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One of several competing portraits of Edward Marcus Despard (wikipedia offers a barebones outline of the man’s life)


Promotional parallel shot of Aidan Turner as the somewhat aging Ross Poldark, and Vincent Regan as Despard in his last 4 years (Season 5)

Friends and readers,

I had not written until now on the fifth season of Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark because I’m in several minds about it. Having watched the whole season twice, and now going through carefully each episode Sunday by Sunday I know had this been the first group of serial drama episodes I saw I would never have gone on to read Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. I first read the first four quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan, written 1945-53, and set between 1783 and 1793) after watching the first four episodes of the 1975-76 Poldark (scripted by Jack Pullman, mostly directed by Christopher Barry). I learned later Winston Graham detested Pullman’s adaptation of Ross Poldark (Pullman departed radically in linchpin scenes), but I found myself having a deep affinity with them, and unexpectedly, as the series was itself ceaselessly disdained as romance costume drama [for women], and I assumed the books would be perhaps a cut above what was called “bodice rippers” (historical fiction except for a very few writers had fallen to a debased level in the early part of the 20th century), fell in love with them. They seemed to me fine historical fiction with something serious to say to readers barely out of, recovering from the devastation of World War Two.

Horsfield seems to have made the decision to fill the ten year interval between the ending of the first trilogy of Graham’s Poldark novels (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide, written & published 1974-77/8, set 1794-99), not from the fragments of details about the intervening years found in the later five books but by inventing a story whose source and treatment resembles that of Graham. In my paper on the use of documentation in Graham’s historical and suspense fiction I demonstrated Graham had a penchant for choosing the minor real figures of history who were just and decent men scapegoated (using law and state terror and legal violence) by or part of a reactionary establishment but often meaning to do good or not wholly bad men. His deepest sympathy was for the humane rebel, the Che Guevara type combined with the elegance of Gainsborough historical romance males that his own hero, Ross Poldark, represents. To have picked a man like Edward Marcus Despard speaks very well of her, we must give her the credit of calling attention to this man to a wider audience than ever reads non-fiction about the French revolution, the analogous upheaval in the UK in the 1790s for reform (prompting the reign of state terror by Pitt and his state machinery). As the promotional photo for the series suggests, in real life Despard was such another as Ross Poldark in Jeremy Poldark where we see him come near to hanging and/or transportation because his very real illegal activities leading a huge group of local ordinary desperate people to remove and use for themselves the flotsam and jetsam of two wrecks from a violent storm were used by his enemies (and the local state apparatus) to make an example of him to deter people from combining to demand a far better life and share in the good things of the earth than they had ever had.


Promotional shot of Kerri McLean who plays Catherine (Kitty) in this fifth season of Poldark

She also brings to the viewer’s attention other people who lived during this ten-year interval and whose life history has much to say to us today. Joseph Merceron, a corrupt Godfather boss of Bethnal Green (or Spitalfields, as a blog about this older area of London calls it), a Trump type colluding with Pitt’s gov’t to spy on and help imprison, transport, execute anyone who wanted to change the status quo. James Hadfield, a pathetic religious fanatic, crazed by his life and experience, who tried to kill George III (Andrew Gower, fresh from his brilliant complex portrayal of Prince Charles Edward Stuart makes the few moments we glimpse this man memorable). Catherine Despard, about whom records are sparse, come from just the period of her (probable) marriage to Despard, life with him, continual remarkable unusual pro-active activities on his behalf, including publicizing the horrific conditions in the prison he was thrown in for two years (Coldbath Fields), showing herself (probably a Creole, daughter to a freed African woman living in Nicaragua, herself alas the owner of enslaved Africans) to be better educated than many European women, until the time of his execution, whereupon she disappears from public records. It is thought she took her and Despard’s children to Ireland in an effort to appeal to the consciences of his Anglo-Irish protestant family. No picture survives


Geoffrey Charles (Freddie Wise) and Cecily Hanson (Lily Dodsworth-Evans), the only conventionally romantic couple in the season ….

Catherine is interestingly accurately likened to the wholly fictional Cecily Hanson, daughter of Ralph Hanson (Peter Sullivan). Catherine was an educated woman who understood how to negotiate with upper class people and could hold her own in political salons (it takes Demelza many years to learn this). Cecily shows self-esteem and agency in her choosing to engage herself to Geoffrey Charles, and then when (in a later episode), she finds he is beaten senseless by her father’s thugs and cannot begin to hold onto their relationship, give him up. A feel of poignancy hovers around Geoffrey Charles, as the orphaned son of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark. Hanson’s name harks back to a real brutal plantation owner from the Caribbean, Hanbury, a composite figure (such men did make money producing natural wood for mahogany found in mosquito-infested places), who Hanson attempts to coerce into an advantageous marriage with the sadly-reduced but still cruel and amoral widower George Warleggan (Jack Farthing sustains the difficult part of a man hallucinating from grief and guilt, rescued from heinous treatment by Dwight Enys, Luke Norris in the familiar Graham conception). William Wickham was a minor official in the foreign office during Canning’s time — and given Graham’s respect for Canning and in the later novels make his Ross an reporter-spy-negotiator for Canning — to use the name leaves room for a return to the 8th novel, Stranger from the Sea (which there are various signs in even the first four episodes of this series Horsfield and the film-makers, crew and actors would be willing to do).

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Promotional shots push viewers to liken Demelza to Tess and Demelza in this series is presented as seeing herself in Tess

So with all this important history for interested intelligent viewers to explore, which can also be linked back to Graham Winston’s own novelistic achievements and politics, what can be the cause of my dismay. 1) that Debbie Horsfield’s interpretation of Despard is that of the authorities and establishment of the later 19th century which stigmatized and degraded Despard into a “nut,” a deluded naive upper class male who courted his own destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth, but in scene after scene we have Ross and Demelza and Catherine stopping a foolish man from following the obviously provocative antics of envious revolutionary thugs; 2) that freed from any text, Horsfield abandons the middle-of-the-road perspective of Graham on the revolution (his stance might be likened to the Girondists) continually to condemn any rebellion as coming from envy and dense stupidity, actuated by spite. She turned Graham’s Keren Daniels (who had some cause for discontent) into a dense promiscuous thug; now she invents such another in the character of Tess (Sofia Oxenham).

It is painful for me to consider (as I do) that Debbie Horsfield might be accurate: there are many many scenes of Demelza showing hurt, anger and resentment at his cold distrust of her in the second half of Jeremy Poldark and after her love affair with Richard Armitage. Similarly in his suspense novels post-World War Two, and later Poldark novels Graham evidences a great conservatism. That’s why I am in several minds. I may have been misreading Graham for all these years.

I face the reality that my love of many film adaptations derives from my love of the source book and the original conceptions of the key characters. I have no doubt that Debbie Horsfield’s conception of Demelza as frequently vexed with Ross, dominating when she can (masculine in her approach — as made visible in her mannish outfits), pro-active on behalf of the material needs of her family makes sense prudentially (and might appeal to non-romantic women in the 2nd decade of the 21st century). Horsfield introduced the idea that Ross regards Demelza as his savior, and he repeats this ad nauseam in season 5. Demelza likens herself to Catherine Despard (Eleanor Tomlinson must follow the script she is given) by asserting she too “entrapped” a man whose kitchen she also was (this is a startling travesty of what happened in Graham’s Ross Poldark, Jack Pullman’s adaptation and also Horsfield’s own Episode 4 in the 2015 Poldark). I can only assert and ask those who have read the books if I am correct: Graham’s Demelza is the underdog, a different kind of misfit from Ross, having given her ego, her very soul into her relationship with Ross; like him, finding deepest pleasure in disinterested activities and quiet solitude. What is so appealing about their relationship is they never bicker, are unself-conscious about their deep compatible character geniality.

Now that she is freed of Graham’s texts, I feel Horsfield travesties all Graham major women characters, but Verity, who is dropped, perhaps with relief? (Several of the students I taught Graham’s novel, Ross Poldark to, maintained she was a female Ross as understood in that humanely idealistic book, figures who found peace in solitude.) Graham’s Morwenna loathed the child Whitworth impregnated her with; Horsfield’s is turned into a sentimental fanatic, trailing around abjectively after the boy child, barely protected by the vulnerable (because low-class) Drake (Harry Richardson). She is made as mad as George Warleggan. Debbie Horsfield is more comfortable or wants exaggerated emotional states: in the later novels we are told George grieved, felt guilty, remembered ever after all Elizabeth’s finer qualities, but he did not go mad: Jack Farthing’s acting carries it off as does Elisse Chappell were I not embarrassed for her — perhaps some viewers will be embarrassed for George:

I found irritating Morwenna and Rosina being turned into tenderly loving schoolmistresses — back to the patriarchy. Caroline (the now anorexic-looking Gabrielle Wilder) reminds me of the medieval statue of Barbara, always with lamp except she carries around a deliberately chosen fat dog. She is now resentful and jealous of Catherine whom Dwight does seem drawn to. Even he is travestied, becoming belligerently aggressive toward Ross in order to pressure Ross into giving up his loyalty to Despard (as imprudent). Dwight’s complete lack of this kind of emotional blackmail has escaped Debbie Horsfield (or she is glad to shed him of a characteristic generosity and inability to pressure others many would despise him for). OTOH, as in the books he shows himself to be his own man; he has his professional conscience and follows it despite his wife’s upper class prejudices and ignorance.


Dwight helping George by taking him to his wife’s grave: he utters an idea which is a play on a sentiment that Graham ends The Angry Tide with: all we have is that we are alive here today and that is what we must make what we can of

I share an objection to the pace of these four episodes: relentless. Many of the recap blogs wax snarky over this. If only she would trust her viewer to have the patience to see small moments develop slowly. We cannot dwell in the relationship of Ross and Demelza when it is deeply companionable because the scenes are so rushed and embedded in distractions (juxtaposition, switching back and forth):


The look on Eleanor Tomlinson’s face here suggests to me she has read Graham’s books, and some of her comments show how much she has invested in Graham’s heroine ….

I realize the larger content, the actual thrust of episodes is so often sheerly repetitive. Again Ross is saving countless victim- miners and their children from death in an avalanche. Again he risks all his estate and fortune, this time to save the miners from unemployment. At least in Graham’s books, he does this to begin a business for himself, because he is guilty over Francis’s death and wants to control Elizabeth, make her dependent on him.

