Archive for January, 2013

Sir Philip Tapsell (Tim Piggot-Smith): Never fear, Duchess, I’ll get a baby out of her one way or the other

Ethel: But I think it’s going to be a lot more complicated than you allow. Mrs Crawley: Then we shall have to face those complications together, shan’t we?

Tom (Allen Leech) trying to help Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) feel comfortable and not managing

Then taking inopportune moment to confide he’s found a job as a mechanic (she hates the idea of him returning to laboring work)

Dear friends and readers,

People keep asking me why are so many people watching and talking about Downton Abbey? Well, by this time (the third season) it’s become what Truffaut called “a sociological event.” Many don’t want to feel left out as others passionately discuss what they wouldn’t have seen; so they watch.

Of course this just avoids the question, what hooked viewers originally? I’ve been showing precisely because DA exploits the features of the soap opera form, one peculiarly fitted to TV watching. Like the clocks Mr Barrow teaches Jim are living things: “Never wind them in the early morning before a room is warmed up nor too late when the night air cools them down.” And I’ve tried to show Fellowes uncanny intuition for dramatizing paradigms of intensely sore areas — like when in the 1st episode of this season a mean bully-trick is exposed. Many suffering from bullying and underhanded tricks today know in fact such behavior is tolerated, still treated as a joke.

This power of this week’s episode derives from the way historical novels and films present usable pasts (or create them) in order to speak to us today. It is no coincidence that another female died in childbirth in a paradigm just like Lady Sybil’s in a mini-series that has sold more copies than any other (until perhaps Downton Abbey) but the 1995 A&E/WBGH/BBC Pride and Prejudice (scripted Andrew Davies, with Colin Firth as Darcy): the 1970s 2nd mini-series of Poldark ends in the death of Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan in childbirth. We see Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) during parturition suffering badly:

Dr Enys (Michael Cadman) helping her give birth

Like Sybil, Elizabeth gives birth and everyone rejoices, and then a few hours later we hear her screams. We’ve gone on from 1977: we hear but do not see Elizabeth die in an agony. But it is the same sudden turn about. In the earlier case (by which I mean 1977-78) the woman does not die from eclampsia but from having taken a dangerous herb-drug to induce early parturition (see court cases), and whatever Dr Enys did probably would have been as useless as the doctors in this week’s Downton Abbey (2013). (More on Elizabeth’s story.) Neo-Victorian novels are said to be feminist and it would be interesting to compare how many deaths in childbirth are directly dramatized in these novels and the specific treatment, and how these are treated in mini-series on TV but this would take research and is beyond the purview of my weekly recaps).

The point is the scenes of intense anxiety with which the episode opens, the later terrors and pains, the intense fear, the sudden relief, the turn around, and then the sudden death are about what women experience today. And also the moving half-crazed reactions of several of the characters to childbirth, here to a death. Elizabeth McGovern came into her own again (she has not had such a meaty series of scenes since she almost died of flu in Season 2) when we come upon her talking to the corpse of her daughter — with no preparations that this is what we are seeing.

Along with Tom, the husband, Cora, her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) is the person closest to Sybil during her death convulsions

Cora’s apparent calmness and smile and quiet talk fool us for the couple of seconds it takes to grasp she is talking to the dead

For once the Dowager Duchess is not funny. Maggie Smith uses her aging body in a long walk across the hall to emphasize the feeling of gross injustice at the death of the young woman.

Maggie Smith as the old woman with the distorted body, staggering slightly, leaning on her cane walking to the family now she’s heard of the death

We then see her earnestly talking about how it was nobody’s fault. For once Lord Grantham does take part of the blame, which concession may be seen as ironic from a distance as obviously he did not cause her eclampsia, though it is true at the opening of the episode he becomes irritated when Dr Clarkson tries to tell the family about the details of symptoms that are worrying him. But then is not Cora as much to blame when she tells Clarkson he is giving too much information and all they need to know is can they go back to bed?

Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) looking away as Cora tells Clarkson (David Robb) he is offering TMI

One aspect of childbirth today that seems to bother women that this week’s episode made visible is how men as physicians are often in charge. Blog after blog, comments, postings all “interpreted” the death of Sybil as the result of men in charge. In the particular instance the fatuous Tapsell was wrong, and Dr Clarkson was not able to get Lord Grantham to follow his advice and take Sybil to the hospital and try to induce labor early (a bit of anachronism there), but we could put that down to class bias. Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) blames Lord Grantham, but she is complicit, does not herself act on her impulse to ask Tom (someone calls him the “chaffeur” still), who doesn’t know what to do. And it’s by no means clear that had they gone to the hospital the outcome would have been better. It is though true that the last quarter century women have been trying to free themselves of male control, instinctively sensing the male is not sufficiently on their side as women but rather supporting the medical establishment.

For my part, while watching this week’s episode I kept remembering how during the very first time I was pregnant my husband and I had this little plan we got from the sessions on childbirth we attended together. We were going to have this book of short poems with us and he read them as we followed all our instructions on distraction. What laugh when it began to happen. Totally unreal. Or just before I went in when my grandmother suddenly turned round to me and said, oh so seriously to me, “Good Luck.” I would need was the dire feel. Looking back from another childbirth more than 6 years after the first my grandmother was the only person who produced an appropriate tone, who had not been cut off from the reality of history as well as experience. (Full disclosure: I’ve had two live births, both C-sections; before that, two miscarriages, one of which ended in an abortion to save my life.)

In Anibundel’s blog on DA this week, she links in Ta Nehisi-Coates’s great shock when he discovered childbirth is still dangerous, and a general column validating the insight that science is not magic: nature is still there and evolution has made childbirth risky for mother and baby. Atul Gawande has tried to remind women what childbirth is and was not just before the 20th century technological breakthroughs but recently.

Most after the first experience even when everything does not go badly and ends well (live healthy mother and baby) know the truth. Labor is not discomfort, it’s pain, bad pain, and the experience physically traumatic. Why is this not discussed? the same reason that the details of childbirth were not discussed in earlier times, were taboo in the Victorian novel. It seems all cultures do what they can to erase the hardship of having babies in order to pressure women into becoming mothers. I queried Victoria (a list-serv about Victorian books) two days ago for citations of scenes where we have a direct dramatization of death or agonies in childbirth. Very uncommon. We are presented with orphans, the experience of a woman is reported, but a direct scene? and when it is detailed the reviewers protested. See my list of typical childbirth deaths in Victorian to Edwardian novels.

Cora’s failure of nerve: Clarkson is speaking firmly against Tapsell and Lord Grantham (who have objected to “public” hospitals) but we see in Cora’s face a fatal hesitation (tellingly it’s Edith who stands behind her mother in such scenes)


Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) teaching Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) how to wind a clock

To some watchers it may seem remarkable that this is not the only thread in this week’s multi-plot pattern. Put it down to the ability of Fellowes to convey meaning through epitomizing dialogues and gestures and the sophistication of viewers who have seen this sort of thing before. The thread with the most scenes is that of Isobel Crawley’s attempt to hire of Ethel Parks as a servant to enable her to climb out of the pariah status she is now in even though Ethel finds she need no longer be a prostitute to make ends meet. (No boy to clothe, feed, send to school.) Ethel is deeply grateful but warns Mrs Crawley that there will be complications (the use of the word links this substory with that of Lady Sybil).

Ethel (Amy Nuttall) wants this good place but is understandably fearful; Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) listening

I for one was not surprised to see Mrs Bird refuse to work with Ethel. My favorite moment in this week’s episode was where the narrow Mrs Bird thinking that if she says she’ll leave, Mrs Crawley will not hire Ethel, tells Mrs Crawley she’s going and Mrs Crawley thanks her and wishes her well.

Mrs Bird (Christine Lohr) realizing her risky ploy has failed, and she is being “sacked”

Normally I loathe scenes which show the power of the employer; not this time. This being Fellowes he gives the sarky conservative who disdains good acts ammunition by making Ethel a bad cook, awkward, stumbling. But Mrs Crawley is not ridiculed for once. (Several unusual moments this week.) My hope (looking ahead) is that when Mrs Crawley loses her son (hush hush I know) she may find her reward for her beautiful act was to find she has this loving giving person with her as a substitute.

Daisy (Sophie McShera) hearing of the young mistress’s death

Daisy too is made to realize she is not as powerful as she dreamed she would be by her promotion. We see her struck by the powerful Lady Sybil’s death. Later she realizes too she is making herself disliked by Alfred by bullying the new scullery maid, Ivy, who shows competence. One might say realization is the theme of this episode. Thomas surprises himself by grieving over Lady Sybil’s death. He realizes how much she meant to him as a caring employer. We have, done with remarkable celerity, Anna and John Bates realizing how Bates’s ex-wife poisoned herself and framed him for murder, Anna’s meeting with Lord Grantham and then the lawyer (both of which are literally skipped — we are to understand what was said).

This is not the first time Mary (Michelle Dockery) had stood accusing Matthew (Dan Stevens) and he back away

There are also realizations to come. Matthew has realized that Lord Grantham is badly mismanaging Downton Abbey but when he twice in this episode tries to do something about it, he is thwarted by Lady Mary. The first time it’s in a mild talk they have as they pass a ruined barn but the second she comes near to putting him “in his place” when he attempts to tell the lawyer (who himself knows something needs to be don). How dare Matthew try to talk to her father when he is so grieved? We are getting hints that all is not well in their sex life (that’s why no pregnancy has emerged). Miss Obrien is (alas) shown as up to her usual spite as she encourages Jimmy to turn to Thomas for help, and Jimmy begins to realize that because Thomas is homosexual (however closeted) this may cause difficulties for him (who is apparently not bisexual at all).

But all these feel like very much tertiary threads in the tapestry of this week’s central drama. There is perhaps too much idealization of Sybil now she’s dead: Mrs Patmore: “She was the kindest person in the house.” But rather than cavil I’d like to close where I opened: the soap opera nature of these programs and another way of looking at Sybil Bransom’s death.

Sybil and Mary discuss Tom’s desire to take a job and the baby’s religion: Mary is evasive, reluctant to agree

It was reported at the end of the 1st season that Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens had said they did not want to return for a second season. That could be interpreted as wanting more money. Then between the 2nd and 3rd the same two were said to want out. This past fall it was said Maggie Smith would not do a fourth year, but now she has agreed to. Her departure would have been such a great loss to the series as almost to deal it a death-blow.

It can kill a show to lose a favored actor or actress. They are part of the mix that attracts, part of the dream life of the viewer’s on-going time the form caters to. Let’s say were Downton Abbey a day-time program, and the producers were confronted with the problem of an actor who wants out, would they kill her off? I suggest perhaps not. The structuring of soap operas is based on the idea of an ongoing community of characters only some of whom we see in an particular episodes or series of episodes. Characters drift in and out, disappear, reappear, leave legacies. It’s the large community that we see, and someone can vanish and then at a later time return. They can be brought back. This is very much the way of cyclical series of novels: Trollope has vanishing and recurring characters; so too Oliphant, Balzac, in our own time Anthony Powell. It would be easy for Fellowes to bring Sir Richard Carlisle back if the original actor or an actor who looked sufficiently like him were willing. We have a new footman, a new scullery maid. Mrs Bird is going to vanish at least for a while after this episode.

But DA is not quite ongoing in the same way as daytime TV. It’s not daily, and it doesn’t go on all year. We have only so many parts, so we really do concentrate on about 14 or so characters, with some central stars. Of course they could have written it that Sybil went off to Ireland with Tom and that’s that. Fellowes wants a family that sticks together (part of his piety). Findlay Brown’s determination to find another role and not be typecast enabled him to see his way to strong scenes by using her departure this way.

