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Archive for November, 2018

by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

“But in public who shall express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond out daily vision.”

Dear friends and readers,

I doubt I can convey what a good time we had for the last two or three months on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io reading and talking/writing together on Forster, his Howards End, and the two movies made from it (1993 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala with Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West &c&c; 2018 BBC Lonergan-Hettie Macdonald with Matthew Macfayden, Hayley Atwell, Joseph Quinn, Philippa Coulthard &c&c), a couple of biographies, especially Nicola Beauman, and then (irresistibly it felt) A Room with a View (again two movies, 1985 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala (Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot, again Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis) and a superlative 2007 ITV Andrew Davies (Elaine Cassidy, Timothy and Rafe Spall, Sophie Thompson, Mark Williams&c&c), not to omit talk of Bloomsbury, fluid sexuality, Virginia Woolf as a topic in her own right, the new art and so on and so forth. We were turned into a Forster listserv. We have torn ourselves away at last to turn to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now for December through early February, but we plan a Forster summer in a few months. We’ve got four more novels, and who knows how many movies and great actors ….

He wrote fascinating novels, wonderful novels, smart, complicated funny and very sad. So what can I say about what we said about Howards End that can fit into a blog? a novel filled with ghosts and silences: “I didn’t do wrong, did I?” Mrs Wilcox is said to have asked her husband


Vanessa Redgrave as the first Mrs Wilcox (M-I-J 1993 film)

“Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others—and thus was the death of Wickham Place—the spirit slips before the body perishes. It had decayed in the spring, disintegrating the girls more than they knew, and causing either to accost unfamiliar regions. By September it was a corpse, void of emotion, and scarcely hallowed by the memories of thirty years of happiness — from Howards End


Samuel West in a dream sequence of longing as Leonard Bast (M-I-J 1993 film)

In general a number of people said they found themselves reading this book very differently from the way they had say 30 years ago, and they were noticing elements in Margaret’s marriage to Henry Wilcox and Helen’s full attitude towards Leonard Bast they never noticed before: how condescending both woman can be to Bast; how Margaret marries to have monetary security, on materialistic considerations she ignores her incompatibility with Henry Wilcox who cannot change to the extent she imagines.


Anthony Hopkins as the unreasoning instinctively closed Henry Wilcox (the successful businessman) when Margaret angers him (M-I-J 1993 film)

The Wilcoxes in their turn say they would do anything for their mother, but the one request she makes, that she leave her own house, Howards End to Margaret is looked at as preposterous. All the characters are trapped in unsatisfactory human relationships, if the causes of the dissatisfaction differs for each. This is a novel about the cruelties of class. How Margaret is shocked at Helen not sleeping in her own house, but with (we know) Leonard Bast. She tricks Helen into coming to Howards End. She is presented as having been a mother to her siblings in the 2018 film but not in the book


Hayley Atwell as Margaret (2018 film)

All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don’t fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have; love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be — Margaret to Helen at the close of the book — though she is kind to her aunt

A couple of us defended the perhaps ex-milliner Jackie; she is treated in the novel as ontologically inferior, erased, forgotten.


Rosalind Eleazar as Jacky Bast (2018 film)

How often Forster comes out directly as narrator, how conversations among the characters are multi-dimensional. He projected his love of the English countryside vividly — as when Bast goes on that passionate roaming reverie though an old wood. He read Ruskin and Ruskin’s love of art and proto-socialism are forces in the novel. There is a magic faery tale element about the house. Miss Avery by unpacking the Schlegels things, especially the books, makes the house alive; it was suggested that Helen is a Pre-Raphaelite figure as she sits in its porch waiting to be let in by Margaret. She is deeply human, sensual and comfortable in her skin


Philippa Coulthard as Helen (2018 film)

Margaret is deeply gratified to have Helen with her again, but I note how she tricks Helen into coming into Howards End, and then moves from distrust and alienation and a new almost automatic rejection of Helen to the old bonded feelings and agreement. What enables this is not common grounds in attitudes but common ground in the furniture and books; set up in this house they are enough to bring back the past and begin a re-bonding. I wonder if this is not a wish fulfillment and this intense love of early places and the past (which I’m now reading about in Beauman’s biography) is not a strong delusion or illusion fantasy: “all the time their salvation was lying around them — the past sanctifying the present, the present, with wild heart-throb …. the inner life had paid”


Alex Lawther as the appealing impish, but marginalized Tibby — the character reappears more fully developed, older, articulate in Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View (Lonergan 2018)

We talked of Forster’s homosexuality and why he stopped writing novels so early in life: he was frustrated by having to present heterosexual life and leave so much he valued outside his text, to respect in the text what he felt alienated from. Tyler Tichelaar had written a perceptive blog-essay on this aspect of Forster’s art and life as seen in Maurice. I wrote about Sean O’Connor’s book Straight Acting where he described his and other playwright’s dilemmas as gay men pressured into misrepresenting themselves and what they longed to dramatize in life; I watched the recent film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea by Terence Davies: wrecked and wrecking heterosexual relationships represent a gay man’s take on heterosexual marriage and compromise; he pitiable but at the same time vengeful older lover.


Peppard Cottage used for Howards End in M-I-J 1993 (here it is not photographed in prettying up light) – the house in the novel is Rooksnest which Forster and his mother lived in for many years

Death is an important reality in the novel and outside a reason to live, become your own identity as you make your choices. We talked of how moving home, from one place to another, is akin to the experience of death (though for some it’s liberty at last from stifling hierarchies and militant naturalisms. Judith Cheney quoted Robert Louis Stevenson:

The coach is at the door at last;
The eager children, mounting fast
And kissing hands, in chorus sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

To house and garden, field and lawn,
The meadow-gates we swang upon,
To pump and stable, tree and swing,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

And fare you well for evermore,
O ladder at the hayloft door,
O hayloft where the cobwebs cling,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

Crack goes the whip, and off we go;
The trees and houses smaller grow;
Last, round the woody turn we sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

We don’t know that if Henry Wilcox should predecease Margaret the Wilcoxes will not go to court to get Howards End back.


The room with the view in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhavala film (1985)

We read the earlier book, A Room with a View second. it is shorter and at first it seems simpler — there is no larger critique of colonialism, no debates over socialism, the removals of people from capitalism, but it isn’t simpler. What it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in intensity.

