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Archive for July 7th, 2019


Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley) when Walter Hartright (Ben Hardy) first sees her


As read using Buckley in voice over, Marion’s letter to Walter, Laura Fairlie now Hartright (Olivia Vinall) and Mrs Hartright, Walter’s mother (Cathy Belton)


Marian escaping

This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It is also about “the machinery of Law” and the power of those with “long Purses.” So begins the novel. Towards the end we are again told [Walter Hartright] “vindicates” [Marian, Laura, Anne] through all risks and all sacrifices — through the hopeless struggle against Rank and Power, through the long fight with armed deceit and fortified Success, through the waste of my reputation, through the loss of my friends, through the hazard of my life …

Friends and readers,

Over the past few months I’ve watched three adaptations of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone:

1972 (with Robin Ellis and Anna Cropper as especially effective), 1996 (I just loved Keeley Hawes and Gregg Wise), and 2016 (which I found incoherent);

and two of his Woman in White:

1982 (Diana Quick and Ian Richardson extraordinary) and Fiona Seres’s 2018 (unforgettable so many of the performances) while I read with a group of friends on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io Collins’s marvelous novel, The Woman in White.

I’d read about Collins’s use of disability in his novels (No Name, Miss Finch who is blind), and now I added how aspects of Collins’s life, his character as a person, his other craft (visual art) are woven into his novels; see Martha Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, Catherine Peters’ biography, and do read the radical sexual nature of “sensation fiction” in D.A. Miller’s essay in The Novel and the Police, Cage aux Follies: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White.

I had tried to read The Moonstone when I was in my 20s and just couldn’t get on with Gabriel Betteredge as the narrator. I tried Armadale in my 40s, and found the thickly-evented plot defeated me. I first read The Woman in White when I was about 24, I was running a very high fever and sick in bed for three days and read the whole novel steadily, turning the pages intensely as I went. I never forgot the experience, which is why I tried more than once to read Collins again, though found I just couldn’t manage it. After this second experience of The Woman in White, some books about Collins and all these films, I am eager to try The Moonstone again and No Name.

I’ve come up with a few conclusions:

First, that Collins’s two best-known novels are just not adaptable because their fascination and depths comes from the highly complicated ironically juxtaposed subjective and nuanced narratives; but that when you adapt them if you use framing devices that turn forward-moving chronology into continual interchanges of past and present, gothic techniques, and a strong feminist point of view, which is what Fiona Seres in 2018 does that leaves room for creating empathy with mental disabilities, you can make an adequate substitute.

That he is astonishingly contemporary in a lot of his perceptions, viz., how dangerous people kept innocent who have good impulses can be to themselves and to others; how people are continually under surveillance by gov’ts as well as any local groups they belong to, with records kept about them, and become neurotically insecure.

And lastly that at their core is a radical attack on sexuality as usually perceived and controlled, and violations of privacy, security, and any calm.

Together with Tyler Tichelaar, after reading Woman in White (and also a few years ago teaching Bram Stoker’s Dracula), I’m convinced that Collins’s Woman in White was a strong influence on Stoker’s sensational vampire horror tale: Collins’s use of subjective structures, and many of his themes and motifs are taken over. See Tyler’s The Woman in White’s Influence on Dracula.

It’s a powerful and was an influential book, and when I look back on the English courses I took as an undergraduate and graduate student, it seems a form of snobbery (and left-over imposition of F.R. Leavis’s Great Tradition) that doesn’t make The Woman in White a must-read in any course in the 19th century novel — though to the ten standard novels I was assigned in a Victorian novel course I nowadays also would add Gaskell’s North and South and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester (or if I dared, The Beleaguered City) too.

This is a whole lot for one blog so tonight I shall just deal with a few aspects of Collins’s The Woman in White as it appears in John Sutherland’s edition for Oxford World Classics and the strong anti-hierarchical and feminist stances of Fiona Seres’s 2018 Woman In White (with a few words on Ray Jenkins/John Bruce’s 1982 version for comparison).

I mention the editor of my volume because in Sutherland’s notes, appendices and an apparatus of chronology, it is apparent that there are at least three differing versions of The Woman in White: there seems to be a complete manuscript, which was apparently cut by Dickens as well as Collins before any publication. There the version of the novel which first appeared in Dickens’s own All the Year Round; this differs from the volume editions because the places were the chapter divisions or installments fell are different. (The Woman in White appeared right after Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, so the two novels could be linked together in the audience’s minds.) And there is The Woman in White that emerged in the stand alone volumes — made yet more concise, more edited. Sutherland prints many passages cut from the manuscript and tells you where the installments ended and what was the last passage so you can see how often Dickens chose highly melodramatic endings (blunting subtlety).