We have been similarly told that Dan Stevens is leaving after this year. He had been acting in the US on Broadway (among other roles). The character has certainly been made to feel useless for the last two episodes or so. He alone encourages Sybil in her budding career as a journalist but except for her (and she doesn’t count for much in the family prestige) if he brings forth any of his modern or progressive ideas (like his mother’s), they are not much appreciated.

Another epitomizing scene in this episode was between Mary and Sybil (as sisters they were close). Sybil asked Mary to help her stop Tom from taking a job a a lower rank and told her that she intended to make the baby Catholic to please Tom. Mary’s reply: “you don’t have to.” Now that Sybil is dead, the way is open for the family (we know of Lord Grantham’s bigotry towards Catholics) to protest this baptism (on all sorts of grounds including future career). If a struggle ensues over the baby’s religion, and Matthew sticks up for Tom’s rights as he has before), do you think that will count for much?

The closing still: Tom nursing his child

Again I have been discussing how soap opera works in order to defend the form.

P.S. For fun and semiotics: the Hats of Downton Abbey, Season 3

The hats a character wears tell a lot about her. This year the costume designer had a smaller costumer budget.


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John Norris, soldier who with Francis Drake commanded expedition to the coast of Spain, 1589

The longer memory, of there being no peace in the world, of fear and danger outside and a limited safety within — Bk 1, Ch 1, p 10

Greatness is a condition of brain and marrow: it is in no way connected with virtue, which is a condition of the soul (invented flavor-Elizabethan English given Ralegh, Bk 4, Ch 4, p 185

A man at the centre of great events can often at the time see only the small ones which surround him and oppress him with their personal demands. Even an awareness that events have have moved past him and left him behind … Bk 5, Ch 1, p 389

Dear friends and readers,

The crux or impulse for writing this novel was an obscured historical record & betrayal. In his (unusual) note to readers at the close of his book, Graham shows that he was compelled by the very obscurity and enigmatic nature of the records which did nonetheless reveal their story to the thinking or candid mind; and that aim is what was lost. What he got was protests over his reporting the sordid, unheroic and treacherous desperate nature of what happened disguised as objections to his literal departures from history.


I finished Groves of Eagles. I knew my blog written (see Graham’s other historical fiction &c) when I was more than half-way through lacked the necessary knowledge to be able to give a sense of the full shape of the book. Now I realize the ending (to be expected) throws a perspective on the whole book. In this instance it also gives the key to why the author wrote it, why (as Graham clearly planned), he didn’t go on with another. The ending also crystalized some central themes, linking it up with The Forgotten Story on the one hand (Cornwall, 1898, based on a newsprint shipwreck story) and the Poldark novels on the other (1783-1820, Cornwall but also by the time he’s done Paris, Belgium, and Portugal). And finally we learn who the hero’s mother was and that the true heroine of the book is the hero’s long-suffering step-mother, the effectively abject endlessly pregnant and sexually betrayed Dorothy Killigrew.

The book closes with the result of Graham’s character John Killigrew’s betrayal of his trust as the keeper of Pendennis castle: in desperate straits financially, Killigrew in the book accepted bribes from the Spanish to allow them to land; as in the previous Armada, the ships were far too unwieldly to make it through the Channel in storms, and fail to land and invade; they are further hindered by English ships coming back from the West Indies and the Atlantic where they had gone to plunder and invade others. He is taken before the Queen’s Council, and while not found guilty for sure, is imprisoned (more discreetly) as a debtor When the father has his “trial,” Elizabeth I (who appears) and her counselors appear to believe the man was not treacherous, but the next day he is hauled off to jail for debt and there does not seem any way of freeing him. The jail is a place where people sicken and die.

His son, our narrator-hero, Maughan, goes home to find his father’s house being emptied out by debtors, his stepmother giving birth again, helped once again by the physician-witch Katherine Footmarker; soldiers with an new Captain in charge of Pendennis Castle; debt collectors taking charge of everything else in sight. Maughan proceeds to eject everyone he can. Maughan has to make a much compromised way out for himself and do what he can to salvage his stepmother’s fate by accepting what he regards as bleak choices, which includes marriage to the female protagonist I had thought (but no longer do) was to be the main and idealized heroine, Sue, at the price (what she demands) of accepting a place from Henry Howard whom Maughan dislikes, and distrusts. Sue is no Demelza.

That this betrayal and the way it was treated in court and the historical record was central to the impulse to write his book (and perhaps a series of books set in Cornwall during the Renaissance) is revealed in Graham’s final note “to Purists” whose irritation I now understand. The purpose of the Note is to tell the readers that the story of the actual historical John Killigrew is close to that told of the fictional one in the book and was found by Graham in local Cornish and London records. So too that of his historically real “base” son, Maughan, who was also captured, kidnapped, imprisoned in Spain and then attached to the Spanish court. It may be that Graham took liberties (as all historical fiction writers must do), but the main thrust and most of the details of the lives of these Killigrews and Ralegh (including the climactic court case) remains close to the historical truth.

Portuguese carracks off fortified coast

It seems that Graham was attacked by his readership on the grounds that he had not stayed true to literal history and pickayune fusses were made of places where he departed. From the way Graham writes it seems that he does not realize these attacks are stalking horses for the real objection: the readers did not like his exposure of the realities of betrayal by these English heroes; they didn’t like his unheroic treatment of war at sea (the senseless raid on Cadiz if what was wanted was any wealth or control) as a mess, awful, pointless much of it. And ironically (showing his distance from this pop readership) what attracted Graham was that the central core of Killigrew’s story remained implicit, the reality that what goes down onto the historical record is half-lies, delusions (as Ralegh’s tales of what he founds in Guiana which in the book are suggestively rightly undercut).

Thus Graham in his note to “purists:”

This has been a novel primarily about the Killigrews, a not unimportant Cornish family whose history appears and disappears tantalisingly among the records of time. Sometimes the bare facts of their existence are recorded, sometimes the facts are richly and revealingly clothed, sometimes there are frustratiosn and impenetrable silence …
     There are a number of eye-witness reports of the raid on Cadiz, most famous, no doubt, Ralegh’s own. But in the main I have relied on an unpublished manuscript in the Lambeth Palace Library, probably written by someone on Ralegh’s flagship; and it is on this manuscript that I have depended for the account of Ralegh’s adventure the night before the battle — an adventure which, at least in detail, seems to have escaped his numerous biographers-and also for the story of the loss of the Peter of Anchusen. The treasure fleet at Cadiz was in fact not burned until twenty-four hours later than stated in this book.
     The extent to which John Killigrew became committed to the Spanish cause is perhaps arguable, but the evidence which exists does seem to me conclusive. Not only Facy’s report on William Love’s statement, mentioned in the novel, but many other reports of a like nature which filtered in at the end of 1597 and continued to do so through much of the following year. William Astell’s testimony, February 22, 1598, was that it was rumoured at the Groyne (Coruna) that John Killigrew had been executed for treason. Peter ScobIe reported May 5, 1598, that while a prisoner of the Spaniards he was constantly questioned as to whether John Killigrew had been put to death or was in prison. But the conclusive testimony comes from the Spanish side-hints and references in various letters-and perhaps most of all in the order issued by the Adelantado that those at Falmouth were to be well used during the landing, all others put to the sword.
     I have no evidence that Ralegh spoke up for John Killigrew when he was brought to London to answer for his behaviour, but it is not out of keeping with his character that he should have done so


christmas originsElizabethanRitualblog
Christmas ritual parade by tavern

We actually have a pair of heroines at the close. Dorothy Killigrew who has been such a faithful sexual partner, submissive to John Killigrew (endlessly pregnant) leaves a letter to her husband, offering him her last 10 pounds (Bk 5, ch 10, p 465):

Old letters always have a pathos, seeing these after so many years brings back that time with a poignancy. Perhaps not so much for my father … but for poor Dorothy Killigrew and for all that time of youth and striving and and the stress of a life gone forever

This is one of many passages which suggest the book actually is supposed to be a story retold from a mid-17th century perspective that Graham meant to write his Elizabeth chronicles up to.

Maughan remembers how this stepmother did all she could for him, was of “noble soul,” ever kind (if quietly so), and tells us he saved this letter ever after.

And it’s revealed Katherine Footmarker was indeed Maughan’s mother. Of genteel but lower origins than suited John’s father and without money, the marriage was forbid and it was though she died. But she turned up in Cornwall. Again with no explanation we see that though once John Killigrew loved her and treated her son well, he had learned to hate her for standing for what he had lacked (the courage to marry her) and in the end did him in (his desire for pomp, luxury, the world’s admiration, power). Katherine Footmarker saved her son a number of times, taught him medicine — Maughan has a Dwight Enys side.

While these shattered and half-ghost heroines were probably not meant to function as sympathetic heroines for us to bond with in the later books, in this one re-read that is how they emerge — along with Meg who solaced and saved Maughan when young. We might think of Sue as the equivalent of Arabella in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (or maybe Sue herself). Why do I say this? I surmise another heroine would have emerged in a second volume of “the Killigrews.”

I began to see too that the deeply enjoyed ritualistic Christmas festival that occurred in the opening of the book and repeated as ever sadder lost moments as the book proceeds was to be brought back again at the opening of the next. In the Poldark books these seasonal moments of gathering characteristically occur at the books’ close

Irish coast where 1st Armada ships crashed

The book also does come most alive when set in Cornwall. Then we get these evocative descriptions of land, weather, the passing of time


Walter Ralegh and his son, painted 1602

The book has a sort of surprise final conclusion in its very last pages, one which we don’t foresee but when it comes seems what was to be expected. What else could Maughan do now?. Maughan marries Sue but in an atmosphere of intense disillusion, bleakness, dissrust. As with Clowance finding out that Stephen Carrington had been such an egregious liar, their marriage was even bigamous ((Poldark Twisted Sword), so Maughan discovers that Sue knowing he was alive went ahead with her marriage to the older man who now dead has provided them with far more money than she admits — we see this in the house they move into. She insists he break with Ralegh and his old Cornish familial connections as the price of her body (in effect). He could hold on, but he sees how tenuous is Ralegh’s hold, if not the place as a servant to Ralegh’s wife that he was offered. Does he want to stay in Cornwall? how ambitious is he? Enough. He also decides to leave apparently to escape the tragedy of his father and step-mother’s home. It’s taken over by a new daughter-in-law, calculating hard.

I had thought Sue in type like Graham’s Elizabeth Chynoweth, but I’m wrong there; she’s a character in her own right, keenly ambitious and amoral and not likely to tell Maughan the truth when it doesn’t suit her. At first Sue seemed merely prudent or cautious in the manner of say Graham’s Clowance, but her determination to make Maughn work for a man he distrusts and despises (Howard, and we have seen with cause — Howard threatens Maughan with his reversion to Catholicism to avoid torture, starvation, execution by burning); Sue’s willingness to use a threat of marriage to another man rather than Maughn rather reminds me of Elizabeth (see especially Part 5, Ch 8, pp 452-54). Sue thinks she is going to get more power, money, prestige, and forgets the full bargain is Arundell will end up owning her and she becomes subject to him as happened in the Warleggan-Elizabeth marriage. But she is also Rowella (Four Swans) ruthless sexually too.

There are moments at the close where Maughan reminded me of John Ridd in Lorna Doone.

This bleakness of the wedding ceremony for Maughan is replicated in his having taken the position with the Howards that Sue demanded Paradoxically it does seem she is right: he must sever himself from Ralegh if advancement is his aim. The Howards are going up and in history (Graham points this out in his historical note) the Howard who hires Maughan was part of the party of Britishers who rode to Scotland to invite James VI of Scotland to become James I. Ralegh is in the Queen’s favor as the book ends, but we have seen enough to know it won’t last; he can’t resist participating in deluded slaughters (another has just occurred over near the West Indies with nothing gained again). But Maughan is uncomfortable with these treacherous types around Howard, and alas, I do see this Howard is presented as homosexual and Graham makes this a real count against him. This bigotry of Graham’s would hurt him much today among an intelligent readership.

