaptation. Then I’d have the students say what they thought was characteristically gothic in either.

Tyler Tichelaar would though probably not begin with these two, nor Scott Simpkins (one of the contributors to Gothic Fiction) who seems to concentrate his course on what’s called the male gothic, and who says there are nowadays few full-scale books devoted to the male gothic, probably because the revival and recent respectability of the form is a direct result of feminism. As Eva Figes shows in her Sex and Subterfuge, the female gothic allows women writers and readers to express, experience, awake up to see, express and protest in a displaced fantasy form the real oppression and destructive nature of the upbringing and circumstances women are subjected to. At its center is usually a woman who is unjustly victimized, often imprisoned, beaten in some way. The male gothic takes the male trajectory of inflicted stress, loss, pressure, punishment, usually a male at the center, and often someone exiled — wandering far from home, unable to find or make a home, to belong anywhere. I am here simplifying of course, a book can contain both modes, women can write male gothics; men, female gothics.

This is not the only fault-line. How is it related to the picturesque on the one hand and the sublime on the other? Are horror distinguishable from terror gothics? There are sub-genres to the form: the ghost story does tend to dwell on guilt, on some irretrievable injustice having been done and is not physically violent but offers psychological terror, where the vampire story is a brutal physical exercise in breaking bodily taboos, its origins include fear of the dead hating the living, simply because (in atavistic kinds of thought) they are still living. The modern short story with its subtle sudden intrusion of the uncanny (un-home-y) stemming from M. R. James tends to present the supernatural as psychological projection. So too ways of reading differ. Tichelaar tends to analyze his stories from a Christian perspective, looking to see how the gothic enables readers to cope with the breakdown of family-centered or supportive laws and customs, and older traditional forms of state organization; Eva Sedgwick is persuaded that the gothic arises from paranoia about homosexuality (really any transgressive sexuality outside a narrow set of conventions) and discusses what gothics can make us see sexually which realistic conventions would preclude (Between Men; also her notorious “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” reprinted in Tendencies).

I take this direction because it is the great merit of Tichelaar’s book to dwell on the male gothic and use the figure of the wanderer as a way of exploring a series of related books, some written by, as for example, Fanny Burney where he analyses the distinctively feminist perspective of her work (a long chapter on her The Wanderer) and Mary Shelley where he analyses the woman’s deployment of Rosicrucian elements, the Christian myth of Paradise Lost, a profoundly pessimistic rejection of much of the romantic in an apocalyptic mythos (another long chapter, this one on Frankenstein and then The Last Man).

Robert de Niro as Frankenstein’s outcast, lonely monster, wandering in a world of snow and ice (1993 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)

As Tichelaar says, we never learn for sure that the monster has found peace in death. Tichelaar’s point of view on The Wanderer as a gothic book about a figure seeking a community has recently been discussed in The Burney Journal too: Andrew Dicus, “Evelina, The Wanderer, and Gothic Spatiality: Francis Burney and a Problem of Imagined Community,” Burney Journal 11 (2011):23-38.

Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho as well as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk are also key texts. Tichelaar empathizes with Antonio. He understands and justifies Radcliffe’s heroines turn to reason and community at the close of harrowing losses, where especially married women and daughters are abused.

Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, an illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

Tichelaar takes the gothic into the Edwardian era and then the 20th century with discussions of Stoker’s Dracula (another long chapter), Tarzan and the modern heroic vampire. (Although not discussed as an example by Tichelaar I’ve done Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1980s Vampire Tapestry, much indebted to geological ideas, with great success with students.)

This could be an effective book for teachers to send students to read. Tichelaar writes in a readable style; he really does tell the stories of his books effectively. I can vouch for this as in a number of cases I was not at all at a loss not having read the book. Their situations and character types are summed up clearly. He begins with Milton’s Paradise Lost which is a centrally alluded-to text — until recent times and its presentation of legitimate transgression (as the romantics saw it). I liked the plainness and personal sincerity of the approach. Tichelaar begins with his love of the gothic as a boy, how he found himself when he first became an academic forced to travel far from home (upper Michigan), displaced, identified with the gothic wanderer, and feels this is a figure who can speak home to people today similarly transplanted, or peoples today who fight to control their homeland. He traces anti-semitism and sympathy for the outcast Jew in the figure of the wanderer. He’s very concrete when he makes analogies. It is true that gambling is a central sin in Udolpho. Godwin’s St Leon does seem to be about Godwin’s own troubles as a radical philosopher trying to persuade people that reason (and a scientific outlook ultimately) drawn from experience is a far better guide to life than religious beliefs (or myths). Tichelaar is unusual for arguing that for Godwin “life’s true meaning exists in the value of human relationships, so he condemns whatever may sunder them” (p. 67). Many critics suggest Godwin’s detachment from his personal context when he argued his theses that he offended his readers intensely.

I probably learned most (new) material from Tichelaar’s chapter leading from Thomas Carlyle’s at first despairing Sartor Resartus (he ponders suicide) as a text about a gothic to Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni leading to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens borrowed his tale of Sidney Carlton substituting himself for another man from Zanoni, was influenced by Carlyle’s French Revolution, and B-L’s use of Rosicrucian ideas about immortality and Christian Redemption. For my part I’m not sure that Dickens himself believed in these providential patterns, but he was willing to use them to (as Tichelaar says) “create a novel that is life-affirming and provides redemption for its Gothic wandering characters” (p. 193). Tichelaar emphasizes the number of wanderers in this novel, the theme of “recalled to life” (as an imperative), and how Carlton acts for the Darnay family (“I hold a sanctuary in their hearts,” p. 206) group and is a Christ-figure. The revolution is a background for a plot of sacrifice (p. 196). Maybe. I remember I was intensely moved by Dickens’s portrait of the depressive Sidney Carlton, and his poignant semi-suicide (I just cried and cried), the famous line (no matter how parodied I care not): “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” and Ronald Colman’s enactment:

Ronald Colman (when I was 13 my very favorite actor) — a noble-in-failure gothic wanderer

Jim’s complaint has been (while watching the movie, he read the book decades ago) that Dickens’s text lends itself to anti-French revolution propaganda of a simplistic sort. It’s easy to fear and detest the Madame Defarges of the 1935 film. I’m not sure; I’m hoping later this year (or next) to read the book with a fun and generous group of people on Inimitable-Boz (at Yahoo) and watch a number of the films adapted from it before pronouncing even tentatively.

The MLA Gothic Fiction is so rich with titles of books, ways of defining and introducing different forms of gothic, and then essays on specific gothic texts, I must perforce select out those chapters which either impressed me particularly or troubled me and draw examples from those where the kinds of gothic and those specific texts I’ve gravitated towards, preferred to read or have taught are those analysed.

Friedrich, Woman at the Window (1822)

The opening section of the book is particularly rich and useful. Six essays by respected scholars on how they start their gothic courses, how go about defining the gothic, exemplifying it: Marshall Brown uses philosophical texts:

Solitude moves us in every one of its peaceful pictures. In sweet melancholy the soul collects itself to all feelings that lead aside from world and men at the distant rustic tone of a monastery bell, at the quiet of nature in a beautiful night, on every high mountain, near each crumbling monument of old times, in every terrifying forest. But he who knows not what it is to have a friend, a society in himself, who is never at home with his thought, never with himself, to him solitude and death is one and the same.

Stephen Behrendt offers pictures, Anne Williams distinguishes female from male gothic, Carol Snef gothic’s distrust and use of science. In the last part of the book we again get general approaches, which films (Wheeler Winston Dixon), how to cope with demands one make the course interdisciplinary or include public service, reach out to relatively unprepared students. There are just a cornucopia of cited secondary studies; I looked and did see all my favorite texts were there (including the profound Elegant Nightmares, about ghost stories as popular version of Kafkaesque visions, by Jack Sullivan), though I missed the French studies that are so important (Maurice Levy). The book is limited to Anglo versions of the gothic — though these are influenced by European texts and pictures.

Henri Fuseli (1741-1825), Perceval delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783) — said to be wholly invented by Fuseli. What is happening here: Is the man trying to kill himself, thrust that sword down the women’s body or is he trying to break the chain of the kneeling man?