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Opening of episode 1: gradually we focus in on Ross out in his boat, and watch him come into shore

A few elements to praise:

I wish there were more moments in the four hours that derive from Graham’s Poldark books or conceptions, which the reader of Graham’s novels, someone who has read some 18th century history and knows the importance of the French revolution and the Enlightenment to a modern way of life today, and the lover of thoughtful period costume drama is left alone in peace to enjoy. Examples: At the opening of the first episode this season we see Ross out in a boat fishing by himself quietly. He is taking a needed break. George at first leaving Trenwith to rot; then his beginning to see Elizabeth and returning to Trenwith to find her is touching. I thought the conception of George’s half-craziness and coldness towards his son well taken, though he is blackened since in the books he did pay for Geoffrey Charles’s education as far as Geoffrey Charles asked for — the depiction of less major characters too — that Morwenna will have a hard time coping with sexuality is at first presented with sensitivity as is Demelza’s attempt to win over the workers.

Episode 2 has much that is persuasive and interesting politically — as a historical film (the way the first four seasons presented mining, farming and other realities of the era). The 1790s was a period of severe repression — unfairly because the English protesters were out for reform, but Pitt and the wealthy were frightened by what had happened in France. And they did frame people, and use just such printed circulating pamphlets. The gov’t did have surveillance techniques. Despard was far smarter than she presents him, he was impulsive and used to using violence; all characteristics praised and honored by the establishment of this era — very like Nelson (who he was friends with, worked with in the Caribbean) in some ways, only more controlled.

Episode 3: There is an anticipation of a sixth season in the behavior of the children: the young Clowance looking yearningly over the fence at Trenwith. We will find her there in the first phase of The Stranger from the Sea. Sam and Rosina slowly getting together over Bible-reading. Valentine ever alone wandering, picked up by the kindly Ross (who we see is his father from visual resemblance).


Ross watched by spies, enemies ….

In this interim plot-design, we are shown how slowly Hanson and Merceron in London draw a noose of inference and suspicion around both Despard and Ross, to accuse them of treason. This was done in the 1790s and people were tried, imprisoned, hung — 10 famously got off partly by the brilliant defense, Godwin’s publication of a treatise on equity and justice, and the reality the population was deeply against this repression. Of course our characters use Tess as their mole and encourage her to get at the head of gangs to destroy houses and people (highly anachronistic the idea any mob of men would automatically obey a woman). A noose of inference and suspicion is gradually being unfolded around Ross, ever oblivious in her desire to help his friend, bring about meaningful reform, love his wife and children …

Harry Richardson as Drake Carne attempting to care for a mentally distressed young woman delivers a pitch perfect performance; his behavior a parallel to Dwight Enys in the fiction; Luke Norris has his character as far sterner, but then he does not love the people he is treating.


Epitomizing shot

The linking together of the neglected Valentine with the once abused Morwenna is valuable symbolically.

I’ll conclude with my finding that several of the heroes of Graham’s suspense novels involve themselves politically, usually on the left, and act in ethical ways against their own interest, endangering their lives. In one I have been studying, Greek Fire, a depiction of the US-UK ruthless intervention in Greek politics in the 1940s and 50s to destroy social democracy — it result in years of dictatorship, but then Papandreos took power by election and a social democracy for years emerged — Graham’s hero is characterized in waysthat recall Ross. Greek Fire was written not long after Warleggan. Here is one typical characterization: a friend wants the hero to give up his ethics, morality, efforts: and the man says here you are “pushing on, never letting up, … why do you not accept life as it is instead of trying to worry it with your teeth all the time, like a terrier with a bone. Is this not Ross too?

Ellen

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Claire Randall looking longingly at a vase in a shop window (Outlander 1:1)

Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years.
Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase.
That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing.
And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own …

But I can still recall every detail of the day when I saw the life I wanted sitting in a window.
Sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d bought that vase and made a home for it.
Would that have changed things? Would I have been happy? Who can say? I do know this:
Even now, after all the pain and death and heartbreak that followed, I still would make the same choice.

Friends and readers,

So, after all, I am going to the 50th anniversary conference of ASECS (American Society for 18th century studies) in St Louis, Missouri (! — where?). About a week ago the male scholar-professor whose panel I gave my paper on Winston Graham’s uses of documentary facts and silences in the last ASECS emailed me to ask me if I wanted to submit a proposal for his panel, which request pleased me (it means he respected my paper) and whose new proposal had puzzled me:

“I Refute It Thus”: Encounters with Eighteenth-Century Objects (Roundtable) [Northwest Society for Eighteenth Century Studies] …. Proposals invited on any aspect of encounters with eighteenth-century objects, then and now, whether personal, professional, or philosophical; whether in texts, or with texts, or without texts.

Like many — almost all — of the Calls For Papers this year I just couldn’t get it — most of them were filled with jargon beyond me; this (thought I) must came from “materiality” theory, which (to me) is a hodgepodge of gobbledygok most of the time. So I asked him (as he had emailed me) could he explain in commonly used (natural easy) — English — for I would like to join in another panel with him. After a couple of days he did.

What I was thinking for this round-table was a set of 10 minute presentations on personal encounters with 18th-century objects, in mini essay form, that captured what essays can do, and connects with specific research you might be doing. It could be as simple as encountering an 18th century text, or an object associated with an author (Jane Austen’s turquoise ring?), or even encounters with objects in fictional texts. The main linking element really would be the essay/roundtable form, which allows for having fun with a topic. Some round-tables invite discussion because of the ideational content. This one would invite more “show and tell” responses from the audience with other encounters, I’m thinking

Well, all right. Not only did I get it, I found myself enthusiastic. I am it’s not too much to say profoundly engaged by historical fiction and romance. A couple of summers ago I taught Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover. The impetus or impulse for this book (so Sontag has said) was the collection of extraordinary objects and painting Sir Wm Hamilton gathered together, especially his vases.


An ancient vase found in Naples area

To teach the book and put this idea across I had bought a marvelous (expensive) art book on this collection published by the Sloane Museum, which owns a goodly part of Hamilton’s estate: Jane and Kim Sloan, edd. Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection. I passed it around to the class and we looked at a variety of real historical objects found in the catalogue and in Sontag’s book. With The Volcano Lover, I taught Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. The class’s subject matter was historical fiction set in the long 18th century: this book is set during and in the years just after the 17th century English civil war in Cornwall. It’s an unusual book for her because closer to historical fiction than most of hers; it is far more thoroughly researched than most of her books, based on papers and documents about a siege at Menabilly, which ended in attempting to burn the place down, a real general (a cruel ruthless man), indeed many of the Rashleigh and other Cornish family and military characters really existed. Its impetus too (I can’t remember where I came across this — probably Margaret Forster’s biography or one of DuMaurier’s memoirs) was an old wheelchair (ancient type) that she claims she once saw (I am not sure this is true) in an old building on the grounds of Menabilly. She also tells a ghostly tale about half-ruined objects found in a closed tower, suggesting someone hiding away or imprisoned for years on end — haunted things left over from the 17th century civil war.


Said to have been Sir Thomas Fairfax’s wheelchair — DuMaurier says the one she saw was pathetically feeble and looked uncomfortable


The famed (since DuMaurier’s Rebecca) Menabilly with DuMaurier and her children during her long time there as tenant

I said nothing of how the central propelling image in Ahdaf Soueif’s tale of Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Cairo, Map of Love, is from John Frederick Lewis’s oriental paintings, still in a Kensington museum, which I had just reread, attended a class on, and blogged and written about too.


John Frederick Lewis’s Cairo: Indoor Gossip

But I did talk of Paula Byrne’s brilliant biography of Jane Austen, a series of essays meditating and ferreting aspects Austen’s life through the small things she owned and we can look at still: A Life in Small Things. How successful (so suggestive) is Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: she too writes lives of Brontes, using relics, this time objects connected to them through death — some might find this morbid. I didn’t and don’t. And how I remembered Martha Bowden’s perceptive study of historical romance and fiction, Descendants of Waverley, romancing the 18th century, dedicated a whole part to how real historical objects put into fiction makes them come alive, validates them, are vivid focuses.

Bowden traces fascinatedly how these novelists mix true realities then and now (say time) with fictionalizing techniques (e.g., richly subjective world historical characters), especially those using allusion and intertextuality (to music, plays, once or still extant historical paintings and relics, memoirs) … Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge and Crossing the River (not covered by Bowden) include[s] a precious historical document, the scrap remnants of a past that have survived, and Phillips’s novels produce a take on this material that is sustaining and comforting today to those who today still suffer … where there is an intense desire on the part of a specific readership to go back and retrieve the past, to experience it intimately … there is a section on ekphrasis and the importance and uses of archeaology …

And so my proposal was accepted and then the panel also. So I’ve some delightful reading, re-reading, interesting thinking and dreaming and I hope effective writing ahead.

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Kenneth Branagh as Thomas Mendip, the discharged soldier who says he longs to die


Cherie Lunghi whom the town longs to burn as a witch — she escapes by fleeing …

I would say most of the time Winston Graham does not turn to material objects for inspiration or begin (say) with manuscripts. He is a sceptic and when he does have a written document will point out how problematic it is (Forgotten Story, Groves of Eagles, “Vive le Roi”). He does have pictures and the collecting of art objects as central to a number of his suspense books (his characters are artists, connoisseurs, insurance agents, thieves) and every once in a while (no where often enough for my taste) a real book, author, piece of music painting, but he rarely names any, most are fictional (cited plays in the Poldarks). He will use an alluring allusion to enrichen his meaning (again mostly in the suspense books): in one of his best I’ve discovered, The Tumbled House where a now deceased writer, John Marlowe’s reputation is defamed when John Shorn, a supposed younger friend, driven by envy and perhaps a betrayal, accuses him of plagiarism, and Don, the son and Berenice, the daughter experience much trauma suing the man for libel (a kind of nightmare haunting Graham himself — who had a son and daughter): the writer’s son’s wife, Joanna, is a TV actress playing the part of the witch in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning. This complex and Christianizing play preaches charity, tolerance, forgiveness — not that the wife whose adultery the novel suddenly swerves to focus on (to the detriment of the book) is at all to blame for what happens. Don and Joanna get back together at the end of the book in the same way as Ross and Demelza do at the close of Angry Tide,

When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity … Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter

and the final moral that here is all we have, all we can have, so we must cherish, make do is the burning center of all Graham’s disillusioned texts.

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


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark repeat in turn parts of the above passage with bits of sentimentalized love language thrown inm — done far too passionately, Debbie Horsfield, 5th season of her Poldark


The older series (script Jack Russell) had Angharad Rees say the lines softly, unchanged to Ross as what comfort could be found for death, and thus got closer to the book (1978 BBC Poldark 13:6)

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Still all historical texts romancing objects begin with a kind of enchantment with the past, haunted by imagined passionate caring for what the objects stand for in the past: these prompt the minds of the historical novelist.

Today is the 7th anniversary of Jim’s death and his spirit is everywhere in this house in all the objects with me from our lives together. Here is Samuel Johnson on Sorrow: Rambler No. 47 

” The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment …  Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away.”

