Archive for February, 2013

General Post Office, St Martin’s-Le-Grand, completed 5 years before Trollope started working there in 1834

Dear friends and readers,

Written on behalf of 34 years of Trollope’s life in public service on behalf of a corruption-free post office: This is prompted by a brief column in this week’s Progressive Populist where the writer opens by with the strawman question, Was it he who killed the post office?. As Leonard points out, this is another area where the Republicans have smelt they can take a public trust and turn it into a an engine for a coterie of rich and well-connected people to fleece large groups of people in need of a service which hitherto or in the last 100 years has been turned into a non-profit which works hard to serve people at little cost, paid for out of taxes structured progressively. Far more taken from the rich than the middle or poorer classes. The Republicans and their allies among corrupt democrats are working at destroying public schools in the US and the post-office by what’s called privatizing

A few data points:

• As a result of a law passed in 2006 that required the postal service to prepay — in just one decade — the next 75 years of future retiree health benefits, “of the $15.9 billion the postal service lost last year, 70% — $11.1 billion — was in future health-care payments.”

• The same 2006 law “prevents the postal service from raising prices for first-class or standard mail by more than the Consumer Price Index, regardless of fuel prices, regardless of what the mail actually costs to deliver.”

• “If you pulled out the pension prefunding payments and an accounting loss on worker’s compensation liability, the real operating loss, according to Lazard’s projections, was only $900 million a year. In a $60 billion company, that’s just 1.5%, and holding fairly steady in a flat economy.”

• The Postal Service’s two main competitors, FedEx and UPS, have spent over $100 million lobbying Congress over the last five years to restrict the postal service from being able to truly compete while at the same time ensuring that both companies can exploit postal service infrastructure.

It is true that in this case they feel they can get away with it as so many fewer people feel dependent on the post office, and indeed do use it less. There is also a strong racist element. The post office (like other federal gov’t places) has been a place that hires black and Asian and Latino people and is looked down upon by many in the white population of the US. Crassly put it, they are not related to the typical post office worker.

IN Trollope’s case precisely what Trollope worked for was to to have a place where no corruption could enter — in his Autobiography he describes scenes of himself in Ireland charging down on people in the country who had been taking money for delivering letters and demanding that others provide addresses of pillars and offices for people to use.

Trollope was a civil servant who thought of letters as objects entrusted to his care, each and every one of which should arrive unscathed and in a timely fashion to where or to whom it was directed. He wrote of his early years in Ireland:

it was the ambition of my life to cover the country with rural letter-carriers. I do not remember that in any case a rural post proposed by me was negatived by the authorities; but I fear that some of them broke down afterwards as being too poor, or, because in my anxiety to include this house and that, I had sent the men too far afield … I would ride up to farmhouses, or parsonages, or other lone residences, about the country, and ask the people how they got their letters … In all these visits I was, in truth, a beneficent angel to the public, bringing everywhere with me an earlier, cheaper, and much more regular delivery of letters.

Trollope is the only nineteenth-century English novelist to recognise a failure of imagination in the expectation that letters magically turn up on breakfast tables.

If he did not invent the pillar to put letters in, he was part of a team of people instrumental in the practical setting up of such stations.

When he visited the US, he found that the US post office was used as a trough for flunkies of politicians — every 4 years a lot of people were fired and the friends and clients of the winning party put in. He inveighs against this as bringing in ignorant people who had no idea and little interest in what the work was about.

If the PO privatizes, you’ll get another thing Trollope hated: favoritism. Trollope said jobs should be given security on the strict basis of seniority (how many years in), any thing else would lead to favoritism and discrimination on behalf of one’s coteries and associates.

He was passionate about his job and letters too (as an artist in his novels), and it may be said paradoxically quit when he was overlooked for promotion so hurt and grated upon was he. He also did think he could support himself by writing full-time and wanted to, but the politics of the office were partly responsible for his quitting before he would have been entitled to a pension. In later life his widow would need a special pension to carry her through in later life.

Saint Anthony, Joyce called him in Finnegan’s Wake.

Gari Melchers (b. 1860), Penelope (1910)

If the Republicans have their way, Penelope will pay a lot more for her letters, and get far worse service.

The larger picture, again with reference to Trollope: specifically, The Way We Live Now, where Trollope’s central character, Melmotte is a crook who uses the speculative money market already there in the later Victorian era: Melmotte is a money-dealing banker, lying continually about what moneys he has on hand, falsely presenting what is the value of the investments he offers. He used to be seen as an instance of Robert Maxwell (British crook calling himself financier and getting away with it), but now we have a host of CEOS in the US and UK we can see Melmotte an instance of.

Dominating symbolic prison of Dickens’s novel (opening of 2008 mini-series)

Dickens’s Mr Merdle of Little Dorrit comes in here. The Marshalsea was known as a debtors’ prison; Wm Dorrit is there for debt; the second half of the novel when for no work Mr or Wm Dorrit ever did he is suddenly fabulously rich is about the irrational working or functions of money when money is not a direct result of work or goods produced but the result of speculative markets. Mr Merdle’s suicide suggests a deep sickness of the soul; since we are not allowed any insight into his mind we are deliberately left to guess, but obviously oodles of money, the symbol of the best success in this society which all admire is shown wanting. We may infer guilt from losing money of all those people, deep shame at his loss of status (a reason for suicide found repeatedly in Trollope among male characters, and a reason Barbara Gates in her book on Victorian suicides instances as one understood as something men did in the era), perhaps (Davies in his film dramatizes his) disgust and some core of honesty appalled at what his wife thinks is good social life.

The difference is today or in real life few (or none) killed themselves in 2008; instead shamelessly they engineered deals with heads of gov’ts to supply the losses of themselves and their supposedly rich customers with the hard-earned dollars and tax money of the average person — which was to be paid for by cutting all social services further, destroying gov’t jobs, salaries, benefits.

And you can go to jail for debt today once again, indirectly. I’ve read about the mechanisms but haven’t it to hand this morning. Read John Lancaster in the London Review of Books on this.

Trollope had a highly unusual perceptive mind and his insight into The Way We Live Now (how people were learning to pull money to themselves without producing any goods or services or hard work) was unusual. Today in 2013 most of us still have trouble understanding derivatives –or what happened in 2008. If more understood, the use of the “deficit” to further cut services and people’s salaries & benefits and by so doing lower the standard of living of the average to make them supine would not happen as people would understand this is a false stalking horse


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Death of Henri de la Rochejaquelein, painting by Alexandre Bloch

Dear friends and readers,

We’ve been to NYC with the excuse of hearing an (in the event) wonderfully suggestive lecture by Nicholas Birns on Trollope’s La Vendee. Prof Birns spoke at the Groliers’ Club, an older building with full library along 44th Street.

On the novel itself, we read this twice on Trollope19thCStudies and I’ve put the postings onto my website so the reader can find many good essay-postings on the novel there. What I have to offer here are notes I took from Professor Birns’s talk: heads of topics, sketches of themes, historical writing, and an insight into the visualization of place in La Vendee which connects it to Trollope’s novella, Cousin Henry where Professor Birns ended his talk.

One problem with the talk wwhich Prof Birns confessed upfront was Prof Birns had not read the French aristocratic woman’s memoir on which book is based: Memoirs of the Marquise de la Rochejaquelin (translated by Scott). It’s very difficult to access. Trollope did much research and other sources are Lamartine’s recent history, The Girondists and a long history of the French revolution by one Archibald Alison whom Disraeli mocked as Mr Wordy. Trollope did general research too — as he did for his travel books, one of which (abortive) was an Irish one around this time.

First Prof Birns offered a preliminary set of thoughts as a preface. This is Trollope’s third novel, and comes out of intimate relationship with Ireland and his experiences of countryside and marginalized world there. Trollope knew French culture and history. Prof Birns suggested that Trollope was looking for successful topic, and his two Irish novels didn’t sell. Representing a place became for him a way to represent hus metaphoric thinking … There is rich forest and landscape in novel. (Trollope is not known for his descriptive abilities but they are important as is his use of place, houses as symbols, landscapes too.)

Professor Birns reminded us that 1848 was a year of revolution in Europe. (There was much interest in revolution in this era of open class struggle and the first building of unions.) Carlyle has a real success with his French revolution book which is hard to read; Dickens writes or will write Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities. Trollope, though, chooses counter-revolution emerges. Why? He asks and tries to asnwer, Why did peasants not support revolution? They are guerillas. Prof Birns instanced the Spanish peninsular war as analogous complicated event. Prof Birns brought up Balzac’s Les Chouans, a violent book (it seems), but it was of course Scott who Trollope is centrally imitating in La Vendee. Prof Birns also recommended Flanigan’s 20th century historical fiction, Year of the French as a companion insightful book, showing French and Irish parallels? (I have it and could not get into it. Must try again.)

As to the kind of historical fiction, La Vendee represents: Trollope uses real historical characters. It is probably also true that place is central to historical writing. It was Prof Birns’s insight that Trollope resorted to historical fiction to write a book and used the characteristics of historical fiction to try to get into what was to him another time and place and also present an inner meaning or vision about the way human politics works:

What happened was the provinces resisted a central power. Rich lords against any revolution; military leaders had allegiance to ancien regime. This was also a conflict between modern secular groups and Catholic conservatives. Trollope take sides, clearly with rebels. The question would be, why.

The central appealing character killed off in Trollope’s novel, which comes alive around that point. There is an emotionally held-in unhappiness here (said Prof Birns). Trollope also against romanticism and revolution; Prof Birns then connected book to Cousin Henry, a self-flagellating book, where place is crucial. Wales the setting of this novella and Henry ostracized and terrorized by others in the village; Henry cannot understand brutal unsubtle culture.