Then there are 19 essays on specific texts set out chronologically (starting with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and ending on African-American gothics, e.g., Naylor’s Linden Hills, and really pop books (equivalent to Tichelaar’s Tarzan) like Anne Rice’s. Notable: Angela Wright on the intermingling of solid historicity with narratives of female sexual exploitation in Sophia Lee’s The Recess, Diane Long Hoeveler in effect summarizes her book Gothic Feminism for you (using among others Wollstonecraft, Dacre). Like Tichelaar, Daniel Scoggin takes you on a journey through the gothic by follwing a single figure: the vampire. I found myself learning new characteristics of sub-genres in Mark M. Hennely’s description of the Irish gothic (big-house displacement), liked the clarity of Susan Allen Ford on contemporary female gothic (Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood).

I’ll concentrate just on Judith Wilt “‘And still he insists He Sees the Ghosts’: Defining the Gothic” and Kathy Justice Gentile’s “Supernatural Transmissions Turn-of-the-Century Ghosts in American Women’s Fiction: Jewett, Freeman, Wharton and Gilman.” I was troubled by Wilt (and a couple of other contributors) who said she encourages her students to suspend their disbelief and really believe in this world of spirits or “spirituality,” and cannot quite believe her assertion that their students are sceptical. I taught gothic courses for a number of years and I found students all too frequently did believe in ghosts or could be led into saying they did. They’d imply “we don’t know, do we?” sometimes at the end of a talk. Gentile shows how to read Sarah Orne Jewet’s Country of the Pointed Firs as gothic, and then Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (collected as The Wind in the Rose) re-enacting the tragedies of mothers losing their children and their loneliness and rage, culminating in Wharton’s ghost stories one which I’ve read again and again with my students and with people online in cyberspace. Wharton’s subjects marriage to a relentlessly alert scrutiny; as theme across them all is a concealed repressed vulnerable self who becomes enthralled by the past and the dead evaluation of Edith Wharton’s.

“The Lost Ghost” (from Forrest Reid, Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties, 1928, p. 89)

As a measure of this MLA’s book’s advice, the bibliographic essayist recommends Chris Baldick’s introduction to his Gothic Tales volume as one short place which really puts the history of the genre and it central dispositions together. I read it and agree. I like how Baldick denies that the gothic is universal in reach: each of its fears work only within “the peculiar framework of its conventions” and it does belong to a peculiar set of people in a specific set of centuries where life has been lived in a fraught way (pp. xx-xxi). Margaret Anne Doody’s essay, ‘Deserts, Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction (in Genre, 1977) is one of the best essays (and so enjoyable) ever written on the female gothic. I bought myself Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (I had read only one thus far), read in a couple of the anthologies of tales and ghost stories I have in the house, and vowed I’d read my collection of essays on intertextuality in Wharton bye Adeline Tintner next.


“The Library Window” (illustration for ghost story by Margaret Oliphant)

I have myself been troubled that when I teach the gothic that I am encouraging atavistic dangerous beliefs. I’d be careful at the outset to say I didn’t believe there was a supernatural world filled with ghosts, witches, vampires or anything else. I emphasizes we were entering a fantasy realm which made heavy use of realism to draw us in. I know the gothic takes us into the realm of the numinous (to my mind the origin of the term where cathedrals are concerned) well beyond the limited doctrinal codes of establishment religions. But once we raise these terrors and the awareness death is not far from us at any time do we have the courage to confront honestly the perception of human experience raised. Elizabeth Napier famously honestly argued gothic novels fail, are silly, masochistic, disjunctive in form. Neither of these books answers responds to such objections.

I felt a residual reluctance because the material can be called sick. To myself I would say that much in human live and society is sick or very bad, and this mode enables us to explore serious issues in life, loss, grief, sexuality, madness, death, but yet I know the instigation of fear and playing around with character who are made neurotic has a downside. When students morally condemn this or that, it’s no help as most students are regarding what they are reading as “other” than them. To suggest that the stories are ethical because they bring out spirituality (religious feelings) in characters is to suggest that those who do not believe in religion are unethical. By implication this is discussed continually when the critic analyses the story to bring out its ethical content or how it criticizes society, and yet I know many students do not listen well, do not understand what they are told, and simply dismiss what a professor might say if it goes against their deep-seated lessons from their family backgrounds.

I admit I chose the gothic because it was safer. When I taught directly realistic books I would often end up being directly political or more clearly so than I meant to be. Students often did not agree with my politics, were disturbed and even angered by books like say All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Marque or John LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener. So when I did Walter von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident after say doing Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the depiction of the violence of US culture was somehow deflected by the use of fantasy to depict victimization.

Still I carried on teaching gothic books as part or the whole of a course because students responded intensely to some of the material. The very formulaic quality of some of it (ghost story structure) made asking them to do a talk something they could do. Perhaps Leslie Fielder was right and US culture really has gothic currents embedded in it. I like how Tyler Tichelaar reads the gothic out of his personal experience. His idea seems to me valid: we are turned into rootless souls in emotionally destructive environments when we are torn from our birthplaces and original families because that is what one must do to get a paying job (survive) in the US. I identify with the female victim heroine or the hero who is a man of sensitivity attacked for this, and this is out of my experience of growing up female in the US. Like Ann Radcliffe’s heroines I turn to reveries in beautifully ordered (picturesque) landscapes to find peace.

Friedrich, Evening

I recommend both books for readers and teachers of the gothic.


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Recent photo

Dear friends and readers,

George McGovern died yesterday, Sunday, October 21, 2012. He was a great and a good man. He achieved nomination as the candidate for the Democratic Party in 1972. He genuinely garnering a majority of votes at the convention after having managed to change the rules of such conventions so that a small pre-, & self-selected elite of rich & powerful could not limit the choices. Had he been able to win the election in 1972, the world would be a much better place for the majority of peoples in it today.

He vowed to stop bombing Vietnam upon taking office. He was against supporting military & fascist dictatorships around the world. He would change the goals of NATO: to support the peoples of Europe toward a better life. He made commercials showing how a huge percentage of the elderly in the US are living on the edge of poverty, arguing for a support of college education for all, bringing into the picture of the US world the way the poor live in the US (white as well as black). He would set in place social programs to enable these people. His nomination included a platform from the Democratic party which was the first to announce women’s needs as part of a goal for the party; the first to support GLBTQ rights.

I sent two checks to this man, $20 each time, real money for me at the time (1972). Since then I’ve sent only an equal amount in 2008 to Obama (or I thought I was sending to Obama, but it turns out I sent it to Moveon.org) and $50 last year and $85 this to DemocracyNow.org. This is Amy Goodman’s news-show and this weekend I watched excerpts from the film about McGovern’s summer campaign in 1972: One Brief Shining Moment. I listened to him say how wrong it was to spill so much blood, to destroy so many young lives, so many people in Vietnam, Cambodia, their homes, their fields, their food. How he would end all bombing the day he took office. I’ve never heard anything like this from Obama. McGovern had no anti-racist rhetoric but black people were behind him and for the first time ever everywhere in a convention were ordinary people (all ethncities and in ordinary clothes). In 2012 the Democratic as well as Republican conventions were scripted performances run by fat cats (corporations, donors) with their fancy parties more than half paid by the gov’t. In this film you will not make the mistake to think that Nixon was a better choice than Romney today. We see him vowing no demonstration will alter his course as the police beat up, maim, murder young adults on US campuses (who are refusing to die or silently acquiesce).

New York City went for McGovern. I understand Alexandria City (where I now live), Va. did. The electoral college after gerrymandering made him look bad: he took DC and Massachusetts’ electoral votes. But he also took 39% of the people who voted. As did Mondale. Clinton didn’t get much more but they were differently distributed and there was a 3rd party candidate.

I had to wipe away the tears from my eyes as I watched Abe Ribicoff’s shock, horror at the Gestapo tactics of Mayor Daly’s Chicago police beating up white young people in the streets of Chicago who were refusing to go or send others to Vietnam to die, be maimed, and kill others. Who is shocked today to see police beating, pepper-spraying even aged people in the streets protesting civilly against the egregiously unjust economic systems of our era? The film was made in 2005 and so the interviewed had in mind our present era; yet they were prophetic: Gore Vidal spoke of the way the rich and elite despise the 75% and in effect predicted Romney’s scorn for 47% of the US population.