This kind of ambiguous ending is typical of the Poldark books only then we usually have an uplift of a final scene of acceptance between Ross and Demelza so it’s not so bleak except in Black Moon. There is no such scene here. The father is dying probably (he did in history). From the last sentence of the book it does seem as if Graham wanted to carry on with this book as another in a cycle, but perhaps its reception deterred him. As I say, he seems unaware the complaints couched as objections to his historicity are really aimed at his undermining the ‘glorious’ view of history perhaps common to historical novels. The one battle we do experience is mess of death, chance, destruction, misery (the attack on Spain which succeeds only like many war attacks gets nothing). They do it because it’s there said Philip Sidney then.

Not that Maughan is blamed for turning himself to participate in the conspiracy or his Catholicism — though he feels intense remorse upon remembering how he turned his mother out in the last pages of the book and was insufficiently active on Dorothy’s behalf. He abjured as soon as he could, but we see he is going down the road to compromise and corruption once again, led partly by his sexual appetite and desire to have a woman, a home, someone to cling to.


Godolphin House, Cornwall, a building from the later 16th century (photo from Graham’s Spanish Armada, a book as much about Cornwall as the Armada)

The book is more like the first type of fiction he defined as the types he defined in his Poldark’s Cornwall: where historically real people are central. Books 1-7 of the Poldarks are all fictional people within a real setting; Books 8-12 have real people appear but not central.

Graham’s historical fiction is as relevant today as it was at the close of WW2 when he first turned to the genre. When Maughan is imprisoned, he is for a long time put in solitary confinement. We see him go more than mad, deteriorate, nearly die. It has now for the first time reached public consciousness how cruel these ordinary (yes) procedures in US prisons are. Like his dramatization of disability in the Poldarks, Graham presentation of imprisonment, captivity afterwards and why people betray others is ahead of his time.


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Susan Graham sang & acted Dido magnificently (Berlioz’s Les Troyens)

it’s not over until the soprano dies

Dear friends and readers,

Since this is 3 weeks overdue (the HD transmission of the Met Berlioz’s Les Troyens occurred January 5th, while we were in Boston), and the production was some ten years old and if not senseless quite, disappointing, I’ll keep to what was good and puzzling feebleness.

For me the opera came alive in the third act. The man who sang the lyric song opening it mourning about the coming journey and loss was poignant (either Iopas, poet at Dido’s court or Pathus, Aeneas’s friend or maybe it was Hylas a Trojan sailor so Eric Cutler, Richard Bernstein or Paul Appleby — the subtitles left something to be dseired). I can find no cast lists at Metopera.org; they are not made easy to find; I am shown where I can request a cast sheet, but that would take time. We didn’t get a cast sheet tonight as we were watching the night re-run. Then came Bryan Hymel who sang beautifully and trembled with emotion as he acted the coerced Aeneas.

I can’t find a still of him alone which does justice to him: we do see Voigt to the side, and next to her the woman who sang Ascanius (very well, a mezzo).

Susan Graham also came into her own. She finally commanded the stage which had been mostly silly — boxes and pieces of wood were everywhere throughout the opera and the backdrop illuminated bunches of wheat-looking objects. The last act was relatively bare and dark for a good deal of the time.

I thought of Catherine Clement’s Opera, or the Undoing of Women, and when I came home today read the section of heroines who die on pyres. Such heroines sing out their resistance to losing. They lash out against all Rome stands for (think of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, of the cold ambitious Augustus in Antony and Cleopatra). They refuse to be disdained. The betrayal of all that makes life worthwhile is before us, burning burning burning. Or going up in suggestive smoke — as in this feeble production by Francesca Zambello who utterly failed to articulate why she did what she did more in her interview during the intermission. What was wanted was some sense of how she viewed the 19th century transformation of Virgil.

This final scene almost made up for the intermittent failure and absurdity of the other 2/3rds of the opera.

Until then there had little inward drama compelling the scenes. I’m not sure why it is that the opening act with a fine Cassandra (Deborah Voigt) failing to warn her lover, Coroebus (a fine distinctive voice — Dwayne Croft?), that Troy is about to be destroyed; and after it is so destroyed (off-stage with people running backwards and forwards on bridges on stage, round and round), Cassandra persuading the women of Troy to commit suicide — was so flat, a matter of going through the familiar motions. It just lacked any projection of passion. The New York Times agrees but doesn’t try to figure out why. The fantastic horse was effective visually, but a paper-mache mechanical is limited in its emotional effects even when lit up by purple light and surrounded by spears in interesting geometric patterns.


The second act turns the stage into this decorative Arcadia (complete with streamers as in a party) which is supposed to stand for paradise. Eventually glass greenhouse with plants in it surrounds the characters. Dido is all benignity and strength among her family members and court; Aeneas arrives, the familiar love story ensues.

The boxes and pieces of wood come in all forms and types — this is from the second act

The whole of the history of journeys, the past, identities is reduced to a love story. The greenhouse is taken away and we have a make-shift throne where Dido and Aeneas with courtiers and relatives near by sit down (for all the world as if they had taken refuge in the Nutcracker) to watch at least 45 minutes of dance and ballet. It being well after 10:30 pm I fell asleep. Probably the dancing was good, it just went on for too long. In the 19th century productions the two dances would have occurred at separate points in the opera. I woke up to listen to the soaring love exchanges between Hymel and Graham as Dido and Aeneas, he abandoned, she melting.

But duty — as we all know — intervenes. And the next act opens up with huge sails all over the stage (against which the two male arias described above are sung). These are pulled off like so much curtains to reveal a great circle on the wall and the pyre — covered with the usual boxes and pieces of wood.

Here the boxes were differently wrapped

The opera needs to be re-produced, re-thought completely. I don’t know what one is to do with all the vast choral numbers which do seem to go on and on. This is an opera where the composer has been overtaken by the presence of the super-ego who as chorus appear in piles of bodies, or crowding the stage, or in rows, often in ridiculous costumes with funny hats. Maybe ruthlessly cut them down. I rather liked the use of whitish ghostly cosmetics and costumes for Coroebus, Priam, Hector and Cassandra in the last act probably because each was carrying a wide bowl of fire which cast an odd gleaming light on them, but in the earlier part of the opera where the outfits were left in ordinary bright light, they seemed something left over from the outside of a vaccuum cleaner.

I do tire sometimes of the inane interviews. Joyce DiDonato is becoming an more animated interviewer but she spoke at the level of “how exciting it all is.” Some time or other I should count how many times the word “exciting” is uttered to substitute for content. And the hype. No one can do an opera “like this” “but the Met, only the Met” has the resources. Fabio Luisi injected a little content when he said the opera was formal and Berlioz imitating Gluck but as he didn’t explain himself that did not get us very far. And the idiotic pop psychology as explanations for how they are doing the characters grate as substitutes. When the interviewer and singers do come to talk of the singing, then conversation can become realer. Or when they speak generally of a a change in production where when the decor is modernized or turned into “Euro-trash” (half-satiric) the general slant of the character changes. Maybe the Met has the worst talk in interviews of all the HD opera companies we now see.

It has been a genuinely cold day and as before when we came to the opera re-run, the theater was nearly empty. HD opera is not popular when it’s not also live at the same time. Maybe 15 people at most. During the first intermission we talked with a Swedish couple near our age. They seem just to have started coming to the HD operas and wondered how we had found out about it originally. “The Net” I said. “Ah!”, they were not much on it. When we said the opera (up to that point was oddly passionless), they said we should go to Eastern European operas. Just deplorable. As the second intermission began (audiences are friendly in these HD movie-house presentations), I heard someone say it had become very frigid outside and started to snow lightly. I’d say over half the audience left after the second act, so for the third act there were at most 6 people (including Jim and I) in the audience. They thus missed the best part of the opera, what was worth the seeing and hearing. In our area the Metro does cease around 11:30 pm. We had our Jaguar which does not do well in snow, but we stayed because Jim does so love opera and we were rewarded with that final powerful act after all.


Coming out at midnight, all was quiet. I tripped along as lightly as I could in my ballet slippers in the snow showered parking lot. We drove super-slow home, round-about where we could avoiding hills (stayed on flat blocks). It’s good to feel and see some winter (as long as you are not homeless) and the pussycats were glad to see us when we got in. They were entwined with one another not far from the grates where the heat comes out in our house.


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Ethel: “Mrs Hughes said we all have lives to lead but that isn’t true I’ve got no life I exist but barely … No I don’t, I don’t have a life … “

Opening still of Anna (Joanna Froggart) understanding there’s again no letter from Bates

2nd sequence of shots: Bates (Brendon Coyle) made to understand there’s again no letter from Anna

From last stills of episode: juxtaposed superimposed montage moments of both with their cherished letters

Dear friends and readers,

This was a another powerful episode. Framed by interwoven sequence of the unprovoked abysmal misery of our its first shots, Anna again not receiving any letters from her husband in prison (“it’s been weeks”) and (the 2nd sequence) Bates in line made to understand there is nothing for him, and its last shots, first Bates, then Anna, and then both superimposed as they read their letters and feel the presence of the other through the power of letters, it presents four direct attacks on vulnerable in effect powerless people, the attack orchestrated as much by the person the attacked person finds him or herself turning to as the people who mounted it — because they could.

While (as with many novels seeking a wide readership), enough is given the viewer to take the establishment point of view in each of the crisis confrontations and side with the person disdaining, scorning, excoriating, depriving the vulnerable down-and-out person, the way each is presented and the ceaseless reinforcement (one of Downton Abbey‘s strength is its lack of subtlety) of the super-comfortable (supposed at least identifying with) privileged rich type, the whole emotional trajectory of the circumstances we are given (Ethel gives up her beloved child, Tom sick with worry yet frantic to avoid the prison the episode makes clear will be a horror, even if it doesn’t end in torture or execution) makes us side with the wounded, those the very structure of the society as such, its norms turns into a victim.

Occupying (what a wonderfully resonant word this has become) the climax-into-denouement position (just the place where Edith was humiliated in the previous part), we have the powerful encounter of Ethel again with her son’s grandfather who seems to regard her as subhuman. Like Edith’s, we could say the moment has been building for at least a season. In this episode after yet more shots of Anna’s desolation, Mrs Crawley approaches Mrs Hughes to tell her that Ethel wants to see them; phase 2 gives us the scene between Mrs Hughes and Mrs Cralwey’s at Mrs Crawley’s house where Mrs Bird, the housekeeper treats Ethel like someone contaminated and the two older women concede that Ethel has been driven to where she has no future (nothing can be a goal) and agree to ask the Bryants to see her and her son again; culminating in phase 4 Ethel’s walk to the house with the child, the scene where she gives him up rather than take the meagerest of stipends all the while watched, and the close of her walking away and both women now to help her cope say she did the right thing. Here Mrs Crawley’s face is enough to show it ought not to be:

Ethel (Amy Nuttal) in the blurry distance Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) just out of view

“There’s no turning back now for Ethel” says Mrs Hughes. And she’s partly right. It’s not that Ethel has no life, but that she has a lousy one. Because there was no decent job for her outside service.

In the same phase 4, we finally learn that the reason Anna and Bates are suffering is simply that the warden had taken a dislike to Bates. Perhaps he seemed too unhurt, too steely, well, as a mate tells him, the warden now dislikes Bates’s mate, and so means to plant evidence in a cell against Anson. Bates asks the man why he is helping Bates; the man says he detests Anson too. Certainly breaks any providential patterning, no?