Prof Birns said Trollope resorts to ekphrasis because he has trouble getting into these cultures. Ekphrasis is a word that has become fashionable nowadays; it appears frequently in academic discourses (and also talk about poetry). Myself I don’t recall Cousin Henry as visual but rather an intense psychological study of a man who is outcast and susceptible to cruel bullying, but I do recall La Vendee is striking in its visual portraiture, especially one scene where the wife of an openly loving married couple (unusual for Trollope) look out a window and the wife describes the battle seen to her husband much in the manner that Rebecca describes a battle to the wounded Ivanhoe.


Olivia Hussey as Rebecca from the famous scene, and a felicitious still of Anthony Andrews as Ivanhoe (from the 1982 mini-series)

(Trollope’s novel has never been filmed.)

At this point my notes give out. I was really cheered by the friendly greeting of the man who runs the society, Randy Williams; by meeting Stephen Amarnick and hearing how his edition of the complete Duke’s Children is coming along. Two people told me they are on Trollope19thCStudies and read my postings sometimes. One woman said she could not stand I gave away something about Downton Abbey (! see my P.S). I hope now that I’ve retired to be able to find time to come to NYC to attend the society’s meetings, e.g., go to this year’s dinner and come far more regularly to the lectures.

For the rest of our trip, a diary journal (we saw 3 operas, 1 play, a movie, went to Central Park, the Met Museum, the Strand, and walked a hellavu lot: From NYC: a diary of shopping, theatre-going, walking …


Postscript: Still on the train earlier in the day, coming into the station. We are waiting in the space between seats in a crowd of people pushing holding luggage, I see a young man with largish black laptop at the same time watching his screen. I peek. There’s Miss Obrien in her usual corner spot at the table next to her Shirley Maclaine’s maid, POV Anna, across the way Mrs Hughes … .. Later I go to lunch and open New Yorker, first joke I come to: lady visiting prison on phone reporting to husband “the bad news is Lady Sybil died but Bates is home … ”


Jim now tells me the man had all 3 seasons of Downton DVDs on his table set up in his seat area …

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Edith to Mary:’ Why must you sound so heartless? … ‘Gregson to Matthew: ‘So the laws of society should be preserved no matter what. Edith gave me the impression you were a freer soul than that.’ Matthew: ‘I find that hard to believe … [but] say a proper goodbye, you owe her that …

Mrs Hughes to Mr Carson: ‘You don’t want to come?’ Mr Carson: ‘I would rather chew broken glass.’ Cora to Robert: ‘Aren’t you enjoying your Victorian idyl any longer?’

Anna (Joanne Froggart) beginning to dance, looks back at Mr Bates

His deep smile (Brendon Coyle), the ball at Duneagle

Dear friends and readers,

So Downton Abbey came to an end for another season, and it was as fitting an ending as the 2 hour Christmas time Part that ended the second season. We had a parallel plot: Lord and Lady Grantham, Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, Violet, the Dowager, the two ladies’ maids, Lord Grantham’s valet (Bates) and Matthew’s (Molesley), all traveled to Duneagle, Scotland, to visit Lord Grantham’s cousin, Marquess of Flintshire (aka Shrimpy), Marchioness (I must register my chagrin to see Cordelia from Brideshead [Phoebe Nicholls] now grown old, wrinkled, tempus fugit), their daughter, Lady Rose and of course their staff was there, including a lady’s maid, May Bird, seeming replica of Miss Obrien. Here they are sewing their ladies’ hats:

Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) talking of her ladyship’s ways

May Bird (Christine Lohr) begins to become upset; in the next still controlling near-crying

To them came the man now in love with Edith, a Rochester-type [wife in aslyum], Mr Gregson who has also provided Edith with her first paying job (which I must say she does not seem to appreciate as she does not seem to value the money or the liberty it could give her — as yet).

Duneagle, some trundling up from the train, the others waiting on the steps

Left behind are the rest of the staff of Downton and Tom Bransom and little Sybil (Sibby) who says he was not invited, as well as (of course) Mrs Crawley, Dr Clarkson, and the townspeople, among whom a tradesman, Jos Tufton, will figure in our story. All but Bransom and Mr Carson go to a day-long fair:

Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) in the lead, just out of the camera Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol)

As will be seen, very discreetly, Mrs Hughes is in the lead, and the attentive observer will notice that throughout the day Mrs Hughes is glimpsed repeatedly: what distinguishes the story at Downton for this part is our POV is Mrs Hughes: her voice and her perspective prevails repeatedly. Since she is given that passive humanity Keats talked of, i.e., entering into others’ views genuinely (though alas she keeps her reactionary disapproval in view too when any “law” of society is threatened), the mood of this half of the part was to me gratifying. She feels for everyone and she is patient, even with the new maid, Edna, who does not see why there should be artificial hierarchy, and takes advantage of Bransom’s continuing grief: what I liked about Edna’s dismissal (with a decent reference) is that to Mrs Hughes’s expected reiteration: “there are rules to this way of life Edna and if you are not prepared to live by them then it’s not the right life for you,” Edna’s face grows hard, and she turns and walks away.


Hardly a likeable character, Edna (MyAnna Buring) holds her own against Mrs Hughes. There’s no abjection of the kind Ethel was driven to as she has done nothing to be shamed of, which Mrs Hughes acknowledges. OTOH, she’s fired. The man and now upper class person counts, the female and servant not.

Mrs Hughes is given the best line of the hour which I here take as its good keynote. When Mrs Patmore says of her brief romantic delusion over Mr Henshawe (who wanted to marry her to get himself an obedient cook and nurse while he carried on flirting and more with young women), “I don’t know what I could have been thinking of,” “O I don’t know, dreaming of a better life.”


This tone, of reconciliation graced with behaving with dignity and kindness, to what is pervades and shapes the action in the Scottish scenes too. Trollope said if a Christmas story is not meretricious (which he allowed most are)

Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with … Christmas charity.

So the snitcher Jimmy Kent (who Alfred has learnt to distrust and now is careful to tell Mr Barrow there can be no physical love between them) thanks Mr Barrow for saving him from a savage beating by a mob,

Dr Clarkson (David Robb) come to help Thomas after Thomas fended off thugs from Jimmy is startled because Thomas is not one to get into physical fights,

and they become friends

with Mr Barrow (Rob James-Collier) telling Jimmy (Ed Speleers) to make himself useful by reading a newspaper aloud to them both.

There is the usual abrasive insistence on the rightness of status quo at every turn. Mrs Crawley refuses Dr Clarkson’s offer of romance (and marriage) on the grounds she’s got a life that she likes and why she should risk any change. (This is Mr Woodhouse’s reply to Emma when Emma declares she will marry Mr Knightley.) But Tom’s plight, his feeling he belongs to no world now is plangent and the spectacle of Mr Carson’s ability to unbend before a baby touching.

Mr Carson (Jim Carter) picking the baby up and talking to her

Overall the mood of this year’s Christmas spectacle was that of last’s.

Like last year too it devolves into separates threads of stories more than usual. To me the most pleasurable was that of Anna and Bates: their story thread begins in 3:7 when he comes out of prison, and in brief epitomizing scenes they are glimpsed, he with Lord Grantham, walking (they do a lot of this), fixing their house: Scotland is a holiday for them too: again, the walking, a picnic, her resolution to dance, the practicing with Lady Rose (who seems to be taking a role like that of Lady Sybil with long-gone to secretarial work Gwen):

Lady Rose (Lily James) directing

and then the entry to the ball, the moving to dance … Return to Downton, she is back at work, serving our princess bride, Lady Mary, but she has had her holiday and Bates too.

The back story of Duneagle become the front story for this half of the part is the unhappy marriage of the Flintshires: they dislike one another, and all he does irritates her.

Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Flintshire (Peter Egan), Lady Rose (Lily James): Flintshire tells Grantham they do not get along and Lady Rose’s sarcasm confirms it

The anti-feminism so often on display in Downton Abbey comes out in the way what’s dramatized is the Marchioness getting back at Lady Rose. Like Lady Mary, she is directly asked “why is she so miserable to everyone?” only since it’s a male who asks her (the husband), and we never see him making anyone unhappy, it’s implied she’s in the wrong. We’re left to surmise she does not respect him (“Shrimpy”) nor like her life. Dreaming of another life in Scotland becomes kicking against the pricks. What Lord Grantham thought a Victorian idyl is a dying world just loaded with writhing helpless angers. (Of course Fellowes does not make the inference, that this pair should divorce.)

Oddly, for once the Dowager is on the side of underdog, her grand-niece Rose, against whom she says she cannot cast a stone. And Rose emerges not as the salacious Barbie doll of 3:8 but the unhappy daughter of an unhappy mother who Cora, Lady Grantham will taken when her parents go to India. (Flintshire has lost his estate, having no coaxing ex-lawyer-son-in-law, Matthew, and steward-farmer son-in-law, Bransom, to guide him.) Cora says she understands the Marchioness’s position — too bad she doesn’t explain more about this understanding.

Marchioness (Phoebe Nicholls) coming into Cora’s room to appeal to her to take Lady Rose

Who else (beyond the Marchioness at moments) comes off badly in Scotland? well, May Bird, like Lady Rose, twisted by the Marchioness’s tactlessness (in asking May to imitate the hairstyles Miss Obrien concocts for Lady Grantham), spikes a drink that the bumbling Molesley takes in one gulp. Lady Mary with her soul-withering remarks to Edith and yes Matthew Crawley seemingly reinforcing these, ever doing Lady Mary’s bidding with his priggish lecturing of Michael Gregson.

