Archive for February 5th, 2013

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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