Less centered, but given far more and lengthy scenes is the flight of Tom and then Sybil Bransom from Ireland during the early days of the troubles (it’s 1921 now). There is a problem here. Film is a surface art and makes it effects rapidly but we are 1) not given enough to experience with Tom why for him such places as Downton Abbey

are different for me. I don’t see charm and gracious living. I see something horrible …

There perhaps needed half an episode or at least a montage of the hovels the Catholics live in, some sense of the lack of any right or power for Catholics to change the law and situation. Probably Fellowes despite demurs and self-defenses (in the second book produced by his daughter, The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, he responds to critics trying to show he is not the reactionary neanderthal they have been describing) cannot accept that if not direct violence the threat of it, felt, is what makes entrenched orders compromise, give up some of their luxuries and in Lord Grantham’s shocked tones about “private property” attacked (!) there is an incisiveness even the Dowager fails to inflict.

Fellowes nonetheless shows us how Grantham not shows a complete lack of imagination except when it comes to the wealthy’s suffering (as does his daughter, Mary). It’s very irritating the way Grantham lights into Tom — no understanding of what the Anglo-Irish did at all, no memory it seems and excoriates him as a coward for his leaving Sybil behind but then we discover Grantham is seriously undermining the family by not facing up to his real income. During the course of the episode Matthew discovers the huge sums he has given into Downton will be lost because of Grantham’s mismanagement (too big a staff is part of it). We have seen seen how unscrupulous both Mary and the Dowager were to get their hands on yet more of Mrs Leveson’s “late husband’s money” as she puts it. If Grantham does not know he is “in a harsh world,” it’s because he’s laid his hands on money he never earned. Matthew does not dare it seems bother him and uselessly goes to the Dowager; Julian Fellowes says in The Chronicles he has made Lord Grantham a dullard.

Tom is outnumbered. Like Ethel, all around him reject him, including Sybil who he had to lie to about going to his political meetings. She cannot understand his desire to return to Ireland and help. “Our child” she cries in these solemn tones. Unlike Grantham, Tom expresses some remorse, gratitude (but then he needs these people). This thread opens in medias res with Sybil phoning Edith from a public phone and Edith not beginning to comprehend, but unlike Mary and her mother has a vexed fretting face

Sybil (Deborah Findley Brown) phoning

Edith (Laura Carmichael) offered “reasonable” explanations by Cora, her mother and Lady Mary

The man we have just seen fleeing a policeman on a bike in the dark

Tom in flight

interrupts the fine dinner the family is offering the bishop (with nearly full staff, two men, Alfred supposed to be head footman ends up competing with the new lower footman, James, who will serve meat and who the vegetables). The counterpart to Mary’s imperturbable savoir faire and quick lies to the bishop (a “silly” man at the door) grated; this kind of hypocrisy, the covering up is in the kitchen given over to Mrs Hughes. Thomas observes Tom had no money (“he hadn’t got it for a cab”)

Mrs Hughes: ‘Maybe he [Tom Bransom] fancied a walk?’
Miss Obrien: ‘Yes that’s it I should think he loves a night’s walk in the pouring rain without a coat’

Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) with Mrs Hughes again just out of sight, Daisy (Sophia McShera) in blurred position

It’s insufficiently appreciated how Mrs Obrien plays a similar role to the Dowager (Maggie Smith), maybe because the lady’s maid’s riposte have a bite or gravitas the Dowager’s lack. In The Chronicles Fellowes insists he loves Miss Obrien at the same time as he insists he’s got the type of woman who became a lady’s maid right. Not having his background I can’t say. We was offered by an intelligent member of one of my listservs this insightful analysis:

The older woman is Lady Grantham’s personal maid, and apparently wishes the lady were dead, for when the lady is on the point of death, this servant is so seized with guilt and remorse over
wishing her dead that she tends her tirelessly night and day (at least that is how I remember it). This servant really is the prostitute with the heart of gold. She really does buy into a social order, in her heart of hearts, in which the the lord and lady mimic the role of kind and queen–mystical creatures that is sinful to wish dead.

On first viewing I thought the low point came in the fourth thread: Edith goes to her grandmother (will she never learn?) for empathy, to be told “quit whining” (a favorite word for Charles Krautheimer, among the most odious of the “intellectual” republicans); this from the woman whose mockery made Strallan crumble and reinforced that humiliation scene. In the book Fellowes makes his parallel of Anna with Edith explicit. He begins with how Mr Bates is a much older man, also lame. Fellowes does not go on to say that Anna is not driven away because she is not regarded as equally valuable, equally able to “get something better” in the marketplace, but that’s a central difference between them.

I don’t mean to be too solemn about the Duchess or offer an analysis appropriate to a Victorian novel. She is a comic type. I concede the Dowager cannot do much harm while everyone is so rich, but were anyone to follow her advice they’d lose any hope of an authentic existence. Her candid honesty about her motives and behavior is that of the jester. It’s to be noted we told nothing about her earlier life — compare Trollope’s Aunt Stanbury (He Knew He Was Right) whose earlier life is thoroughly gone into

Fellowes understands that we are not intended to take the Duchess like a character in a novel; Downton Abbey is closer to a filmed play. In the scene where Tom is called upon to explain how he could have sided against the people in the great house (Mary says she came out with the daughter!), the Countess persists in her witty idea that the Irish were quite right to burn such a hideous house down.

The dowager saying no one ever liked that house (Maggie Smith)

Lord Grantham: ‘This is not helpful, mama.’

Edith does come up trumps by writing to a newspaper against the disapproval of everyone around her (like Tom and Ethel). “Thank you for the vote of confidence” says Lady Edith to her father who settles the question of her attempt to be a writer to newspapers with “she’ll never be published.” Unexpectedly her article is published,even with a comment. Chance? it hit the right spot that moment.

Matthew congratulates Edith, but like his mother his willingness to buck the powerful and stand up for what he perceives is good is limited. In the scene with Mary in the nursery she wants to turn into their sitting room, his gestures, intonation, facial blenching reminded me of Robert Bathurst playing Strallan.

Matthew (Dan Stevens) losing out against the oblivious Mary (Michelle Dockery)


So what does it all add up to? Am I arguing that after all Downton Abbey is subsersive art. No. I am showing how it works and why it grips those of us who watch on.

Very few shots of the abbey in this part and always in the shade, looking dank at the bottom

The way to understand a film is to capture the shots one by one. The shot is the word of the film, and the sequence of stills the sentence. Meaning arises from a Barthes-like response to mise-en-scene, which is worked on arduously from teams of people in production and costume design, the director, the actors, each nuance studied. Fellowes has no text he is adapting, and reminding me very much of another politically conservative adapter who did books apparently close to Fellowes’s heart, Trollope’s Pallisers, Fellowes has little filmic intertextuality. We can’t find out what is the ethical perspective as we can from some films by looking t other films comparatively and it is not sophisticated filmically. Few flashbacks, hardly any voice-over. The montage which ends Part 4 is unusual. Historical accuracy in it is used to provide enough verisimilitude but the way we are brought into the world of films is through readily available archetypes which cut through its veneer of a past into the present of the viewer.

Here and there in The Chronicles (as Fellowes did in the first book, The world of Downton Abbey) Fellowes does cite a book or an actual case or story in a newspaper at the time. Bates and Anna’s story is partly founded on a real life trial of a man named Harold Greenwood accused of poisoning his wife to death with arsenic who as gotten off by a brilliant lawyer — and Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (pp. 237-38).
But these only give local direction.

What it does not do is deliver simplistic cant on how to live or how to take our lives. And much that is there can be extrapolated this way and that.

In this part new threads and new characters move into the community. A handsome new footman, Jimmy Kent, whom Thomas is clearly attracted to, and who has been used to having women (it seems) “beg” him to stay with them

“You know what women are” Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) is saying to Mr Carson who replies he expects he does not the way James does

Daisy wanted a servant “underneath” her to do the hard work, but Alfred who Daisy fancied is attracted by her — maybe the way women are is more complicated than Jimmy surmises

They fit the themes of 3:4 as a whole. When you have little of what many people want or admire, you can be sideswiped by the very event you longed for. Jimmy for nothing he ever deserved is taken on. Told by Carson one of the candidates is handsome, sight unseen, without a second thought, Lady Mary says oh do take him on, such fun for the maids. But not much for Alfred who finds himself displaced. Thomas looks charmed too (so no snake-like attacks from his corner). When the two are serving at table and Edith says we must not let Alfred be overshadowed by the new butler, Carson sententiously replies:
“Hard work and diligence weigh more than beauty in the real world, my lady.”

We’ll let the Dowager have the last word here:


“If only that were true.” Amen.


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Maria Suarda (Joyce DiDonato) helped up scaffold by (Jane) Anna Kennedy (Maria Zifchak)

Dear friends and readers,

A grim and somber production, I think highly original. Joyce DiDonato’s singing and acting as the bewildered queen (probably was the sympathetic interpretation) was magnificent. She drew out the notes so slowly (there was a robo-camera at the bottom of the stage and many close-ups) that you could watch her face change as her notes changed, and Elza van den Heever perfect in her role as wary, driven, haggard Elizabeth (I will use the familiar Englished names). While the tenor, Matthew Polenzani as Leicester sang well, the way this was acted made him superfluous, irrelevant, this was no love tragedy. The one strong male who seemed to matter was Matthew Rose as the jailor-comforter of Mary, Talbot. The clash was of two women who don’t understand one another at all, shout insults, one murderous (Elizabeth), the other intensely persuaded she should be queen (Mary).

Elza van der Heever as Elisabeth (note the pants under the skirt) sneers at Joyce diDonato as Mary

The production design and matching costumes (David McVicar and John Macfarlane) are not at all called for in the libretto. A key quality in Donizetti- Bardari’s concoction is it’s all surface. The psychology doesn’t quite make sense, there is no depth there. And all the politics are removed. So McVicar and Macfarlane made a masque for our era and then Joyce DiDonato poured herself into it. It opens in what we were told was a version of the globe and there were acrobats on a high stag- like rise.


The space soon seemed a abstract court scene all reds and blacks. Elizabeth takes coarse teasing in good stead and is persuaded much against her will to meet with Mary. The scene then morphed into a symbolic forest, bleak, cool colors where Mary is walking with Hanna and her ladies. Then the royal hunt is heard and the encounter (never happened in history because Elizabeth knew better than to do this) which in the play goes very badly. 11 years pass in the intermission.

It was the second act that made it. It opened with an aging trembling Elizabeth, nearly bald, waiting for her ladies to finish trussing her up in a heavy gown with hideous red wig.

The woman politician being made up

This becomes a scene in a throne room where the rise of the first scene is now a table. Here she is pressured, but also wants to sign Mary’s death warrant by Cecil (Joshua Hopkins). Unlike Schiller’s Elizabeth, she is not torn about executing Mary. The room turns into a prison with the wall of graffiti.


The table comes up to later the bottom rung of a scaffold as the scene turns into a black box stage. And then very long, drawn out, Mary in prison told she is to die, Mary confessing to Talbot, Mary adjusting her mind, the choral scene of grief and lamentation (the music like a funeral march), and then Mary comes out again bare-headed in red, jeered at sotto voce by Cecil but allowed to voice her supposed forgiveness of Elizabeth, and then long slow prayer song and then with Hannah up to her death.

I can see why it was not done and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was. Anna Bolena is an action-packed play with light moments and certainly much romance in comparison. It was not until our time that this scripted opera can be played with people sitting there unsurprised. It had a checkered history on stage. It was supposed to be staged in Naples in 1834 but censorship issues got in the way (the execution, the two women clashing so calling each other whore, harlot, illegitimate). The two first singers got into a physical fight too. It was performed in a much milder version but that didn’t go and then at La Scala in its original script which disappeared pretty quickly. It was seen as very lurid. Revised according in 1865 it still was not acceptable (from Program notes by Helen M. Greenwald).