So many obituaries. From the New York Times to the Huffington Post. He is blamed for losing in 1972; there was some fatal flaw in him. Nonsense. His capturing of the nomination was a sort of fluke that was “fixed” by 1984 when the coteries were back in the driver’s seat of the convention again. Whatever he did in 1972 would have been turned against him. Nothing so easy as to ridicule someone when a dominant group are determined. William Grieder says it right: McGovern was the last genuinely open and honest presidential campaign.

We must not give up. McGovern never did. If it be that in this money-shaped gerry-mandered Presidential election, we can fend off the destruction of a civil, socially decent society, based on public education for all (under attack) with people allowed to unite on behalf of their shared working lives by electing Barack Obama, sobeit. A minimum to hold to. Better times may come. We are reeling from the effects of 30 years of reactionary legislation destroying jobs, changing the tax system to create globally-wide ruthlessly exploitative monopolies backed by brutal military action. We need time and Obama will provide another 4 years to re-group, defeat Citizens United, find a socially progressive candidate.

My father said McGovern lost because he was a genuinely nice person. Voters want someone like themselves, and most people aren’t; so, not only do they not appreciate such traits, they resent them. McGovern was not devious enough to hide himself — like FDR — during campaigning. But I like to remember that after that bruising campaign 39% of the voters did vote for him.

I’m sad tonight to think of this man gone, how he was treated in 1972. Humiliated, shamed, and stirred to remember how he stood up against it. How I admired him for that. I admire few people and think few deeds in the world equivalent to this in importance and personal cost.


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Conversations on a Homecoming, The Druid company

Dear friends and readers,

Last night at the Kennedy Center I saw Tom Murphy’s grim effective play called Famine (set in Glanconnor Village, County Mayo, West Ireland, 1946), one of three traveling about the US put on by an Irish company, Druid. The other two are A Whistle in the Dark (set in Coventry, England, 1970); Conversations on a Homecoming (County Galway, West Ireland, 1970). The trilogy played at Lincoln Center where it gained strongly favorable reviews.

The first half introduces us to our group of absymally poor, near starvation Irish people, living in the filth of a moor near a huge fence where their iron corrugated shanties lean against that fence. Their potatoes have failed utterly for a second year and we see them frantically digging in the dirt to pull out black inedible soil. They talk and we get a picture of their dire circumstances, set up by the English gov’t, their unreal hopes for some help, and who each is in nature (a cripple, a drunk, the leader male John (Brian Doherty) and his wife, Maeve (Beth Cooke), their daughter, other family groups and friends. It was spoken too softly for me and I had trouble at first with the Irish accents.

We learn of the hedge schools, the lack of any protection for tenants, the rules against any Irish owning anything, against voting, the lack of allowed public space. How the 1% own all. The phrase 1% is not used but the analogy is clear. Even stronger for Greece and Spain today. (Oh have you heard the Nobel Committee gave the European union the peace prize! after engineering depression, violent riots, the destruction of a country so the wealthy can keep their huge incomes and as bankers fork out niggardly loans. I suppose peace will come when all are dead or pacified.) The people around the fire, the women cooking awful stuff are quiet. They are told of where they can go to get meal (Indian, imported in) or bread centers. They fear ending up in the workhouse and not being able to get back to one another. A funeral for one woman goeson and the mother keens.

The second act hit hard. It somehow back louder and the clashes between groups of antagonists to these people ensued. This revealed showed why Murphy is so important a playwright today. We watch them destroyed in scenes where they go for work, denied it without work permits and are confronted by the arrogant impatient but (at some level) intensely guilty compassionate English. The real purpose of demanding permits (which they’ve not got) is to drive them to emigrate: to Canada, Australia, wherever. Where there is no provision waiting for them they know. Grating ironical dialogues where the Irish refuse to go, and are mocked, or talked to “reasonably”. John holds out and so does his group. He won’t go. We see the “peelers” come in (reminding me of US cops on the streets today) come in and bully. Happily (yes happily) they are murdered by maddened Irish men coming from behind with heavy spades. But what good does that do? except avoid more deaths and beatings of the Irish. We see individuals come back with meal in bowls or huge pieces of bread, which others grab.) Quarrels erupt as they are forced off their bits of land between one another and the English. They build a coffin and practice putting children in it. The scenes are just heart-wrenching — and comic too By the end of the act all but John and his wife and child and one mad man and his dead corpse of a wife are left on stage. Finally the wife protests and behind a corrugated iron he beats her to death with a pick of some sort to shut up her grieving and demands they too emigrate. A horrific moment as she screams and he banks away frantically:

An earlier moment

John last seen wandering up a pile of dirt, deranged. A young couple we have seen before emerges, lovers, they express hope, though they do not want to leave. They will stay, find a town somewhere. Walk.

I found my body and arms begin to writhe a scene followed scene. Yes this is famine. The music was perfect as it came on and off, lighting effective.

I wrote the first two chapters of my book on Anthony Trollope, Trollope on the Net, on his Anglo-Irish novels, two of which center on the famines: Amarta Sen taught us at mid-century that famines do not result from their being no food, but rather that the entitlement to food of a group of people is highly precarious and if some of their supply is taken away they begin to starve. The solution is easy: ship some in and give it to them direct. But this is not done; in the 19th century powerful people argued it was disrupt trade, teach poor people not to work, was part of God’s plan for ridding the earth of excess people and to punish all for their sins (the last three Trollope actually argues in his Castle Richmond, a novel set in 1847). Now bandits in the country, its gov’t steals whatever charity organization try to bring in; we are told war is going on and the starving are “the other side” (maybe terrorists?)

The auditorium was at first full; at the intermission I’d say numerous enough people left that it was felt. This was not light entertainment. Some Americans might have trouble with the accents; I heard a couple of people nearby us say this. We were not that close, in back of the orchestra.

There was no equivalent of Romney, but then does he visit the Baintown workers camping out in Illinois where Sensata a division of Bain has played the vulture capital game, bought the company, demanded a ransom to pay the stockholders, and then closed down the factory and sent the jobs abroad. After feasting on the labor of these people’s whole lives, they dump them. He doesn’t visit the Chinese workers who now make Delphi driving wheels; he and his donors, Singer got millions of gov’t money when the auto bailout happened by the same process inflicted on Delphi. In the debate not one person objected to his praise of bankruptcy as a way of making companies stronger.

“‘Is it the poorhouse, yer honor?'”, an illustration to the recent Folio edition of Castle Richmond (by Rod Walter

As it happens on Trollope19thCStudies we are about to read and discuss his Castle Richmond. We read The Kellys and O’Kellys this past spring. Trollope will alas show us the Anglo-Irish gentry at this time with only occasional scenes of the Irish at centers where the Indian meal is given out. Trollope’s Anglo-Irish gentry find themselves scolded and shouted at by these Irish. They are not grateful! how can this be.

Scene from Castle Richmond (Rod Walter): these people giving out meal are the only authorities the Irish woman can meet

How unfair Trollope’s characters think. To be fair he includes scenes where his males visit the hovels of the Irish and we see the dead babies:

“‘Cowld, she muttered with a vacant face . . . ‘”

So now we have what’s left out in Trollope but these are marginalized to the main plot which concerns young thwarted lovers too:

Anglo-Irish catholic landlords (there were some apparently) who had been ekeing out some sort of minimal living (a subgroup in the novel) and a desolated Protestant heir:

Undergoing austerity measures too.

Trollope ends on the flight of a probably homosexual hero from the brother of the young heir belongs to the young couple and the quiet disappearance of heterosexual Anglo-Irish countess who loves him. For the posting-essays from the previous reading and discussion of this novel on Trollope19thCStudies, see Castle Richmond.

No such erotic romances and side social issues color Famine. It concentrates on hunger, on abjection (the people keep talking and talking, driving John to wild frustrations). The dialogue is sometimes didactic but at its best it’s a lyrical kind of half-imbecility. We don’t lose sight of the central paradigm:

All three are not so grim. The two others are set in the later 20th century, just before the so-called Irish miracle of the 1990s which has since collapsed.