Lucy was suffering from the most grievous wrong which this world has yet discovered: diplomatic advantage had been taken of her sincerity, of her craving for sympathy and love. Such a wrong is not easily forgotten. Never again did she expose herself without due consideration and precaution against rebuff. And such a wrong may react disastrously upon the soul


Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy setting out on her adventure among the art and churches of Florence (M-I-J 1985)

I loved the ancient classical myth in the book too, the use of Italian art, the pastoral, all mixed with the everyday in Pensione Bertolini. We are invited to revel: Lucy is called a Work of Art, and Forster is generalizing out from this incident to make large statements about art, sexuality, and all the ritual events of daily lives. It’s false to say our conflict is passion versus duty; it’s real feeling versus the pretended and hypocritical. Lucy almost misses out on marrying George where her joy is presented as potentially so fulfilling. By contrast to convention, Cecil repeats Tibby’s statement about the work ethic more forcefully: “I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don’t care a straw about, but somehow I’ve not been able to begin.” Diane Reynolds quoted “Lucy’s vehement outburst of hatred towards Mr. Eager’s cold snobbery and ascetism. I found it quite satisfying—and true: We perhaps should hate people who destroy other people by spreading lies:”


The bathing scene (from the 1985 film)

“Now, a clergyman that I do hate,” said she wanting to say something sympathetic, “a clergyman that does have fences, and the most dreadful ones, is Mr. Eager, the English chaplain at Florence. He was truly insincere—not merely the manner unfortunate. He was a snob, and so conceited, and he did say such unkind things.”
“What sort of things?”
“There was an old man at the Bertolini whom he said had murdered his wife.”
“Perhaps he had.”
“No!”
“Why ‘no’?”
“He was such a nice old man, I’m sure.”
Cecil laughed at her feminine inconsequence.
“Well, I did try to sift the thing. Mr. Eager would never come to the point. He prefers it vague—said the old man had ‘practically’ murdered his wife—had murdered her in the sight of God.”
“Hush, dear!” said Mrs. Honeychurch absently.
“But isn’t it intolerable that a person whom we’re told to imitate should go round spreading slander? It was, I believe, chiefly owing to him that the old man was dropped. People pretended he was vulgar, but he certainly wasn’t that.”

Beauman, Charles Summer and all I read suggested that Forster matured, found such pleasure, liberty, love when he traveled — Italy, Greece, Alexandria, and India, all meant so much, and this book records these feelings. I show but one still of these English in the countryside:


That’s Maggie Smith, Judi Dench as Miss Lavish (makes phony art) and Lucy (1985 M-I-J film)

Mr Emerson and Mr Beebe, but especially Mr Emerson are the two benign knowing genius locii of the book. Mr Emerson (I found Timothy Spall pitch perfect) speaks eloquently of the “holiness of direct desire” and Mr Beebe quietly for whatever is your sexuality — he encourages Lucy to play, everyone to bathe, tries to help Cecil recognize himself. He does not blame Mrs Honeychurch for her dim appreciation of nothing beyond the obvious comforts of living. There is much lightness, pleasant humor. Tyler wrote: “I love how the bathing scene comes about – Freddie just inviting George to bath – the awkwardness of the invitation and the joviality of just spontaneously going to bath, and the joy of the Sacred Lake being large enough to bathe in, only to have it return to normal size soon after. I did not really think there was anything very gay in the bathing scene, even though the film sort of suggests it. They are just being boys and being playful, acting like teenage boys, although it does seem odd they are wrestling and playing ball naked outside the pond. It’s a very strange way to get to know your new neighbors.”


A scene of Charlotte successfully repressing Lucy and persuading her to go home to escape George (1985 M-I-J film)

There is death and it is swift and sudden in this book: the man knifed in the piazza. Davies’s film frames the story with George’s death in WW1 by having Lucy return 20 years later, most of the film a flashback, ending with her going on a picnic with Gino, who had been ostracized and stigmatized on the trip into the countryside by Mr Eager. We are told Mr Emerson died. In much of the book Charlotte Bartlett plays the part of “a corrosive, selfish, and dull personality ” who spoils life for others, represses others with shame, a loving kiss is an insult; but at its close she is presented as alone, poorer, having trouble with her plumbing (no bathing for her) and forgiven: Forster wants us to think she facilitated Lucy and George finally getting together. It’s not quite believable but the 1985 M-I-J movie ends with Maggie Smith as Charlotte reading a letter of the young couple in love and the movie’s last scene of love-making is a flashback from this letter. The book and movies are charitable: as acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, Vyse conveys how much small experiences in art do mean much to him; the character is deeply sensitive and he is hurt by Lucy’s lying but gentlemanly, chivalrous in response. The book is about an awakening.


Elaine Cassidy as Lucy after listening to Mr Emerson’s description of George (2007 Davies film)

I discovered many parallels with Austen (she was his mentor in novels) but also much other influence beyond art. Edward Carpenter, idealistic, socialist gay man (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love by Sheila Rowbotham), Forster’s mother & aunts, his milieu, and that of different circles of artists; as the years went on when he taught, and later years of broadcasting in the BBC. He did not shut down because he stopped writing fiction, and beyond the novels there were numerous unpublished short stories, and published essays and travel writing and biography. Jim liked Forster’s correspondence with the Greek gay poet, Cavafy.

What Beauman does in Morgan is what write up Forster’s deep past and what’s to come from Morgan’s point of view when he grew much older and perhaps after he had written all his novels from the beginning to the end of her book. That’s the curious perspective taken on the incidents of his life and his art examined in more or less chronological order: each incident is retold from how Forster would see it when he became an artist or was a practicing writer.

So for example, in talking of Rooksnest into which Forster and mother moved when he was just 2, she says the way his mother set it up was “to make a statement about how life should be lived” and then connects this to Mrs Wilcox’s love of Howards End. Beauman is soon describing the real place using Forster’s words many years after, e.g. about the hall, “he tells us about “a kitchen when the house was a farm and sad to say had once had an open fireplace with a great chimney but before we came the landlord, Colonel Wilkinson, closed it up put a wretched little grate instead and made the chimney corner into a cupboard.” Says Beauman: “The reader does not visualize the cupboard; instead one gets an image of a difficult landlord.” Then she goes on to give an example of this kind of thinking and feeling in a character’s mind in Forster’s fiction. And so it is built up memory by memory.


Sophie Thompson as Charlotte, pitch perfect) probably modelled on one of Forster’s aunts or his mother (2007 Davies film)

We plan to do it again with two or three of the following four novels: each person can choose which ones he or she would like to read: The Longest Journey, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Passage to India (which I was listening to read aloud in my car by Sam Daster and I am now persuaded is one of the finest shorter novels in the English language) and/or Maurice. And if I live, I’ll teach a course in both OLLIs on the novels of Forster two springs from the one coming (2020).

Ellen

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Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark brooding (near the opening, early still after the prologue)


Elinor Tomlinson as Demelza Poldark (near opening &c), singing, troubled

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive! We are. We are. The past is over, gone. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow! It’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask … Demelza to Ross (last page of The Angry Tide).

Dear friends and readers,

A second Winston Graham blog-review in a row! Beyond Poldark, Graham is the author/source of the misbegotten Hitchcock movie, Sean O’Connor play and now perverse opera Marnie. This time, mostly due to the excellence of the two source novels, Poldark novel 6, The Four Swans (A novel of Cornwall, 1796-97), and Poldark novel 7, The Angry Tide (ditto, 1798-99 is listening), the film adaptation is well worth the watching and thinking about. I declare myself (as loud as I can, in the hope someone with power to realize Poldark novels 8-12, might hear me), I’d love to see the same cast or another (as the Netflix series The Crown has done) film Stranger from the Sea, Miller’s Dance, Loving Cup, Twisted Sword and Bella [misnamed by an editor, ought to be Valentine], 1810-20 as further serial drama seasons for Poldark. Begin two years from now ….

NB: I have eschewed summaries (except to compare the older series in the comments) and concentrated on the realization of the novels as 2018 TV serial drama.