It really brought to mind other executions; we have become a society attuned to politicians murdering one another again, a world of prisons, people in them for years on end, and the powerful and newscasters delivering all fake performance before cameras. It may be said the contrast is in my mind (Saddam Hussein does not go out praying but cursing) but not the spectacles we see on TV where of grave opponents or treatise-signers, and lawless murder in the background. I thought of Marie Antoinette so dignified, but also the contrast somehow: Madame du Barry dragged out of her house to be guillotined when an old lady and ferociously fighting and cursing to the last moment.

Elsa van den Heever as Elizabeth wore high-heeled boots, first white then blood red mannish clothes. Under the wide skirt were heavy pants; she stalked about like a man. I really expected her to appear in armor with a assault weapon at any time. I liked the way Elizabeth was re-conceived, she was vital, not marmoreal. There was understanding for her, compassion when she looks so bad. Joyce DiDonato was all severe femininity. Not sexy but let’s say in the equivalent of a black pants suit. The white stomacher a version of a tailored blouse. She gradually moves to all black, until the last scene in a red gown (Mary is said to have worn one). Both auburn hair, both age intensely, Elizabeth looking haggard, bitter, ghost-like with semi-bald head before she has the wig put on in the opening scene, and Mary become someone continually shaking, distraught; she takes her auburn wig off when she comes out just before she climbs the stairs to her death. The parallels of Elizabeth putting on the wig and Mary taking it off effective. Under the wig a real women, the wig a kind of crown. At the close Mary was all regret, all humility, all loss, heroic visionary victim.

Maria StuardaJoyceDidonatoblog

The theater crowded, and audience was pleased — some from conversations I overheard surprised to be so. But I also heard people discussing the characters in ways that showed me few people knew the history and this might (like many a bio-pic) just serve to mislead them further. The real Machiavel of Mary’s downfall is missing in most fictional retelling (except in Scott): James Stuart, Earl of Murray who became Regent once Mary came to the English shore. He outwitted her with ease. The historically real Elizabeth was in fact a good politician and wanted peace, and not to spend money. She hesitated at marriage and was right. She would have lost her independence and thus power. Leicester loved Leicester and had hoped to be king. It’s possible he had his first wife killed (see Scott’s Kennilworth).

The historically real Mary continually made bad decisions; her love life comprised and made her vulnerable to charges. Her choices were stupid (Darnley) or macho male adventurers (Bothwell). It was egregious folly to plot to kill Elizabeth while imprisoned by Elizabeth. In the 18th and 19th century Mary was the beautiful glamorous victim (from Lee’s Recess, through Scott and Schiller), her glamor allowing men and women to find her alluring and her supposed power attractive, and Elizabeth was the jealous Machiavel old maid. Bette Davis’s mid-20th century towering ambiguous character turned into a political figure in the Glenda Jackson series; and this has developed into the feminine semi-pathetic dignified figure that Helen Mirren played. 21st century: Elizabeth is softened into a pure lover first of Leicester and then Essex; Most recently in a popularly costumed version we have the new romance: Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Barbara Flynn as Mary.


Well this Met production is not romance, it’s a new opposition, a political allegory. So a must-see.

Peter Gelb may say he chose to do Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Met (never done there before) because he wanted more Bel Canto opera because that extends the repertoire, but it seems to me not a coincidence the really original production (not at all called for by that libretto) made the play relevant to our time. Two years ago Izzy and I saw Schiller’s Maria Stuarda in a WSC production, twinned with a semi-free adaptation of Shakespeae’s Richard III. The WSC brought out direct parallels between the characters in both plays and politicians’ treachery & barbarity today, and while Donizetti changed Schiller’s play by making Leicester a central love interest (the women are supposedly rivals for his love), and the 17 year old librettist, Giuseppe Bardari, simplified or made much feebler the words of the original play, still I think the parallels of cross-killing the WSC highlighted were in this Met production more subliminally.

The New York Times review; WQXR: a dark Maria Stuarda; and The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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Old photo from Making Poldark: Angharad Rees and Robin Ellis as Demelza and Ross looking out over the dangerous shores of their world.

‘Mr KilIigrew had been over once afore but the rent was not paid, so we was ordered to take all the doors off, and Mr Killigrew puts an hour-glass on a pole and says if they’re not out by the time the sand is run we’re to go on and put ’em out.’ –
     There were two white doves cooing in a cote.
     ‘Have our servants been left here since you came last!’
     ‘Aye. The house and furniture has been seized in non-payment and will all be sold. If we’d have left it Unguarded news would have got around, and other debtors would’ve stepped in and claimed a share.’
     I walked slowly into the house. Graham, Groves of Eagles

Dear friends and readers,

Since last I wrote I’ve been delving into the historicity of Graham’s 12th Poldark novel, Bella, re-read The Forgotten Story, set in Cornwall in 1898, perhaps Graham’s first historical novel since Graham wrote FS in the same year he wrote Ross Poldark, and am reading his historical fiction The Groves of Eagle, set in Cornwall in the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign. (Graham’s third other historical novel, Cordelia, is set where he grew up, Manchester, only it’s an imitation Victorian novel, i.e., set in the mid-19th century.)

I’ve also been re-enthused to write again and in this way seriously develop thoughts about, material for a novel or literary-critical book out of Graham’s writing and movies. I’ve met a person who wants to study and write about Graham intelligently as a writer of historical fiction writer and the originator of the material for the Poldark films. Someone else came to my blog, read my posting on The Walking Stick, and told me how to procure the film adaptation of it. The DVD is now on its way to my house. And I reread The Forgotten Story, a novel set in 1898 in Cornwall, written in the same year as Ross Poldark (1945), and am more than half-way through The Grover of Eagles, again Cornwall, this time later 16th century, for the first time. I found I couldn’t put The Forgotten Story down, and while Groves of Eagles does not compel me as much I am enjoying it.

Finally, this evening a United parcel person brought to my door the 3rd edition of Robin Ellis’s Making Poldark. It contains new material; more stills and photos from the two series, more about Ellis’s life since the 1980s, a discussion of why a third series was never made, and an semi-imaginary map drawn from the Poldark places and Cornwall. I surmise we could inscribe the town and places of Forgotten Story and Groves of Eagle onto it too. Ellis is coming to DC to Kramerbooks for a “book-signing,” and I wouldn’t mind going, but alas this Saturday we’ve a conflict: we’re going to Maria Stuarda with Joyce DiDonato.

When I compared this non-pompous paperback to the two expensive lavish books that have come out about Downton Abbey I saw why this series is neglected, kept alive really by a curious intense cult that has developed around the films and the continuing sale of Graham’s books. The Abbey is the book of the 1%, Poldark for the rest of us, really for the 47% Romney lied about, sneered at.


She [Patricia] tried to scream, but every time he [Tom, her husband, from whom she has separated herself] squeezed the breath out of her; and presently it began to dawn on her that she was fighting a losing battIe. Now she went suddenly limp and helpless. But the trick was played late. He only seemed to take her limpness for deliberate acquiescence.
     Scandalized, she began to struggle again, but more weakly, for her strength was partly gone.
     So it came to pass that Patricia, who had begun the evening flirting with Ned Pawlyn, ended it in the company of her husband. Had Tom Harris been more of a brute the encounter might have gone further than it did. Patricia, for once in her life, was really frightened, for she did not misread his intention. Love can so change that it becomes instead a fusion of hatred and desire. That was what Tom Harris found.
     But unless the change is absolute, it can injure but it cannot wilfully destroy. That and something in the fundamental relationship between civilized man and woman finally stood in his way.
     Not, however, before she had paid in good measure for her deceit and resistance.
     He turned quite suddenly and left her there on the old couch, bruised and breathless and silent. She had never been so shaken up since she was three. The Forgotten Story, a climax occurring around same place as Ross’s rape of Elizabeth in Warleggan

Not quite marital rape, is it? Graham punts.

Rereading: The Forgotten Story has two deeply-felt characters who I care a lot about, a marital rape and a familial paradigm of sexual longings and murderous antagonisms. Anthony Veal, the young boy narrator abandoned by his father, through whose eyes the story is seen is deeply appealing with his honest and trusting nature, and his heroine-older cousin, Patricia, fighting to create an independent adult life for herself in type a Demelza. The character in the now lost or wiped-out mini-series, Forgotten Story was played by Angharad Rees. Anyone reading this who knows anyway I could possibly get hold of anything about it, let me know. I’ve been told writing the BBC gets silence in response.

The story of the abandoned boy left to the not-so-tender mercies of near relatives is found in the Poldark series: Ross, estranged from his father, but much more strikingly, Valentine, over-fathered and fatherless. Real rape and repeated sadistic rape in marriage is also in the Poldarks, murder of one’s wife for which the man is forgiven by author and text too.

Patricia becomes an outcast woman for defending her husband in a trial scene where the prosecutor brings out how she probably has another lover. She is shamed, called “whore,” and now vulnerable to all men’s advances. This moves towards Demelza’s adultery with Armitage, though Demelza never leaves Ross’s side so is not endangered.

The novel’s is derived from Graham’s experience as a beach warden in WW2: the news story which opens the novel turns out to be a much obscured prettied up version of the nightmare happenings in the novel. For everyone’s sake the hero and heroine bury the truth of what happened, but without this we can have no understanding of the events nor hope to prevent analogous ones in future. The underlying subversion is much that passes for history is distortion and what actually occurred deliberately forgotten.

Pendennis Castle, a drawing evoking how it looked in he 16th century

Reading for the first time: Groves of Eagles shows what a conscious artist Graham was. He’s changes his style to fit the later Elizabethan age: he does not write in pastiche, but rather modern English in more elaborate sentences, with a strong use of imagery. The historical background thick; this is the type of fiction where real historical important characters play a role, here Walter Ralegh who was a powerful Cornish man; in fact almost everyone in the novel has a historical counterpart, from Killigrews to Arundells. Even the central hero, Maughn Killigrew is based on someone, the bastard son of John Killigew, the tough squire in charge of Pendennis castle guarding a shore line of the Channel and the Atlantic. He is ruthless; himself he lives extravagantly, but he is merciless towards tenants.

Killigrew is also stern to his bastard son. Has him chained to a dog kennel at one point, with all the house hold forbidden to give him any food. For a full day and night. Keeps his distance from this son, apprentices him out to an impoverished life. Maughn by luck (and the author’s largess) manages to escape this. Graham enjoys making him amanuensis to Walter Ralegh, who I fear Graham admires too much — while knowing the man was a warrior pest type too. So again we have the estranged semi-fatherless hero.

Sex is again central and as is so common in Graham’s novels we have a married couple where the woman will not permit the husband to have sex with her (and he gently allows concurs), and the hero (like Drake Carne) finds Sue, a servant girl much beloved by him, in danger of rape by her master, and then married off to a much older man. Sue is without status, and in that a reincarnation of Demelza once again.

But now much older customs: the John Killigrew keeps his wife continually pregnant and is an open adulterer. It’s a very violent world filled with rough customs, humiliations and wild parties too; the lies and delusions of newspapers, Ralegh’s persistent fatal trips to find El Dorado, a final Spanish Armada are all part of the multi-year story. A woman treated as witch, Katherine Footmarker is a layman doctor (and like Enys, humble and good at it). She might be Maughn’s mother; if not, she knows who was (the boy’s mother is dead as was Valentine’s by the time he turned 6).

Drake (Kevin McNally) and Morwenna (Jane Wymark); Maugh and Sue in Groves of Eagle are just such another pair

As with all Graham’s historical fictions, when I pick either of these up and start to read them, I fall into them and can’t put them down.


An orangutan from Barbary — Valentine is said to have bought his Bhutto from a laser

In the Poldark and these novels however gingerly and sometimes punting, Graham is exploring our rape culture, the pathologies of sexuality in our culture. Ross and Demelza are almost unusual for having a “healthy” sexual relationship from start to finish. From Ross’s rape of Elizabeth to the sadistic nightly marital rapes of Morwenna by the Rev Whitworth (Graham is unusual for exposing clergymen this way), we see how people abuse one another and come to allow themselves to be abused. The Groves of Eagles more than the later novels has customs which encourage enslaving people in more ways than chattel slavery. It does not go into the kinky sex patterns of the Poldark books (Carrington, a bigamist preying on Clowance’s strength) because the heterosexual patterns are devastating enough.