What fascinates me is the artistry of the novel. The diction seeming so impersonal and yet sensuous, deeply felt, passionate. The uses of suspense and dramatic irony.  In the latter parts of the novel where you have several different minor characters as writers (a housekeeper, a cook, a servant, a doctor, a tombstone) and then return to the now knowing Walter Hartright, first you are not told the truth of what is going on under the machinations you watch, so you are left in suspense, to put together a meaning, plus you cannot tell whether the servant/hired professional is disingenuous or not; then the machinations are suddenly explained so now you watch events, so you are experiencing what’s called dramatic irony: you know truths the characters you are watching don’t know. Since a lot of the events are the same, just retold from different points of view, this psychology is endlessly to be explained at the same time we can see continually the distance from between the way people behave on the surface and are actuated.

The matter presented in these devious ways is deep emotionalism. Humiliating and dangerous secrets, strange illness, other unknown of motives — at the core of the book is the history of a disabled child born illegitimately, Anne Catherick, whose parents abandoned her, whose one loving caretaker, a nurse-housekeeper, Mrs Clements, had no power to protect her from them dumping her in an institution. She has two doppelgangers: the obvious, her half-sister, Laura, who looks like her (they had the same father), and is herself unusually sensitive and vulnerably fragile in her will. Laura’s mother (now dead) had shown an impersonal kindness to Anne because she resembles Laura and Anne was deeply attached to her and now hovers over this woman’s grave. Laura herself has another half-sister, Marian (they had the same mother), who is presented as inherently strong but slowly shattered by the abuses of male power, so that if not by genes, by experience she begins to resemble Anne Catherick. We become deeply worried when Marian becomes so ill, then (possibly) so drugged, and then bewildered and frightened at her loss of self-possession. She is no longer in control of where her body is.

The matter is also on the surface brutal: a coerced marriage of Laura to Perceval Glyde who slowly loses control and the quiet menace turns to violence because of his need for money becomes unbearably pressing, while his secret illegitimacy (that would deprive him of any right to rank or his own property) preys on his mind, and he strikes out everywhere, adding kidnapping, possible murder, imprisoning, hired thugs and (wild comedy here) while trying to secure or destroy the birth records ends up setting himself on fire in a locked church. There is the homosexual obsessively reclusive or screechingly selfish uncle has power to help the girls but adamantly refuses, threatening them, and firing Walter (who would come to their aid) ostensibly for not attending to mounting, cleaning, improving his paintings. This hideous cruelly irrational uncle role is played with such high memorable theatrics by Ian Richardson and Charles Dance as to dominate over Perceval’s Italian friend Fosco who in the book is probably the most memorable presence, scary because so amoral (we feel), cold, manipulative, projecting a will which will stop at nothing, mean to animals who fear him on sight, with a utterly cowed wife.

Nota bene. We are told Fosco is enormously fat; the man who finally does him in, the tenderly loyal Italian friend of Walter, Pesca, is said to be a dwarf. But all the film adaptations avoid such “abnormality” and cast for the roles males who non-genteel, tough-looking, Italianate, but nothing out of the ordinary. Collins himself suffered from social ostracism because of his “odd” appearance: some sources say very tall, but with small hands and feet, slight, delicate looking with one part of his skull depressed — from a hard childbirth. Others have him as small with “a protuberance on one side of his head.” At any rate, he looked different enough to be ostracized. He suffered psychosomatic pains and all his life — bad ones. He remained further outside social acceptance when he would not marry either of the two women he got involved with, lived and had children with …. this not marrying was his choice of course, and he did what he could to make a secret of the two families to the point that their existence and present descendants have only been identified recently. All this felt in the books is erased from all films by hiring actors whose appearance is commonplace.

It’s worth noting that in the novel lawyers try to do the right thing. In the 2018 film, Seres invents a third lawyer whose attempts to gather evidence and help at the frantic Marian’s bidding are the central framing device; Mr Gilson has a long narrative, which keeps us at a distance from our beloved characters’ minds; he also recounts the specific amounts of money Laura inherits, and Glyde owes.

This has the effect of breaking the mesmerizing blocks of journals early in the book, calming things down. Why so mesmerizing? The novel is about Marian’s love for Laura, about Laura as utterly in need of supportive love; Laura loves Marian and cannot conceive living apart from her. And it’s Hartright’s love for them both. It’s immersed in homoeroticism — from Walter’s seemingly effeminate sensibility — and lesbian feeling. Marian is attracted to Fosco and he to her. (Collins had two mistresses or wives.) All this keeps breaking through while an attack on the way families treat individuals, parents use children coldly is going on –.

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As to the two movies:


Marian ill (Diana Quick)


Laurs (Jenny Seagrove) in mourning, found by her mother’s grave by Walter Hartright (Daniel Gerroll) (1982)

The 1982 The Woman in White moves much too slowly in its attempt to be realistic and unravel the novel for us; it is too sentimental, too decorous,but it has real strengths when it dramatizes the novel’s more somber episodes and places.