Matthew (Dan Stevens) between the sisters, Edith wincing with hurt (Laura Carmichael)

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), drawing herself up defensively; she has every right to her sarcasms

And as usual Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), looks rueful but says nothing so implicitly endorses Mary

I say seemingly because if you study the stills you see that Matthew is very uncomfortable. He does not like this kind of destructiveness. He preaches to Gregson, he does not insult him. Fellowes and the other film-makers have said they thought one way to write Dan Stevens out was to make him estrange himself from Lady Mary for good (the worm turns? finally he can’t take it anymore?) and go off to America and not return. Such a scene is preparation for what they feared would devastate the more pious of the fans (who don’t seem to observe how naive the presentation of sex is throughout)

To mention this — the problem of Stevens’s wanting to leave the mini-series and what to do about in inside the stories — compels me to speak of what I know so many have complained of this week and I must go outside the fiction to explain it.

Anibundel puts it that the sudden death of Matthew has a strongly tacked-on last minute feel. Structurally it’s a coda, an ironic aftermath of the birth of the baby. Fellowes gives less than 2 minutes at most to it; compare the long preparation, death, and aftermath of the going of Lady Sybil.
See the opening of this essay on the dispatch of Stevens: Sonia Saraiya, The AV Club.

I’ve this hunch: spite. Fellowes has been irritated at the way Dan Stevens has from the first summer after the spectacular success of season one been talking is determination to jump ship to get better and more interesting roles. You can discern their positions from these articles in the Guardian and New York Times.

Stevens’s portrait photo: how he would like to be seen, and that’s not a gentle upholder of aristocrats

These are clearly diplomatic presentations of what was probably a simmering resentful: Stevens is guarded throughout. He does not want to be typed into an emasculated male; he wants modern psychologically sexually sophisticated roles. Firth had bad trouble throwing off Darcy, partly because he too gave into money and being a star when he took the Bridget Jones’s Darcy part on. But no one bites the hand that feeds it especially since the show has now made Stevens a star. He is irritated at Cumberbatch for saying the show is “f..king atrocious” because there is a code among actors nowadays not to diss one another’s jobs; actors who turn down a part (as asinine or embarrassing) find they are not asked for good parts too.

The last still: brutal, emphasizing the fleshy nature of his face:

Fellowes asked Stevens to come back next year for an episode or two to die then, and he would have worked up the character with a death that was meaningful somehow. Stevens said no. So Fellowes got back, did Steven’s character in short and brutal and abrupt with no meaning. He prefaced it with one of Lady Mary’s more unpleasant references to Edith and herself, showed her complacent-bossy at the last:

Matthew: You are horrid when you want to be
Mary; I know you love me anyway
Matthew: Madly

and just after Matthew dies, we are treated to her telling Anna that Matthew must not come up until after the family as after all he’s had his turn already. So there was little there to allow us to grieve with Lady mary. Fellowes didn’t want us to. He wasn’t … grieving over this loss. Good riddance … I picked up on the ironic close of Matthew’s advice to Gregson to leave forthwith: of course give her a proper goodbye. Well Dan didn’t get to do that with Michelle.


I know I am not admitting to the unreality of the grating re-iterated premises of the mini-series, but then I’ve gone over these and thought I’d end rather on what is the series’s great strength: the characters of Downton Abbey are the driving emotional force of the series, and we love to love at least some of them. They are presented with sufficient ambivalence in complicated stories well-dramatized so that we can endow them with complexities and the intense emotionalisms and clever dialogues hits us in sore areas. Fellowes has a real gift for this. So we get involved with all of them.


Gregson (Charles Edwards): I wanted us to have a last evening together … Edith: This is not our last evening …’

Other people with this gift on the BBC who write mini-series include Andrew Davies's (a genuine genius of TV drama), Sandy Welch (another), Gwyneth Hughes. Individual mini-series are powerful — where a writer seems not to carry on with another mini-series: so the 1999 Aristocrats, and whole teams pull this off: Prime Suspect comes to mind.

I love to live with these characters; they keep me company; they are, unlike real people, anything but cool; they care intensely about much more than themselves and yet repeat many of our thoughts and articulate our troubles and dreams.

Ivy (Clara Theobold) and Daisy (Sophie McShera) at the fair too: they are seen to be friends at home, at the fair they play a ball game and for once Daisy wins something — she says she never wins …

So I’ll watch on next year and have a candidate to replace Dan Stevens. I’m hoping for Matthew MacFayden because I know he plays these kind generous grave males (Little Dorrit), but he might also bring to the part (if Fellowes would like him) a subversive irony such as he did as Felix Carbury in The Way We Live Now or more recently, Oblonsky in Anna Karenina. I know he’s too chubby just now (but Stevens is not thin), and no heart-throb for young teenage girls as he is somewhat older, but if Fellowes does not want to infantilize his central heroine, she ought to have a mature adult male as a partner.

Tom Bransom (Allen Leech), the only upstairs (defined so) young male left standing, or should I say left sitting, POV Mrs Hughes’s.


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Gilda (Diana Damrau) and Rigoletto (Zeljoko Lucic) coping inside 1950s be-finned car (Rigoletto at the Met)

Elsa von Brabant (Annette Dasch) and Lohengrin (Jonas Kaufmann) coping among soaked wheat shafts (Lohengrin at La Scala)

Dear friends and readers,

Full disclosure: usually I like re-settings. I have enjoyed each of our local DC Source Theater (director Clara Huber) updatings of Mozart by a rewrite of the libretto and re-staging of the opera. It made the Mozarts more understandable in our terms. Of the few Euro-trash doings of opera I’ve seen (on HD screens), all but one rightly I thought undercut the reactionary nature of the numinous personages in the opera play; Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni turned the providential pattern of Mozart’s play into a story of despairing refuge. I was deeply stirred by the abstract re-staging of Traviata with the acting of Natalie Dessay. But the change has to be genuinely thought out; it cannot be done just to attract a younger audience (as I suspect the new Rigoletto has been) or out of embarrassment (which I think was the reason for resetting Lohengrin out of 10th century raw beasts and crudities). The money motive and the vanity motive have to be downplayed if art is to transcend the realities of its concrete situation and players.

So not all re-settings, no matter how at first allegorically seemingly right (sleazy, mean Vegas for Rigoletto), and physically preferable (primitive swamp, duelling in Lohengrin) work out. For the Rigoletto the altered placing was too specific, called too much attention to moral irritants and absurdities in Verdi’s opera (the Duke “sure a dreamboat“); in Lohengrin the original words referring to things in the 10th century kept were out of whack with the singer’s 19th century clothes & environment. This is the most charitable lesson one can take away from this past week’s two HD operas.

Each time I’ve seen Verdi’s Rigoletto (about 3 before this) I’ve wept copiously as Gilda lays dying and Rigoletto begs her not to leave him all alone, not to die. This time I couldn’t quite; there was something slightly risible about Damrau and Lucic doing their scene over and in the trunk of a 1950s cadillac. I thought to myself they had to practice not to fall off. I had also been jarred into paying attention to the actual happenings of Rigoletto partly because the language had been partly updated.

When Gilda rushes from the duke’s lair where she had been abducted and then seduced into having sex with him, I realized for the first time this was a post-rape scene. If she were a virgin (something the subtitles still insisted upon), it must’ve hurt, there must’ve been coercion. She certainly seemed upset at having been tied up and put into a sarcophagus and dumped into a man’s room. By rights Rigoletto should have rushed her to the police. It will be said that in terms of the re-setting Rigoletto as comedian side-kick of didn’t dare offend duke as casino owner but these were not the terms upon which the man was suffering. Further what an ass she was. Not only she but in the next act, most unlikely Sparafucile’s prostitute-sister, Maddalena (Oksana Volkova) who declared how much she loved this shit Duke (Piotr Beczala):


There seemed something wrong in the fun Piotr Beczala was having as the relaxed Dean Martin type when he was more than a cad; a continual heartless rapist who had ordered the local police to murder a sheik outraged by his daughter’s sexual spoiling. As a 21st century audience we still could have felt for a father whose culture made him take loss of virginity as the equivalent of a young women’s destruction and his shame forever, but then we were being asked to take it as fun, as trivia because the “rat-pack” as the Met introducers and discussions in the intermissions persisted in calling Frank Sinatra and his friends’s famous nightclub life together. The setting had the paradoxical effect of calling attention to the problems in Verdi’s conception. Lost were what made the story despite this ultimately dismissive treatment of women as people moving nonetheless.

What might be a valuable lesson in compassion, a source of identification in our autonomous lives was ridden over. The re-write called Rigoletto a Quasimodo at one point. That’s right. Hugo and then Verdi had made the aging fool a hunch-back, a de-formed disabled man who had taken on a vicious and spiteful carapace partly because of the way he’d been treated by others. Lucic had the slightest high shoulder, the slightest limp, his jester status slightly unfortunately not forgotten by his absurdly brightly-colored variegated sweater:


Rigoletto as usually staged shows a man all alone; the words of the libretto which insist on the unusualness of his having no family around him but Gilda were kept and this condition of isolation, of this one girl being all his home, his security, his peace (usually she is envisaged in a garden apart from the court) was lost. He cries “non lasciarmi”. The Met understandably had kept the original Italian libretto, and not only did Lucic and Damrau sing with exquisite beauty, strength and psychological distraught tragic feeling, they made the Italian come out clearly.

Most crucially, neither of the principles had changed their decades-long understanding of their characters one iota. During the interviews in the last HD performance (the interviews in one HD opera have now become an ad for the upcoming one) Lucic said emphatically his character believed the curse of the wounded father of the first act (in this version an Arab man who Rigoletto mocked by putting a towel on his head); a 16th century man as understood by 2 19th century ones would have. But not a hired comic in a 50s nightclub. Lucic said with overt irony and explicitly as if he had no idea what director, Michael Mayer had been talking about, he was to be “Don Rickles. Jim told me this comic is said to have made laughter out of the most vicious impulses: he would pick and ridicule a customer at one of the nightclub tables in front of everyone else, causing most people there (who comes to such a scene) to laugh derisively. Diana Damrau was even more unable to see any change she could make in her character. In one of her interviews she came close to saying as the best praise she could come up with that new production had not ruined the opera or her character for her.