The research I did into what was known of great apes and how people acquired them (all faithfully portrayed) for Bella persuaded me that Graham was combining his real empathy with isolated alienated people, no matter how twisted the culture had made them (Valentine, product of a rape, a father who would not own him, a dead mother, a violently jealous non-father) and disabled people. Butto, the orangutan was like a disabled person, who again like women in Graham’s novels are so vulnerable to destruction. Graham appears to have read some of the books of the era as well as modern studies of apes.


Poldark Country: a semi-imaginary map of Poldark places and Cornwall

Two very different kinds of things are desperately needed as sina qua non before anyone can begin to give these novels the kind of respect they deserve. To do this would help gain interest in a new film adaptation. But that’s by-the-bye.

The second is a handbook! Yes, a handbook. Ellis’s new Poldark book is pleasant, and it shows (the map above), he’s read the novels at least a few times. But it’s completely inadequate to what’s needed except as a symbolic reminder of the rich material before us. The first sign a writer has arrived, is respected on some level is the handbook. There is none for Graham. Among other things like literary history it puts things on a visible map. So who knows that a number of Hitchcock movies are adaptations (often misogynistic reversals included) of Graham stories. Another is he’s talked about in literary histories. Graham is ignored in high culture ones and does not make the cut for low culture ones either. Too “tame” (not sufficiently a macho-boy book), too realistic, and too leftist.

I find that I cannot remember many of the characters’ names beyond the really central males and females once I’ve put the novels away for a while. Many readers of Graham would probably like it, might even buy one that was packaged attractively. We need entries on mining, banking in Cornwall, smuggling, the courts, animals, poverty, landowning. Many areas need explanation.

I say second for this kind of thing comes out of the first. There is no space for discussing Graham in his complexity. Lots of great authors punt, are ambiguous, ambivalent, but Graham is in some intensely important areas of our society today. Actually one area he does not punt in is his presentation of disability and medicine.

For example, in the Poldark books Graham suggests that Ross spends the whole night with Elizabeth which would seem to suggest that if the sex was at first rape after a while she did join in, and then he wavers in the books. On the whole and especially towards the later books (when the child Valentine has grown up), he presents the act as rape, partly (I fear) to exonerate Elizabeth from having adulterous longings, but partly we are to take Elizabeth as complicit. It’s said in that he thinks had he showed up in the next week she would have openly gone away with him and he is shocked to see her rage the first time he sees her after her marriage to Warleggan.

A false myth used in books where the “chaste’ or central heroine has sex outside marriage or is rape is that she gets pregnant immediately. This is improbable but is a real stereotype intended to exonerate the woman. It works another way though: if she gets pregnant, the popular idea is that she enjoyed it because to get pregnant you have to have orgasm.

The nightly rapes of Morwenna are another matter. These are clearly profoundly abusive of her. She never walks right after; she has this shuffle. He has crippled her. This is not presented at all in the series; but she and Drake become wholly marginalized characters in the later books. That was a real disappointment to me. When he presents her finally yes he does not fake “healing” but he keeps them away from us. The TV show did not show Rowella properly at all: she is presented by as someone who enjoys sadism and masochism in the parson himself. They were probably very brave to show Demelza committing adultery.

Graham himself does this kind of punting in other areas. In Demelza Ross incites the riot; that’s clear. It’s clear in the talk before the trial, but by the time we are into the later novels this is denied. He colluded but did not incite or he was against it, never imagined a riot would ensure. In Demelza he needs the violence. He’s a real revolutionary a Jacobin who understand violence is what one sometimes has to resort to to overturn an established order. I didn’t go into that in my paper on Liberty but in the discussion afterwards among academics (who are themselves conservative) one women had presented a paper two historical novels which she liked because they showed the rebel hero compromising, not being violent ever, at all.

Trerice, a 17th century Cornish mansion, model for Trenwith

I really do long to know someone else who can with me begin to create a space in the “republic of letters” wherever, start a different kind of conversation on Graham as well as mini-series than I’ve encountered thus far. All I could think of for myself was 1) try another panel at an 18th century conference on historical fiction; or 2) write something for History Today.

Graham’s books have been cut off from real attention because of his original reception and the scorn still heaped on historical fiction (=women’s romance) and BBC “teatime serials” (a way of bad-mouthing the mini-series). He is also defined as regional, a regional novel and of course he followed his audience. Are you aware that Hitchcock paid him a big sum to leave off Graham’s name on the credits of a number of films that Hitchcock did? That’s in Moral, Tony Lee. Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2005. Filmmakers Series No. 95 which also contains a letter Graham wrote where he reveals his attitudes towards how his books were altered when they became films.

I have wanted to open another listserv on Yahoo — this one on Graham and his fiction, all of it. I would ask that everyone use their real names and make it clear we are not there to worship the first two mini-series — though my hunch is it’s the first that is most beloved. I know all the troubles and am not sure even how to open a list as I inherited all three I have. It can be time-consuming and I don’t have the time right now even to start. But as a future possibility I keep it in mind. I would be trying to see if we can find other people — they are there on that literary board and pop up now and again (rare) on the facebook page too. An odd sign of them is they read the mysteries too. If anyone reading this is someone equally interestd in discussing the books and willing to try for a list-serv of the type I’ve just outlined, please to contact me.

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth beginning to realize something of the horror her sister, Morwenna has known as a married woman


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The photo is by Margaret Cameron, the hat the one Trollope traveled in and the emails for him and his characters invented by me

Dear friends and readers,

It’s never too late. I’ve had a third official — published — review of my book, Trollope on the ‘Net, and I am so chuffed. Tyler Tichelaar alone took seriously and described “the other half” of my books, the part about my and other people’s experiences in cyberspace, mostly reading Trollope novels. That’s what’s revolutionary (as John Letts’s introduction says). I place as of equal interest and weight to that of scholars, the views of the other readers and myself on the list-serv the discussions occurred on between 1995-6 and 1997 (a majordomo list-serv managed by Elizabeth Thomson).

He’s placed it on his website: The Gothic Wanderer

and on the Amazon site where used copies are still for sale.

I’m so pleased by what he says in an immediate way when he refers to how Trollope is still denigrated as simply writing for money, not out of an irresistible powerful creative imagination. Just the other day on the Trollope Society face-book someone quoted Jane Smiley who had trotted out that prejudice: his routine shows he was was somehow mechanical. No one who has read Trollope’s books with their mind alive and experienced his characters, stories, dramatic scenes, narrator’s presence, just spilling over and intertwined could think this. One of the members of the face-book group quoted one of Trollope’s powerful descriptions of his experience of his imagination. I did try to counter this in my book — I’ve a chapter on An Autobiography as a book which contains a remarkable percipient description by Trollope of his own reveries: he had a pictorial dramatic imagination and would see a character in a dramatic scene identified as say “the brother” or “the sister” and from that evolve a situation, and from that a story.

I’m writing this blog partly to say I have about 3 boxes of the books left (maybe 36) from the original print-out beyond the ones sent to the members of the Trollope Society the year the book was published (2000). I’d be happy to send a copy to anyone for the literal cost of the book and postage ($15). My email: ellen.moody@gmail.com. Honestly it’s not for the money but because I’d like to make more people aware it’s about the Internet and takes an unorthodox view because of its dual context.

As Tichelaar says, this is not to say it’s not scholarly. The two official reviews — published — I had thus far paid tribute to that part of the book. In one of the yearly round-ups of Trollope studies, Mark Turner devoted two gracious paragraphs to it, like Tichelaar commending my chapter on Trollope’s illustrations of which I am (I admit) particularly proud since I did most of my original research there — including wonderful days spent at the Library of Congress examining over 460 illustrations. Many of Trollope’s novels were published in instalments and it was these that got the illustrations. They were a way of selling the numbers. Customers were attracted by putting some of the full-page pictures in shop windows. I am hoping to give a paper on these illustrations at a coming Sharp-l conference (fingers crossed). But he felt that the “other half” of my book got in the way, took up too much space. I’ve since been told by other scholars my opening chapter would traditionally place my outlook in the context of other scholars instead of placing it in the context of how I came to get on the Internet and lead reading groups. I held scholarly contexts off to every other chapter when after whatever book we read is covered, I put that book in its Trollope context (as Trollope’s Irish novels, or as Tichelaar, says his novellas, books under 300 pages of which Trollope was very proud).

A well-known illustration by Phiz for Can You Forgive Her?: see see Burgo’s casual generosity to the desperate beggar girl — this one was a favorite of John Letts and the frontispiece for my book

Margaret Drabble (astonishingly) read my book — she was a friend of Letts, and came to Trollope meetings, and she paid tribute to the readings of the novels. But she was amused at the Internet groups and thought reading on the Net might be like adult education. It’s not.

I call these official because they are not my only reviews. Since my book was published I’ve had letters and notes from all sort of people on the Net saying mostly kind things about my book. Occasionally someone has put a review of it on a list-serv. Like Jane Austen (and probably others) I’ve saved each and every one and have a folder of them (not that slender).

Nowadays the list-serv is called Trollope19thCStudies and is equally on other Victorian writers, and has been so (though the accurate name is recent) since around 1997-98 when Michael Powe opened a new list-serv on Yahoo, partly so that we could expand beyond Trollope. We moved four times: Mike handled it off of his own server; my husband ran the group using French software, but it’s very hard for individuals to keep up (as Elizabeth Thompson presumably found) and so we are back at Yahoo once again. And we carry on with Trollope too, and this past fall read Castle Richmond and starting in February we’ll be reading An Autobiography again. We are now only one of several groups reading Trollope: another on Yahoo (just called “Trollope”), several on the Trollope society site. I’ve been told of other Yahoo groups reading Trollope novels (19th century literature at Yahoo), I remember a third site I was told of (though not where it was). And there are other commemorative sites beyond mine: a teacher read the Barchester novels with her students looking for classical references. There are a mighty number of them, enough to keep high school students busy making a website: Apollo

In physical space, who knows how many library and home reading groups there are. The two Trollope societies (really one, but located on either side of the Atlantic, NYC and London) have lectures: one is coming up in February in NYC which I am now hoping to attend: Nicholas Birne on Trollope’s La Vendee (a book we’ve read twice in our Yahoo group.

Judge Staveley walking with his daughter, Madeleine: by John Everett Millais for Orley Farm, this is one of my favorite illustrations (Trollope loved Millais’s illustrations for this novel too) and is one of 24 positioned throughout my book

As Tichelaar notes, and I say as the opening statement of my website where I have much on Trollope: “Anthony Trollope is one of the greatest nineteenth-century novelists with who (oddly) the majority of readers come into contact on their own.” And in spite of the “rise” of minor and women writers, and changes in the canon which have helped Trollope’s reputation there is still a stubborn tendency to omit Trollope from syllabi except for advancd English majors and graduate students. I put it down to his original reception in part: he was not seen as the towering figure Dickens and Thackeray were, and his refusal to allow himself to write his fiction to a particular agenda. He is willing to buck his readers. In Dr Wortle’s School, he tells his readers he has a couple living together outside marriage so it they don’t want to read about such a pair, then shut the book. Trollope loves to be self-reflexive and ironically half-break the spell of reverie and tell us much of what’s going to happen at the end. We should read his novels for how a thing happens, not what.

The force bethrothal of Plantegenet (Philip Latham) and Lady Glencora (Susan Hampshire) from 1:1

I’ve grown to love the film adaptations of his novels, all of them that I’ve seen and written about them too. I find others love these films, especially the two mini-series, earlier (1974) Pallisers and (1982) Barchester Chronicles (alas only 2 of the six adapted). See He Knew He Was Right out of Moll Flanders.