The fourth episode (which dramatizes the latter parts of the novel described above) partly vindicates the methods. It begins around the time when both Marian and Laura have been very sick, Marian is in her bed at the top of the house, and Laura in her room. We see Marian taken away on a stretcher, looking ghastly, and are told that she was taken to London. We see Laura frantic, going wild, the first time in her life without Marian, Fosco apparently gone, and a brutal drunken Glyde. It emerges Marian was not removed from the house, but put in this ancient ruined part of a barn, filled with straw, ancient furniture, rats. Next image the gravestone of Laura. Now the housekeeper returns and is told Marian is after all in the house, shown her; Marian slowly gets better and begins to investigate; she goes to the lawyer, and we are at the scene with which the 2018 Woman in White begins!

The atmosphere all along has been quiet and desperate, now it’s tragic — the 1982 film-makers tried for a serious tragic interpretation of this material and it actually works for this stretch of the book. Marian visits the asylum, discovers Laura, and pays off the nurse to help her rescue Laura. They go to the uncle who refuses to recognize Laura; she is dead! they become rightly leery of Ian Richardson’s gleaming knowledge of their whereabouts. Laura insists on visiting her mother’s grave first, before going into hiding; who is there but Walter (see above). These images repeat the opening of this film adaptation: Anna Catherick crying over Laura’s mother’s gravestone. The scene of crying in Walter’s arms is very moving, Marian in is arms — and he takes them to live in this utter dive in a broken down boarding house in London: they will hide while he investigates. A powerful scene with the grieving Mrs Clements because Anne has indeed died of heart failure. We then visit the still living Mrs Catherick, a mean cold woman who appears to care nothing for her daughter, but pathetically lives for the minimal respectability she has achieved by doing almost nothing all her life so as not to offend anyone.

The 2018 adaptation is one of the best I’ve seen in years. Seres and Carl Tibbetts (the director) show the talent and originality of Andrew Davies, Sandy Welch and the best of the BBC adapters over the decades. She cannot realize the complicated subjective structures, but her framing, use of flashback, montage, shots, light and dark, depth zoom shot, and voice over is more than a filmic replacement: again and again these techniques serve to bring out more strongly the feminist and anti-hierarchical protests of Collins’s novel. She has narrowed its trajectory and used Collins’s use of lawyers (Art Malik a superbly strong presence with his resonant voice) to provide a skein of continual explanation, telling of secrets (of which there are many) and hope — for the lawyers Marian goes to are all she has to depend upon until Walter returns and then he must use their expertise to decide how to proceed effectively to return to Laura her identity (as well as peace of mind) and in this version not settle in with Marian but watch her from afar find liberty to experience life and choose a destiny. I was impressed by the dialogue, acting, interweaving; the effect is of innovativeness in the service or serious themes and entertainment.


Mr Nash (Art Malik), a central presence added to the lawyers in the novel


Ruth Sheen (as the grieving Mrs Clements): the one person in the novel to have known and cared for Anne Catherick

2nd and 3rd episode: playing games of suspense: for example, bringing in Art Malik as the lawyer taking all down at punctuated moments, ever so skillfully dropping supposed information, writing it down as by-the-bye such as “the demise of Laura Lady Glyde at the beginning of the third hour.” A development of neurotic hysteria is felt along the nerves and carried on through the best actors. This is as strongly a feminist serial drama as I’ve seen in a long time. In the book Marian remains seeming invulnerable — not here. She is as subject to male law, authority ownership as Laura and every other female we see and this is made explicit. At the same time I love her mannish costumes, there are her beautiful scarves and skirts. Laura is something left over from Snakepit. The actors playing Glyde and Fosco re-inforced (by implication) how they use sex as a weapon they can enforce to repress and hurt and bewilder “their” women.


Laura deeply traumatized by the abuse she suffered in the asylum


Frederick Fairlie (Charles Dance), the uncle, threatening Laura and Marian, who has brought Laura to Limmeridge

4th episode: What most haunted me was that the scenes of imprisonment, cruel treatment (water thrown on Laura, solitary confinement, manacles in a strait jacket) were precisely those of 55 Steps. And yet the physical settings were not anachronistic. I thought of Rosina Bulwer-Lytton put away by her husband and dismissed as an hysteric at times after she was released and had a hard time living life of her own by writing. Marian too is bullied and drugged and imprisoned. She escapes by climbing to the top of a roof and sliding down. Again Art Malik as lawyer there at crucial moments; the maids and housekeepers are brought forward as helping Marian and Laura make their case.

Marian is not permitted to sleuth with Walter: she must stay to protect Laura; but this gives the opportunity to have a scene of her defying Fosco, and I’m glad the ending differed from the book’s.

Probably nobody needed me to say all this, but if you don’t know Collins’s novels you are missing out. I did love the description in the book and use of landscape, cityscape, light and dark in the films. I could have gone on about the Moonstone film adaptations, but I want to wait until I’ve read the book.


Walter (Ben Hardy) approaches the church where the birth records of Anne Catherick and Perceval Glyde are to found


Anne Catherick’s grave — the 1991 BBC Clarissa also uses an image of her gravestone near the end of the series

Ellen

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