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‘He was quite capable of living a normal life, if other people would allow him (Dwight of the disabled Music Thomas, The Loving Cup, Bk 1, Ch 2)

‘Public wars, I call ’em. Reckon you was lucky ever to come safe ‘home from that one in ‘Merica. Public wars is no good to no one. Small wars, private wars, they’re different, can profit you upon times.’ — Tholly Tregirls, dying words, The Twisted Sword (Bk 3, Ch 4)

The little room became a little corner of comfort in a black world — Graham’s narrator, The Twisted Sword (Bk 3, Ch 6)

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Warleggan, she turns away having told Robin Ellis as Ross that her husband suspects that Ross is Valentine’s father (1977-78 Poldark, Pt 7, Ep 5, from Four Swans)

Dear friends and readers,

To continue: Perhaps it’s a good place to mention that these second quartet differs from the first 7 novels where most of the characters are fictional, wholly imagined. Wee may hear of some historically real characters and authors and books as part of re-creation of historical time in passing, but they do not appear (Poldark 1-7). In these we do meet historical characters who matter but while they create history, they do not give rise to the novels’ plot-design. That’s still the result of acts of the imagined characters.

I have two copies: one a hardcover American edition, 1991, Carroll and Graff; the other a 1991 Pan reprint with the photographs of the seacoast that became prevalent covers just before and during the time of the two mini-series (they are seen on the Fontana reprints). Both lacked this subtitle and date; that’s why I began to think that the epigraph was supposed to be emphasized (with its tragic and bitter Biblical implications, anti-war especially) rather than the place and year. And much of the novel takes place in Paris and the Belgian killing fields. I would agree that it ends back in Cornwall. It may just be an oversight but I’d like to know when the imprints other cited were published. Was it at first nuded of the usual regional framing and then that was put back as a selling point?

More important, they re-define Regency romance. Accurate Regency romances, historical fiction, need not be pseudo-silver fork novels about silly people romancing in Bath: this is a time of depression, riot and revolt, war, powerful people who have no consistent ideologies and thus ever-fluid parties. It’s also a time when such movement changes and endangers the choices available to people sexually.


John Bowes as the older Ross talking to Ioan Gruffudd as Jeremy (1996 The Stranger from the Sea); The Loving Cup has never been filmed, but scenes like this occur in it

The second time round I loved this book. Looking at what I wrote I do think I was spot on, but this second time see the book more fully — in the context of this second quartet.

The Loving Cup is a kind of “push back” against the larger or war-torn conflicts and depression across the UK, Europe, Northern American and the high seas — whence its title. We’ve been where we experience or glimpse Regency England as war-ridden time, of depression, dislocation, It’s as if Graham is deliberately resurrecting the Cornwall community now against his first the first two books (Stranger from the Sea, Miller’s Dance). While we are made aware how bad things are elsewhere, our focus is really solely back in Cornwall. One reason for this is Geoffrey Charles has returned so there is no one to write letters from the front.

I find myself identifying with the parents, Ross and Demelza, who find themselves unable to rescue Clowance, their daughter from her bad decision to nurse and then marry the renegade (scoundrel) but plausible and ever so human Stephen Carrington or their son from enlisting and going off to the dangerous wars. In this sense this novel turns back into centrally a story of Ross and Demelza.

Last time I wrote at length about how Demelza risks her life to get at the left-over booty from the robbery that Jeremy and his two friends stole at the close of Miller’s Dance, and hid deep in an old mine (a cave) only available by climbing a rickety ladder down to the sea; all she takes away is the small silver loving cup. I did not know what this was at the time: a symbol of love where people intertwine arms as they exchange the cup. It was Harriet’s aunt Darcy’s (an allusion to Pride and Prejudice). Jeremy knowing that that could implicate him (because of its specificity) asks her not to keep it on the mantelpiece but in a drawer. He’s not sure whether it will bring bad or good luck. What I didn’t realize was their conversation is laden with ominous notes anticipating this death. He says he will tell her someday all “about it.” How he came to participate in the robbery. She ways don’t wait too long – there have been other ominous notes suggesting that Jeremy will die — as he does at Waterloo, the great shock of Book 11.

A thread on a Women’s Studies list-serv alerted me to something else I had not noticed the first time round: that the story of Clowance’s marriage to Stephen Carrington is the story of a bigamist from a woman’s point of view. This, like rape, especially presented sympathetically, is highly unusual in a novel, even more seriously in a historical fiction. Most of the time the “other” woman, the second wife is presented as vile, stealing the husband, to blame for not knowing. Here it’s convincing that Clowance would not know, and that while she suspects there are things in Stephen’s past, she partly (from what she does know), doesn’t want to know, and partly has no way of finding out.

The novels are not sequels to one another and I must jump ahead to explain. It’s upon rereading one feels the cutting edge of Ben’s comment that the engagement and marriage of Clowance and Carrington “gates like a knife on a bone every waking hour” (to Jeremy, Loving Cup, Bk 1, Ch 4).


Hans Mathiessen as Ben Carter, one of three decent men Clowance turns down over the course of this quartet (1996 Stranger)

When Stephen lays dying in The The Twisted Sword (Bk 3, Ch 9), Jason sits by Clowance’s side, grieving over his father. Jason had aroused her suspicions when earlier he revealed that he had grandparents an Uncle Zed, an Aunt Looe (Bk 1, Ch 9); a whole family existed where his mother and father were married and lived (which Stephen had denied, presenting himself as an orphan dependent on the tolerance of strangers). Stephen had told her that his first wife, Marion (whom she had not heard of before The Twisted Sword) and he were 17 when married: he did married Marion because she was pregnant, hardly ever lived with her, and she died of small pox when Jason was 10; he now admits to 37 rather than 34 (Bk 1, Ch 3).

When Jason now nervously fingers his scarf, something left him from his mother, and says his mother knitted this for him more than 2 years ago, Clowance askes when did Marion die? this past winter? He becomes embarrassed and finally is driven to admit it could be his mother died January 1814.

Looking back, Clowance and Stephen were married May 28th, 1814 (The Loving Cup). But he arrived Nampara fall 1810 (Clowance refers to this when she says he came here 5 years ago (Stranger from the Sea); he began to court her immediately. @e know he was having an affair with Violet in midsummer’s Eve 1811 (Stranger from the Sea) had sex with her just as she lay dying, July 1812 and she died August 2, 1812 (all Miller’s Dance). He has a kinky taste of the captain in Tarchetti’s Fosca (turned into an opera called Passion by Sondheim). There are strong hints he has been having Lottie Kempthorne (Miller’s Dance) and was one of Selina Pope’s lovers (Loving Cup, along with Jeremy and Valentine who marries her). They were engaged for first time April 1812 (Miller’s Dance) to be married in November. This was broken off after time at fair, Clowance sees Stephen lie to Andrew, Ben finds old medieval warren in mine and confrontation (October 1812). So it’s apparent Stephen was ready to commit bigamy.

Clowance also has by now learned of Stephen’s unnecessary (gleeful) murder of a man who was part of a team trying to press him and Paul Kellowes into the UK navy; has to live with him and listen, and knows how he leaps to justify, and moves from lie to lie. And yet she stays. Pride? Not wanting to show others what she has chosen? Partly.

An important difference is how this situation unusually. Demezla early on knows the great danger of marrying a man because something “in your blood” responds instinctively to his feral presence — this is how Clowance accounts for her love for a man she knows before she marries him is at least a liar, careless of others, an unworthy man. In most the woman is punished by overt abuse and becomes abject. For women such erotic awakening brings erotic renunciation — in too many novels to cite, but they include Lfayette’s La Princesse de Cleves, Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichfield, Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, Mary Brunton’s Self-Control, Bonte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Trollope’s Small House of Allington (Lily Dale – yes men write these too), E. h. Young’s Jenny Wren, Forster’s Howards’ End. James’s Portrait of a Lady is turned into a punitive experience, harsh, by Jane Campion.

Graham’s Clowance grows thin, silenter, starker, gradually withdraws from this man emotionally as she comes closer to another of Demelza’s feared prediction: dislike, intense distaste. We see that Stephen is moving in that direction towards her too. But his accidental death cuts this trajectory off when he is insulted by Harriet Warleggan who sneers at his idea that she maneuvered George Warleggan into not turning Stephen into a bankrupt because she was sexually attracted to him. He tries to outdo her in racing horses and literally leaps to his death.