Ellen

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Actor in British soldier costume, from Vertigo Sea


Griselda San Martin, The Wall

Friends and readers,

From my house in Alexandria (just outside Old Town) it takes an hour and one half to get to the Phillips Collection in Northwest Washington (a block away from Dupont Circle). My little mildly difficult trek (there is no Metro train stop at King Street, my “natural station” so either I take two buses and walk or a cab — guess which I chose?) was a comfortable secure instant compared to the journeys I witnessed records in all sorts of forms of many different emigrations, migrations by bodies of people and individuals from one part of the earth to another. Do not miss The Warmth of Other Suns — it will make you think of any journeys towards a new identity you have taken yourself. Here are two of mine:

On September 6, 1969 I traveled back to the UK from NYC to join Jim after I had gone home a month before, thinking I might never see him again. I came by car, plane, train, traveling from 9 one evening to 6 the following evening. I had telegrammed him once, we had spoken on the phone once (calling long distance was not easy to Leeds); we had forgotten to make a plan how or where to meet.  And yet there he was, at that train station, on the platform, waiting for me. He had in hand a document signed by his parents giving us permission to marry before October 3rd, for that was his 21st birthday. We set the bans the next day and were married a month later, October 6, 1969, at Leeds Registry Office at 1:30 in the afternoon. It took 5 minutes. I had a VISA whose validity was fast vanishing because it was a student Visa only good to the end of that September. So I was an illegal immigrant for more than a week. I became legal by the simple expedient (at the time) of marrying him; several weeks after the ceremony I had to go to the Leeds Police Station to be finger-printed, passport in hand, and was given temporary papers to stay and to work; and a couple of months after that, I got a document saying “all restrictions were lifted” and I was a British subject. I wonder what would happen to me today? I am white (in case you didn’t know), a native-born American citizen, was at the time nearly 23, with my divorce papers in hand (I had been divorced April 1967 in Spanish at a Juarez, Mexico court). Come to think of it both of us needed documents to do what we wanted to do.

A year and one half later I made the same trip in the other direction, with Jim this time, & after he had secured a green card & full permission to live as a resident in the USA. I had worked as a secretary, personal assistant for John Waddington (game and toy and package manufacturing company). For this green card, we needed more documents, and had taken at least two trips from Leeds to London, coped with much mail & document filling out; & my father had written a six-page document outlining his assets to assure the US gov’t Jim would not be a ward on the state. We had several suitcases, one vacuum cleaner, and the trip took two days: train from Leeds on day one, train to London airport, plane, car to my parents’ apartment on day two. I had thought I would stay in England, become English, but Jim could make 9 times as much in NYC, and the cost of living was nowhere near 9 times as much, and I had a place in a graduate school in NYC to do a Ph.D. in English literature. My parents had rented a one-room apartment for us, with a bed in the wall (not far from them). But we did not stay, and moved to Manhattan soon after. Chelsea.


People viewing De L’Aute Cote —

I was much moved by the exhibit – kept going back and forth between parts.  It was not as painful as the permanent history exhibit at the African-American exhibit where towards the end I began to cry (while I was in the tragic Emmet Till memorial), but I felt just indescribably upset as I went. I watched movies (two longish ones, several short), looked at paintings, drawings, sculptures of all sorts, installations, photographs (many many photographs), sculptures of all sorts, drawings using different media from oil or watercolor paintings (also there), documents too. The museum says 75 artists are represented; there is an emphasis on the most recent groups of victimized migrants on the US-Mexican border. The long film, by Chantal Ackerman (among many others), De l’autre cote (From the other side) is filmed all along the US-Mexican border, night-time, day time, rural and city. The conceit is she is interviewing the other side:

a elderly couple (in their 70s) whose son and grandson were killed in Las Vegas and were obviously very poor, still crying; a Mexican fourteen year old who had “crossed” more than once, one time trafficked, who said he wants to cross again to join his parents in New York in order to make more money and build a big house. Another girl said she wanted to cross to eat more, eat better. At the end of the film we hear the voice of a hispanic young man who has migrated legally and is now seeking his mother, a summary of his non-findings and her wanderings through jobs, places, rooms. The wall is filmed with the people on the both sides — it is made of different materials in different places. We also hear from a sheriff (appalled at the deliberate crisis and huge crowds created by Trump’s policies), two people who live on a farm, deeply anti-immigrant, a white man who owns a cafe near the border, watch a heavily armed ICE person or guard with flashlight seeking people on dark meadow — the other side.

It is not just about recent immigration, refuges, but goes back and forth in time. I found “myself” early on: a half a wall of photos of immigrants arriving in 1905-10 at Ellis Island. All four of my grandparents from Eastern Europe came in that way


Refectory

There were artefacts from the Trail of Tears: the horrific 1830 expulsion of Native Americans from their lands, forced to walk hundreds of miles to barren places to start life again.


Trail of Tears

Dorothy Lange and other WFA photographs on the migrants and farm-workers of the US in the 1930s, underpaid in order to force them to keep moving to find more work; African-Americans trekking from the south to the north for decades (Jacob Lawrence’s art); Vietnamese escaping in boats; people from Africa and the Middle East walking, attempting a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean; also photos of The Jungle (denigratingly called), a huge immigrant camp that sprung up in Calais.


Delano – Florida migrants on their way to pick potatoes


Jacob Lawrence migration series


Full size statue of Middle Eastern woman


Liu Xiaodong, Refuges

The second long film, Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah (and many others), took you back to eternal time: three screens often filled with the rushing sea, ocean, walls of ice (and expeditions). You were taught how strong, indifferent and dangerous is this medium for travel. Two of the screens at any time were showing fish and animals in large flocks, some surviving, some just living, others in bad shape; or individuals gunned down (I felt so for a polar bear with a man relentlessly pursuing him), dead and trussed up; one huge whale people were crawling around knifing, stripping. The third screen usually had people: Africans transported in terrible conditions,

thrown over board, stories told by narrators of a baby thrown overboard for irritating a sailor, from famous novels (Moby Dick), diaries, poems. Often one person (actor or actress dressed in upper class 18th to 20th century garb) standing out or sitting looking at the sea. Furniture thrown helter-skelter near the sea.

The exhibit fills up one of the two Phillips buildings. The overall impression is of a desperate struggle for survival (one floor is filled with abandoned clothing), a long ordeal of endurance and loss, much rightly to fear, where for the most part the attitudes of those inside the land mass the migrant is declared a foreigner to, where he or she or they have no relative, or friend, or prepared place or job to turn to, and no legal right to be there, ranged from indifference to hostility. You see early in the 20th century officials behaving with minimal decency, but this seems rare. Short films tell of this or that person’s acute misery in say a hotel that is like a prison, grief. Poverty, war as a cause of the flight, fleeing for safety, was most common. Much social and neo-realism, where we see stalwart families holding up, individuals looking out at us proudly or with thoughtful eyes, some famous 19th century engravings (one by Honore Daumier, The Uprising).

Admittedly the exhibit might be accused of being one-sided. In the US there have been periods where those seeking asylum have not been treated cruelly; individuals and families have gone with more belongings, documents and thrive: they quote Richard Wright: I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and perhaps, to bloom (1945)

But the emphasis rightly is intended urgently to bring home to the attendee the new level of depravity the US present gov’t is inflicting on the vulnerable, and include a history of ruthless enslavement and settler colonial destruction against a tragic song of the earth and sea’s rhythms and animals and people displacement and death. You are prompted to re-think and see this general phenomenon in constructive — and generous — ways. Also historical, rational: a nation-state is an invention, it’s a group of people governing a place, often tyrannically; how has it come to be a religion so that borders become sancro-sanct and everyone outside is an “other?”  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s Refuge: Rethinking Refuge Policy in a Changing World is one of several books that are left on a table in a room at the end of the exhibit where you can “reflect” on what you’ve seen.

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I was led to go because I’m just now reading towards a paper I’m going to give at a coming 18th century conference on Culloden and the highland clearances (as this Scottish diaspora and ethnic “cleansing” is called). A few words on my reading and watching (movies matter) thus far and then I’ll have done:

In general, Culloden literature (as I call it) resembles other literatures emerging from other diasporas. Most of the fiction tells an upbeat story (!): the community somehow moves as a group, or ends up sticking together through re-constitution and individuals finding their way back to “their friends.” The person who suffers badly is the person who falls out, does not obey all the norms & fit into the praised culture the others practice. It becomes hard to find a story of an individual at the crossroads of an existence where the ending and shape of the whole narrative is traumatic. This holds true for Hogg’s Perils of Women (often jocular –eeek!) and the truly tragic story (often a woman ostracized for pregnancy, and gang-rape), the calamity is an interlude got over; Naomi Mitchison’s Bull Calves, even Alistair MacLeod’s contemplative melancholy-lyric No Great Mischief.

You must go to the more thoughtful, less popular memoir, the raw found diary or journal, and good serious non-fiction. The outstanding best book I’ve ever read in emigration, refuges, diaporas is Christopher Hodson, The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth Century History.

Hodson demonstrates that for individuals and family groups with only small or no property, no connections they can call on to enable them to overcome local exclusionary customs, and no military to support them, the ability to control their circumstances and future is extremely limited. He shows that “ordinary people’s safeguards” are long-standing and recognized commercial and familial relationships and also known and understood local economic environments that cannot be misrepresented to them.

Communities don’t survive almost intact; they don’t reconstitute themselves as a mirror image of what was — as we watch the Outlander characters do in North Caroline in Drums of Autumn — I grant she more includes more intermittent tales of desperate tragedies, calamities, cruelty than many such books; tellingly, most of these associated with enslaved people and low status gang-raped women. But what she’s not having is your identity changes and so does everyone else’s under the impress of need and a different world geographically and socially.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in front of their tent – they will soon with Ian’s (John Bell) help build a magnificent log cabin (Outlander, Season 4)

For Culloden and the highland clearances, the recent best is T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Clearances: it’s been praised as showing that John Peeble’s powerful detailed Culloden and indignant Highland Clearances are wrong, unbalanced, far too hysterical, too tragic; in fact Devine ends up telling a similar story, only nuanced and occurring over generations and with many more bad and mixed actors. And I must say, if a literary masterpiece (especially endurable you are not reading but listening to it read aloud by the brilliant David Rintoul (who knew he is Scots?), Walter Scott’s Waverley is as distorted & misleading a book as you can find.

A friend is sending me a copy of Chasing the Deer (1994, much influenced by Peter Watkins’s masterpiece docudrama, Culloden (1965), and said to be a credible depiction of Culloden, with Brian Blessed and Iain Cuthbertson in lead roles.