While I watched I felt that not a lot more than these two central characters be re-thought had needed to be done to make the switch in setting function in some new way. Beczala clearly had made the leap into relaxed cad (as he showed in his interviews too); the use of the chorus girls did have the effect that many say Euro-trash is meant to: it undercut the solemnity with which this pro-elite form usually takes itself and diminished him physically too: the audience could be heard laughing as the girls made these faces, arched their bodies and brushed him with their feathers:


But by the end of the opera and on the way home I realized the the serious core of the piece had been trivialized. The Met people are anything but feminists and it’s the last thing they’d want to do to make the audience take this rape seriously so rather than think about that they decided to take the whole situation as so much gay decadence. What were the lives of Dean Martin (whom one of the courtiers, Marullo, was got up to look like)? I began to wonder if Sammy Davis Junior (whose photo was flashed during intermission) gave to black American causes. Jim assured me Davies quietly had; he had, like Obama, been half-white, in his case Jewish, an outsider on several counts, as he was slightly deformed and small for a man.

I think in the case of Rigoletto we were better off being left alone in quieter staging, abstract, old-fashioned — as Ronald Blum says the best moments were when the principles were on the stage alone; if the terms of what happened were not to be changed, you should not make the setting neon-lit 20th century. If you update it specifically, you must update the meaning of the action too. Some of this was recognized by the audience. The people we were sitting next to agreed with us (and others) that the actor-singer for Sarafucile (Stefan Kocan) was brilliantly effective. Much younger than the rest of the central cast, he really enacted a nasty coarse thug, as ready to kill for money at a moment’s notice as he was filled with a sense of his own rich luxurious elegance:


Having a bartender listen to Rigoletto morose broodings was effective. Maria Zifchak as a egregiously corrupt guardian-Giovanna out of some 1940s comic noir film was funny and effective in the same way Stephanie Blythe as Madame Ulrica had been earlier this year in Un Ballo en Maschera. Maybe they needed to stage the production as a 1940s movie, a reflection of how reality was understood not what any reality had been. I did enjoy those costumes and a couple of the minor performers where an imitation of a star or type as seen in movies was intended.

Jim said the problem in both cases was in the opera itself.

This certainly felt true as we watched Lohengrin at the West End Cinema (DC movie-house, not far from Foggy Bottom Metro station). This time the action was mythic, and it seemed to me Claus Guth was trying to make sense of its contradictions in modern terms and it just wouldn’t do. This was another opera that would have been better staged as simply and barely as possible.

This photo with a different Elsa (Anja Harteros) comes from a rehearsal shot

At first I thought we were to take the action as Lohengrin or Elsa’s bad dream (see story). There were extras dressed as a young Elsa and her brother (whom she is said to have murdered) wandering about in Act I; at every opportunity Lohengrin was laying on the floor as if asleep. But as things progressed, I could see that wouldn’t work, and eventually the opera became about a wedding night that just went all wrong. Elsa (Annette Dasch) couldn’t adjust to not knowing who her husband Lohengrin (Jonas Kauffman). Well in real life what woman would? As with the Met Rigoletto production the people looked the roles; Kauffman so handsome and Dasch pretty, young, with flowing hair. but this was patently not real life as having them get themselves soaked and also go on about a swan no one had seen (like many another producer Guth just eliminated any attempt at an artificial swan) made clear.

The libretto had not been changed so Guth’s re-staging had nothing to do with the words. In the original play, the second act opens with the evil couple, Friedrich von Telramund (Tomas Tomasson) and his wife, Otrud (Evelyn Herlitzius) in bed together, having just fucked after coming home from some raucous drunken festival. Guth had them sitting at desk, trussed up like modern politicians in suits that were militaristic. Otrud’s outfits reminded me of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits (while running for president) or Angela Merkel today (the German chancellor). So the parallel with the bad wedding night for the good couple was lost and nothing gained as modern day politicians do not duel with one another so the scene in context made no sense at all:


Watching the sword-fight I was therefore alerted to them being performing singers who were up to this sort of training and gymnastics on a stage.

In other words, if the myth is silly (and misogynistic as the idea is women should be content to obey and know nothing), it doesn’t help to break the suspension of disbelief altogether. During the intermissions I had become reminded that La Scala as an Italian theater and this was opening night and patrons were not altogether pleased that Wagner instead of Verdi had been chosen. If this production failed in the live theater and was at moments ridiculous to the audience in the movie-house it was not the fault of the principles. As Martin kettle (who describes the sets too in the Guardian) says, Kauffman especially has a haunting voice and manner, Evelyn Herlitzius was theatrically effective as an ambitious woman:


Tomasson was a figure out a Michael Haneke movie about rigid Nazis (e.g., The White Ribbon). Again I enjoyed more minor character roles: Rene Pape as a solemn official was what is called luxury casting.

In a sentence: these productions had the effect of pointing up problems in the operas.


I cannot say I was bored at either production; they were lessons in what one can and cannot do to older operas whose stories or themes have become unacceptable (embarrassing), outdated (the duke rapes Gilda and this is not “rat-pack” amusement) or I fear (in the case of Rigoletto as a disabled person) uncomfortable.

The Lohengrin setting at times was meant to look like a stage, to be self-reflexive (this seems to be a favorite motif this year). My favorite piece of the setting for Rigoletto were the chandeliers: they were exactly the same ludicrous artificial ones as in the real theater, but here the self-reflexivity seemed to me to mock the whole event. They are mechanical and go up and down. It was apparently felt chandeliers could not be done without in the palace the opera house was supposed to be; OTOH, you could not have them too elaborate or get in the way of seeing.

Operas were in the 19th century staged for people with money who wanted to be flattered into thinking themselves as rich and powerful as the people on their political and social stages. I’m all for exposing this worship of rank, wealth, the misogyny, reactionary nonsense, religious stupidities of myths. But it’s not easy to do with intransigent material when you also desire to please and attract an increasingly larger modern audience.

Cats making music
Mee-ee-ow …


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Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past — George Orwell

The past is a competitive business — Peter Borsay

The women, Tom and Matthew (final shot of watchers)

Thomas, Lord Grantham and Dr Clark (near final shot of players)

Buvan, great-souled (Aamir Khan), at bat (nowhere near final shot)

Dear friends and readers,

But wait, you are saying, whence that third still? who can they be? the hero is not white, not even in white. Buvan! How did Aamir Khan get into the grounds? Patience, gentle reader.

I’ve no doubt we were to take the ending of Season 3 as charity itself (as in “the adieu” of Darcy). Thomas (Rob James-Collier) not excluded, not handed over to the police after all; far from sacked, he’s to be under-butler. No silly soup of emotional sentimentalism either. There’s the Duchess (Maggie Smith), holding out, determined as ever. She has gotten rid of the (gratifyingly grateful) Ethel (Amy Nuttall) who was continuing to cause all that dreadful “talk:”

Ethel and Mrs Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) standing by, outflanked

I mean what’s a friend to do? Ethel had a plan (it seems). She will tell her beloved child, Charlie, brought up by his grandparents in a great house nearby where she is to be cook (Mrs Patmore’s ex-pupil now) that she was his nanny when he was baby. What more could she want? Her life is rebuilt (we may remember the mocking laughter of the prostitutes taught to sew earlier this season). As Mrs Crawley admits, no one will know. “The slate wiped clean.” Did you not feel that you had an instance of Mrs Wood’s East Lynne before you, fully explained, nay justified?

But Thomas, now, suffering crying Thomas


has been allowed to stay.

In case you missed this part (or fell asleep by the second hour on PBS), this last part has shown us that Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) is the kind of homosexual who when they make public office cover up their own activity by ceaselessly persecuting other homosexuals. He’s after Thomas’s body fluids in another way. If Mr Carson (Jim Carter) gives Thomas the good reference (all heart is Mr Carson even though Thomas is “revolting,” lives in a “revolting world”), he, Jimmy, will go to the police. Who saved the day? Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) again (she did it for Ethel) to the rescue. It seems Mrs H knows of such men (!) and believes Jimmy led Thomas on. Mr Carson bows to her authority (ironically) and she goes to Mr Bates. She is not missing from the cricket game, although naturally not to be seen under the tent nor in all white

Naturally all discretion, behind her we get to glimpse Daisy (Sophie McSheara), Ivy (Cara Theobold) and Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nicol) as befits their rank

Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran), that insidious spying witch, has also poured effective poison into the ears of her nephew, Alfred (Matt Milne) but is defeated by a mere two words uttered in her ears by a gallant Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) who has returned all Thomas’s treachery and mockery of him with an act of supreme generosity: “her ladyship’s soap.” (So Mrs Hughes said were the magic words.)


This also nicely rounds out Season 3 by bringing us back to Season 1 where (we are to recall) Miss Obrien caused her ladyship’s miscarriage and near death by putting a cake of soap near her bath and leaving her ladyship to slip and fall, thus keeping Matthew the unexpected heir.

The camera on the puzzled Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart) so as to spare us the shattered woman

Miss Obrien I say nowhere to be seen at last. Nor Jimmy just now.