Clowance withdraws and at the end of The Twisted Sword says only that if she ever marries again, it will be for money and position — as Harriet Warleggan who also married early and for love, in her case a gambler, has done. The point I want to make is Clowance makes no renunciation, is not punished and therefore not blamed.

The revelation happens in now Aug/Sept; Stephen dies October 13, 1815 (The Twisted Sword, Bk 3, Ch 12). The last novel of the quartet is structured so this relevatory scene is preceded by the one where Valentine ferrets out of Ross that Ross may be (is?) his father (Bk 3, Ch 8). In Loving Cup a paralleled are set up between Clowance and Jeremy and Valentine. (Valentine was omitted from the 1996 movie, along with Geoffrey Charles so I have no stills to help us along), and the first is fulfilled at the end of Twisted Sword; not until Bella is Valentine’s need of Ross and tragedy of a lost soul seeking another vulnerable creature in need made clear. Valentine is not blamed either. but this does not emerge until the very end of Bella.


Battlefield of Waterlook photographed 21st century), The Twisted Sword has never been filmed

My first essay-blog on this novel was adequate but I find I have more to say, much to add, but will confine myself to a few points.

Something interesting in its first editions — even if dropped later. All of the Poldark novels but one are subtitled: “Cornwall,” with some group of years next to that. The only one which hasn’t got this is The Twisted Sword. It doesn’t even say 1815. As I begin it the characters move to London and then to Paris. Much of the book does take place in Europe — or more than usual, and this opening is an attempt to dramatize and picture France just after Napoleon was first defeated and sent to Elba. A quiet place as yet, even if with so many wounded. He gets it right that what was hated about the replacement of the old order was that order and especially the Bourbon king who went right back to the old behavior of utter indifference to everything but his appetites and desires and that of his narrow court. What ever may be said of Napoleon, he was deeply concerned with the people and structure of France, its laws, its codes, its commerce.

In later editions the subtitle is attached and the year — to make the book conform. Editor and publishers like “their” product to be branded clearly.

In London we are told of the results of this regency, the devastation of the marketplaces and continual depression, dislocation underlying the assassination of Perceval and one of Liverpool’s concerns.

The Twisted Sword was also originally presented as the last of the Poldark novels and there was a 13 year period between the time of publication of TS and Bella (which returns to the formula Cornwall plus dates.) Bella of course ties all the knots and its tragic climax (well penultimate chapter with qualified contented ones for some to follow) brings us right back to the consequences of the rape (Warleggan) and that to the opening when Ross returns and Elizabeth is about to marry Francis, but if I was reading this book in 1993, TS does feel like an ending — a tragic one I know as I’ve read it already. On the field of Waterloo.

Its epigraph: Deliver my soul from the sword;/my darling from the power of the dog. Psalm 22, Verse 20. None of the other of the Poldark books has an epigraph either.

Twisted Sword in its last phases is a depiction of the experience of devastating murdering in mud and rain, relentlessly, on the field of Waterloo. As I wrote last time, Graham got all his details of where Jeremy died and where the various positions were from Keegan’s Face of Battle:

Very moved once again though I knew a chief beloved hero was to die. I noticed a passages I had overlooked before. Tholly himself dying comments on Jeremy’s death: these public wars are useless and counterproductive to all but the elite (the book was written in
1991so a slightly broader view of the elite is meant than would be today); it’s only private wars that are in the interest of the a age person, those he or she engages in directly. Not always even then. He smuggles as well as works on the Packet Service. private war is defined in such a way as to capture far more than illegal activity.

A couple of the political insights I’ve gained from these books I used at the Burney meeting, and people liked them. I of course did not tell them these came to me from reading the Poldark novels. I would not want embarrass anyone or be disbelieved so I said I found them in John Stuart Mill. I used one for my argument in my paper on liberty in the first seven Poldark novels. Understandable riots include the one instigated by Ross in Demelza, and again in this community to keep hecklers and mortifiers away from Music and Katie’s wedding.

Perhaps most beautiful in these four novels is the not just compassion but respect for the disabled that Graham evidences. If other people would just allow them to flourish, they would. But some single difference, and the smell of vulnerability is too much for the average person and the prevalence of bullies, encouraged cruelties (teasing) and for others to leave alone. Rosina who marries Sam (lame), Ben (a loner, unable to socialize easily), Music Thomas (sensitive and a little slow in reaction) are made outcasts and we watch all of them become good people even — recognized only by those who are themselves outsiders (Sam, Katie Carter, Ross and Dwight). Dwight is most responsible for this and the character almost re-arouses a respect for doctors in me mostly destroyed by what I’ve seen of the profession in the US today my attitude is more like Francis Poldark when he first meets Dwight — disbelief — Francis later turns to him when he becomes suicidal.

I made myself read the last part of this novel (Book 4, the coda after Jeremy and Carrington’s deaths) slowly so as to savor the poignant semi-tragic, semi-bitter close, another of Graham’s barely-endured Christmases, with its quiet compensations as life moves on.

I agree with those who say of Graham’s novels that this too does not come to a close — but then life never does and many of the books have this continuation aspect. My students the two times I set Ross Poldark said it felt like much more to come. In Twisted Sword though Clowance has learned a bitter disillusioning lesson and there is Fitzmaurice on the horizon to marry for money and position and Jeremy is dead. There’s Valentine but he has at least been told if indirectly and by Ross he’s Ross’s son and we know Harriet will carry on holding her own against George and protect her twin daughters adequately. Probably Graham meant to end it — again my paperback edition has a cover which says this is the conclusion of the series. But in 2003 he decided he would indeed develop Valentine much more — and he does, beautifully I think.

Among the last stills of Ross and Demelza at the close of Warleggan and the 1977-78 film series

To me particularly effective and personally inspiriting was Dwight and Ross’s outwitting and maneuvering using another scavenging of a wreck by impoverished ignorant brutal people in order to allow one marriage, Music Thomas with Katie Martin, to go forth. I so admire Graham for his depiction of disabilities deeply empathetically. Where do you find that even today? This marriage though repeats a pattern we’ve seen elsewhere, the woman who will not at first at least have sex with a man once married — for example Morwenna (so wounded) when first married to Drake. An irony as in life often a relationship does begin with sexual encounter and after all that’s how Ross and Demelza clinched theirs (says she smiling)

And the ending here really put me in mind of some Leopardi poems (I’m an 18th century literary scholar and have an interest in Italian poetry) as we watch the disillusioned characters with the various losses preserve something positive amid the wreckage. We cannot live our lives out without the relief illusions and companionship offers, and the ending with Ross and Demelza, her tossing that bitter loving cup deep into a well repeats other similar endings only this time (“life is all there is” is at one, and Demelza says it’s enough), but this time the reflective sadness goes on for longer as if to take into account the winding up of the different stories.

I’m actually dreaming — thinking of — writing a novel using these character. I’d like to try Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan. I’ve used a still of her (at the head of the first part of this blog) on the Literary Society’s message board. In this novel when I’d done I found myself hunting for the passages where characters come across her spinning wheel, hear her firm but quiet steps, listen for her gentle presence and hear her ex-husband and two sons ferociously argue over the things they assert they cherish. She had a fine spirit, meant to have as much integrity as she could, tolerant, well-meaning, egalitarian at heart, thoughtful, she out of inability to cope with finances married a bully (George Warleggan) whose behavior led her to risk death to persuade him to leave her and her son by Francis Poldark (Geoffrey Charles) and her son by Ross (Valentine Warleggan) alone in peace.

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth she lies there dying from her effort to make her husband like her boy by Ross; she realizes she is dying and says how she’s afraid of the dark. Her life’s decisions were based on wariness, and yet all decisions are leaps, and the harsh relentless George was too much for her.