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Turner as Ross eloquent and bitter does bring out the central economic power issues


Elise Chappell as Morwenna grieving over the coming hanging of Drake — a very French revolution scene because of the bars …

Episodes 1 & 2 are much changed from the last part of Graham’s Four Swans. Prologue: Ross standing on the beaching is having bad dreams about Demelza and Hugh Armitage. Story (Episode 1): What had been a politically meaningful series of violent thievery because the people are starving (Corn laws keeping the price of bread very high), and Bassett’s demand for scapegoats, with which Ross feels forced to cooperate, becomes a highly personal melodramatic story involving Morwenna and Whitworth since Horsfield replaces the people in the book rounded up (with one poignant man hung) with the two Carne brothers and Zacky Martin’s son. It’s out of character for gentle religious Sam and the now withdrawn depressed Drake to be in a riot, but now Horsfield can make Ross central hero: he’s off to Bassett’s to try to get them off, and failing, comes to the hanging, where his impassioned speech on their behalf improbably reprieves them. Nothing like last minute reprieves from scaffolds. I was moved by Zacky Martin’s grief for his son. The general primary scenes in the book and in the old series – at Lord Dunstable’s house and Bassetts — become secondary, brief. Horsfield also builds up the romance scenes between the three couples with very explicit dialogue. I liked the conversations between Ross and Demelza over the course of the hour as they work out their estrangement; some of this from the book.

Horsfield’s way of making Ross’s now agreeing finally to become an MP to prevent such personal injustice (the result of many such episodes in previous seasons) gives the new series a kind of unity and simplifying single thrust forward it didn’t have in the first series. In the book Ross’s refusals come out of subtler psychological reasons in complicated circumstances.

Episode 2 again Horsfield turns a realistic depiction of the way the world then worked into a personalized heroic drama. As Ross is dragged into replacing Armitage (now dying) in the election against Warleggan, we dwell on Ross’s complicated psychic life: Horsfield sets up juxtapositions between the elections and Armitage dying with Demelza supposed to love him but reluctant to be seen by his side. So the story is now Ross in public succeeding without having bribed anyone or even run a campaign — while Warleggan is intimidating, threatening and bribing people (to no avail finally). One side effect is Dwight becomes more central as presiding physician. In the book and first series Armitage was allowed to die slowly and only after Demelza is seen grieving separately, and Ross seen devastated and embittered by her grief for another, that the new election starts and The Angry Tide starts. Conversations between Demelza and Ross oddly didactic in all 3 iterations (book, 1970s series, this new one) but he came out of them the finer soul.


Ciara Charteris as Emma Tregirls watching the wrestling match


Tom York as Sam badly hurt

Secondary stories: Sam loses to the lout Harry partly because at the end of the fight Harry insinuates that Emma has gone to bed with Harry. A little later Emma says she had not; Sam’s heart was not in this violence in the first place — he is a believing gentle methodist. The true plangent note was struck by bringing in Drake’s distress for Morwenna: she still holds out against the bully Whitworth. Caroline’s finding herself pregnant and making a joke out of how she doesn’t want this baby. Horsfield shows no feel for this couple – in the original an earnest sincere man coupled with an incompatible “gay” lady; in the 1970s an earnest hard-working physician engaged with his patients married to a frivolous aristocrat who wants to spend her life socializing — the whole thing rings false, coy, with Luke Norris as Dwight embarrassing.

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Ross reading letters in London


Max Bennett as Monk Adderley emerging from darkness

Episodes 3 & 4: After the death of Hugh Armitage in the previous, and Ross’s agreeing to run and his win, he goes to Parliament in London. He and she talk of a different life for both, with her remaining in in Cornwall in charge and taking care, while he goes to London to argue ferociously in parliament on behalf of good causes. Exchange of letters using over-voice contains good feeling. Recess and everyone comes home – Ross and Whitworth in the conversation that opens Graham’s Angry Tide: Ross tells Whitworth to give his curate Odgers what he should get and he’ll help him — thematically effective underlining. In Cornwall Warleggan to the fore with his throwing a large party to make the right connections in which we meet the insinuating Adderley who insults Ross out of instinctive envy (I took you for a down-and-out troubadour). Whitworth visiting Pearce learns of embezzlement, tells Warleggan and his uncle so hypocrisy of the most sordid type, and underhanded dealings can ruin the good banker, Pascoe. Meanwhile well-meant mine venture flooded because supports not well-built (in book Sam allowed to be hero, but Horsfield will not allow anyone but Ross to be chief rescuer)


A Madonna-like moment


Esme Coy as Rowella selling herself

Private life themes: Rebecca Front as Lady Whitworth, the harsh mother-in-law, her snobbery, Whitworth indignant at Morwenna refusing him sex (coerced marriage seen rightly as rape), seeks out Rowella now she has not had a child. Horsfield’s further ill-conceived changes flattening and making senseless subtle characters: Demelza now she bickers with Ross (made resentful, she wants to go to London, the feel is of an estranged couple who from far away love one another but close by end up in much awkward uncomfortable talk); Elizabeth exults in George’s amorality (she made unlikable) while George made one note villain (life seems lived to get back at Ross). Verity’s good feeling visit; Geoffrey Charles now grown made naive. Caroline having given birth Dwight confronted with baby fatally ill unwilling to tell her as she clings absurdly to her indifference (all the while never putting the baby down). But when baby dies (a moving scene), she is all funereal and must to London with Ross to get over it. Excruciating painful scenes drenched in melancholy: Emma tells Sam she must marry elsewhere; the attempt to put Mowenna in asylum. Meanwhile Demelza has engineered a marriage between Drake and Rosina.

Beautiful and effective shots throughout, suggestive psychology, casual effective landscapes, but scenes move too quickly, are too brief for us to appreciate them, and to make effective the amount of action and rich nuances of feeling piled in.

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Episodes 5 & 6: I thought 5 very good except in those places where Horsfield, it seems to me perversely, alters the story or characters. Many of the minor characters were very effective in this episode (Rebecca Strong as the woman bully &c).


Luke Norris as Dwight: his best moments are when his character is acting as physician

London scenes: On the whole well acted, powerful atmosphere in London, corrupt parties, the pressure, and the political skein of given-and-take between Ross and Falmouth throughout, and Ross’s friendship with Bassett especially. Adderley effective. We are to find it natural that Caroline would enjoy his company? Gabriella Wilde is so painfully thin — she wears nothing low cut; they know it would be distressing to see the edges of her bones come out. I cringe when Enys cringes. Ross’s meeting with Pitt effective; yes Pitt had plans for pensions for the poor and helping them help themselves and in the book Ross does protest against just helping enslaved people and not the working poor. He does (again) seem to me to be sitting on the wrong side of the benches The Tories were in power and he is there as a member for a Tory patron, Lord Falmouth, very well acted by James Wilby. She adds scene between Elizabeth and Ross over Geoffrey Charles to once again make Ross the hero: this time he is saving the boy from bad company, from being beat up by them, but of course these are peccadilloes he just needs to outgrow. We should be glad that he is not characterized as going after girls aggressively as another “boys will be boys.” In the book Elizabeth stays away from Ross lest she rouse George’s jealousy. Elizabeth is taking a great chance, and Ross himself regards her warily as strongly self-centered. He has no need to remind her that she can try to misrepresent the date of her parturition.