Alfred is not let off so easily. Peculiarly slow in the brain-pan, once an idea is put into his head, it’s hard to dislodge it, so he has gone to the police about Thomas; said police turn up to take Thomas away, but Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) now to the rescue. There has been some misunderstanding he tells the police, and by a mere word and look gets Alfred to apologize and confess he was “squiffy.” For those not in the know of 1920s upper-class slang, that means drunk, and Alfred mistook some “rough-housing” between male servants. We see in the policemen’s looks they don’t believe a word of it,


but Lord Grantham’s word overrides all and the victim they nearly had their claws on is saved — at the cost of Alfred’s humiliation.

We are supposed to find it ironically amusing that part of his Lordship’s motivation is Thomas’s supreme ability at cricket. Grantham would not want to lose such a valuable player. As long as we assume all homosexuals would be treated horrifically by everyone they meet in this era (not true), these grudging good faeries (Mr Carson, Mrs Hughes, Mr Bates, his Lordship) seem noble and we have learnt our warning lesson about how hard it is in life to be a gay man.

Of course not that his Lordship really cares who wins. At the closing moments when Molesley (Bernard Gallagher) has (no surprise there) flubbed it, he not being any more manly than Sir Anthony Strallon (Robert Bathurst) was — I mean just imagine Strallon trying to play cricket –, Lord Grantham, I say, shows he does not care who won after all. The thing is to play the game. And why? it’s an assertion of a vision, that of the sporting British empire, all-inclusive, all powerful, endlessly pastoral green, unproblematically hierarchical enacted before us.

Which brings me to Buvan — look up, gentle reader — that dark-skinned man in black playing cricket too. The scene comes from an intensely anti-imperialist, anti-British powerful Indian Hindi movie, Lagaan, which also ends in a cricket game. Only there it mattered who won, and it mattered big. The situation:

It hasn’t rained for two years in Champaner, a village in sweltering central India, but Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne, who is a Billy Zane doppelgänger), the commander of the local British regiment, isn’t about to give the parched villagers a break. He makes a bet with Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), the most spirited of the villagers (and of course, the handsomest), but only because he believes it’s a sure thing: If the villagers can beat the British regiment in a cricket match, he’ll cancel the land tax for two years; if the British win, the villagers will have to pay three times the normal, unreasonable amount.

Jim, my husband, focused on how at Downton who won does not ultimately matter at all, what matters is the assertion of the abbey, the team spirits carrying on. And this final part lets us know it will, at least for a little while. I remember reading Tariq Ali’s sense of intense irony in recounting how this movie which shows the Indians beating cruel injust British is all about a cricket game. Simon Raven has a cricket game at the close of his adaptation of Trollope’s Pallisers, and some people who don’t remember the books very well think there is one there. Not so. Trollope was not an imperialist; anyway his sport was hunting.

Important political lessons learned too: like his mother, Isobel Crawley (above) Matthew (Dan Stevens) has compromised, held his tongue, played along; his reward is our princess bride, Mary (Michelle Dockery), and his Lordship’s acquiescence in all his schemes for turning the estate into a business, with the tenants having to pay much more and, with the help of the new steward, Tom Bransom (Allen Leech, who of course turns out to be good at cricket) make much more money for higher rents. You win by giving in to these powerful people. We see where again Mary is in charge in their bedroom trysts when she puts off love-making; he acquiesces and turns out she has been to the physician, had an operation (not a problem) and in this final scene speaks of their “little prince” on the way.

Here she’s all hat

If we were seared for Edith (Laura Carmichael) over her humiliated wedding dream, now we need not worry. Hers is indeed a Jane Eyre story, but it’s one robbed of all rebellion, all radical feeling & thought. She has kissed the whip several times by now in her piety before her father and grandmother (who responded we recall to Edith’s mild complaint with “don’t whine”) and gotten a job as a journalist. Congratulated by the editor, Charles Edwards (Michael Gregson) for not writing just about women (whew! she’s not going to be one of these militant feminists, a one note Sally), she was nonetheless put off by his seeming to flirt with her. Horrors. She checks him out and discovers he’s married. A true daughter of this house, she’s learnt her lesson not to want a man beyond all, and she does not hesitate to say she quits, only to be told he has a mad wife in an asylum and simply in such dire need of hope, a good woman’s affection, that she apparently agrees to stay.

Edith has ever been a sympathetic listener

(Come back next year, gentle reader)

In all this Edith shows her distance from a character newly introduced, the foolish great-niece, Lady Rose McClare (Lily James), with sly salacious smile (joyfully compliant anyone?, a kind of Barbie doll made real) who just lends herself out to be seduced by a man lying about his wife and is rescued by a trio of Matthew, Edith, and Lady Rosamund Painswick (the aunt, Samantha Bond). The scene reminded me of the trio at the close of Don Giovanni who rescue the silly Zerlina. Perhaps this sweeping dismissal of teenage girls in the invention of this character provided the worst because so priggish moment in the hour.


There is at least something redeeming about all but Miss Obrien forgiving Mr Barrow, even if the terms upon which it’s done bring us to “don’t ask, don’t tell” of your great shame. Ethel does not end up in the streets, with her new skill (pace the Dowager’s sneer) she may hold out until the whirligig of time is in her favor. The woman who should have been her mother-in-law, Mrs Byrant (Christine Mackie) is another of these compromiser’s with viciousness: Ethel should leave the scornful Mr Byrant, the boy’s grandfather to his wife. The depiction of Lady Rose has no such compensations. The character as conceived reminded me of Sheridan’s conservative depiction of young women as Lydia Languishes, eager to jump out windows. So much for rebellion. The dowager tells Lady Rose she will be kept on a tight leash (like a puppy?) until she’s of age. For her own good of course.

Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) back to loyal sweet do-nothing: thus she enacts a woman satisfied with a rich woman’s life

Tom Bransom is now prepared to live at Downton (as Matthew has learned to) and allow his daughter to be brought up there. His reward is no longer to be an exile. He is taken into the great home place and this not-exact parallel to the end of another rebellion (Sybil’s marriage) fits the Lady Rose story. In the end you will be assimilated.

If not visible, Miss Obrien is protected by her ladyship and Mrs Hughes’s silence: one night before the cricket game Cora must hurry off to “Obrien’s” care (it’s evening) lest she be “scolded.”

How inclusive it all is! Anyone left out that you can think of, gentle reader?


Despite Miss Obrien’s telling Ivy to “stay out of it,” Ivy carries on disapproving of Jimmy’s intransigence, forcing him to leave the table

So, in this mini-series and hour we see charity enacted — within the limits of stereotypes controlled by conventions which insist on a heterosexual nuclear family as the way of life that is safe.

This final part of season three ends in the big ritual scene Part 1 did. The whole self-preserving system is enacted before us: the community is self-perpetuating; who a character is, is as much a function of his or her place in this paradigmatic system as what he or she does over the course of the sequence. There is an appetite for real community that Downton Abbey feeds, and for those who can respond to what there is in it of kindness (a good deal) and mutual support, watch it as it were against the grain, aware of the ambivalence in the portraits of the hard authority figures.

Those who are fans for such series ignore the reality that the fakery and bogus nature of much that is represented in shows like Downton Abbey is not one that is widely popular; many turn away to commercial channels, to “pop” programs because upon looking at the dress, accents, house, they know they do not belong to this myth. Football instead of cricket; macho-male violent action-adeventure films would be the opposite pole. There are some fine programs on these channels (HBO) and the mini-series and police procedurals, screwball comedies can offer other kinds of ambivalent lessons. But it is rare to find alternative visions of meaningful complex real identities. Probably they are found most often in local theater art, localism.

Right now as individuals the politics of space and place as presented to us in our media seems controlled by corporations backed by military machines. Unemployment remains high, salaries low, much harshly and competitively enacted. That’s why the prospect outside the Abbey seems so bleak. It’s what’s experienced outside it in the 21st century streets & buildings that makes it so alluring.


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Alfred: ‘It’s about a wronged women who survives in a wilderness through her own wits and courage’
Miss Obrien: ‘Blimey they’ve stolen my story …’
Mrs Hughes smiles quietly at her.

Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran), Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) smiles

Thomas (Rob James-Collier), tense, endangering himself

Thomas: ‘As for a defense what can I say? I was very drawn to him and I got the impression that he felt the same way … I was wrong Mr Carson: It seems an odd mistake to make Thomas.’
Thomas: ‘When you’re like me, Mr Carson, you have to read the signs as best you can and because no one dares speak out …
Mr Carson: I do not wish to take a tour of your revolting world
Thomas: ‘… No …’

Dear friends and readers,

This blog is not on the two hour mix that was shown on PBS Sunday night; I rather watched 3:7 as shown on BBC this past fall so I could experience the theme, patterns and tones, the climax and ending intended. Later this week I’ll watch 3:8 and write about that in its own right. I enjoyed 3:7 as I have a number of this season’s parts because there was something valuable unexpectedly brought forward climactically that undermined accepted ugly norms (as when the cruel trick played on Tom Bransom in 3:1 was exposed) and overdone rituals (weddings). Fellowes really exposed childbirth’s dangers and then paid attention to a character type often overlooked: paradoxically the mother figure who you would think in a women-centered soap opera form would get a lot of respect (they don’t).

After the drama of Sybil’s death and the Duchess (Cora)’s grief Fellowes wrote a quiet part, no high drama climactic scene; instead threaded through were continual identifications with characters, a couple of whom we have been led to feel alienated from whose full basis remained deliberately withheld or unstated. The movie whose title we are not told (I suspect Fellowes had a particular one in mind), with Lilian Gish (Orphans of the Storm) is the allusion that gives us the part’s perspective.

Anna (Joanne Froggart) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle) smile at Miss Obrien’s allusion

So, to begin with the 1st thread: cheer replacing plangency when Mr Bates returns, his lifted spirits to see Anna given the family car to pick him up:

He sees Anna there waiting for him

Then the kind welcome by the other servants, the reassurance of Lord Grantham who tells him to take “a rest,” “stay in bed,” “read books” (you see what I mean about unexpected). But Mr Bates is worried how he will support himself now; and Anna a little anxiously takes him for a walk to anticipate a plain brick attached cottage on the estate (someone else has to move out) for them.