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‘People who brag of their ancestors are like root vegetables (Ross, The Stranger from the Sea, Bk 1, Ch 3)

‘Brighten up, Cuby, for the Farce. I believe you have taken the tragedy too much to heart (Valentine, Miller’s Dance, Bk 1, ch 2)

‘We all know, unhappily, what a hand, a man’s hand, whosoever’s it may be, can do to a virgin’s body, how it can enslave … Intellect… the mind, the spirit — they’re forgot. It is as strong as any spell, and between good and evil there is little difference of choice.’ That’s what she said. I — have thought of it many times since (Demelza quoting a Mrs Dawson’s words, Miller’s Dance, Bk I, Ch 3)

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Warleggan, taken aback to learn of her cousin Morwenna’s suffering (1977-88 Poldark, Part 7, Episode 2, from Four Swans)

Dear friends and readers,

Since I last wrote here on this blog of Winston Graham’s Poldark and other writing (Angharad Rees has died) and set up my Poldark region on my website, I’ve joined a Poldark society in Cornwall; a face-group called “A Passion for Poldark and Cornwall”); and an on-line Winston Graham and Poldark literary society. My “avatar” is the above still of Jill Townsend as Elizabeth truly distressed to be made to recognize the suffering caused her cousin, Morwenna, by the coerced marriage to Osborne Whitworth inflicted on Morwenna by George Warleggan, Elizabeth’s second husband — and of course Elizabeth herself who allowed this to occur.

I’ve also re-read for a second time, the second quartet of Poldark novels. For those unfamiliar with these marvelous historical novels, the first seven, a quartet written between 1945 (at the close of WW2) and 1952 (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, and Warleggan), and a trilogy written 20 years later, 1973-78 (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, and The Angry Tide) comprise the on-going story filmed by the BBC in their extraordinarily commercially successful mini-series, Poldark (1975-76, 1977-78).

Unfortunately, only the first of the second quartet, written a few years later over the decade of the 1980s, 1981-90) (The Stranger from the Sea, The Miller’s Dance, The Loving Cup, and The Twisted Sword) was filmed. This 1995 film offended an organized group of people passionately in love with the first two mini-series by not re-hiring Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees for the lead roles; having watched it, I know the film-makers made the serious mistake of omitting the epic perspective of the books, this time through the Peninsular War and its liberal-left (really radical politics). While admitting that its two-hour American style presentation further obscured the pace and slow psychological subtleties of his fiction (in his Memoirs of a Private Man), Graham thought that given a fair watching, it was effectively (powerfully) acted and a modest success could have lead to another mini-series of the later books. In the event, it was vociferously condemned.

I’ve been wanting to write again about the 2nd quartet, but having written separately about each book and not wanting to repeat what I had written, I found myself at a loss even though each time I reread one of the books I found so much that I had not seen and altered my views on two. First, The Stranger from the Sea does not represent a falling off or failure at all. Rather it corresponds in feel and type to the first book of the first quartet, Ross Poldark: both slow-moving, not much happens on-stage in comparison to how much inward life of the new characters.

The second books of both (Demelza & Miller’s Dance) give us much action (in Demelza, a scavanger riot instigated by Ross; in Miller’s Dance, a piracy rather than smuggling or free-trading and then an outrageous robbery) which will in the course of the third and fourth books lead to ironic tragedy. The third books differ: the tragedy as developed in Jeremy Poldark is a trial, bankruptcy, smuggling (it’s a hectic active book); the tragedy as developed in The Loving Cup is inward as the young men are not caught but what happens corrodes Jeremy Poldark’s young manhood and results in Clowance’s betrayal in marriage.

The fourth of both return us to the same pattern: what seems inexorable ironic tragedy: in Warleggan, the rape of Elizabeth by Ross and the apparent decimation of Ross and Demalza’s marriage, her near betrayal of him; in The Twisted Sword the senseless death of Jeremy on the field of Waterloo, Clowance’s discovery that Stephen Carrington is a near bigamist, a ruthless “common murderer” (young Andrew Blamey’s apt description of one brawl Carrington is involved in), an untrustworthy liar, scoundrel willing to trade even in slaves.

When I wrote my paper, “I have a right to choose my own life” (says Verity), I found the last three books were more realistic, the mining and historical events more complex and modern (including unscrupulous banking practices, bankruptcies averted by sophisticated schemes of loans and merges), and the presentation of the lives of the women genuinely from a feminist point of view (with marital rape as one of the continuing events, the result of Morwenna’s coerced marriage).

Now I’ve found the second quartet to be post-colonial in its wider scope: it takes into account world-wide war in Europe and America. It also, as the previous 7 novels did not, introduces real historical people including some quite famous ones (George Canning, the Prince Regent, even Napoleon is glimpsed on his way back from Elba to Paris). And it uses allusions to real plays performed at the time.

Bigamy is rarely presented from the point of view of the 2nd wife who may half-suspect something is wrong and comes to realize her husband is profoundly amoral; she is usually vilified; Clowance is loved all the more for her strength to endure, her loyalty where she can act it out, her compassion and her quiet suffering and overcoming of what could have been a breakdown to say if she ever marries again, it will be for money and position. (Which I know she proceeds to do in Bella, the twelfth book.)

This blog will add a few thoughts and make some qualifications of the earlier ones. I’ve been making outlines of these four books and will post them on my website soon. In the meantime …


Mel Martin as Demelza and Kelly Reilly as Clowance at home in Nampara (1996 Stranger from the Sea); see A Falling Off

First, I liked this book so much much better the second time round because I’ve gone on to read the later ones and instead of lamenting that Ross and Demelza have strong competition for their place as central characters, have learned to love their son, Jeremy, and daughter, Clowance.

I’ve learned that in these two characters we have two more instances of “cruel disempowerment’ and “unrecognized potential.” As in the lead and secondary stories of the first 7 novels, we again see our protagonists fight hard, and make serious mistakes (as real peopel will), and sometimes seem to by chance succeed, but ultimately either fail (not punitively for these books do not punish people as if life were a moral lesson in the 3rd grade) or accept some displaced version of what was really wanted. Jeremy heart-breakingly fails; Clowance learns what compromise feels like — hard. Clowance is by Book 12 (Bella) paradoxically dis-empowered when she chooses a rich lifestyle — she is very like Georgiana Spencer in the movie, The Duchess (a strong protest film, where cut off from idealisms, Georgiana chooses a safe upper class male.

In the first seven books, Morwenna who had an apparently fairy tale escape through the murder of her sadistic husband, but we see in Loving Cup, that one does not heal completely after such experiences; Elizabeth may be said to correspond to Jeremy, she dies in an effort to make some compensation to the man she married probably knowing she was pregnant by another. Ross and Demelza are the compromisers — as is Dwight, Caroline, just about all the characters.

Nicholas Greaves as Stephen Cravenson (name changed from the book).

Carrington, the stranger from the sea, is not at the center of the novel as I supposed because he is (I learned from the later novels) a scoundrel — and no excuse from his background is responsible for an innate nature. Had he been born wealthy and well-connected he would have been a upper class scoundrel able to inflict wider harm. (Like Trollope Graham distrusts strangers.) Graham’s radical rebellious types in Books 1-7 are not scoundrels, they have more brains, a thoughtfulness Stephen lacks (part of his strengths).

I was too hard on Elizabeth’s illegitimate son by Ross, Valentine (by way of the central rape in Warleggan): the young man is not presented as negatively as I thought: he’s an ambiguous character who uses a facade of gay superciliousness and (because of his putative father, George Warleggan) helplessness (“my dear fellow, but what can I do?”). He is at least more mixed and intriguing — I react with dislike towards men who take advantage of vulnerable women (poor, a servant, disabled) and that’s what he does. This is what Carrington does regularly, and one of our heroines marries him.


John Bowes as Ross, father, and Ioan Gruffudd as Jeremy, son (1996 Stranger from Sea); see blog on Miller’s Dance: Alive with History

As I wrote the first time round, it’s a densely historically accurate account of the regency period, 1811-12, just the time frame for both Austen’s S&S and P&P in their current forms. In this era the burning topic of controversy was the French revolution for its aftermath in Napoleon’s wars as well as social, psychological and economic change. In the US the war of 1812 had begun. In all of these Austen’s brothers and family were intensely involved.

Where I was off was to miss quite how bloody this book is. As in Austen (why I mentioned er) just about all battles — except the ones reported (and that’s at a distance) in Geoffrey Charles Poldark’s politic letters — are offstage and I found I underestimated one and missed another. Unlike Austen from whom we hear not a peep of all this, those battles not reported however briefly are mentioned and alluded to. The novel has at its edges not just the Peninsula war (Geoffrey Charles in Portugal there so the most reported on), but the American war of 1812 and action on “the high seas” as it’s put and the Russian front.