As these films are mostly all men — male experience –, I’ll end on one of a beautiful cycle of poems on an emigrant’s life experience in Canada, Margaret Atwood’s re-creation of Susannah Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush in her brilliant poetic The Journals of Susanna Moodie.

First Neighbours

The people I live among, unforgivingly
previous to me, grudging
the way I breathe their
property, the air
speaking a twisted dialect to my differently
shaped ears

thought I tried to adapt

(he girl in a red tattered
petticoat, who jeers at me for my burnt bread

Go back where you came from

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable, had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs)

got used to being
a minor invalid, expected to make
inept remarks,
futile and spastic gestures

(asked the Indian
about the squat thing on a stick
drying by the fire: Is that a toad?
Annoyed, he said No no,
deer liver, very good)

Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
down to just the latitude
something to be endured
but not surprised by.

Inaccurate. The forest can still trick me:
one afternoon while I was drawing
birds, a malignant face
flickered over my shoulder;
the branches quivered

Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle
(though clumsiness and
fright are inevitable)

in this area where my damaged
knowing of the language means
prediction is forever impossible


The front poster for the exhibit dwells on that little girl

Ellen

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Jenny Fraser Murray (Laura Donnelly) unwrapping books from Paris, looking forward to reading them (Outlander 2:8, “Fox’s Lair,”adapted from Dragonfly in Amber)


Francis Poldark (Kyle Soller) turning from harvest festival to see Ross and Demelza have come to join him, his family and tenants (Poldark 2:3, adapted from Jeremy Poldark)

one must distrust the almost-the-same … the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences — Primo Levi, The Periodical Table

Sometimes earlier (just after supper), but mostly very late in the evenings, my last two waking hours I please myself by re-watching the Outlander and Poldark series, re-experiencing the seasons, first through fourth thus far, episode by episode, until I’ve got to the end and then (after a break where I may turn to another serial drama of the period drama from great-book type), start again.  The more I watch them, the more I find I love them both.  I see more, notice more. (This is true of all good movie watching for me.) I also re-read the books, as well as re-listen to them read aloud, and peruse small pieces of the texts as the mood takes me. It has become that it does not matter if the videos differ from the books in literal content or themes: after all the two kinds of art are strongly different in means and probably effect.

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One difference between the two series is Poldark has several heroes, several heroines and creates a crowded world which extends to highly varied detail, while Outlander is centered on the central hero-heroine pair with all others circling around them and the history that accrues is what is needed to tell their stories. You can see this repeated in structure after structure of all the episodes.


Claire (Caitriona Balfe) arrived in Scotland once more drops all over-luxurious elegant outfits to become her workaday self — I just love her here, the expression on her face especially

We returned to heal in the peace of the Scottish Highlands. Jamie’s sister, Jenny, and her husband, Ian, had had another baby while we were in Paris. Their welcome and the daily routines of Lallybroch worked like a tonic on our battered souls. We hoped we had done enough to stop the war. We began planning our future, but as a very prescient Scot once observed, the best laid schemes of mice and men.

I have not bonded enough with the filmic Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) as yet. (Demelza in the book is quite different: I bonded with her long ago.)  Neither actress who has played the part (I refer also to Angharad Rees) was allowed an over-voice, and Tomlinson is a figure in a vast pictorial landscape, not the voice which imagines or makes it (as  Claire and Balfe function in Outlander).


Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) seen from middle distance, walking along, the scene lasts a minute perhaps, and we ask ourselves, is she thinking of the pregnancy she cannot get herself to tell Ross about as yet … she is hurt, but silent … and as usual the moment is interrupted …

Another difference is the first, Poldark, is more serious about history, and with more real detail woven incontinually, real historical figures, real places thoroughly mapped, real events, including the weather, and as the series progresses more and more authentic (often minor individuals). It is strongly sincerely political; leftist-liberal in outlook throughout, though conservative in its attitude towards males (there are no homosexuals as central characters, no lesbians, this is heterosexuality presented as universal or normative with other kinds of sexuality seen as lacks, or “not normal”)

The center of the Poldark books is not a romance between two or even four people: the center of the Outlander books is. Gabaldon provides as much history as you need to understand the characters’ relationships, not much more.

Outlander is fundamentally a woman’s historical romance, with stretches conforming to what is found typically (as to issues and metaphors) what is found in women’s novels (contemporary ones too). More idealization of love relationships; more fantasy (it’s a time-traveling tale!); it’s arguably after the introduction of Lord John Grey an ambivalent LBGTQ series, but equally arguably homophobic with all the women presented as (thus far) conventionally heterosexual. By comparison, DuMaurier’s historical romances (which I think were influential, especially the House on the Hill, with its back-and-forth from the 20th to the 14th century) are genuinely gender questioning, with sexuality fluid.


Horsfield does like to shoot Aidan Turner from angles and in lighting that make him look far larger than he is, as a symbolically magnificent figure

Horsfield changes the Poldark matter to be centrally pro-community so what in the books one often has to flee for liberty (and in the 1970s series) becomes the individual’s safety, salvation, comfort in the new series. She is also far more sympathetic to capitalism, but alas also far more melodramatic and tends to dwell on individuals as causes of what happens rather than larger groups of people and climate, and history, which is what is found in Graham.

Ronald Moore (the central linchpin force and decider for Outlander, the series) has interjected much action-adventure, a male outlook repeatedly, and this kind of thing replaces the more lengthy home-building and other very female concerns with Jamie’s story as central (sometimes even marginalizing Claire) so that fathers-and-sons (-or daughters) becomes a predominant pattern rather than mothers-daughters. It is true that Roger is a second narrator for the books.


Sam Heughan as Jamie, first seen in Episode 2 of the first season at Lallybroch.

There’s a perceptive essay on both series compared in James Leggott, Katherine Byrne and Julie Anne Taddeo’s Conflicting Masculinities, comparing the two series: Gemma Goodman and Rachel Moseley (“Television Costume Drama & the Eroticized Regionalized [Male] Body: Poldark & Outlander“)  find they undermine traditional masculinity traits, emphasize an ideal norm for men as tender, loving, and susceptible of sensitive emotions and thoughts, the male body is under siege, his body as contested territory (symbolic of the ravages of capitalism, colonialization) with the women emerging as strong active figures.

One problem with this essay is it omits the second male(s) in both series, especially Dwight Enys and Francis Poldark in Poldark, and Frank Randall and Roger Wakefield Mackenzie on Outlander. Francis and Frank are tragic figures, with Frank becoming a ghost-revenant figure, and Dwight taking on a strongly womanly role (as a type he is found in Graham’s suspense novels, the refreshing non-heroic heroes here and there). In some moods I much prefer Dwight to Ross (and he is in the last story Graham ever told where he is about to be introduced by a still grieving (for Jeremy) Demelza.

I do love the Francis character in the book, and the way the first actor played him (Clive Francis is a Joe Orton figure); and I feel for Frank in the book (where there are love-making scenes with Claire that are deeply involving) and the series (Tobias Menzies is superb). It is a loss not to be compensated for when Frank Randall/Black Jack Randall literally die by the third book — as the deaths of Francis, and Elizabeth are part of what makes the last 5 Poldark books much weaker.


Tobias Menzies as Frank being told the story of her time with Jamie (Season 2, Episode 2, “Through a Glass Darkly): he is an astonishingly flexible actor whose Black Jack Randall seems another presence altogether — he too participates in making patriarchy central as he is a deeper parent to Brianna than Claire in the series (not so much the book).

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One result from both is I turn to writing about their matter in some way, blogs, papers, even teaching. Outlander has now led me to promise a paper on Culloden as a primary example of experiencing a crossroads of life moment; I am re-energized for my project of a book (whether published or not) on Winston Graham, and (however slowly) I’ve read two more (Little Walls and Sleeping Partner) and begun a third (Greek Fire) of his contemporary male-centered suspense books written between the first quartet of the Poldarks (1-4) and the first trilogy (5-7). I look forward to the fifth and sixth seasons of Outlander and am so sad to have to accept that Horsfield and Company will not go on to adapt to video the concluding 5 books.

I read other books too — for the Poldarks more books on Cornwall, Philip Paynton, other historical fictions set in Cornwall (the Virginia Woolf-like China Court by Rumer Godden). I will take with me on a coming trip Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. For Outlander, books on Scotland, by Scots writers, Naomi Mitchison’s Nine Lives by Jenni Calder, Maggie Craig’s The Women of the ’45.

I’d like to come up with a better explanation for the combined effects of books and film adaptations in the historical fiction & romance kind than I’ve done before. On the criss-crossing, intertextualities between the a book as source and video as transformed process. For example when you read a text and the narrator tells you about a character talking to him, the language focuses us on that character most of the time; visualize the scene in a video and the narrator is equally likely to rivet our attention on a silent character there as actor, so the tone and interaction of the scene is differently understood.

How and why such texts and films can infuse our very beings so that each small thing a given character we’ve invested a lot in does delights or absorbs us.


Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) spotted by Caroline (POV) caring for people (Poldark, still 2:3)


Young Fergus (Romann Berrux) insisting on the promise he would accompany Jamie & Claire everywhere (Outlander, still 2:8)

Ellen

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The Emperor Overall and Death

Last year this opera company staged Mozart’s Idomeneo to mirror how inhumanely refugees who come to the US for asylum were being treated. It’s been less than a year that we’ve known about the separation of children from parents (a violation of a basic human right), and less than a few months that it has emerged they are in concentration camps run by the private prison companies of the US — and being treated so deeply abusively that they are dying. This includes for children as drink kool-aide three times a day, and once when a group lost their one lice-comb being forced to sleep on concrete floors with nothing else to comfort them.

So this year the company staged an opera written and first rehearsed by a group of people living in a Nazi ghetto. When the authorities got hold of what this group of people were rehearsing, they shipped them out to Auschwitz and killed them all forthwith. The story of this opera is that death is refusing to kill anyone any more because the life they are leading is death and death would be a release ….

This blog is inadequate, but I felt I had to say something — however hot and tired I feel from this super-hot day and night …

Friends and readers,

This afternoon, Izzy and I went to a stunning masque-like opera written by Viktor Ullmann while he and Peter Kien, poet and painter, were prisoners in a Nazi ghetto, Terezin. It’s an allegory of death (that’s what life is) in Nazi-like regimes. The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. Death refuses to kill anyone any more. It was paired with an unfortunately non-witty allegorical opera by Gluck, Merlin’s Island, which reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s Enchanted Island (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest), only much more inconsistent, inane. Go by all means and endure the first hour to get to the second.