Their future home

Next the continued risk of being thrown out in the streets (=the wilderness) that Ethel endures. The Duchess thinks to argue Mrs Crawley out of keeping Ethel as a servant on the basis of narrow minded (evil I called them in my header) scorn which might just reflect badly on the Granthams, but when the Dowager sees that is not going anywhere with Mrs Crawley switches tactics to assert how unhappy Ethel is in her present place (and picks up Mrs Hughes’s support), about which Mrs Crawley shows she is not fooled:

Mrs Crawley: ‘Oh nonsense she couldn’t give tuppence about Ethel or anyone like her.
Duchess: ‘You’ve been reading those communist newspapers again …

No she’s not, nor is Bransom a “Marxist” as Lord Grantham asserts when he hears Bransom’s plans for equity for the tenants.

Ethel is unhappy even if she’s learning to cook well — we are allowed to hear this spiteful slur by the Duchess upon Ethel defending her new skill:

Ethel: Nowadays one must have a skill …
Duchess: but you seem to have so many …

We know she enjoys her quips

Ethel suffers in the streets:

Ethel (Amy Nuttall) puts her basket down: cooking well is after all not enough

But it’s more than the nasty cuts she receives; when Mrs Crawley comes home from Downton, she finds Ethel sitting brooding. She needs more than minimal safety. We need to break these chains of shame that imprison and ostracize and isolate us. That’s what Ethel is put through: shame, imprisonment, isolation, risk of the streets too.

The strongest moment is the sudden revelation of the fear, anxiety, and need the homosexual Mr Barrow (he cannot get people to call him that) feels when he’s tried to reach someone and found himself rejected in a kind of hard-faced anger and flees in the night back to his own bed.

I can’t prove this but have a feeling we are intended to think Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) protested too much. He has a way of asserting he wants to go out with Daisy (Sophie McShears), but doing nothing about it; of saying he wants to dance with her, when it’s Alfred who turns out to be actually willing. He was eager to tell Mr Carson he was someone his aging mistress went after; when we first see him in this season, he’s washing a half-naked body and presented as intensely boyishly attractive. And the parallels between himself and Thomas are suggestive: neither it seems has parents, siblings, any family. Thomas reacts to this information by suggesting they share a loneliness, but their shared family-less state is the quiet point.


Upstairs shows displacements — they are more protected from the storm. The estate agent, Jarvis (Terence Harvey) is pushed out (we do not say sacked of middle class positions). Carrying on the feminization of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), with Mary (Michelle Dockery) even laying on top, being the aggressor when we see them in bed (not infrequently in this and the last couple of parts), we see he blames himself for Mary not yet being pregnant. For a man who is the heir and has supplied tons of money to Lord Grantham he takes an oddly subaltern position. Mary will not promise to support him against her father. It does give him some complexity (as well as his five o’clock shadow). Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) carries on with some quiet needling of her obtuse Lord and Master (Hugh Bonneville) with a worn smile.

The two of them

The ending was gratifying — and believable. Tom’s brother is brought in to show how much Tom has begun to identify with the haves and powerful. It could be that a young man is married into a family from a low station and his real talents recognized becomes a central help. It’s an old story in fact. And that he managed to baptize his daughter Catholic another. Sometimes the Duchess’s interventions work — it’s her idea that they take Tom on this way; he’ll go back to being Bransom as steward too.

The community re-forms itself

For me the weak moments was the one easy success. It’s just not probable that an editor of a newspaper would eagerly wine and dine (as far as journalism is concerned), a nobody like Edith (Laura Carmichael); her piety towards her father (all the three daughters are Daddy’s girls) does not suggest exactly fiery columns to come. I grant Edith-Laura is now dressed as prettily as Lady Mary-Michelle has been throughout the seasons:


I counted 3 tasteful alluring hats: a wide black straw hat, a cloche with a beaded gold band, the above number, and 1 scene of her looking at her image in the mirror in a most gratified way.

Apart from anything else, the easy success didn’t fit the mood of the piece which was (as I say) otherwise ambiguous. I’ll capture it in a visual image — as film should convey itself through aural and visual image: Ivy (Cara Theobold) and Alfred (Matt Milne) walking home in the dark:


My header is a line not from Downton Abbey as it’s too generous-minded and brave to come out of Fellowes’s conservative wary mindset. It’s a statement the hero of another popular mini-series (the Poldarks) makes to a young woman who is about to deprive herself of companionship. Fellowes is however perceptive, he is writing in this form, and the man who wrote Gosford Park could be found in 3:7, for the kind of content I’ve discerned her is typical soap opera or on-going multi-plot narrative forms. To quote Robert Allen on this: The journey forward is not only deferred, but also halting rather than continuous. There are continual gaps in the narratives, and alterations in horizons. The consequences of an action are more important than the action itself (especially as it ripples out to affect others), and small particular things matter. It’s an elusive form of art and fitting that a movie we hear of gives us our clue.


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Woolf’s working desk at Monk House

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve four more sessions to report on from this year’s MLA (see a rejuvenating time, the 18th century, public poetry, audio books, films): two on Virginia Woolf (one with Katherine Mansfield as part of a dual subject), one on Mark Twain and Henry James, and a fourth on the Victorian marriage plot.

Duncan Grant (1885-1978), The Coffee Pot (1916)

“Everyday Woolf” (No. 31, Thurs, Jan 3rd, noon to 1:15 pm) was the first I attended and (as sometimes happens) it was one of the best. All three papers were superb. Adam Barrows talked of “Mrs Dalloway and the Rhythms of Everyday Life”. Mrs Dalloway is confined to one day is a polyrhythmic sympohy felt in the body of biological rhythms, social patterns intersecting with the irreducably local and yet it all fits into a cosmic pattern. Discordant uneasy rhythms which function as disruptions. The text covers sleeping, eating, a continual melange of noise, visual perception, silence. We hear an irregular heartbeat. Septimus is made ill by what is imposed on him from war and now work. Mr Barrow read aloud great reveries from the novel. Kayla Walker discussed To the Lighthouse; each character is at work, Mrs Ramsay cooperatively, carving out space and time; she close-read the text for its rhythms and imagery.

In his paper, “Virginia Woolf and the Modern Blessings of Electricity,” Sean Mannion suggested that modernism begin when electricity began to spread. At first it was written about as a disenchantment, and Woolf shows nostalgia over fire- and gaslight. Newspapers found the world now looked like an amusement park; moonlight would not have the same function or meaning; light is now separated from fire. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of he warmth and radiance of gaslight. There were dangerous and fatal incidents early on as people had to learn how to use electricity. Woolf’s Night and Day captures a love of firelight lost in the glare of electric light; her Jacob’s Room has a mixed assessment. Of course the power of what electricity could do more than compensated for the losses, and there is an ecstatic feel too (in The Voyage Out), among other places, the library.

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), a friend reading in a library

A second session on Virginia Woolf, this time with the Katherine Mansfield Society, was about their personal relationship and aesthetic and professional interactions (No. 338, Fri, Jan 4th, 3:30 4:45 pm). I missed the paper on their reaction to the newly formed theories of psychoanalysis, but I did hear part of Bret Keeling’s talk on their dealings with masculinity in their work and men in their lives, and Kathryn Simpson on their differing attitudes towards gifts (also in the sense of talent) and desires. She defined a gift by its function: it can consolidate social bonds, be an assertion of power and identity and authority. What was the central focus of all I heard (including the discussion afterward) was how the two women were different in background: Woolf the daughter of the Victorian intelligensia, and then a member of the Bloomsbury intellectual art-radical group, a highly defensive writer; Mansfield a colonial who needed money more desperately than Woolf and was treated badly by men, plagiarizing sometimes, radical, adventurous in during her tragically short life. Writing was central to their identity and their styles and aims were coterminous; they were rivals.

James Whistler (1834-1903), The Giudecca (chalk & pastels on grey paper, 1879)

The joint-societies’ session of Henry James and Mark Twain (No. 377, Fri, Jan 4th, 5:15-6:30 pm) was filled with unexpected perspectives. Kaye Wierzvicki’s paper focused on James’s The Bostonians, Book 3 set in Cape Cod. We encounter a post-civil war US, a central nub in a global network as well as tourist attraction. James explores its geographic identity, what places in the world it brings together through culture and characters; it figuratively projects other places like it. Kathryn Dolan taught me that Twain was anti-imperial. Twain wrote several travel books, and one (1866?) about Hiawaii exposed how the product sugar led to cruel exploitation of imported (coerced) efficient labor patterns. In his later travel writing he reported on British islands in the South Pacific, Following the Equator, then he traveled to islands in the Indian ocean. He sees forms of slavery in the transported. I just loved Harold Hellwig’s paper which he read very fast as it was long: he covered the many images, myths and stories, and visions of Venice found in Twain and James’s writing. Both show that the allure of Venice is a cover for its ruined condition. Venice provides an inner journey of the mind; Twain presents a place false, destructive marketplaces yet its people with strong self-respect. Both have famous character sketches where they capture qualities of life (James an American Mrs Bronson, Twain an escaped black enslaved man). He recited powerful passages by both writers and had a continual montage of images of Venice from the Renaissance until today when few can live there because of the continual floods.