True, everything is offstage so that the reader who wants not to see what is here could ignore it, but after a while it does pile up. Battle after battle, slaughter after slaughter. I’m keeping a list: all the battles from Portugal and Spain reported by Geoffrey Charles (great irony as he’s the son of the delicate withdrawn gentle Elizabeth by the ironist Francis): El Bodon (p 26). The Battle of El Boden was a small but important battle of the Peninsular War on 25 September 1811 which enabled the French temporarily to relieve Ciudad Rodrigo. Badajoz (p 97, 139). Salamanca (p 236). The first time I read the book I was not aware of how blood streams through it: all but one are off-stage, but they are there. The book indites Napoleon as this tyrant seeking power and spilling blood across Europe. The siege of Burgos near Madrid (p 305), French win.

Across the ocean: the US invades Canada and people kill each other at sea (p 256). One up north, around Lakes Huron and Erie, where Major General Isaac Brock, manages to slam the invasion by General Hull and his HMS Macdeonian, the Captain Carder, 356 killed, 70 wounded, by American frigate, the US — a “solitary marauder.” The point is signing treaties does not stop people once they start war

Russia: bitter disasters: Borodino, French forced out General Kutusov and his army (p 305). Moscow — abandon and then deliberately set ablaze by the defeated general Kutusov – what does he care if he destroys all the civilians and their property. Ordered by Rostopchin. Who claims anyone ever watched out for civilian,see Badagoz above (p 347, 357, 350-51)
Napoleon defeated and terrific loss of life between Moscow and Smmolensk.

I had not realized that of HMS Macedonian v United States (real incident, October 25 1812) was a real and significant incident (book 3, Chapter 3). It figures in talk at Flushing, a naval port in Cornwall

As the novel closes off stage we are told of the terrible scene of the crossing of Beresina (Book 3, chapter 5), led by Napoleon himself they broke through but lost 12,000 drowned, 20,000 imprisoned of half a million army, 10,000 left (26-29 Nov). Many pictures emerged from this one, a very few by those who were there or lived at the time, many more afterward. The war front of Russia and all its reports form the part of the central sequences of Tolstoi’s book and I had not noticed before that War and Peace is alluded to (anachronistically though by the narrator).

At the same time local history: Trevorgie Mine inside Wheal Leisure shows evidence of life way back when Cornish tin was first mined (p 346) old skeletons found.

As in Bella, we have Graham’s interest in what was known of apes and keeping apes as pegs: Harriet, the woman Warleggan so mistakenly married keeps a “galago”, which appears to be a small fierce and badly “frightened, inquisitive, nervous” monkey. (This culminates in Valentine and his ape in Bella).

Demelza ever nervous that her son, Jeremy, will sign up. She does what she can to keep him by encouraging Ross to return to London and Canning (his basic patron it seems).

Another facet of the historical backdrop of this book: I returned to Graham for a couple of days and am outlining and research The Miller’s Dance. It’s startling how the backdrop of this novel are the ferocious wars going on and the poverty and distress across the UK at the time, and how this is made concrete (so that it cannot be dismissed) by having historical characters in the book for the first time – and so many real battles.

I’ve begun to look up the plays the characters go to, and as in good fictions, these create parallels with the characters. Graham will make blunders on novels — where he’ll have a character reading a new Henry Fielding novel in 1780s, but not on the political books which characters argue about, and he certainly knows the drama.

The characters go to see Edward Young’s The Revenge while they are in London (Book 3,Chapter 4) – where they get involved in murderous erotic jealousy and competition and Ross ends up murdering the near homicidal maniac Adderly (an adder). _The Revenge is perfect for a parallel. It’s the Othello story made more intense, briefer, concise and brings out the competition between the two men. Garrick called it a perfect play and it held the boards as very popular throughout 18th century, omitting all but central paradigm. Zanga the moor hates Alonzo his master (now it’s black underling though); Leonora promised to Don Carlos, Alonzo’s best friend who Alonzo has saved. Carlos sent Alonzo wooing for him, and Leonora fell in love with Alonzo. Isabella Moor’s mistress and lady to Leonora — she’s used somehow. Father pressuring her to marry Carlos but easily switched and then Zanga works Alonzo into rage of sexual jealousy over Leonora. Alonso kills her. At close Zanga expresses tremendous remorse over Alonzo’s body.

In Book 1, Chapter 5, the Warleggans give a party — Valentine does and invite Clowance and Jeremy. Carrington doesnt’ come — as he often does not. He’s afraid who he will meet. They enjoy a full night’s theater. So the characters see Edward Moore’s The tragedy of The Gamester. Graham gives it a subtitle it doesn’t have: “Or the False Friend.” That’s because the play has a parallel with Stephen Carrington who is a false friend to Paul and Jeremy and a cruel lover (or will be) to Clowance. Its theme is a false friend, Stukely who betrays others treacherously; people attempt to expose him. Stukeley is after money and he is “a common murderer” as Andrew Blamey (the younger) recognizes Carrington is. On the same bill (as was common at the time)are two farces: Robert Drury The Rival Milliners — about problem of picking a husband — Graham includes a scene of Clowance sewing her wedding dress just before Ben comes to he to come with him to Wheal Leisure where he finds the old rooms where tin was mined in Elizabethan times. That leads to Stephen’s attacking him and her breaking up with Stephen.

They also see George Colman, The Village Lawyer – about a man trying to set up a legal practice in a country village because he has no connections. The difficulties. We see how his wife is against the place. In the place how the others see him as threat. This too parallels the feel of the world of village life.

And our hero-villain, Stephen Carrington, it’s implied clearly, murdered someone during a melee where the gov’t men tried to press him. One would not blame him for that necessarily but the context is his warning to her heroine’s brother that once he marries Clowance what he does to her is none of the brother’s business.

His unfaithfulness with the dying crippled Violet Fellowes reminds me of Sondheim’s Passion based on a 19th century epistolary novel, Fosca, where the heroine is crippled. the second time through watching Clowance apparently agreeing to carry on with her marriage to Stephen Carrington after she learns he is a murderer (though of a man who sought to press him) and watched him lie about it to someone, and then repeat a series of ever descending admissions that he did it though each time with a lie and excuse to her; after she just about knows he had sex with a crippled young woman just before this woman’s death (and may have bought it on), I find myself more anxious than the first time. The book ends with her breaking it off, but suddenly at the opening of the next book she does marry him.

I know that people do do such self-destructive acts, and here she is (Clarissa-like) going to be in his control, away from her family.


Kevin McNally as Drake beat up to the point of murder: for fun, Warleggan’s men throw him in a lake (1977-78, Poldark Part 8, Episode 4, from Four Swans)

As you read him, keep your eye on how Graham skirts the inward and hidden outward real transgressions and disquieting things of life continually at the edges of his fictions.

As this is way long enough, I’ll make a second blog for The Loving Cup and The Twisted Sword tomorrow evening.


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From The Grass Is Singing, a Studio 4 film (1962)

Dear friends and readers,

Returning to my promise to try to write shorter more frequent blogs, over the past week and one half I’ve been mesmerized by one of Doris Lessing’s early novels: The Grass is Singing.

Lessing is the kind of writer who can produce such very different books (and thus takes on pseudonyms so as not to disappoint her readership under her first name): she has the intensely realistic social critique novel and/or memoir, often with a heroine at the center (but it can be a cat), where we are invite to experience the nature and sources of commonplace destruction of people, places, environment, relationships, communities on this earth. The Golden Notebook belongs to this type, and alas has overshadowed the others, e.g., The Summer Before the Dark, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and A Small Personal Voice. I remember being mesmermized by The Summer Before the Dark.

She also writes allegories where the action is fantastic, and susceptible to moralistic exhortation, feminist, anti capitalist, to my mind not persuasive because so unreal (you can prove anything when you get to make up the evidence), often dwelling on exterior delineation, e.g., the Martha Quest books, the Canopus in Argos series (some under a pseudonym). There are writers where even the stance or message is utterly different between two or more sets of books (e.g, Margaret Drabble with her traditional heroine’s texts versus successful careerist books; Margaret Atwood again with heroine’s texts, this time made contemporary versus environmental fantasies & allegories). In Lessing it’s the realization.

The epigraph to the novel tells us the title comes from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland which is then immediately parsed for us:

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the rumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico, co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Hirnavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder

It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses.