It seems to me the opera by Ullmann is insufficently well known, so I here record and (if there is still time or you get another opportunity) urge all who read this to attend the composer Viktor Ullmann‘s one-act masque-like nightmare opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. The speeches and lyrics are by Peter Kien, who happened to be there, and the whole practiced by an amateur community. Written between 1943 and 1944, in a Nazi prison ghetto, Terezin, it is an astonishingly courageous allegory of Nazi thinking, norms, roles people are given in regimes. The characters are all allegorical figures: the Emperor Overall, Death, the Loudspeaker, a Soldier, a Girl with Bobbed Hair, Harlequin, a Drummer. They live in a world where the living no longer laugh, and the dying cannot die; where life is a slow death, no one follows the usual roles of social life. The action (such as it is) is a declaration of war to end all wars, and we watch the characters respond individually and as pairs to this and one another.


The soldier and the girl evoke memories of a cabaret

The girl and soldier soften towards one another, and end up in bed; there is a battlefield, after which Harlekin sweeps up the blood. Other characters are pained by memories, and panic because they cannot die. There is a young woman dressed as a Nazi boyscout who keeps coming down a slide. At the close death regrets the suffering he has caused, and returns to offer relief to the characters. There are numerous vignettes, which as I watched, resonated for me with parallels from the contemporary US political worlds; the impersonal powerful characters tyrannize, others mock; some are outraged, others destroy their weapons. The costumes are a mix of cabaret, medieval allegory, German imagery taken over from operas, technology, cheap vaudeville shows. The music seemed to my ears mid-20th century.

The notes to the program told us that when the Nazi authorities got hold of the script, all the artists and people involved in the camp were sent to Auschwitz to die. As I watched I felt a cry from the soul of people reaching out. Death had not succeeded in keeping to its refusal and the real people had been done away with cruelly, senselessly.

The audience was stunned and then applauded strongly. One man broke out with a “bravi!” I have read the papers and documents left to us from the Lodz Ghetto and I felt like I was entering the mind-set of people forced to live in such regimes. This is what we are threatened by again today.

Last year the company did Mozart’s Idomeneo Kim Pensinger (now retired) readily turned this opera with its beautiful music into a play about a tyrant doing all he could to destroy refugees, whose cruel state he was partly responsible for. The staging was minimal, she allowed the figures of the fleeing, the victims, the war scenes their full plain predominance.

There is a problem: Death’s Refusal runs but 55 minutes. So, the Wolf Trap opera company felt they had to fill out the time and you will have to sit through a rather inane allegorical comedy by Christoph Willibald Gluck (he of Orfeo e Eurydice and Iphigenia fame), Merlin’s Island.


Pierrot and Scapin, Argentine and Diamantine

L’Ile de Merlin reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s re-write of Shakespeare’s Tempest as The Enchanted Island. Two young men are shipwrecked on an island, fall in love with Merlin’s nieces (who live there); it’s a place where some patriarchal values and norms are reversed, and the two young men have to learn how to cherish the nieces, and overcome the violence of their rivals. They are taught wry inconsistent lessons. At its best moments, its musical feel and sense of gendered allegories reminded me of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, but the allegory didn’t make sense, and the characters too without personality. It was based on a vaudeville kind of comedy, composed by Jean Gilliers, (premiered at a Paris fair in 1718). The French libretto is by Louis Anseaume, as corrected by Favart. One does not expect Arthurian characters from an 18th century opera, but out of a vaudeville show suggests just how the Arthurian matter had been degraded by this time. (It was just then about to undergo remarkable renewal.) A man played the accordion from the side of the stage as the action began. I can say the costumes were fun:


Conor McDonald as Merlin – all glittery, he looks like a gas station attendant

Everyone sung beautifully, acted as best they could with the material, and the idea was to present another opera debating ideas; but here they were non-serious (wealth is presented as non-desirable) seemed in inappropriate match for the dark story of Atlantis. After all Gluck wrote so many operas; the lecturer said he lived on another 50 years; 40 years later he composed Orfeo, another ten, Iphigenia. There is nothing in the history or context of the operas or composer’s aims beyond allegoresis to unite the two operas.

The umbrella title for the pair, The world Upside Down, did not join the two; they seemed a dislocated juxtaposition to me, though Annette Midgett does what she can to show the parallels.

Merlin is historically revealing; I didn’t know an opera like this one (a kind of left-over from wild god-goddesses baroque) could be written and staged 3/4s of the way through the century — I thought it was all opera buffa or opera serieux. There is nothing offensive, and 75 minutes is not too much time. But you are going to have to sit through it in order to have the privilege, important in this year 2019 when the Enlightenment’s achievements in thought, feeling, governance, family life, romance are being so undermined, of seeing Death’s Refusal.

Last year July 4th, at Wolf Trap we experienced a staging about the way the US gov’t was treating refugees, now we have an opera to show how we are threatened.

Need I remind my readers who is staging a mass celebration of himself on the mall of the capitol this year?

Ellen

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First editions — 1945 and 1946 bookjacket cover illustrations
Friends and readers,

Last night I was one in a sold-out auditorium in the Smithsonian Ripley Center come to listen to Julie Anne Taddeo speak interestingly and entertainingly on the “World of Poldark: Historical Realities and Fantasies of Georgian England.” I write this blog to share with readers some of what she said.

Her encompassing thesis was that “Poldark engages us with history and contemporary issues.” In a room filled with many people who themselves felt a personal connection with the Poldark matter she told of how when she was a girl she’d watch the Sunday night line-up of period drama on PBS Masterpiece Theater with her mother. Poldark aired at 7 pm, and inspired an active following: people went to Cornwall, they named their children after favored characters; it “fueled their fantasy life.” She came to the books after watching the films, and since for an entrance exam in high school when she wrote about Poldark she won a scholarship, she can say it influenced her life crucially.


Robin Ellis from the first hour of the 1975 series, episode 6, as Ross Poldark accosting Elizabeth Chynoweth as his betrothed


Angharad Rees from the third part, 1975, episode 6, as Demelza, defying Ross’s attempt to cast her as a pathetic dependent on him after they have had sexual intercourse

A “cult” had developed around the show, which could be felt when in 1996 an attempt to film the eighth book, The Stranger from the Sea, using other actors, failed, partly the result of the vigorous protest from fans. (I add that the two hour show under strong American influence also de-politicized the book, omitted all mention of its Peninsular war context so was very weak.)

Julie suggested that the terms of the re-selling of the books as TV drama in 2015 can be seen in the first trailer to the first season, which she played: very sexy, sensual images abound, hard-driving rock music against a gritty background. They spent hugely and were after a younger audience than they assumed had watched the first time round. It turns out that the audience for this iteration has been “quite diverse.” Yes the actors were made to become “hunks” by going to the gym, a female-homoerotic gaze was prioritized. Unlike naked women, this photographing of near naked men enhanced their authority. It is easy to poke fun at aspects of the films; they are inevitably inaccurate. She defended the show, and then quoted Graham’s axiom like statement: “The past has no existence beyond through what our minds can give it.”


For myself I find this still of Aidan Turner astride a horse (from the first episode of the first season), the camera shooting from below at an angle, makes him look magnificent


This of Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza with her dog from the same first hour seems to me vibrant and touching

She then moved on to the multiple contexts embedded in and surrounding the books and films. First the 1940s: she felt there had not been much written about the later 18th century. I’m not sure this is so (the Enlightenment was a popular topic among philosophical scholars and historians; the influence of and the French revolution as a topic has never ceased to fascinate), but I agree with her that this show is one of the first in large social media to show us history from below, the lives of ordinary lower class people, workers and miners. Winston Graham was, as Julie suggested, “a pioneer” in including varied classes of people in his historical romance texts. He said (I add as usual self-deprecatingly) he did not begin with the idea of writing a series of novels, but just one with “a gloomy beginning” and “happy ending.” But there was something far more in the structure of this conception that resonated deeply and he carried on with these books.

She then covered the period of writing (1945-2002) and how the novels reflect the eras in which they were written and the eras written about. Her interpretations here differed from mine. She feels that in the first quartet Graham is showing the UK needs to redefine its empire, face its loss, and he was suggesting bridges to ameliorate life by. In the first trilogy that followed (1970s) he was mirroring the mining crises (these actually occurred in the 1980s and so influence Graham’s second trilogy) and the rebellious spirit of the era. She quoted a long interesting speech from one of Alistair Cooke’s introductions to the episodes. Cooke’s words suggest that Cornwall for the viewer was perceived as almost a different country, separate from the rest of England, an arcane older culture, a wild landscape, while the reality was Cornwall was where there was much industrial innovation. Naming other well-known artists fascinated by the place she cited Matthew Arnold, D.H. Lawrence (who lived there too), famously Daphne DuMaurier. (I’ll add Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy.)  The music in these serial dramas is intensely important and Julie played the themes we hear at the beginning of each hour in the recent adaptation. (The theme music for the previous one was alluring too. These paratexts of images and music are often crucial for many of these dramas, setting off the hour from the rest of TV experience.)


A still from the paratexts of the first season: Aidan Turner as Ross astride his horse on the cliffs


A still from the paratexts of the second season: we hear Eleanor Tomlinson’s singing a song Demelza sang in the program, POV hers

The recent series was accused of Disneyfying: much is of course left out: the severe poverty of most of the population, their short lives, hard work (including children), political corruption. She felt this was unfair — the series is not meant to be a serious history text and does present the time as accurately as a program intended to please (and instruct) a large audience can. In the books (and films) we see how unjust is the criminal justice system (a “bloody code” of hard punishment was central); the rotten borough procedures and how George buys himself a seat by buying huge parts of the borough. We see young men unfairly imprisoned, hung, die from “prison fever.”


Jim Carter’s (Stuart Doughty) death from typhus & gangrene caught in prison — he poached (1975, Part 4)


Sam Carne (Tom York) framed and near hanged and rescued at the last moment, not in the book (Fourth season of the 2015 series)

Many aspects of Georgian England are put before us: its diseases, the class structure, the new ruthless capitalist behavior. Ross says aristocrats treat their animals better than their servants. She quoted another critic on how through capitalism, the hierarchical system (ambition) and new industries that money was made in Cornwall, and she suggested in the series (and books) we see a conflict between old aristocratic norms (decadent, a life lived for pleasure) and a new work ethic for a growing middle class, which Ross’s work makes him belong to and shore up. Ross in the new series is presented as a man of the people, somber amid his workers with them as the leader of a band of brothers. She suggested the (I’ll add radical) methodism explored in the novels is felt in the new dramatization of Demelza’s brothers (it was there in the depiction of Sam in the older series). She liked the sympathy the new series showed for George Warleggan as an ambitious man and felt for his need to conform to new upper class norms in order to elevate himself.  She saw Ross as simply a kind of Whig, deprived (because of the laws and customs of primogeniture), at first influenced by (involved in) the nearby French revolution, then leaving the Cornish world, to participate in Parliamentary debates. Travel is on horse, by the mail coach (you could use a boat); London is far away from Cornwall so Ross begins to leave his Cornish and egalitarian nexus behind.