Christopher Eccleston as the hopeful aspiring Jude at the begining of the film (1996 Jude directed by Michael Winterbottom; see my blog on Hardy films)

The last session we attended (suitcases under our chairs) was “Rethinking the Victorian Marriage Plot” (No. 745, Sun, Jan 6th, noon to 1:15 pm). Despite an apparent contemporary emphasis on women characters looking to be useful, do real work in the world (for which they are paid in some way), a professed interest in disabilities and people in need, the underlying perspective was that of women reading for love stories that teach the female reader what she wants to hear as relevant to her. Talia Schaffer suggested that Jane Eyre scorns St John Rivers because his ideal of meaningful work represses private satisfactions. Ms Schaffer looked upon Rochester as disabled and needing Jane’s help and love. Maia McAleavey discussed how the bigamy plot in Victorian novels substitutes for an argument on behalf of divorce: in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd a female bigamist makes choices she escapes from; in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Arabella marries bigamously and finds more opportunity while Jude and Sue by behaving ethically find themselves bound and destroyed.

Sue (Kate Winslet) in a similar hopeful moment (1996 Jude)

As I sit here tonight I find myself going through the MLA book of sessions and wondering why I didn’t go to this or that (tonight seemingly) far more interesting session than those I chose. In these four blogs I have omitted a lot I did try because the time turned out dull, or jargon-ridden and phony, people posing, or the topic actually preposterous. Some were hard to write about or take notes: like a session given by companies who have put huge dictionaries on line. I went to no sessions on translation; none on intriguing odd topics (“Denis de Rougemont and appropriations of the troubadours”); there were sessions on dubbing and subtitling in movies, on animals, on psychoanalysis in literature, prison architecture, the poetics of death, global Shakespeare. It was a matter of guessing, try what I knew and where I might meet friends and acquaintances, try to go to some with Jim, leave a little time for going out and eating (it was too cold to explore Boston much). I can’t prove this but I had a sense there were fewer sessions than there used to be, and consequently a greater proportion of sessions on job hunting, careers, teaching and scholarship politics (all of which I’ve learned to avoid, especially anything for contingent faculty which often are semi-acrimonious).

I need tonight to remind myself that when we left we were exhilarated by our time away, and said we would go again the next time the MLA came to the east coast (as long as it was not too far south). We have two planned for this year already (ASECS in April and EC/ASECS next fall) and I’m going to one on Popular Culture here in DC in March where I plan to spend a full day listening to sessions on film adaptations, films and hear a paper on Winston Graham’s historical fiction from a feminist standpoint.

Inge Morath (1923-2002), A Park Bench


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Ford Madox Brown (1821-95), Hampstead from my Window (1857)

Dear friends and readers,

A brief note for Americans like myself who are not aware of the birthdays or birthplaces of British politicians who have become symbolic figures after they exercised power in an ostentatiously as well as felt way politically.

I did not know that Grantham was the name of the place Margaret Thatcher came from (as it’s put). Her father was “a local worthy” who ran a small business. That it’s a compliment to Mrs Thatcher and at the same time an allusion meant explicitly to alert us to the political allegiance of its author.

Jim not only said, oh yes, but immediately went on to suggest that the mood and atmosphere of the mini-series as described to him (he does not watch TV) brought to mind some lines from Rupert Brooke‘s 1912 poem “The Old Vicarage, Granchester,” which ends with these lines:

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies and truth and pain? …. oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

The whole poem is online.

If the whole poem were like that, it’d indeed capture a central motif of Fellowes’s Downton Abbey, only Brooke’s poem is a kind of pastoral as satire on male muscular Christianity with some misogynistic lines thrown in here and there (“And Ditton girls are mean and dirty”) with scorn for lower class people so egregious (“folks in Shelford and those parts/Have twisted lips and twisted hearts”), that I’m tempted to say it’s ironic with the poet keeping his distance from his narrator, but I think the escape into a deep meadow and landscape world before industrialization, pre-Capitalist is at times serious, and then again mocking: “And when they get to feeling old,/They up and and shoot themselves I’m told) …

John Betjeman, Brooke is not (to be explained on my Sylvia blog this Sunday).

I don’t know if I’ve emphasized how surprising it is that there is so little filmic intertextuality in Downton Abbey. It does not imitate, borrow, allude to other mini-series; this is unusual nowadays as well as it’s rare use of montage and almost complete lack of flashbacks, voice-overs, filmic epistolarity (letters ready by characters using voice-over). What intertextuality there is (confirmed in the second volume on the series, The Chronicles of DA) is textual: Bates’s story was suggested to Fellowes by a news article and an Agatha Christie story.

So I suggest he may also have remembered or had in Brooke’s Grantchester in mind when he chose the name Grantham. I’ve chosen a couple of mid-Victorian idealizing watercolors for this blog whose typology is behind what we see of landscape (not a lot, again surprisingly for a mini-series of this type) in DA.

Perhaps the reader will recall the shot of Lady Sybil plotting Gwen Dawson, the maid who escaped to an office job in the first season, where they are in an old-fashioned wagon riding together and pass under a half-ruined arch in a vast green landscape:

Alfred Wm Hunt (1830-96), Finchale Priory (exhibited 1862)


P.S. I’m not really surprised by the lack of filmic intertextuality, filmic sophistication and/or dream landscapes. These are part of the ways in which Fellowes has carefully kept this mini-series broad and popular in its approach & therefore appeal.

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Dowager: ‘Now that it’s over try to get some rest …’
Cora: ‘Is it over? when one loses a child is it ever really over?’

Cora to Robert: ‘You’re always flabbergasted by the unconventional’

Cora at Robert: ‘Not everyone chooses their religion to satisfy Debret’s’

and then there was:

Lord Grantham: ‘We’re going right now …’
Cora: ‘What are you talking about …’ [emphasis hers]

After the salmon mousse (Going round in clock-order, Penelope Wilton, Elizabeth McGovern, Amy Nuttal, Laura Carmichael, Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith, POV: Hugh Bonneville)

TheLuncheon (2)blog
Cora, Lady Grantham turning to look at Lord Grantham

Dear friends and readers,

I don’t say that Elizabeth McGovern in this episode came up to when I first saw her, as Beatrice-Joanna in Middleton’s Changeling (with Hugh Grant and Bob Hoskins), but, alas, you can only see that if you’ve a working VHS player and buy this cassette; the old PBS (Channel 13, Play of the Week) performance is not even listed on IMDB. Go look. Nor when I saw her in Shelley Duval’s Faery Tale Theater; (where I’ll swear she was in a tale with David Hemmings, and held her own as Snow White against an evil queen — though she’s not listed there either). The material in Downton Abbey is not up to Middleton at any rate; but then Maggie Smith has not shown us what she can do either.

But she was great and (as middle-aged women who demand to be taken seriously) again overlooked, and if half-crazed pathos was her end note last week, steely- or suppressed rage was at moments this. I wished she could have given some of it to Ethel who also had a child now dead to her and given her subaltern position can only manage: “But you know how it is when you bury someone young …When you lose your child there’s nothing worse under the sun.” By contrast, Cora says: “I am here [still].” (Not as good as “I am Duchess of Malfi still” but going in that direction.)

Early shot in 3:6

The major thread of this hour was coping with Sybil’s death: the fallout. In context, the usual suffering of Bates and Anna functions in place of the comic relief, but such little time is given over to it, that it’s hard to say just why Bates’s use of a pointed instrument (nail file?) and menacing threat of his cellmate’s throat, and the spiteful oppressive guard terrorized them into successfully urging Mrs Barnett to tell how Vera probably poisoned herself with a pie.

See I told you it was what we had as comic relief. Mary, ever the sage, while taking her jewels off her fingers, tells Anna standing by with hairbrush more than once “we need this, it’s good news.”

Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Lady Mary

Though I fear not for Thomas who is also being set up for a rejection by Jimmy (who complains of Thomas’s gingerly gestures towards Jimmy’s shoulder).

One cannot say the other thread which contrasted to the major story was comic, as it partly reinforced the realities Lord Grantham is having to face. When Daisy (Sophie McShera) visits her loving father-in-law, he tells her he would like her to learn to take over his farm, to become its manager.

Daisy: But I always thought I’d spend my life in service
Mr Mason (Paul Copley) ‘You have forty years of work ahead of ya do you think these great houses like Downton Abbey are going to go on just as they are for 40 years, because I don’t …

Lord Grantham is not going to lose just the battle over whether his new grandchild will be Catholic Mary: “You’re going to lose this one.”

We saw Daisy trying to teach an ungrateful Alfred (Matt Milne) to foxtrot


But he hankers after Ivy (actress’s name?), of whose rouge Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nicol) does not approve, mostly because she’s been irritated out of all patience by the obdurate cruelty of Mr Carson (Jim Carter) against Ethel. Mr Carson scolds her and she is not allowed to answer back. Nor does Mrs Hughes. In fact no one (not even Cora) tells any of the men they have no right to judge Ethel’s life — not when they are men (with all the gender’s advantages).

In Fellowes’s world, the women can identify and sympathize with Ethel, most of the men (Dan Stevens I assume would take on his role as noble exception) scorn.

Otherwise, we are coping with something impossible to cope with. The death of a young woman. Mrs Crawley in her usual anxiety to help (“Is there something I can do, anything, anything at all?”)


Well, no, now that you mention it.

But she persists, and Mary supports her in the invitation to luncheon for “the girls” (“Does that include me,” asks the Dowager unseen on the couch), which leads to what I think is Mrs Crawley’s first ungenerous moment in 3 years: when Ethel voices her intense desire to do something too — in the form of a delicious luncheon: “I’d like to make a bit of an effort to show our sympathies,” Mrs Crawley in effect threatens her with loss of job: “I’ll hold you responsible.”

For those paying attention to the art and structure of these parts, the luncheon occurs at precisely the same place as the humiliation at the wedding. When Cora refuses to leave, defying Robert and supporting Ethel, that was climax. Maybe that’s why most blogs sees to quote the Dowager’s unusually semi-feeble (all the funnier) support of Cora by way of apology to her son: “It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding.”