Amelia Clarkson as Rosina Hoblyn


Harry Richardson as Drake the morning he is to wed Rosina

Cornwall: A powerful moment when Dwight’s baby dies & he grieves, Horsfield gives Aidan Turner as Ross some lines remembering the death of his daughter. Ross at first just uses the word daughter, and Dwight assumes he means Clowance: Dwight may have forgotten Julia, but Ross has not and Turner renders the lines and memory very touching. I would have liked to have the script so I could have exactly the lines. Neither film adaptation has dared to present the Morwenna-Rowella relationship or Rowella’s story truly candidly: Rowella is presented as poisonously promiscuous, reminding us of a snake; Whitworth is a sadistic rapist; his son is a horror from birth (just another just like him). The film-makers are afraid of this material: they dare to present Drake as depressed but that’s as far as it goes; he is fierce (as Harry Richardson is not) and in the first series (Kevin McNally) he was as obsessive as any character in Proust. The scenes leading up to and the murder of Whitworth powerful (these in the book and first series) juxtaposed to invented happy scenes of Rosina and Drake (these are Horsfield’s invention; in the book he remains reluctant.

So then what does the writer do: she has Demelza, Demelza (!) inform Drake just before he is about to wed Rosina that morning that Whitworth is dead and Morwenna supposedly free. That’s the last thing she would do. She has engineered this marriage, done everything to bring it about. In the book he hears from someone else and runs off to help Morwenna live again (he loves her truly and it is partly unselfish to rescue her) and Demelza is desolated because she and all and he agree if he had wed Rosina, he would have been true to his vows. In this episode he asks Demelza why did she tell him? Good question. She has ruined a possible happiness. She says he would not have forgiven her. Clearly untrue and anyway whom is she thinking of here? I like that Rosina as a character is built up, and that Sam is beginning to flex towards conventional aggression against bullies in order to help his brother. Sam and Drake’s relationship is beautifully done — as it was in the first series.

The story of Warleggan’s Machiavellian near-bankruptcy of Pascoe’s bank, Demelza’s actions to help prevent this, the yielding of Basset to make a consortium appealed to me — and it’s done close to the book. I like the actor, Hope, who plays Harris very much and bringing in his daughter and her ne’er do well husband economically stranged by the Warleggans is effective.


Richard Hope as the ever patient, decent, reasonable appealing Pascoe — more idealized in this series than the book or first series

Aidan Turner must be kept before us as the hero in every episode, and each young male needs to be seen nearly naked in the water — so we’ve Ross several times, Drake once and Dwight who for a moment seemed to be killing himself by hanging on the surface of the water.

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Episodes 7 & 8: At moments as a pair unbearably moving. Best when closest to the book. It truly gets the emotional pain of what is happening across up close and intensely. I felt the way I do when I read the book. Oddly I especially admired how the film-makers got across how Caroline can be regarded as irritating — she is so into London culture and so comfortable in it that while at first both Demelza and Dwight seem to be glad of her knowhow, when they realize how hollow this social life is, she becomes the alien to them, someone who could approve of duels. Again Dwight and Caroline talking through the dog. Here the angrier and more individualized Demelza is more fitting; Angharad Rees was just too sweet. Turner as Ross and the actor playing Adderley were pitch perfect: Turner is very good at steely ferocity. The Morwenna plot has been done far more strongly all along and here hits a core of anguish the equivalent of the book. This the photography was fitting — the scene of the duel was beautiful — blacks and whites. Elizabeth in the book is not complacent but as Horsfield has made her so, now that she is shaken out of it, her desperation becomes more effective. I liked the use of darkness, the way the rooms were angled. I don’t know if others recognized Adrian Lukis as Sir John Mitford: he was Wickham so long ago in the 1995 P&P.


Ross and Demelza beginning their time in London so well


Demelza not sure how to react but right away seeing that something is wrong with the way Adderley is speaking to her

First just 7 Three powerful striking stories: how Demelza and Ross’s time in London begins so well when they are alone but once in society, she is taken advantage of by a vicious male egged on by Warleggan. Ross’s manhood is threatened when Demelza does not reject Adderley thoroughly: she is not attracted to him, she even quickly sees and feels what a shit he is, but does not know how to put him off.. The one element left out is that part of this is her low status: this is a deeply hierarchical society and in the book Angry Tide the point is made that many of the people in London despise Demelza and the men regard her as simply probably available. That’s what she can’t handle. further (as in the novel Demelza at her first ball) Ross refuses to give her any help; he refuses to recognize or cannot see she needs help or why. they really dwelt on this far more than 1970s where none of this really came up (as it did in th 1975 first season adaptation of Demelza) The photography was superb. Did others notice how the screen sparkled as the dawn came and then turned into the park where the duel occurs?

Horsfield then tied this story to the other two. By simple means of juxtaposition: we move from Ross-Demelza to Morwenna-Drake and just before the crisis of the duel, Morwenna turns up at Drake’s forge and tells him her inner torment after years of violation, of martial sadistic rape. She is a bit too pathetic in her encounters with the mother-in-law because Horsfield has been so unwilling to make her hate the children she has born by this monster, has been unwilling to make John Conan a chip of the vicious block. If you feel like me, I wanted more of the Morwenna-Drake story in this episode but Horsfield chooses to give more room to Dwight-Caroline’s troubles.

There too there is this softening. Why cannot she allow Dwight to be stronger (as he is in the book) and just sick of London society openly and anxious to get back to his patients, a real chasm of understanding between him and Carolin: they are not truly compatible


Jill Townsend as pregnant Elizabeth with Valentine just before Geoffrey Charles makes his fatal passing comment (1975 BBC Poldark, episode 13, scripted Martin Worth)

The third story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy at first binding the two together but the glue there being so thin that a passing remark by Geoffrey Charles that Valentine looks like Ross just overturns all and George goes back to hatred. This cannnot be an easy task for Jack Farthing: basically he presents the man as cold steel, far more icy than Adderley — who in the book is a narcissistic cold sociopath. We are not really given any reason for Elizabeth to like this guy except that she likes being rich lady in society. This is tied sharply into the duel: as soon as Ross can go out he marches to Warleggan who throws the coins in his face. Thwarted by the local JP (played splendidly by Adrian Lukas — once Wickham in 1995) and the customs of acceptance of duelling, George has again not been able to destroy Ross.. but he will destroy Elizabeth as we see her pacing in the darkened room at the end of the episode.


Jack Farthing as George exposing his hatred and making a fool of himself before Sir Christopher

Episode 8: For this one I also rewatched the 13th episode of the second season of the 1978 Poldark for contrast or comparison. The older show works under the disadvantage of far less time so far less is dramatized in detail, but what is there is in mood much closer to the book, especially the bleak ending.


Far shot for duel (1975)


Heida Reed as Elizabeth seeking the doctor to help her

I found the insistence on Morwenna’s being somehow “ill” or weak by the additions grating. In the book she just appears on the horizon, and Drake runs to her, and says, have you come home? and she is taken into his arms as he takes her heavy bag in which she is hauling all her worldly possessions. Yes she goes to Trenwith, lured by the still obtuse Elizabeth and in the 2018 scene she does finally hold out, declare that Warleggan has no idea what kind of person Drake is — and that augurs well. At no point in the book is the phrase: “you are safe now’ repeatedly. Well thud, thud, thud. She doesn’t want to be safe; she is not safe with Drake in the sense he has no money, no power, no status, but she is herself, gets her identity and inviolabilty of her body back. That’s the point. Not that Drake is so sweet but that the perpetrator, the predator, Whitworth is out of her life for good.