The Demelza story she likened to Richardson’s Pamela: female servants were vulnerable to harassment (I’ll add rape, pregnancy, dismissal) and a wish fulfillment fantasy still allures. We watch Demelza teach herself slowly to dress, dance, behave like, become a lady. Caroline marries down, defying her uncle’s pressure for her to marry wealthy gentry. These, she suggested are fairy stories, and cited Charles Fox’s marrying his mistress, Elizabeth Armistead as a rare instance of a man marrying beneath his rank a woman he has made his mistress. Another case I can think of is Henry Fielding marrying his housekeeper after his first wife died. Fielding was jeered at by his rival, Samuel Richardson (he also wrote Clarissa) as in the recent series Dr Choake and George Warleggan jeer at Ross.


Morwenna (Ellise Chappell) shows continually that she is suffering from abuse (2015, Season 3, Episode 8)

But the new series has its own themes too, and she felt that these historical fictions show Graham to have been “an instinctive feminist.” There is the story of the coerced marriage of Morwenna and how her husband is a sadistic rapist she cannot escape until he dies. We see Verity fight and nearly lose her right “to choose” (to have) “her own life.” Julie sees Agatha as showing us the fate of the spinster, old, worn, powerless. Elizabeth’s story is of a woman with few options. How could she have accused Ross of rape? She would be regarded as an unreliable witness and her reputation destroyed. She is driven to take a dangerous drug to bring on early parturition to soothe her husband’s infuriated pride and dies of this. I agree with Julie’s statement that Graham dealt with psychological trauma inflicted on women with real sensitivity.


Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) pretending to be a Mrs Tabb come to a doctor for a drug to bring on early parturition, told it is dangerous (1978, Part 13, Episode 3)

Julie dealt with a few separate topics too, ones that are central to the books and films. For example, the precariousness of life and its dangerous pleasures. She showed how in the new series the pleasure gardens in London are realized. It is not specified that syphilis was a spreading and grim disease. I agree with her that the major characters sympathized with by Graham all dislike London (a kind of Babylon) and its false sophistications. She showed stills of Tomlinson as Demelza, Turner as Ross, Luke Norris as Dwight looking grim in London. Dwight is a sincere and earnestly hard-working doctor who would rather be in Cornwall.

She (rightly I felt) went on about Dwight as a “cutting edge” physician; Choake is a quack, Dwight well educated for his time where some scientific knowledge was beginning to be understood. She showed illustrations from the era (an apothecary dying), and said that resuscitation was practiced from an earlier age. Sickness abounds in Graham’s books. We have characters dying of diptheria (morbid sore throat); Hugh Armistead probably dies of meningitis; Dwight and Caroline’s baby dies of a congenital heart defect. This is transferred into the new series and reinforced. When Dwight is captured and witnesses horrible treatment, atrocities, torture, he is traumatized: she felt this reflects our own era where military men are abused by too many tours. I can vouch for themes drawn from medicine as common across Graham’s work.

Other strengths:  we see men comforting one another in the new series. There is little comic relief (that has been noticed again and again and that the earlier series had more comedy), but the Poldark books are mostly not light or comic; there is much death, grief, characters who could be better happier people are twisted and self-destruct from their background, upbringing, childhood (Francis Poldark, Valentine Warleggan). Ross and Demelza’s relationship is not an idyllic romance, but a real marital struggle with discord, misunderstanding and love.

She ended by asking why does Poldark matter endure: most of the books have never fallen out of print; we’ve now had two successful TV series 40 years apart. Is it the timeless themes? The heroine moves from waif to lady. The renegade hero becomes a strong pillar of his community. Other of the stories strike chords in us too. Then she quoted Graham again musing that when he dies and goes to heaven, he hopes St Peter will let him in even if he has been responsible for crowding Cornwall with tourists and summer people in caravans.


Photo of Winston Graham with his dog, Garrick

I enjoyed her talk very much. I plug on reading through the whole of his oeuvre insofar as I can reach it and time permits — in the midst of teaching, reading with others online, other projects that draw me on — I live but once and I am fading in some ways now, losing abilities by the month, my able time growing shorter. I am even now listening to Oliver Hembrough reading aloud Ross Poldark (on CDs) while in my car — so as to make more time for myself and books. I have the first seven Poldark novels on such audio CDs, and will go through these this way, and then read the last five over again. Alone as I am, with the obstacles I face (I’ve outlined some of these in the notes to my recent paper), no connections or contacts, little money for travel (and less appetite and ability), I sometimes despair of actually writing a book before I grow too old to do it.

Nevertheless, when I hear a talk like this and find myself returning to Poldark’s Cornwall and re-reading Graham’s words, I am drawn to the man who wrote the historical fiction and those of his books set in Cornwall, and am re-energized with enthusiasm, courage, and hope. I have thought of a good title, at long last too: A Matter of Genre: The Life and Writing of Winston Graham.  There’s my angle in a nutshell.

Ellen

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Typical catalogue

Dear friends and readers,

Anyone who reads this or my other blogs regularly know for the past five to six years now I have been working as a volunteer teacher in two local Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning. Each spring and fall, and now most summers, I put my syllabus on this or my Austen reveries blog so the people in my class have an on-line document to refer to, which I can link into other sites, and also change as we go along. I decided to write an essay explaining what Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning are: their goal, their history, the development of such places thus far, who works there, takes courses, on what terms, and then discuss the pedagogy appropriate for such places for a person like myself teaching humanities or literature courses. Since I wrote it for an 18th century publication, The 18th Century Intelligencer, I concentrated on the 18th century courses I have taught, but the same pedagogy and closely similar kinds of experiences occur when I’ve taught Anthony Trollope’s novels, a course I call “19th century women of letters” (basically 19th century novels by women framed by a more or less feminist historical perspective), historical novels, Jane Austen, the gothic ….

So if you want to know what these syllabuses and the blogs I sometimes write coming out of my experiences with these people my age (many professional of all sorts) are the outward manifestation or signs of, you can read my paper now on academia.edu under the title: Teaching Eighteenth Century Texts in Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning Programs.


The building the OLLI at AU resides in

As I reread my text I want to stress more how alike both places are, and (lest I leave a wrong impression) that for me as a person teaching at these and as a person taking courses, I often find the courses at OLLI at Mason as, and often more academically satisfying, than the ones at OLLI at AU. It depends on who is teaching, what is the material the course covers, what’s the goal, and how long the term lasts. One great advantage the shorter terms in fall and spring at the OLLI at Mason allow are genuine winter terms (4 weeks) and summer terms (6 weeks), which are not found in the other. I enjoy myself very much in summer at the OLLI at Mason and I’ve had some wonderfully educational courses in their winter terms: one year Dante’s Purgatorio, and Early American Women Writers, another James Joyce’s Dubliners (these three given by lecturers and professors who came over from Mason itself, two of whom I sort of knew).


The fun thing about this course is it was taught a man who my daughter Izzy took a graduate course in Irish Literature with when she attended Mason at night — so she and I could talk about these courses together

Practical courses are important too. Personally important for me two winters ago, a genuinely basic course in how to fill out my taxes at the OLLI at Mason, with advice on going to the AARP who have volunteer teams to help you or fill out your taxes for you. I don’t know what I would have done without those people at the AARP this and last year, and am glad I understand something of these tax forms, even if it is only to see how I am unfairly fleeced proportionately to my widow’s annuity. At last now I know how the corrupt system is taking so much from me that they eat into my needs so that the hugely rich corporations and super-rich individuals (with all their lawyers and deductions and tax-havens) can keep egregiously more of their income than in a just society they would be allowed — all the while themselves drawing on tax-payer money to make themselves richer.


A picnic at OLLI at Mason June 2013

And finally such places are there to help create and enrich the social life of everyone who goes there. The importance of companionship in shared and congenial activities and in contributing to the community, being part of it actively for older people cannot be over-estimated. If I didn’t detail this part of my and others experience that much, well that was not the theme of my paper. My evolving pedagogy for teaching literature to older adults is the methodology I’m describing.  My topic is teaching the 18th century especially. And along the way I hope I convey what I am learning about teaching and how learning happens.

Ellen

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Scenes from the recent Poldark series, with the accent on historical accuracy

Dear friends and readers,

My last blog was partly prompted by my reading through in chronological order Winston Graham’s contemporary suspense and Poldark and historical fiction and non-fiction books; I write again quickly because I’ve just put onto academia.edu, my third essay delivered at an 18th century conference on the Poldark books. The first at an EC/ASECS (East Central subdivision) at Penn State College (2011) whose theme was “liberty,” is called “‘I have the right to choose my own life’:” Liberty in the Poldark novels, and I put it prettily on my website, where you can see the titles of the other papers, and a more plain  copy at academia.edu.


Norma Streader as Verity asking Robin Ellis as Ross to provide a place for her to get to know Captain Blamey so she can decide whether to marry him or not ….

The second at an ASECS conference in Los Angeles (2015) that (appropriately perhaps) made film making and film adaptations a central concern:  “Poldark Re-booted, Forty Years On.”


An emphasis on community

For my third I discerned five phases or perspectives. a shifting genuinely liberal humane point of view politically, shaping Graham’s Poldark novels.

“After the Jump:” Winston Graham’s Uses of Documented Facts and Silences.


Contemporary playing cards

I had originally intended to call it “The Poldark Novels: a quietly passionate blend of precise accuracy with imaginative romancing.” Maybe I should have stayed with this, but it’s not the topic I actually wrote on.  I wrote on Graham’s different uses of fictional facts.


The cloak that Ross buys Demelza in the 2015 adaptation

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To explain:  At the recent ASECS (American Society, 18th Century Studies) held in Denver, Colorado (a convention hotel downtown), I was one of seven people scheduled to give papers on two panels on “Factual Fictions,” one on early Thursday morning, and the other late Friday afternoon, a session I was to chair.  Both panels organized by Martin Lansverk, president of NWSECS (Northwest subdivision). In the event, in this “subgroup” as I may call it, there were five papers, three on the morning I gave mine, and two on the late afternoon I was panel chair. I have a copy of a sixth paper (a good one), and I put it in the comments. I can offer the gist of the other two papers that Thursday morning: Lee Kahan (“Edgeworth’s ‘Lion Hunters:’ Defining Character in an ‘Age of Scandal'”) traced a shift in attitudes towards what was regarded as accurate personality portrayal. In newspapers supposedly captured real people’s characters by surface portrayal, external scandal, and events; the novel was recognized as different and superior by its endowing characters with depth, subjectivity, interior motives. A gender fault-line can be seen as novelists were then often women and women it was felt were “attuned to intimate understanding.”