I’ll give Lord Grantham this: although he’d see Ethel starve, he’s not into marital rape (Cora has relegated him to his dressing room), and so the Dowager engineers a scene of catharsis, to bring Cora back to face what she cannot:

Dr Clarkson (David Robb) realizing the Dowager wants him to lie: in this part we see someone coming between a woman and her doctor

The core of the final scene is that it was probably in the cards for Sybil to die. Eclampsia is still a major cause of “complications” (as things going fatally wrong are euphemistically called), and in 1920 although there had been sufficient advances in understanding sepsis as well as how to stem the horrific bleeding that comes with the major surgery of Cesarean section (through increased knowledge of the flesh walls of the uterus), still it was a highly risky procedure.

I take Cora’s shudder and hysterical crying as the final scene shuts after Clarkson’s shading of the truth (we could also call it) to be this realization because I want to be charitable to Downton Abbey. I know there is another interpretation: we are encouraged to believe that under pressure from the Dowager, Dr Clarkson lied.

As we all recall, in the previous episode, Dr Clarkson said there was “a chance” Lady Sybil could survive if she was rushed to the hospital for a Cesarean. And we recall that Dr Tapsell pooh-poohed this, and said he saw nothing to demand such strong measures and Lord Grantham went with Dr Tapsell and Cora acquiesced. (Some commentators have said this complicity of hers was the result of instilled obedience to her husband, and we might say her rage at her husband is rage at herself but I think that’s giving psychological depth to these characters that’s not there (It’s not a George Eliot novel but more like a staged play.) The Dowager persuades Dr Clarkson to move from “small chance” to an “infinitesimal chance.” And in the event, facing the pair, he actually says she would have died anyway. Upon which Cora collapses into Lord Grantham’s arms.

Why? was it that she really blamed her husband and now that she believes it was not his fault, she is not angry. That turns her into a mechanical doll, a stupid woman whose emotions can be turned through words. I take it (as I say) she finally faced that Lady Sybil was going to die and there was nothing to be done.

But there is a problem here ethically: Fellowes encourages us to feel that she was led to this realization by a lie. The moment may be seen as a not simply a justification of lying as sometimes needed, called for, but even a kind of validation. The hour at that point recalled Ann Patchett’s Patron St of Liars, which novel rather boomerangs on her as a thoroughly disingenuous novelist. It also validates a doctor imposing a false truth on a woman.

As it happens last night I watched another movie, this one based on an under-rated fine novel, The Walking Stick, where the heroine finds her sense of reality so undermined by the lying of her partner, that to keep her sanity and trust, and stability she has to give up the relationship. We can only base ourselves on the stability of truth. This is of course not the only time I’ve seen Fellowes urge a distorted coarse understanding of life’s experiences, but it did grate, possibly because I took the character Cora too seriously. I have known several women now whose children pre-deceased them. One of them told me it’s like having a knife put in your heart ever after.

But if you don’t take this mini-series or its character seriously (and it’s not great art and Fellowes’s vision is often falsifying), you are invited to find it amusing that Ethel had to plead with Mrs Patmore to get Mrs Patmore to help her and accept such dismissively wry statement when Ethel finds herself remembering how often she has failed as a cook, that “Anyone who has the use of their limbs can make a salmon mousse:”


Can they now? I can’t.

Mrs Patmore, like Mrs Hughes, quietly defies Mr Carson (patriarchy is having a hard time in this episode) and the two help Ethel, but they do not do so graciously, bringing to mind the Latin saying: “To give quickly is to give twice.” Mrs Hughes has ever been grudging, and now Patmore has to be argued into helping Ethel on the grounds her Ladyship will be there:


That’s not good enough. The first scene between Ethel and Mrs Patmore was for me the most painful because (as I said when I started) Cora stands up for herself. I wish she had held out longer against Lord Grantham, but it was inevitable that she let things go back to whatever they were and live with Sybil’s death.

There was a rare touching scene between Matthew and Mary in bed together. It too related to Sybil’s death, but for those who watch the mini-series as a mini-series, you know this is ominous foreshadowing:


He: When Sybil was talking about the baby being a Catholic do you get the sense that she knew?
She: I’m not sure, not at the time but of course I’ve asked myself since.
He: You’d think we’d be used to young death after four years of war.
She: That’s why we must never take anything for granted.
He: That’s what I’m trying to get Robert to see. He wasn’t given Downton by God’s decree. We have to work if we want to keep it.
She: And not only Downton, us. We must never take us for granted. Who knows what’s coming.
He: I have to take one thing for granted. That I will love you until the last breath leaves my body.
She: Oh my darling, me too. Me too,
She lays on him and he kisses her hair

To sum up: It’s about the fallout after a hard death and Elizabeth McGovern comes into her own in this role. I wished Amy Nuttal had been able (but her position precluded it so we must make do with Cora) to react as frankly and truly. I like that it may be in the cards Sophie McShera may yet end up in charge.

The important history in these two episodes is the way women are treated in childbirth as a mirror of the way they are still sidelined today.


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The Walking Stick first shots (Samantha Eggar as Deborah)

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I watched a re-digitalized (rescued, brought back) film from the 1970s made from an early book of Winston Graham’s, The Walking Stick, very powerful book (inward) — perceptive psychological study of two troubled minds, troubled from different sources. The woman because she’s disabled (crippled, had polio) and because of how her society (family, men, the demands made upon her as polio victim) have treated her. Especially difficult has been the area of sex. She has become an expert in art objects partly because she has the time to devote herself to this and likes things of beauty. The man because he was brought up in lower middle to working class English circumstances where the injuries of class in the UK were once and still are particularly searing.

My observation comes partly from a query I saw on the Sharp-l list-serv this morning but partly something I’ve been thinking about as I study Jane Austen and other classic authors turned into films who themselves never saw a movie. It’s about how novels are written. Over on Trollope19thCStudies we read an early 20th century novel by Galsworthy, The Country House and readers said they were disappointed in it. Among other things it didn’t have enough “scenes.” Also not enough inward psychology as a POV. It’s clearly not written to be screened, to be visualized on a big screen, to be enacted by an actor. Nor were his Forsyte Saga novels. My speculation is he would have written them very differently today. Ditto Jane Austen. Even if said to, her novels do not lend themselves easily to film adaptation at all; that why so many differ or imitate one another. They are short, have simple stories and often a specific POV; these things do help but beyond that … One has to invent filmic epistolarity; they call out for female narrators, not what’s wanted in popular US film at all.

In studying Trollope’s novels which have been adapted for films, the only one which did not undergo transformations continually was his story, “Malachi’s Cove,” set in Cornwall where he did mean to describe the landscape and high dramatic visualized scenes centrally.

I’ve noticed that there is a fault-line in some author’s novels between those written before the novelist got a film contract and film made out of his or her book and those written afterward. A famous case in point for me is John LeCarre. His earlier novels do not seem to me written with movies in mind. I’ll instance the gem, A Small Town in Germany. After the tremendous successes of The Spy who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, the novels’ texture, the kinds of incidents dramatized are much more the kinds we see in movies. Read The Constant Gardener and it seems written with a screenplay in mind; it just lends itself to it, even the parts that are subjective email narrative. The switches from one set of characters to another are done with juxtapositions in mind.

It’s perhaps easier to see in less well-known novelists. Last night I could see that the director of The Walking Stick to as it were work at the book to find the cinematic pictures (like of the Thames) that in later books by Graham would have been there. There is a big different between the first four Poldark novels written before the well-known first mini-series for TV and the three written I had almost said for (and it was for) the second mini-series. The second quartet written in the 1980s had the kinds of incidents favored by mini-series, which lend themselves to serial drama. I’m thinking of simple as well as complex things. In the later novels he is sure to have large gatherings, characters walking in a landscape, a POV from a character for a scene. I don’t think his novels are worse for this at all; you can see the influence of Hitchcock in his mysteries after the first one was filmed and a success.

But the earlier ones are different. The novel The Walking Stick opens with an inward monologue of the young women giving us her class background and hinting at a devastating relationship with one Leigh Hartley to come; Graham also alludes to important books for this novel, Bettelheim’s The Informed Heart is one. The film opens with our heroine stumbling along amid a huge crowd in the Tube, enduring a long ride standing among others close-packed, no one not a soul speaking to any one else, they could each be all alone. And she gets no help understanding Leigh Hartley from anyone until near the end of the novel when she has literally to interrogate people to get them to tell her information they could have told her much earlier. The film-makers thought of visibilia which captures the underside of fierce rage, thwarted ambition and asocial behavior in the young man by giving him an old car made up of parts which he madly tears through old streets in:


Like Lost Horizon, this is a film which was not available for a long time and though not a big commercial success, a success d’estime (it began David Hemmings’s career as he plays Hartley subtly and effectively with taste just right). I now realize the only shots one could find on the Net were of the young pair at a happy moment on the seashore (a favorite place for Graham to set his scenes) where they walk and he takes her stick from her — generously, tactfully done — but it’s not so set in the novel at all. 5 shots:





Leigh (Hemmings) makes a bargain with Deborah, she gives him an antique and he takes her stick

The partly ruined industrial landscape, the back quiet music all added.

I can’t prove this but I suggest a later novel would have opened far more visually and such visibilia scenes been in the novel or equivalents. Ditto Marnie (which did become a famous movie).

It makes sense to me that a writer might really learn a lot about how to write a novel with a film in mind by watching his or her novel adapted. Downton Abbey is much weaker in its content and meaning because there is no great book behind it, but it is continually written with TV film in mind, serial drama and this gives it freedom and power. HD operas are making a smash hit in the movies: operas are written with the stage in mind.


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