But enough. As Shakespeare’s friends to whom we are so indebted for the plays, John Heminge and Henry Condell, say of Shakespeare,

read him … and againe and againe: and then if you doe not like him, surely you are in some manfiest danger, not to understand him. And so we leave you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can bee your guides: if you need them not, you can lead your selves, and others. And such Readers we wish him.

Trollope in his mid-40s, a rare photo

I like to think my book is one place where you will gain such understanding. It’s intended for his real readers wherever they are.


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Edith (Laura Carmichael) having a hard time breathing as she realizes the humiliation in store right then

Letting go

Exhaustion defeat

Dear friends and readers,

So what was it? What had this character done wrong to have unleashed at her such a level of spite, of raw humiliation that I’ve never seen equaled in kind before — and I’ve been watching mini-series for some 40 years? Before the whole community, people she must live with, a fever pitch of rejection. The question to ask is, Why is this character scapegoated so?

Jane Eyre’s horror when Rochester’s brother-in-law interrupts her wedding to Rochester to say there is an impediment, Rochester had a wife now living, pales before this. Nothing to it.

I’ve long been puzzled at the way Lady Edith Grantham is sneered at, mocked, by Downton Abbey audience members. Fellowes, again knowing writer that he is (remember he wrote Gosford Park, one of the most intelligent of the great house movies I’ve seen, to expose the hypocrisies of professed motives), has been feeding this maw for three seasons. For three seasons I’ve seen it emerge again and again. In little things: Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Lady Grantham is directed to roll her eyes when Edith speaks; Maggie Smith as the dowager and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Princess grimace knowingly. In the first Edith gave away that her sister, Mary, had been in bed with one of the show’s several lout-lords who died at the abbey; in the second Edith drawn to, fooled by a man masquerading as a hideous cripple. I thought perhaps Fellows had decided he’d whip-lashed Edith enough when in 3:1 he had Robert Bathurst as Strallan courageously break the taboo which allows mean tricks and expose one played on Allen Leech as Tom Branson by another lout-lord.

I mistook. I should have realized that the intrusive domineering demand that Edith not consider this man by the Dowager was an important sign. I’ve never liked Lady Bracknell (Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest), a witty bully, upon whom (Edith Evans) Maggie Smith may intuitively have modeled herself. Amusing cynic yes, like one of the old women Anthony Trollope is ever defending. She has the crass nerve to get up and insist what is happening is right and thus disable Strallan further (he crumbled because he overheard her making fun of his prowess to the chaplain):


She’s one of many in the DA world who thinks she has intimate rights over other people subject to her authority (some behave as if many others have intimate rights over them). The dowager couldn’t stand Strallan so Edith is thrown away with him. So what is wrong with him? Aristocrat, monied, kind, perceptive, offering “quite enough happiness” for Edith to be going on with (Lord Grantham’s words).

This gives us our first hint: what is wrong? he’s said to be too old and he’s got a crippled arm, masks, masks for not saying for he’s not manly enough, not macho enough, weak.

He fails to perform masculinity adequately. There you have it. And Edith, why is she a butt? She fails to perform femininity adequately. Jim was telling me tonight that he reads a blog which argues that the real electric power of DA (for those who are addicted) is it’s camp, and tonight he read there the offhand comment that some ludicrous star, inexplicably wrong in her garments, was dressed in the Edith Grantham style. Not Lady Mary Grantham. Not Lady Sybil, now Mrs Bransom (Deborah Findley Brown). Though they all dress alike.

Tom all awkwardness, Sybil turned dowdiness itself

So this hint is not sufficiently explanatory. This is not the first time I’ve asked myself what fuels the need to ridicule this young woman?

As I have before I hunted in three very good books on women’s films I have: Tania Modleski’s mongraph Loving with a Vengeange; and edited collections of essays by Marcia Landy (Imitations of Life) and Christine Gledhill (Home is Where the Heart Is). This time I wouldn’t give up. In previous hints I’ve found Miss Sarah Obrien (Siobhan Finneran): the villainess, spiteful domineering old maid; in 3:1 and 3:2 I tried to ignore her reversion to this role but in 3:3 she is not only wearing the ugliest of thick-cloth witch-like dresses, her face made up to look like pancake, her hair terrible. She is all menace. Daisy (Sophie McShera) tells Moseley she wouldn’t want Miss Obrien to be angry at her. In this episode Miss Obrien was outwitted by Thomas (he has also returned to smirking bad gay guy, narrow envious gay man Rob James-Cellier) who foolishly thought he could make her lose her job by telling (the now trembling) Molseley (Kevin Doyle) she meant to leave and directly Molseley to offer a relative as new lady’s maid to Lady Grantham.

I found Anna — long suffering, self-sacrificing nurse type. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), everyone’s well-meaning mother.

Trawl, trawl, trawl and then I saw it. Tania Modleski had it: no heroine is allowed to admit openly she longs to marry.

Is not this Edith’s flaw? in the first episode she became a Lawrentian-style farm girl to allure a man (whose wife put a stop to that). She wanted to love the crippled man. And what does she say when lying in her bed afterwards: not that she has missed a dreamed-of precious life, but that both sisters are married, one is pregnant and probably the other is. We have enough to see she does like him, but that’s not the emphasis here.

She wore her heart on her sleeve. She was open. She is indiscreet. Worse: she is inept at manipulation. She breaks code & for that and her exposure of the game she cannot be forgiven. Loneliness is a laugh among Judith Butler-style performers. Did anyone in her family, anyone downstairs feel for her? Anna Smith Bates (Joanne Froggart), in some ways an alter ego; it’s no coincidence Anna is Edith’s shadow in the last we see of Edith in this episode:

She tells Anna she wishes she had another life (something Anna ought to wish for if she had any real value for herself and her time)

Score high for Fellowes. I put it to my reader this scene will be remembered and imitated. It’ll be spoken of. You thought Downton Abbey was running out of dazzle, did you?


Mrs Hughes and Lesley Nichol as Mrs Patmore hestitate before going into doctor’s office

I had meant to show how each separate episode in a good mini-series will have its own structure and set of themes. I showed patterns in 3:2. Here, then we are looking at themes. As it’s a hidden dialogue (overheard) that defeats Strallan so this is an episode rife with hidden information and lies which have power to hurt, often enough known by people who do not realize their power. Thomas lies to Molseley and inconsistently Cora, Lady Grantham does not give Miss Obrien a chance to explain herself (“I am very hurt by your behavior”) while being all fairy-godmother goodness to Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes (“we will keep you” if you should become too ill to work). Daisy alone knows that Lavinia Swine (Zoe Boyle) sent a letter to her lawyer on the day she was dying and blurts it out, thus enabling Lady Mary to pressure Matthew to accept a legacy the family needs. Mrs Bartlett (Claire Higgins) may know the truth of Bates’s wife’s last hours. In the prison a friend warns Bates (Brendan Coyle) that a weapon has been planted in his bed and the police told; he is able to wrest it out of his bedding and hide it before the police rush in to search.

And so it goes. Lies, secrecy, silence — central themes in women’s books ever since Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

Preposterous scenes of virtue — central to women’s romance since heroic 17th century romance and rife in opera. So Matthew cannot bear to accept his legacy and when persuaded to, Lord Grantham will not take the money but share the abbey with his son-in-law who admits he likes living there. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) teaching sleazy sarky prostitutes to use sewing machines while they jeer at her. Fellowes’s disdain and hostile depiction of the lowest vulnerable members of society is not compensated for by Ethel Parks’s shame when she comes in for help (naturally not for herself) and again flees rather than tell her secret.

What are men and women allowed to do is presented as a genuine question. Not reveal their appetite, as Anna tells Daisy that makes men flee:

The lobster is a part of the mise-en-scene — perhaps a joke version of vagina dentata?

Not take it upon yourself to criticize the arrangements of those above you Mr Carson tells Miss Obrien’s naive nephew, Alfred (Matt Milne).

Of course this is drivel as a serious investigation of how to live your life. It is really what you want that shapes your choices. Edith did want to marry Strallan and be mistress of his estate, have his children. Now she wants another life but cannot see her way to any other. Lady Mary wants to stay princess of Downton and Mr Carson her butler. Lord Grantham does not want to lose face or status. Matthew no longer seems to want the independence he once did, and Tom Bransom has begun to wear dinner jackets — they both appear to want to please their wives.

IN Downton Abbey we can measure the characters by what they want at this point. Miss Obrien wants to get back at Thomas for insulting her as someone who was never asked to be married (how does he know she ever wanted to?) and threatening her job.

As usual I warm most to Mrs Hughes who appears to want to live on, quietly, with dignity, as self-supporting as her world will let her be. I would warm to Isobel Crawley if (like Edith but for very different reasons) her work were not the subject of such ridicule.

What kind of life do you want to live is a serious debate found in Victorian novels. When Jane fled Rochester, she was forced “to build a life.” When Mrs Crawley is trying to reach Ethel, she wants also to be frank (like Edith is intuitively) and uses the word “prostitute” of how Ethel is surviving, and says “you should know this is true of every woman who has come here to rebuild their lives and I’m helping them, and is re-echoed mockingly:

(A camp picture?)

That’s right. Why not come in and help us rebuild our lives?

I understand the sarcastic laughter. People act in terms of particulars, of their own landscape, and if they don’t have access to a milieu that allows for fulfillment on middle class terms, they don’t get it. So Ethel says, “That’s not why I’m here Mrs Crawley. That is I am … what you said but I don’t want help, not for myself but … ” and unable to face whatever it is, she runs off again. It’s not so bad with Edith as say Mrs Bartlett (a laundress) or these unskilled women or Ethel. Isobel says over dinner what Edith needs is something useful to do.

But it has been a viscerally searing day for her, and my goal in this blog has been to investigate why Edith is the episode scapegoat.


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Siobhan Finneran as Sarah Obrien looking at her nephew & realizing what she’s up against if she wants her nephew to succeed

Dear friends and readers,

I had meant to write but one blog a week on Downton Abbey, but discovered that the American PBS stations are not following the divisions of the British series and this past week presented two parts back-to-back. As when PBS cuts out parts of these films, so when they run them together, they obscure their patterns, themes and emphases. Part One was re-introduction where the viewer was remarkably quickly re-informed about who the characters were, and watched the season’s new premise

1) fuel the crisis scenes where characters have failed to cope (Lord Grantham [Hugh Bonneville] loses his wife’s money) or refuse to be co-opted (Matthew Crawley [Dan Stevens] is still struggling against his role as kept man, this time yet more distastefully because the source of the money is a dead deluded girl); and

2) fuel conflicts as some of the characters’ whole being is bound up with keeping what they can of the left-over ancien regime order of the pre WW! world (e.g., Lady Mary [Michelle Dockery], Carson [Jim Carter], Lord Grantham, Violet, the dowager [Maggie Smith]), while others want out (Matthew, Lady Sybil now Mrs Bransom [Deborah Findlay-Brown]), see it as punishing, excluding, cheating, pressuring them (Daisy Robinson [Sophia McShera], Tom Bransom [Allen Leech], Sarah Obrien), see what’s happening and don’t care as long as they can get what they want out of what’s to be (Lady Edith [Laura Carmichael], Mrs Hughes [Phyllis Logan], Anna Bates [Joanne Froggart]) or just knuckle under (Cora, Lady Grantham [Elizabeth McGovern]; Anthony Strallan [Robert Bathurst]).

This quite apart from how we are to view them ethically.

The richness of the series — what makes it compelling is the way these complexities are made to play out in the dramatic scenes and manifest in witty dialogue.