Maria Edgeworth by John Downman (1807)

Martin Lansverk (“Laughter and Truth-telling in Jane Austen”) found a pattern of development in Austen’s uses of humor and comedy in her books which parallel emergent and developing theories of humor and comedy in the 18th century. He described what kind of laughter we find in Austen’s novels and what kind of humor and wit is practiced in good and bad characters in the different novels. In brief, honest laughter is a sign of an ethical character; where fake laughter shows amorality (brutal laughter comes in here as well as crude ridicule). He also found a continuum which in Austen and others moves from gentle teasing and silent (sometimes ironic) smiles (Elinor Dashwood) to nervous release (Mrs Palmer) to hard aggressive mockery (bullying and sneering).


Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood (walking alongside Edward Ferrars, 2008 S&S scripted Andrew Davies)

For the two papers on Friday afternoon I can offer a bit more detail because I am myself so engaged by the artistic work of John Gilpin. Tom Hothem (“Natural Fictions: Landscape Aesthetics and the Spatial Imagination”) turned out to be a beautiful meditation on Gilpin’s moral philosophy as made manifest in his idealized picturesque drawings, watercolors and illustrations. Gilpin was reaching for topographical archetypes as truths within all landscapes. Gilpin used aesthetic rules he found in novels (like that of Fielding), his autobiographical experience and apprehension of what he imagined as well as saw. His vision took the “best materials” in order to take “possession of the heart.” The trajectory of thought here leads to modern environmentalism and conceptions underlying urban renewal planning. He showed a number of slides of landscapes, parks, built houses, which (in effect) took us to architects in Italy, England and the US — Olmstead comes out of such schools of thought.


William Gilpin, Matlock from Views of Derbyshire (alluded to in Austen’s P&P)

Jacob Crane (“‘The Algerines are Coming!’ Fakes News, Islamophobia, and Early American Journalism”) revealed newspaper sensationalism and demonization of Muslims in North Africa, actuated by understandable fears of being captured and enslaved by pirates in the waters off the shores of the US. He offered the history of real border and trade conflicts and crises becoming in public media reports of fantastic barbarity. At one point it was claimed that Benjamin Franklin had been captured and enslaved. Again we glimpsed a liminal space (which can’t easily be checked) where fact and fiction were used as arguments and rationales by colonists, emigrants; Jacob quoted specific reports by captains and others, some true or partly true and some faked.


Anne Vallayer-Costa, White Soup Tureen

I will be writing more about this ASECS, one for my Austen reveries, a paper on Walter Scott from a session on the Jacobite uprising; on Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Northanger Abbey; on the theater as a career for actors, and scene painters, and the presidential address by Melissa Hyde on professional woman painters of the 18th century (including two almost unknown women, Marianne Loir and a Mlle or Madame Lusuler), and two here, further on film adaptations of texts written or set it the 18th century (Poldark, Outlander, The Favourite, Games of Thrones, Banished) and landscape gardening, Gilpin to Frank Lloyd Wright


Marked up page of Gilpin book

Ellen

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Tape Recorder used by Malcolm X. Wollensak Stereo-tape magnetic recorder, Model T-1515

Revolution is not a one-time event — Audre Lorde

Friends and readers,

People, if you’re in any doubt, go. It’s not only worth it, it is not as upsetting as you might imagine it will be, nor is it aggressively mournful, angry, or even celebratory. I think attempts have been made to make sure that an African-American coming to this museum, will leave with a sense of a strong determined identity confirmed in such a way as to make him or her feel proud and good.


Traditional European-style history painting of the Revolutionary war in the museum


The opening remarks of Barbara Jordan giving her keynote speech in 1976 is on the top floor, “Culture galleries”

Since my day at the African-American Museum, I have found myself having different and much more aware reactions to things I see and words I hear daily than I had had before I went; I filled out gaps in knowledge I didn’t know I didn’t have; I came away with explanations for phenomena I didn’t realize needed more explanation; I understand the source or origin for familiar images; I understand why Marcus Garvey said that African-Americans must build their own separate community or state on land outside white American society, that African-Americans remain a captive people.

I didn’t know that in the later part of the 19th century African-Americans did attempt to build their own communities, and these were destroyed by envious or resentful groups of whites. I didn’t know that just after World War I when African-Americans began to leave the south in droves, having had an experience of liberty, confirmed self-esteem, and education in an armed force, a new active lynching movement sprang up in the north and west, and there were riots against their new presence; I did not know that lynching was followed by mutilation of the person’s hanging corpse and then cutting off the head — every desecration that could be piled on. I saw this in the remarkably few photographs of lynching the museum displays. I found I am particularly ignorant of the history of African-Americans immediately after the civil war was over — the brief period where they were treated decently, began to vote, sat in representative assemblies; of their history again at the turn of the 20th century (devastating cruelty inflicted on them, in effect re-enslavement through laws forbidding them to leave the south, to leave a job where they owed money perpetually; the prison system; and again in the 1920s, and 1940s apart from the war.

I was impressed by the self-control and moderation of tone with which the history of African-Americans in the United States was presented. Inside the memorial for Emmett Till I began to cry.


Emmett Till’s casket when it was still in the old garage

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A corner of the corona building — with that delicate design work in iron seen in golden light

I finally made it a week ago Tuesday, and spent some 5 hours there. I left when I did because I felt my feet and legs had just enough strength to take me the trek back home. I had been wanting to go there since I saw Gwen Ifill’s first segment on it on PBS (and she’s been dead some years). Pondering the obstacles of early on getting tickets, and then when someone like me could, the distance (drive to train, train, walk it was said 15 minutes from a subway stop), so finding the place after having bought timed-tickets on a wekbsite and/or waiting outside on lines, I had begun to give up hope. Still I told myself if I could just plan a day, pull myself together, and go, I should probably manage it. Then at OLLI at Mason this January, a woman came from the museum to deliver a 2 hour lecture on the history, architecture, exhibits, doings of the place, and said you didn’t need any ticket at all ahead for this January and February. So now or never. Three weeks ago I was un-surprized to be thwarted because an inch of snow closed the place down, but two weeks ago all clear.

I found it by going to the Smithsonian stop (so glad I had wit enough to chose that one of the three cited on the website), and with the help of a man who works in the Metro. I had fallen and a man in the booth came over. I said I wanted to find the African-American museum. I told him there was no map on the website, and was seeking Constitution Avenue, he nodded and said that was not necessary. He said go up the escalator and turn left. I said, no that cannot be as that is the park. So he came up the escalator with me and walked into the Mall park and pointed to the building. It’s distinctive; it stands out. So I had to turn left in the park and walk in the direction of that building and it took about 7 minutes or so.

You first enter a grand concourse, all sparkling glamour with a bronze chariot hanging from the ceiling (“Swing low, sweet chariot … “). Like many recent museums, there is so much space wasted — super high ceilings, large desks with not much information, a cafeteria to the side, an auditorium for cultural events (Oprah Winfrey), and glass doors leading to different corridors. One takes you to a large elevator where you go down some three flights at least and then coming out walk through history set up as exhibits of all sorts in a large maze with inner rooms and outer, gradually rising to the concourse again. There were places you could sit and watch films. Places you could sit and read the plaques explaining what you were seeing. Like the American Museum of Natural History in NYC big glass cases set in walls with exhibits.

You begin with the period where the practice of enslavement of (eventually) thousands and thousands of people. I thought about the period where they were captured, manacles with horrifying hooks put about their necks, stripped to nakedness, and then forced aboard ships. What few remnants and relics survive are surrounded by modern pictures, explanations of the economics of this capture and deportations; the (to me) familiar mappings of these hellhole ships. Then the exhibit divides into four localities to show enslavement in Chesapeake area, the Carolinas, Louisiana, and up north. You look at decrees, see artifacts, read of the many rebellions, horrific loss of life, all dignity and comfort to those alive – and evidence also of people trying to hold onto their original beliefs, form family groups.


A reproduction of a mural, “The Old Plantation” circa 1785-1795, watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia

In the middle sections — after the Revolutionary War and leading up to the civil war — you can try to observe how enslaved black people lived among white people who were by law backed up by guns and horrific punishments their owners or also all the other people all around them. How everyone accommodated movement. Their houses in the fields. Their working conditions. Tools. I remarked there were few whips — there was in this museum an attempt to downplay the misery of such an existence. A few people managed to buy themselves out of enslavement; a few learn to read, learn trades. We see the papers they were required to carry (and danger they could be snatched back into enslavement and their papers destroyed). For my taste there were too many statues of famous white American males. There was an ancient beat up square piece of stone about one foot high: an auction block. Much about resistance, about attempts at some semblance of life outside body-killing work and continual subjugation. Not nearly enough on the horrors women would have experienced (rape, pregnancy, exhibition, beating, babies and children taken from you &c) — the museum has what photos have lasted — mostly groups of African-Americans around shacks and in the fields.


Clara Brown — one of my favorite statues — her story is both sad and courageous

Born enslaved in Virginia, Clara Brown married at age 18, and had to endure all four children being taken from her and sold; after the Civil War she moved to Colorado and worked as a cook, laundress and midwife; she invested her money in mines and land, and used it to help support community organizations. All her life she searched for her four children. When very old she finally was united (the plaque said) with one daughter.

Much on the civil war — because more and more photos, artefacts, relics, documents and here occasionally books mentioned.

Very educational were the rooms for the turn of the 20th century because an attempt was made to show how African-Americans were building their own institutions, creating their own associations (NAACP), were developing a genuine middle class, with a small elite business community. I did know how these groups reached out to one another and to more isolated people to do what they could to educate one another, get decent jobs. Each time (I must add) there is a cruel push-back — no, they cannot get into unions (so the history of Pullman Porters); there seems to be always some group ready and able to re-impose isolation, poverty. But you see a black press, and very important the development of talented people in the arts, music, literature, and then doctors, lawyers, teachers. The early minstrel shows (with black face) have one wall. This section before and during the push for civil rights after World War Two (this began in the 1950s) had films of individuals, and was dependent to a large extent on African-American people supplying their own saved relics — like a parlor organ from 1911 (a room with books and rugs is built around it). Famous African-American people have separate glass cases, from Ida Wells and Booker T. Washington.

In the middle of the higher level is a Southern Railway train. Now what’s remarkable about this is the section reserved for “coloreds” is so much more comfortable, suggesting aspects of the treatment of colored people during this segregated era on trains much much better than passengers on planes in economy seats today.

I went in and saw the colored people’s chairs had armrests. What airplane gives a passenger a comfortable armrest? There was plenty of room in the aisles and people faced one another. The whites had bigger seats, bathrooms at both ends of the cars, more accommodation for food, but no one was treated (as far as the construction of the car lets you see) in the abusive manner airlines do today. You have room for your body to sleep, eat, be comfortable.