Jane Wymark and Kevin McNally as Morwenna and Drake (1975 BBC, both series include the eloquent speech by Drake about the nature of love in marriage)

I had forgotten how much better Judy Geeson was at the part of Caroline — far more like the “gay lady” of restoration drama. She understand duelling and defends it; she also is sexually interested in Ross as he is in her and they discuss going to be with one another — and coolly decide against it. This is not the coy character all drippy over children or not that Horsfield invents, and Dwight in the 1970s one is attached genuinely to his patients and that is his identity. Again Luke Norris is made just to “icky.”


Judy Geeson as a convincing Caroline (1975 series)

The book ends with Ross saying that Death is Intolerable and it shapes all of our reality, our feelings, and Demelza replying, just about yes except that one has to accept, live with it, and realize this here, now, is all we’ve got and we’ve got to make what we can of it. I should say that Angharad Rees is herself too sweet as she utters those words and in my view Elinor Tomlinson could have projected the acceptance of hard compromise much better – she has now and again over the course of these 8 episode


Robin Ellis as a desolate Ross (1975) leaning over to kiss Elizabeth now dead (1975)

And ending on their wedding shifts the emotional temperature too much. At the end of the book George is still in a rage though at the universe now (in which he includes his children) — I liked the stance Jack Farthing manages of dignified regret and acceptance but it’s a soft Warleggan.

The new opening too emphasized Elizabeth as the “problem” or her and Ross’s love as causing much of what happened. That striking flashback at the opener and bringing back Kyle Soller for the occasion. The book and the 1970s version made the statement that life itself is hard.

So however briefer the earlier version is the stronger truer one to life. Why he and Demelza need to go on about about Hugh Armitage in this 2018 version is beyond me — they don’t in the book except the suggestive hints earlier that in killing Adderly he was killing Armitage and there is a distrust of Demelza (which vanishes in 2018) — but then she has accepted his continuing deep affection for Elizabeth. In the 1970s version we do get an intimate moment of him kissing the dead woman in her bed. Why not have that if you are softening — it’s not in the book. Again and again Horsfield turns to personalities as causing our difficult lives. Graham is wider and better than that and so was Martin Worth (who wrote the scripts for the last 4 episodes of the 1977-78 series)


The last shot: George given dignity of grief in front of Elizabeth’s grave

That said, Aidan Turner, Jack Farthing, Heida Reed and Elinor Tomlinson play their complicated roles well. Turner has grasped the essentials of Ross’s character — only softened. Elise Chapell probaby had the hardest roles. I thought Aidan Turner pitch perfect in what he had to do.He had to provide a kind of coda of stability and he managed that — though Jack Farthing got the last shot.

******************************

To conclude, I worry to think that next year we are in for a fifth season where the present script-writer, Debbie Horsfield will be free to invent what she likes between the ending of Angry Tide (1799) and opening of Stranger from the Sea (1810). Horsfield is said to be writing X number of episodes about what happened between The Angry Tide, which ends 1799 and The Stranger from the Sea (novel 8), which begins 1810 and ends 1811. It is true once Graham’s Poldark fiction comes alive again, half-way through Stranger from the Sea when Ross and Demelza re-unite in Cornwall (as an MP he has spent the last half-year in London), over the course of Poldark novels 8, 9 and 10 (9 is Miller’s Dance, 10, Loving Cup) some of what occurred in-between is remembered and told. I speculate these brief fragments of flashback will provide hints for Horsfield to work with. OTOH, Horsfield may ignore or distort them completely. The son, Andrew Graham, has given full permission to invent stories (something Winston Graham refused to do in 1979).


Garstin Cox, Kynance Cove, Cornwall by Moonlight

What you must do, gentle reader, is read the books (see my “‘I have the right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in the Poldark Novels” and then see the earlier serial drama (see my Poldark Rebooted, 40 years on) I regret to say that shorter and much less expensively done, the concluding episodes of the 1977-78 Poldark (Episodes 10-13) are finally more satisfying not so much because in general they were truer to the books, but because when they did differ (as all films must) the decisions made produced subtler truer-to-life drama with more effective political and feminist thought.

Not that I did not enjoy this season: it was like the last three uneven, but it had much merit, strong merit, was ethically better probably than 9/10s of what you might find on your TV or cinemas — and moving, entertaining, absorbing, beautiful, humanly strong with its visual and sound impact working on our imaginations — all those good things.

Ellen

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Isabel Leonard and Christopher Maltland as Marnie and Mark Rutland on their honeymoon

Friends and readers,

I regret to have to tell you that this beautifully-sung, acted, and orchestrated Marnie is as repulsive a misogynistic story as I’ve come across in a while — and with Trump as president that’s going some. Ann Midgette of the Washington Post opined the work has a “hollow center” and offers no substantial understanding for why Marnie behaves the way she does (continually changing her very identity as she moves from outrageous theft to outrageous theft), why Mark Rutland responds to seeing she is a ruthless thief and liar by marrying her and then proceeding to win her over by almost raping her.

Not so: at the center of the opera, its “terrifying” back story is a slattern prostitute of a mother who (without an excuse offered) has rows of military men into her flat while her husband is nobly risking his life in battle, and when she becomes pregnant and has the baby, maneuvers her young daughter, into believing she killed the “bonny boy” when it was she. Each time we meet this woman she is snarling, spiteful, and a downright hater of her daughter. It’s known that a recurrent figure in many of Hitchcock’s films is the “terrible mother.” In Graham there is pity and economic explanation for Marnie’s mother’s behavior (abysmally poor, frightened at the same of ostracizing of her from others), and even Hitchcock condescends to have his Mark (Sean Connery) explain the apparently sweet Marnie (Tippi Hendrin) as someone seeking refuge. At least Marnie’s mother’s outward acts are in Graham’s text, Mark’s mother in Graham is not the scheming capitalist she is here. Mrs Rutland nags her son about his business failing all the while she is ruining it in order to buy it out from under him. In Graham, Mark’s mother is dead and it is his father and sister he must persuade to accept Marnie.


Denyce Graves as Marnie’s mother (not otherwise identified in this production) — smoking away & sinister in her wheelchair

Perhaps the most dismaying element of all was how blatant this is. The relentlessly cheerful announcer brought up the “evil mothers” as if it were a joke, and then the two actresses opined that this didn’t matter. No one said it’s just entertainment for the great hype of these interviews is how serious and important the operas are. It is the equivalent of how in Hitchcock’s movie Marnie is repeatedly called a liar and all ads about the character in this movie call her a liar as if this lying were a moral sin of gargantuan magnitude. Worst of all really the lack of any explanation for the actions of the three central characters (Marnie, Make, and Marnie’s mother): we are left with a simplistic crude Freudianism “feel.” That the critics have latched onto this time — they all seem to feel Hitchcock somehow “explained” this — he is at least suggestive, nuanced and detailed in his presentation.