The first part ended not only in the wedding, but the immediate prologue to it: Daisy seeing that going on strike is useless, counterproductive and just plain silly (Thomas’s bad advice) and yielding to seeing Lesley Nicholl as Mrs Patmore was doing her best and all she could — she got her a raise of 12 shillings. We see them working together on the food and at the last moment rushing out to see the wedding too from afar (the reactionary lessons of the series never ceases):



Part Two shows the need of a third season to be fresh while keeping the community going. The world of Downton lost characters in the previous years to war (which itself provided much of the narrative thrust and events of the second year) or life’s attrition (Gwen Dawson got an office job, Sir Richard Carlisle [Iain Glenn] couldn’t integrate). So you need new characters or you bring a strong character back. In the aesthetics of soap opera characters may drift out of range and then drift back again.

Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley is still half-thwarted in her function as the program’s proofs that liberal solutions will not work. (Again Fellows’ politics is ceaselessly in evidence.) Mrs Crawley has now opened a clinic and employment agency for young women who have become outcasts. This allows Fellows to bring back Ethel whose rebellious spirits and burning desires will no doubt overcome her shame and unwillingness to kow-tow (compromise) to authority and conventional norms. Those of us who did watch last season know she had a small son and he needs to be accounted for.

Amy Nuttal as Ethel Parks lets Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley pass her by taking on a blank look (so as not to be recognized)

And thus we are hooked into next week.

This need to make the material compelling again may also be seen in Part Two where the idea seems to be to throw wrenches into our assessments and expectations. There is a real attempt to make us suspect that after all maybe Bates did murder his wife. Brendan Coyle is presented as a seethingly dangerous, menacing John Bates when Anna Bates is not around. The partnership of Thomas and Miss Obrien breaks down. Uncertainty replaces or is added to unease as part of the dominating mood. The Bransoms have gone home to a difficult life in Ireland. Will Lady Mary and Matthew really make it as a couple? Until near the end of the part, will Shirley Maclaine as Mrs Leveson again supply an enormous amount of money to keep this luxurious hierarchical life going for this privileged group of people?

A central thread with more episodes than any other: Mrs Hughes appears to have cancer; she and Mrs Patmore see the lump, feel it, consult the doctor repeatedly. Will she survive? In the touching close of the second part we see her and Lesley Nicoll who as Mrs Patmore has been her support and companionship walking off into the darkness:


Mrs Hughes: You just missed an admirer. Mr Carson said you did very well.
Mrs Patmore: Did you tell him?
Mrs Hughes. No. And what is there to tell? One day I will die and so will he and you and everyone of us under this roof. You must put these things in proportion Mrs Patmore, and I think I can do that now.
Mrs Patmore puts out her hand and touches Mrs Hughes’s arms and walks off the stage.
Mrs Hughes turns round, faces the camera steadily and then turns out the light

Ironically what is certain in this series so far has been death. For my part in Part One for me the most moving character was Mrs Patmore: it was when Anna left her alone to have her eye operation and she looked so anxious that I burst into tears. In Part Two I bonded with Mrs Hughes’s moral strength and loyalty when she helped Ethel and her Scots sceptical stoicism. When the character who I originally hated as a misogynistic fantasy and has now emerged as one of my favorites (I’ve grown to love her), Miss Obrien, tries to pressure Mrs Hughes into conforming with the rest of the kitchen and at least pretending to believe in an afterlife, ghosts, spirits,” Mrs Hughes replies: “Yes but I do not believe they play boardgames.” I now see Miss Obrien as a stand-in for the old deprived-governess character (always in sober clothes, not made up), single, perhaps unaware of her lesbian impulses (especially towards her lady as we saw when Cora became mortally ill).

As there is a resort to switching or casting doubt on our expectations, so the primal generic feature of soap opera is allowed to emerge: female desire. It’s powerful. What are these two episodes about, but women getting married? We have the iconic scene of the bride, the outfit, the walk down the aisle. The high point (or low depending on who you concentrate on) of the previous part when Anthony Stallan exposed the lout-lord (it’s curious how young high lords in this series have often been louts) Larry Grey [Charlie Anson], but now in this episode we think we are having a repeat of the thwarted romance that happened to Edith (with a crippled man who was an imposter) in the second season. Lord Grantham tries to break up Edith’s romance; he refuses to reward Stallon, and implicitly it’s his not being a macho male (the bad arm is the sign of this). AT the center we have this poignant moment when Edith begs her father to let her have what she really wants and is backed strongly by Mrs Leveson (one of her best moments).


The sentiment is undercut because we realize Lord Grantham is also motivated by a desire to please his mother-in-law in the hope of getting her money

Women are the operative force in this second part. From Mrs Leveson’s American maid, Reed (Lucille Sharp) who has an alerter eye than Obrien’s nephew Alfred (Matt Milne) and courts him:


to Miss Obrien goinng about trying to help Alfred when she gives Thomas a strong comeuppance by having the nerve to steal all his Lordship’s fancy shirts and putting them in a trash burner: Thomas’s fooling Alfred into burning a small spot on Matthew’s dinner jacket is petty stuff to this. Her intense desire to help her nephew shows her mother instinct. And she has all along existed on the other end of a spectrum to where the Dowager looks at the world, her sceptical wit is as good as Maggie Smith’s and she delivers her lines equally deadpan.

The palette of this part is dark, dark colors, a lack of light, downstairs and the prison are more frequently seen than upstairs which is itself often night-time.

The mini-series costume drama is easy and even natural to respond to as it imitates life’s rhythms through its exploitation of time and character bonding, but it is not easy to explain its complicated art: the weaving patterns and juxtapositions of the multiplot-structure with their climaxes in ritual group scenes (it need be no more or less than a dinner or shooting party or picnic)
become tedious when outlined. Its aesthetics and tropes are that of women’s art, which is often mocked. The gnomic advice of Mrs Leveson to Lord Grantham in the part’s penultimate scene is meant as much for women as it is for (a small class of people after all, Lords losing their money):

Mrs Leveson: You know the way to deal with the world today is not to ignore it. If you do, you’ll just get hurt.
Lord Grantham: Sometimes I feel like a creature in the wild whose natural habitat is gradually being destroyed.
Mrs Leveson: Some animals adapt to new surroundings. It seems a better choice than extinction.
Lord Grantham: I don’t think it is a choice. I think it’s what’s in you.
Mrs Leveson: Well, let’s hope what’s in you will carry you through these times to a safer shore.

And they drink to it.

Is it too much to see Downton Abbey as a habitus in Bourdieu’s sense: where we see dramatized from a woman’s perspective and art (the soap opera) “the lifestyle, the values, the dispositions and expectation of particular social groups that are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life.” As long as we read against the grain Fellows’s persistent reactionary lessons, which the dramatic form and characters provide much undermining of, I think it is.


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Sybil (Deborah Findley Brown) and Tom Bransom (Tom Leech) arrive

Dear friends and readers,

By way of saying I’m back from the Boston MLA I thought I’d blog briefly on the re-introduction of the serial costume drama, Downton Abbey. I watched it last night and found while there’s a change in atmosphere, basically to reflect the interjection of new presences at the Abbey and changes in people’s status, which creates agonies of embarrassment: Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) has a nephew, Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne) who she maneuvers into becoming a new butler; Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) wants to live along with Lady Mary and rid himself of his valet, (Joseph) Moseley (Kevin Doyle) who would then be out of a job, if Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew’s mother did not keep him on. There is much and intense distress when the cause of change is loss of money as we learn that Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has lost much of his wife’s money in a risky railway investment); and high quarreling between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) over Matthew Crawley’s (Dan Stevens) coming accession of wealth: Matthew is again by chance heir to a fortune he does want, but Lady Mary does as her understanding of her life’s worth is bound up with status, dress, ritual all of which require funds to keep up her and her family’s status. The scenes parallel and contrast to one another:

Cora comforts her husband as their bond is deep

Lady Mary bitterly accuses Matthew of not being on the “family’s side” — he’s not

Another arrival is Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) American mother-in-law, Martha Levinson who wants to know why her late husband’s money is now Mr Crawley’s (Shirley Maclaine looking so old, her face a mass of wrinkles and too heavily made up); she in as more of the same. It’s a remark that could be found in Pride and Prejudice as Lord Grantham’s marrying Cora is a take-off from the Trollope’s Pallisers, two works much in evidence in Season One.

The series had the same strengths: again depth of feeling, gravity of approach (respectful of each of the characters), exquisite attention to historical detail, fine acting, and above all, the serial nature — all the soap opera characteristics — of the experience itself. The above still tells it all: if we had not experienced two years of Sybil’s life and the very painful courtship and marriage to the Grantham Irish chauffeur, the vulnerable poignant feeling of Sybil and the exacerbated hurt pride of Tom would not make any sense. The gap in a year matching a gap in our life’s experience deepens the analogous effect of time passing.

When Tom comes downstairs bravely to say hello (“I wouldn’t want you to think I’d got too big for my boots”), Mrs Hughes says with genuine warmth: “That’s nice”

Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes, like all the older women, is made up to look considerably older than we saw her last: she plays the part of someone who eases the uneasiness (we recall how reluctantly she helped Ethel Parks, the unwed mother of the previous season)

The series also shows Fellows’s peculiar aptitude for finding just the right typical sociological behavior to make its themes manifest. For example, this part includes the exposure of a cruel trick by the upper class young man who had expected he might marry Sybil. He puts a drug of some sort into Tom Bransom’s drink, causing Tom to lose his inhibitions, over-react and literally become sick (near vomiting). This sort of thing did happen in upper class households and is regularly found in 18th century novels presented as a joke (in Smollett), and is still used to ridicule some socially unacceptable people in Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Fellows is too knowing a writer not to know this and when he has Edith’s lover, Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst) a much older and (too) emasculated man, Fellows scores points in ethics. Many of the people at the table do not respect Strallan sufficiently because he’s not macho, and yet it is he who exposes the lout (for that’s what this guy really is). Breaks the taboo or code for allowing cruelty. This allows the family to understand this is not Tom’s behavior and allows Matthew immediately to condemn the man, and later ask Tom to be his best man, Sybil to lead Tom from the table, and prompts the man’s father to apologize. It can be seen as part of this changing world caught in the often uneasy atmosphere of the hour.

Sir Anthony and Edith managing to talk to one another, smile, with a little help from the decent Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton)

Against this (only slightly) while Fellows again presents Edith (Laura Carmichael) very sympathetically (deleted scenes in the first season showed her her father’s favorite) , he feels it necessary to have her mother apologize for her to Lady Mary because Edith is unconsciously tactless at some point. This kind of sop to the audience prejudiced against the earnest girl (the reading girl as we saw in WW1 segments) detracts from this portrait of this emerging pair of not-absolutely-conventional lovers.

And the same flaws: the political vision is ultimately profoundly reactionary. Just one of many egregious instances in this part: an absurd adherence to hierarchy as actually a good, e.g., the Abbey employs people we are told, undercut (to make it palatable) by Miss O’Brien’s retort to someone asserting he’s essential, “Yes, we’re all essential until we get sacked.”

And we have the unlikely melodrama:

John (Brendon Coyle) and Anna Smith Bates (Joanne Froggart)

Coyle’s steady congenial yet hard-threatened face helps us accept all the improbability.

In other words, the art, assumptions, characters are those I’ve analyzed before in blogs on individual parts of the first season (the luminous forest, crowded canvas) and one on its passionate dream quality and another its storytelling art. I’ve a stash of postings on the second season which if I ever get up the ambition I can put onto my website. They’re in the archives of Trollope19thCStudies and Women Writers through the Ages as Edwardian drama and a kind of art rightly associated with women (nothing to be ashamed of).

One of the finest sessions I went to at the MLA was on film TV and seriality and featured a paper on Trollope’s Barchester Towers and connected Trollope’s art in his cyclical novels to the TV mini-series, Northern Exposure. Another was on Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective, which I now mean to rent from Netflix. I shall blog separately on this session and its papers soon.


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