The story: We begin with a brutal murder. Mary Turner, a white woman has been killed by Moses, her male black house-servant. The novel seems to hark back to Olive Schreiner in its immediate reaching out to use the incident for a depiction of the class and racial divides of South Africa, countryside and town, and a sense of landscape dreadfully hard to endure, farm, survive in.

Then we move back to focus on Mary whom we first meet as a exhausted corpse. While not overtly feminist, we experience how she was driven to marry Dick Turner, a man she barely knows after years of living a detached successful enough (not unhappy) life in an office as a clerk. Lessing says Mary’s way of life offering liberty to women would not be possible in the era she is writing the book, 1950; that’s interesting. It means women have recently lost ground.

Mary is driven because she begins to overhear people mocking her, feels she is somewhat ostracized. Delicately it’s suggested people assume she’s a closet lesbian. She is not. She didn’t want to marry because she saw the misery of her impoverished parents, and especially mother’s life and now she finds she’s
repeating it. There is much compassion for the man too.

A colorized still from the 1962 movie

As with Schreiner, a contrast is set up between the veld and the city. The city is hollow, hypocritical, anonymous, mindless impersonal relationships which based themselves on daily repetition of numbing activities (like drinking), but the veld
is hot, dry, impossible to make a living on unless you pour huge amounts of money in and pay no wages for work; death dwells there; catastrophe and egoistic patterns of behavior where people lose perspective emerge. In both places a race and debt system controls everyone’s behavior. Mary’s husband, Dick, refuses to be co-opted into the debt system; he wants to live in harmony with his land and eek a subsidence life from it. This means living in continual bare poverty with small groups of crops providing small amounts of money from month to month. A tin roof which makes the heat worse. No holidays.

In Claire Denis’s White Material (partly based on this book), she emphasized Mary’s hatred of the store Dick tries to run as a version of what partly killed her mother as it died.

Feeling herself to be going mad with heat, poverty, loneliness, nothing to do, Mary at least determines to flee. She takes what has has left of decent clothes, what she can put together to get to a train (but she has to enlist a disapproving neighbor to drive her there), and leaves a note. Once back in town she goes to her old boss whose ad for a person to fill her old job she saw. He tells her sorry he’s just gotten someone else. A lie. She doesn’t look right and anyway she’s married. He’s shocked and alienated – at her looks too. The forces that drove her to this marriage are driving her back. Dick is at the hotel when she returns. He is abject and desperate and she returns.

Mary demands a child. Let’s have a baby and it will give us a meaning. He refuses. A child will only make life harder and how can they bring another human being up with any hope or good life in this place. Mary tries to get him to plant tobacco in huge amounts (he does borrow money) to make cash crops, but the year is a bad one and the crop fails. He hates what it has done to his land.

For a short while his behavior has (from Mary’s standpoint) been better, but he sickens badly. Then she has to run the team in the field; she is ugly in her behavior, inhumane, taking out her despair on them. A physician tells her they must build a decent roof, renovate the house to get rid of the bugs, and take a 3 month holiday. He offers no funds, but does not charge.

Mary has been taking out her rage on her house servants, and her one pride is that she is above them. She treats them like instruments, scolds, slaps, insults. Gradually no one will work for her, and there is left only Moses, and Dick now menaces her: he warns her not to lose Moses. To keep Moses she must bend, and we see him take over as she weakens, sickens, comes to depend on him to dress her, to make her eat. It’s suggested she begins to go to bed with him while Dick is out in the field all day with a small group of black men.

So, it’s a thoroughly implicitly feminist story. An anti colonialist expose of the capitalist system and the lives of poor to middling people who try to escape their grinding lives by emigrating. This is the set of people Trollope wrote his colonialist stories about too (see Returning Home). They mostly die or go to pieces or somehow, just, survive.

But the novel’s greatness is not in this message as in the way the prose begins to soar as Lessing enters Mary’s mind and we exist inside what Mary sees and feels as she desperately holds on against disintegration. It’s here her genius shows itself.

The outer pattern is that of The Golden Notebook. No we do not have four parallel differently colored notebooks where the action in each shows us versions of the heroine — in contemporary London as a bourgeois divorcee living off the proceeds of her one successful novel; in South Africa as a communist; as a fictional heroine invented by herself as magazine writer; as a diarist writing down what is said as she visits a psychiatrist. Then all dissolves into one golden notebook, a sort of final plunge in the final notebook which became identified with the almost Lawrentian idea that what the heroine needed was a long series of good orgasms.

At the conclusion of The Grass Is Singing we also have a dissolution. The heroine has lost her struggle and we return to the impersonal third person perspective we began with. An outsider, a neighbor who was the man who found the dead body now comes to the farm in hopes himself of taking it over and also out of pity for Dick. He sees a woman who has gone utterly to pieces, and become a sort of subject presence to her black servant and her husband gone equally crazed with his inability to cope with what’s needed in capitalist farming. The long stretch of meditation is extraordinary (some typical utterances from the book), but the insight is not sheerly erotically based as the circumstantials details of the disintegration have been exterior to Mary as well as what was in her and Dick.

Loneliness, she thought, was craving for other people’s company. But she did not know that loneliness can be an unnoticed cramping of the spirit for lack of companionship.

Dick often stood at the edge of the field, watching the wind flow whitely over the tops of the shining young trees, that bent and swung and shook themselves all day. He had planted them apparently on an impulse; but it was really the fruition of a dream of his. Years before he bought the farm, some mining company had cut out every tree on the place … it wasn’t much, planting a hundred acres of good trees that would grow into straight, white stemmed giants; but it was a small retribution; and this was his favorite place on the farm. When he was particularly worried, or had quarreled with Mary, or wanted to think clearly, he stood and looked at his trees …

Mary, with the memory of her own mother recurring more and more frequently, like an older, sardonic double of herself walking beside her, followed the course her upbringing made inevitable. To rage at Dick seemed to her a failure in pride; her formerly pleasant but formless face was setting into lines of endurance ….

Though what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of [Moses’] completed revenge, it is impossible to say. For, when he had gone perhaps a couple of hundred yards through the soaking bush he stopped, turned aside, and leaned against a tree on an ant-heap And there he would remain, until his pursuers, in their turn, came to find him.

We are told briefly (by the narrator) the evil was not this woman, nor was there anything wrong with her, nor her husband, and by implication, not even this “wicked” angry (enraged) black man, but the evil was all around them. The words refer to her past, the farm, how they have been taught to cope. Alas, many readers will not get what these vague or general pronouncements mean: she means the way Mary was driven to marry, the way Dick was not permitted to love his land and cultivate it without exploitation (as economically it’s not viable), the whole race system which when the black man is taken away is referred to when he is made to stand for “hurt human affection.”

In the book this is not spelled out clearly in the way I have just done, only implied and the book could be read as simply a story about a weak or neurotic woman. In her movie, Claire Denis makes sure that we see the larger picture and she writes a part for Isabelle Huppert which turns her into a strong presence who does not turn mad or become a slave, but is externally destroyed by the black revolution. There is a wikipedia article which sums the book up this way:

The Grass Is Singing is a bleak analysis of a failed marriage, the neurosis of white sexuality, and the fear of black power that Lessing saw as underlying the white colonial experience of Africa.[citation needed] The novel’s treatment of the tragic decline of Mary and Dick Turner’s fortunes becomes a metaphor for the whole white presence in Africa.[citation needed] The novel is honest about the fault-lines in the white psyche.

I think from the lacunae in The Grass Is Singing we see why Lessing turns to fantastical books with super-strong (supposedly exemplary admirable) characters and why her rhetoric remains unsatisfying. Lessing has said that people must force themselves, through effort of imagination, to become what they are capable of being, so there is a judgmental view in the book, a way of presentation that can be read as a punishment.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Girl with Cat

To return to her reading of Eliot’s poem, it’s almost silly to epitomize its meaning as about how failures and misfits reveal to us the weaknesses of society. Eliot’s poem is about a peace that can come when you give up the illusions of hope through civilized progress. Some might call it equally despair, but when the grass is felt to sing with life we are not being exhorted to find ways to build and share better tractors.

The Grass Is Singing is a great book because it shows us human nature and the worlds we create unsparringly.


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