Probably the accusation of hollowness comes from how in this production, like Sean O’Connor and Hitchcock before him (a psychological play focusing on sex, class, money of play, Marnie, London, 1982; and a 1964 Hitchcock psychoanalytic film respectively) Muhy never gets inside Marnie’s mind (certainly not the harridan mother). There is no credible explanation for this crazed re-dressing of herself every few months, this dangerous stealing of the whole of a company’s capital. So Marnie in all three iterations emerges as a clothes-changing frigid manipulative domineering bitch. Since Maltman has been directed to be far sweeter to Marnie than Sean Connery, indeed to be loving, kind, well-meaning, once we get past the unexplained impulse on his part to marry her (when all despise her as an employee so beneath him), we feel for Mark at least. Again Muhy goes one step further in an absurd direction: astonishingly, Muhy does not allow Mark to rape Marnie. This is to rob the book of hard trauma. In several of his books Graham adheres to the idea that marital traumatic rape is good for the women — yes afterwards it seems they were longing for the man to overcome them. Graham has his men rape women for their own good (!) in some of the suspence novels (The Forgotten Story is one); a few of these men are forgiven for killing the woman when the woman commits adultery (presented as an understandable reaction). They are allowed to love two women (that’s Ross Poldark’s case in Warleggan). In Hitchcock’s case we have documentary evidence to show Hitchcock delighted in voyeurism and insisted the camera stay on Hedron’s face as Connery bears down on her. Hedron as Marnie flees (as in the book and film) but instead of leaping into a pool , in this opera she tries to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills. Red light suggests blood, and we move on.


Here they were reminiscent of the TV serial drama, Madmen.

I was further dismayed by the ignoring (as did Hitchcock before him) of Graham’s attack on capitalist soul-less offices — the production chose a very fat man to play Strut and he played the part as a gross narrow bully but beyond that nothing explicit. The 1950s was simply characterized as filled with men in suits sitting at desks or crowding in on women; the women were trussed up in offices sitting behind desks; at parties, they looked uncomfortable and absurd in their overdone gowns and big hair or French twists. In this production Terry Rutland (Lestyn Davies) does not develop a slow true understanding of like people with Marnie (which in the novel is at least interesting). In Hitchcock Terry Rutland works to ruin Marnie’s reputation, and she is innocent of his enterprises; here she works with him in deceit and corruption. Lastly, there is no landscape to speak of and Marnie’s one good relationship, with her horse Forio is not presented as the healthy experience it is, nor is she close or intimate with her horses’ feelings. In the book Graham may be remembering the incident in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where a horse’s life is sacrificed to a race and much sexual innuendo floats about. In the opera and in Hitchcock the horse-riding, racing and shooting of the horse is simply an acting out of a crude suggested (never detailed) Freudian-style analysis about sex: Marnie enjoys riding roughshod over Mark so she rides roughshod over her horse.

The book can go at length into an analysis; when Mark is hurt trying to stop the death of the horse, we can see a relationship develop between him and Marnie. We do feel for Marnie as an inexplicably sick person: she is a Humbert Humbert, except she is the victim, hoist with her own petard. Blackmailed into marriage, raped, then trapped, and finally found out by one of her previous bosses who comes to one of Mrs Rutland’s fancy garden parties and put into jail. In the book she seems almost relieved, and with a sort of reconciliation happening, it seems when she emerges, she may try for a sane relationship with Mark. In Hitchcock’s movie at the end she is pathetically grateful to Mark (as masterful Connery): the seething liar becomes a remorseful dependent. By contrast, in the opera she suddenly sings “I’m free” — of what? her mother who she has learnt in the previous scene died, so pat along comes the mid-wife-housekeeper, paid companion, Lucy, to tell Marnie her mother became a prostitute in the war and when she found herself pregnant out of wedlock smothered her “bonny boy.” Because Marnie has confessed he own crimes and understands her mother’s, she is not free of what happened or her past. She has just suggested to Mark she could like him when she gets out.


As in the book Marnie agrees to go to a psychiatrist (as part of a bargain with Mark): here as elsewhere she is surrounded by “other selves” — to the side we see her mother in a slip in red light

I did ask people near me what they thought of it. Most audience members are very reticent but as with (to be fair) other modern or non-traditional productions, I saw faces made. One woman said the piece was “repulsive.” Lynn Gardner of The Guardian thought that Graham’s novel seduced Sean O’Connor because he saw it as “gritty parable of repressiveness in which sex, class, money and manners are central motivators.” Many years after the initial movie Richard Brody is now cured of his Hitchcock mania. Midgette thinks Muhy too eager a collaborator elsewhere, to glad to have a commission; the music, says James Jordan of The Observer is forgettable. As if he needed to explain his opera more, during one of the interviews Muhy told the “host” how each of his characters corresponds to a particular motif by a particular instrument. The music was meant to be emotionally expressive.What I noticed is Terry Rutland is a counter-tenor, and (unless I’m mistaken), Muhy and Michael Mayer are gay men and wonder if as homosexual men they were drawn to this hideous parable of narrow wretched heterosexuality in a desperate environment. I did like some of the costumes, especially Marnie’s later wardrobe — and I find that 1950s costumes are associated with a gay sensibility.


This was perhaps her last outfit and it and the cream one just before are appealing; she is on the stage after a London performance with Tippi Hendren (who played Marnie in Hitchcock’s film and was sexually harassed by him)

I fear it did nothing to increase anyone’s understanding of the tragic way women experience sex and motherhood in our society. It did not endorse male violence and macho maleness the way Hitchcock did. In his study, The making of Marnie, Tony Lee Moral quotes Winston Graham’s son to the effect that his father was not a feminist despite his father’s assertions he naturally was. In a letter to Hitchcock in that volume it does seem as if in general across his books Winston Graham meant to create sympathy for women who have a “raw” deal in our society, are forced to submit, endure much and enjoy little. He said he based this story of the mother on a maid he and his wife had had years before and a story he read in a newspaper about another working class women. Maybe he intended to break through the repressive sexual miseries of the eras (1950s); instead (what he never mentions) because he was improving his technical prowess in using the new amoral ironies found at the time in the suspense novel, he happened upon an imitation in reverse of Nabokov’s hypocritical Lolita, and his adapters have not known what to do with the result.

One caveat: is the opera based on Graham’s book as claimed or Hitchcock’s movie (with a little help from Sean O’Connor’s play)? Asked about how they came to choose the book, the script writer and director said they saw in the movie such astonishing fodder for an opera. Is the opera then based on the movie, asked the interviewer. The answer was if they had tried to get their permission to use the material from the film company or individuals involved, they would never have gotten past the squabbles that would ensue. So the answer is they cannot say they got their opera from the movie, only that their permission stems from the book. As they were talking and a few others interviewed talked, it seemed some of the people had read the book. I believe Muhy did. But the opera is equally influenced by Hitchcock and for all one can tell it’s Hitchcock’s misogynistic and voyeuristic outlook that was a deciding factor. Hard to say.

One last angle: still and whatever the relationship between original source and this opera, surely, all three adaptations should shed more light on Graham as the writer of the Poldark novels, or on other of his suspense books than they do. I find little connection between the early Cornwall successes (The Giant’s Chair, The Dangerous Pawn) and the World War Two tales (No Exit),  and Graham’s book, but there is continuity with The Forgotten Story, The Merciless Ladies, and with some of the hard bleak later film noir books (especially Angell, Pearl and Little God), and with some of Graham’s more memorable vicious ruthless and emotionally twisted characters across his oeuvre (Mark Adderly, Valentine Poldark). Some of my friends have declared Graham’s books misogynistic because of the books’ sympathy with male rapists and murderers; I find a qualified feminism because there is much sympathy with women victimized by the society as a whole and with particular vulnerable males. It is an anomaly to see that Winston Graham could not extend understanding to Marnie’s mother — or that this brutal material found at the core of many a society (what to do with unwanted babies and with women who won’t submit or retreat before the hegemonic patriarchical order) proved too much for Graham here.

Ellen

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Suzanne Simonin after harsh punishment thrown into a dungeon (2013 La Religieuse, Pauline Etienne)

Friends,

The second text I assigned as required reading for my The Enlightenment: At Risk? course has been Diderot’s The Nun (La Religieuse), which most people read in Leonard Tancock’s translation for Penguin. It is a superior translation to Russell Goulbourne’s for Oxford World’s Classics, but for the sake of the introduction (much fuller and more informative as well as having an insightful close reading), and the inclusion of the hoaxing “practical joke” letters which Diderot first sent a benevolent philanthropist-friend (left out by Tancock), next time I’ll assign the Oxford. From the class discussions, and responses to even a short clip of the 2013 film adaptation by Guillaume Nicloux, featuring Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Martha Gedeck, and François Négret (the truly powerful Jacques Rivette 1966 version has never been made into a DVD), I can state unequivocally that Diderot’s novella was far more effective in communicating what Diderot meant to than Voltaire in his Candide.

The reason is not far to seek. The Nun, however early in the development of the novel (like Defoe and Prevost, there are no separate chapters, there is much fuzziness when it comes to the relationships of time and place to the incidents, there are inconsistencies in the use of first-person narrator &c&c), has at its center a deeply felt psychologically compelling portrait. Her situation is complexly and realistically (in terms of the situation as set out) explored; each section where she is cruelly punished, scourged, emotionally and physically tortured for attempting to protest, to get out of the convent she is being imprisoned in, for attempting then to go to law to escape, is relentlessly, persuasively and exquisitely realized. I can’t say the people in the room enjoyed the novel, but most were riveted enough to think about social coercion, silent violence, the twisted perversion of human nature or what we think are natural impulses), trauma and its effects. Though some critics talk about the text as libertine, and as inviting vicarious sexual voyeurism in the last section where the mother superior is a an aggressive semi-self-hating lesbian, no one in this class showed any evidence of such titillation — unlike what I’ve seen in response to Lovelace’s hounding, harassing, and teasing of Clarissa in Richardson’s epistolary masterpiece Clarissa. (Early on I described Clarissa, we read an excerpt of Diderot’s Éloge de Richardson, and I suggested that The Nun couldn’t exist but for what Diderot learned from reading Richardson’s novel and imitated from it.) In a way I gathered those who did respond to Voltaire’s Candide took some pleasure from the hard jokes, there was little pleasure in such an exposé — it was like reading stories from the anthology I reviewed, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. There were at the same time genuinely original insights — one woman pointed out the mother who so berated Suzanne Simonin (our heroine’s fictional name) for poisoning her existence was not sinful; it was the mother who committed the sin; her daughter was innocent. I hadn’t thought of that.

A summary:

Diderot and his friends had heard of this case and played a practical joke on the sentimental heart of M. de Croismare, a philanthropist. A series of letters fooled him so they had to pretend Suzanne had grown sick and died. Finally they confessed; it’s said that Croismare was not upset but I wonder. Like Madame Roland’s Memoir, La Religieuse was first published in 1796, in his case many years after his death.

Diderot has a problem: he felt in order to gain sympathy for the nun, he had to make her religious; the reality as far as we can tell (and makes sense) is most girls who didn’t want it weren’t religious; they wanted to marry. Suzanne does not; she is presented as wholly innocent: that’s another element hard to believe because she also enjoys the lesbian sex.

First person narrative has real problems: the narrator has to report her own compliments. I’ve been trying to emphasize analogies with other forms of imprisonment, hostage situations, violations of one’s body and identity (like rape) but it is also seriously a critique of the whole idea of monasteries and nunneries as deeply wrong for human nature.. He means it – Diderot is not attacking the church as the central of the worst evils of the ancien regime as Voltaire does (intolerance, barbaric punishments, thinking life a sin) but he is attacking this way of life imposed on people from many angles

Story falls into three parts. Opening section about how and why she is pressured into going into the first nunnery, Sainte Marie, and we can say that the time there where she is wheedled into taking her vows and just goes to pieces and hates it; she is sent home. There was such a place, established 1763 and it was a place that Marguerite Delamarre spent a long time at. The mother superior at the first place wants to win new recruits.

Second and longest section, she is sent to Longchamp: there is repetition because she was scapegoated. I’d call it humiliated in public, scourged in Sainte-Marie, but here it goes to high lengths. First she has a kind mother superior, Madame Moni whose regime is reasonable; no sourging, allowed all sorts of liberties, but she is urging Suzanne to take vows and that is not what Suzanne wants; she dies and then Sister Christine takes over –- she is mean and cruel, sadistic. It is there Suzanne writes her plea to the lawyer and her friend smuggles it out, and the lawyer makes the case. There we see the visitation of these powerful men. All the lawyer can get for Suzanne is a change of convent. He pays her dowry.

St Eutrope, Arpagon. We are never given this third mother superior’s name… We get stars or dot dot dot – or hyphen. This was a device used in novels to make readers think some real and powerful person was involved Suzanne is a bit of a prig, and she seems to disapprove of the mother superior’s lax ways but it’s really that there is no rule, it’s all her whim and caprice; this week she is cheerful and in love with the natural world, next week she is guilty. Mother superior’s guilt is played upon by the father viciously (natural feelings are perverted) and she becomes crazed with guilt and repression. Suzanne is blamed and she finally escapes; it’s not clear if the man who helps her escape is the same one who assaults here Dom Morel.

This is only to find herself a victim of attempted rape, dragged to brothel and finally working as a laudress and from the original hoax that is when she writes M. de Croismarre.

I find the ending very poignant, and if we don’t have the letters Diderot faked and sent to Croismarre (as one does in the Oxford) it is more plangent in its way. Clarissa dies at the end of her ordeal – as does Ursula, and perhaps Theresa


Suzanne’s one compassionate friend (2013) — the recent film emphasizes the woman’s community perverted and the friendships as well as the lesbian story (Isabelle Hibbert plays that role)

I did at first try to downplay the attack direct on the Catholic church’s practices, doctrines and especially elevation of celebacy in our discussion, even if in one long passage it’s obvious that Diderot (like Voltaire before him) is intent on showing the harmful social arrangements and practices the powerful state Catholic religion was responsible for, and encouraged (getting rid of daughters where you could not afford a prestigious dowry to place her in a high position flattering the family). But as we talked I began to see that was counterproductive. One must begin there and Diderot’s investment in the story was pointed out by one of the people in the class after I described the fraught relationship Diderot had with his bigoted Abbé brother: nothing Diderot ever did could appease this man or soften his demands that Diderot believe as fervently and act as austerely, punitively as he. Diderot used a vow he made to the brother to excuse himself from trying to publish his radical works, which paradoxically freed Diderot to write for 20 years great works without worrying what the public would think. Luckily most of this has survived — the critics and scholars seem to think. I also repeated the story that Diderot’s daughter, Angelique, reported in her memoir that his third sister died of insanity after she was put into a convent: it is thought from over-work but who knows. He has in The Nun at least two unforgettable portraits of young women driven mad by the conditions and ideas they are forced to live with.


Jacques Rivette has Anna Karina play the part more gently, and more openly vulnerable (1966)

Nonetheless, I moved on to generalize as there we were involved. (It did turn out that one man as a young man many years ago had voluntarily entered a monastery; he said after class, he had had no trouble getting out.). Just at this time I’ve been following a good Future Learn course from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland on Understanding Violence Against Women and had been reading Victor Vitanza’s Chaste Rape. I’ll start with the latter:


Kate Millett’s The Basement

I had seen The Nun as a Clarissa story: in the center Suzanne forced to become a nun by the cruelties of her family, coerced, harassed. I also saw the hideous treatment she is meted out by the other members of the nunnery (they humiliate her, strip her naked, force her to whip herself, starve her, leave her to be filthy, scream at her, make her walk on pieces of broken glass) as a parable of what can happen in a prison and when you are outcast in a community whom you have openly rejected. Now I saw this is a story just like all the stories of rape except without the open sexual attack –- which is not necessary. It is very like the real events retold by Millett in The Basement where a woman is coerced into agreeing with her captors’ evaluation of her, loses her pride, self-esteem, identity, her very personality until the point when she is asked further to hurt and to berate herself she gladly agrees. Vitanza says the purpose of rape is not the sexual attack centrally; the point is to violate your ego and self-respect to the point you never forget the experience and are traumatized. This helps explain why women are so upset by rape and assault attacks and that fucking does not at all have to occur. Public humiliation is enough. Like a hostage, when such a victim is kept for weeks, he or she can easily be driven to kiss the tormenter for the smallest relenting, the smallest glass of water or kindness.

After one of the sessions of horrifying treatment, Suzanne is told her lawyer has obtained a change of convent for her. He lost the case to have her freed but he can do this. What does she do? she gives her most precious objects to the cruel superior mother; she begs those who thew her into the dungeon physically to take other favors form her and kisses them and thanks them. When the overseer comes who has the news she can move and he forbids her to see her lawyer, she says that she has no desire to see him and when there is an opportunity she refuses. This cannot encourage the lawyer to go on helping her. He might think her forbidden but he might think she doesn’t care.

Diderot’s tale also anticipates what happens to Offred-June in Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale where she takes on the values of the Waterfords, Lydia and everyone else – like Suzanne. In the second season of the TV film adaptation, the film-makers move away from the original humiliation and enforced fearful docility and cooperation of the victim and make her a heroine to American watchers by having her hold on to violence herself and manifest an active desire for revenge and hatred; the American TV Offred-June does not utterly prostrate herself as Suzanne and the woman in The Basement do.

Suzanne is obviously such another as Levi in the concentration camp; people in solitary confinement and beat the hell out of and mistreated in US and other tyrannical nations’ prisons … I would not have been able to put Suzanne at long last next to Clarissa without Vitanza’s hook. Paradoxically he takes us past the way rape is discussed by de-centering the sex.

As for the Future Learn course, one of their advisors is Judith Lewish Herman whose Trauma and Recovery I know well and have long admired. So from watching and reading along with this Future Learn course I summarized:


Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery

Although Diderot started by a hoax — the typical case of based on a single real woman: Marguerite Delamarre. In 1752 at age 35 after several years she tried to have her vows annulled; she was turned down but the testimony showed an awful life; she tried again 1758, again turned down, she was still alive in 1788 when the convent was finally dissolved. What happened to her we don’t know. I say typical because young women were regularly forced into nunneries. The case of Galileo’s Daughter as retold by Dava Sobel from the 100 letters this girl left is heart-breaking and unforgettable. Gifted, socially engaging, she was cowed, starved, left in ignorance to die young – and he knew it.

The core of the Diderot’s story is violence against women, sometimes silent, sometimes overt – through law and custom. The perpetrators deny her right to have bodily security. To tell and/or seek help is to be punished. We see the impossibility of recovering from trauma in this situation. She lacks control over her environment, people helping her don’t consult her – she has experienced prolonged and repeated trauma so she is numbed – how to put back peace in her life; she has to be provided with safety, with a community to live in, work to do that’s meaningful, that she feel she is in charge of herself – problem won’t go away until society changes – until power relationships change. She is never given any opportunity to use her gifts for music and when last seen has been threatened by rape, a brothel and now lives hidden as a laundress. I assigned one recent essay which argued that the males in the tale have all the power: Suzanne’s mother is subject to her angry husband; her daughters have to pay their husband steep sums; the men in charge of the nunneries are harsh. The lesbian nun is driven into neurotic self-hatred by the priest who forbids Suzanne to have anything to do with her. At the same time, the one person who genuinely helps her with nothing to gain is the lawyer Manouri who even pays her dowry to enable her to move to the third nunnery, and pursues her case on her behalf as far as he is able.


The lawyer in the 1966 film has a stronger role, more prominence

According to the studies of the Strathclyde group: men believe they have the right to control women and whatever they have to do to achieve this is fine. The society is set up so that all authority figures have the right to transgress women’s bodies to force compliance in whatever way the society declares is fitting and to its interests. The way the female gender is trained, submissive, secretive, obedient, supposed to appeal to men, make their relationship with men central to survival fits into this paradigm. Violence against women begins early, in the girl’s earliest years. (I knew this.) It takes the form of setting up coercion in such a way that you prevent the girl from learning a skill, or idea that is enabling, or gives power to act freely on her own behalf. Later on when she is married (forced or seeming to choose), more than half the battle is done for the husband whose pride is made to inhere in controlling her to do his bidding and act out of and for his interest first. A silent violence against the child is secondary; it’s first aim is against her mother who is kept in an invisible straitjacket this way. The aim is twofold, mother and child, and we see this in The Nun, only the mother is absolutely faithful to her role as vicious instrument (as are the women who perform FGM on other women. They resent women who are not cowed and maintain self-pride. This secondary violence of women on girl children and sisters on sisters is seen with searing clarity in The Nun. Herman (like Adrienne Rich) brought out how compulsory heterosexuality is central here too: and in The Nun, the one act that is seen as bestial and beyond all forgiveness is lesbian love, yet whatever comfort and help Suzanne gets is from other girls who identify and say they love her: Ursule, Agatha. I remember Miss Temple in Jane Eyre’s story — until she marries. It is also important that no where helps the girl or women genuinely to find another role beyond wife, mother, as equally fulfilling.

To conclude, life-writing and trials bring into public awareness these kinds of psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people, but it is rarely retained for long. The woman remains so ashamed, and she carries on being punished for telling (especially when she does not win her case and she often does not) of these secrets men and society want to keep unspeakable and deflect attention from. The strong and lucky and men will deny the existence or even validity of such feelings so as not to have to deal with them.

While perhaps Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew like Voltaire’s Letters on England, would have brought before the class the sceptical and original ideas of the Enlightenment (Diderot had to make Suzanne religious in order to gain sympathy he felt), I could see from the fifteen pages I assigned it would not hve had the impact the other did.

On the two movies: Jacques Rivette’s The Nun versus Guillaume Nicloux’s The Nun.

Ellen

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