This was not the only place in the 20th century part of the history that I observed poorer and ordinary (not people part of some exclusive “club” where they pay extra) people today are treated as badly and worse than segregated African-Americans in public places they shared with whites. And see forms of enslavement today for millions of black men in prisons.

Once I moved into the 1960s, I was on familiar ground. There was a long cafeteria like counter with seats in front of which are perpetual films. Some of the more troubling things is that the Angola Prison exhibit is about a prison still going whose treatment of prisoners is still deeply inhumane. But also in these various modules of the 20th century an exhibit about the Hope School, a fine school for African-American children where those lucky enough to go there probably received a much better education than they did when they entered an integrated public school at first. There were uniforms worn by African-American nurses (at first black women couldn’t enter this profession) and a touching photo of an AFrican-American midwife taking care of a new born.

Again in the 1980s and 90s, no where near enough about the roles of the FBI in destroying the Black Panther movement. The frankest parts of the museum heritage galleries were the films and histories of events of the 1960s. There is a set of film clips ending on Johnson signing the civil rights act. As others have said before me, I was disappointed to see so little of Martin Luther King, to be told so little of other leaders who were most of them killed in their 30s (Medgar Evers comes to mind) – let us not forget (see Muhiyyidin D’baha, this past February, another potential black male leader shot dead in the streets).

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Upstairs

What one has also to remember is this is not a museum intended to show high cultural art; like other Smithsonian museums the core idea is to reflect the history of a culture.

The lower floor with its community galleries continues the story of how difficult it has been for African-American people to achieve fulfillment in the US. One exhibit called the “power of place” shows how important to people are the places they grow up in but also how these function to segregate people. You see slow hard climbs of individuals and how they are helped by black groups to become successful this way or that: including making beautiful hats (Mae Reeves’s Millinery shop, for church and then selling these more widely).

I know nothing about most sports and can’t get myself to care who wins prizes so I skipped a whole section of the middle floor. Another section of this floor was about military service and how African-American men (& women nowadays) fought in both wars (I and II), and how ambivalent the experience originally was, but how once integrated the armed services has been a place African-Americans can have and have had fulfilling success and gained respect and power.

Then the highest floor where you can look out to the park too: I had expected to be more amused by the movie and music industry part of the museum than I was. Here I do have a mild criticism: instead of letting the viewer watch say the whole of Barbara Jordan’s speech say one day and then Martin Luther King another, we have ten clips each lasting less than 5 minutes. Or we have clips from famous movies one after another lasting less than 5 minutes. Everything is there then as a sort of celebratory symbol; Chuck Berry’s 1950s Cadillac (with a spotlight) took a good deal of room. Several different groups singing and songs played all at once even if a few yards apart do not allow you to appreciate the music. Little attempt is made to show the slow progress of black people in films or TV. I was surprised to find how painful I found the comic routines of male African-American performers: several were making routines out of the ironies and miseries of their condition, out of the color of their skin, as a source of humor. I didn’t find it so but it does teach you what was acceptable to do to black people in the 1950s and early 60s. And as for today, too much celebrity glamour.

It also seemed to me the finest African-American women singers, actresses and other creative people were not there. No Lena Horne for example. Instead young black sexy icon-types, the huge money-makers, politicians, and silent videos with lots of neon. The most disappointing section was the arts. A truly tiny section of painting, sculpture. I have said that’s not the purpose of the museum. But the lack of interest was startling — again one can go to the other Smithsonian museums to see exhibits of fine African-American photographers. Perhaps the competition is too keen. But the truth while women were equally represented every where but sports and the military, famous women’s dresses are there (Rosa Parks) and typical working outfits for women as well as men’s and women were obviously organizers, active as volunteers and paid heads of organizations, and also part of the elite black world, when it came to the arts, individual good women artists (singers, young actresses, painters, sculptors, performers) were nowhere to be found.

I don’t want to end on a “down” or sour note. It took a very long time from the initial daring proposal (1916, black veterans from World War One) to actual plans, provisions (2003) and finally funding and hiring an architectural firm (2009, thank John Lewis among other people) to this magnificent place. It will be here a long time and there is (as I said) lots of empty space.

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Back on the concourse: the cafeteria specializes in soul food, southern black cookery and is expensive, but you can buy small plates of the food as side dishes and there is coffee, each day a different soup, and sodas and some decent juice. I got a small plate of spinach and a bottle of genuine orange juice.

Then I went into your usual museum shop: lots of jewelry, scarves, T-shirts, commemorative objects. I bought two good books, one a Vintage collection of African-American poetry, and an anthology of “slave narratives” edited by Henry Gates. The two people at the register were friendly and thanked me for supporting the museum. Entry is free. There were also serious books about African-American history and culture and individuals as well as your usual popular stuff, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming in many copies.

I’ll end on this highly intelligent capable woman who had some luck and has been able to live a good life with a man worth of her. Michelle Obama fits into the super-respect given to women politicians and the women who run organizations and are part of the black elite (Hilary Clinton is part of this in her white world and it was these black women who voted for her):


Read this thoughtful review by Isabel Wilkerson (NYTimes Book Review)


As a college student

What’s it like to be an outsider? How can a museum represent the inside world of a particular person? This one didn’t do that enough. It was about black people breaking into the inside of the white world, and about black people who formed their own inside black worlds.

When I look at Michelle Obama at Harvard, and read about the family life she knew, the communities she was part of, and listen to her quoted, I feel she doesn’t know any more for real what it is, though she carries on trying to help those (as they say) “less fortunate.”  I don’t begrudge her her luck, and am glad for her that she has not been excluded because she is an African-American. In Michelle Obama’s case, being a woman hurt her possibilities much more. After all she did not become president, though out of school and into a job, she was Barack’s mentor.

Oprah Winfrey can make huge amounts of money appealing to whites too and build an auditorium; a extraordinarily good older woman actress, she can help Barack Obama centrally by declaring “he black!”, but she knows better than to run for president.

Ellen

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Alison Luff as Nell falling on the floor as she dies as St Catherine in Tyrannic Love just before getting up to speak the Epilogue … (Nell Gwyn, by Jessica Swale, directed by Robert Richmond)

They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps … Moth, Act 5, Love’s Labor’s Lost

Friends,

A remarkable season is unfolding itself at the Folger this year, and I would advise you not to miss any of it. It began with a magnificent lavish production of Wm Davenant’s “improved Macbeth.

It carried on with the daringly bare and self-explanatory King John; it was deliberately slow-moving as if to give each audience member a chance to mull then and later think about the nature of politics as seen here or there, by turns seriously earnest, a quietly sardonic, or showing characters who crave calm, peace, order and thus safety. I couldn’t get over that I felt I was listening to Shakespeare think aloud about the ways monarchical hierarchical power in his era worked; what the military are about. For the first time I understood Constance’s speeches attempt to save herself and her son.


Holly Twyford as Constance (King John, directed by Aaron Posner)

Falcounbridge anticipates the ruthless politician types of the later plays, with the difference he (in this case she) explains herself.


Kate Norris as Philip Faulconbridge in Wm Shakespeare’s King John, as directed by Aaron Posner

Peter Marks wrote an essay about it calling it a Shakespearean “Games of Thrones:”

… you will have gratifyingly broadened your knowledge of Shakespeare and your appreciation of Folger’s ongoing campaign to expose audiences to the astonishing range of Shakespeare’s mind and interests.

In “King John,” his curiosity leads him to a contemplation of legitimacy — the political, psychological and spiritual foundation of leadership — as the reign of John is challenged. A son of Henry II, John acquires the crown after the deaths of his brothers Richard the Lionheart and Geoffrey. But a conniving French king (Howard W. Overshown), a meddling papal envoy (Sasha Olinick) and some ambitious relatives at court have other ideas. Constance, given impassioned heft by Twyford, wants Arthur (Megan Graves), her son by Geoffrey, installed. Meanwhile, Norris’s Philip, an out-of-wedlock son of Richard the Lionheart, becomes yet another rival, after King John himself intervenes and declares him, by a legal loophole, a legitimate heir.

“John is now king: Should he be?” is the question Posner poses in the preamble of his own devising. It’s the question that drives the evening and, just as crucially, the paranoia of the king in a court decked out becomingly by costume designer Sarah Cubbage in Victorian bowler hats and petticoats. Andrew Cohen’s set, where the only omnipresent fixture is a wooden throne, reflects the unsettled air of the English realm; above the chair is suspended a primitive crown, awaiting, it seems, the rightful head to fill it.

Dykstra’s John seems the right kind of John for the representation of a realm in disarray. He posits John as unpolished, impatient and prone to rashness; his authorization of his henchman Hubert to dispatch nephew Arthur may not be singular in the bloody history of English royal family affairs, but it does signal his homicidal inadequacy. And by the way, Elan Zafir plays Hubert, torn by affection for Arthur, with such exceptional emotionality that he makes a powerful case for this secondary character to be the humane touchstone for the play. (Twyford’s embodiment of a mother’s grief contributes to another memorable interlude.)

A third play was brought in through the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare company from Statford HD screening events: this time Troilus and Cressida: a concise review from The Guardian.

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And now this:

Jessica Swale has before this rewriitten and produced 18th century plays, original and post-text, Shakespeare plays (ditto), often with obvious feminist or feminine subtexts,e.g., Bluestockings. She wants to defend and create sympathy for women and the vulnerable.


Manuel Harlan; Olivia Ross (Celia), Tala Gouveia (Carolyn), Molly Logan (Maeve …) — bluestockings nervously seeking jobs

In Nell Gwyn we trace the outline of this brothel child-turned orange girl- turned actress — turned king’s mistress, her career as it’s publicly documented and known by hearsay. Each station or stage of her existence is followed if not in exact chronological order: from hanger-on, to attracting & being trained by Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen, the hero type), a cavalier, friend to, employee of theater entrepreneurs & aristocrats.

We meet and are thoroughly entertained by the actors of Killigrew’s (Nigel Gore) company, from the boy page (Alex Michell), to Kynaston (Christopher Dinolfo, just virtuoso in rants and hysteria), the servant woman, house- and costume-keeper, Nancy (Catherine Flye — pitch perfect accent and timing, she was very funny). The same actor played Etheredge and then Dryden (Michael Glenn). We watch Nell’s first struggles to learn her trade, to act, to sing, to dominate the stage amid the ensemble — as the play carried on, sometimes they reminded me of Shakespeare’s clowns because their playfulness was so gay, full of life, buoyant.


Hart acting between Nancy and Rose, Nell’s sister

As all this unfolds she attracts the king and wins his favor to the point her makes her his mistress, with pension, house, and his attention.


Nell Gwyn and R.J. Foster as King Charles II

He has to wrench her from the ensemble


Ensemble

We witness their troubles (so to speak) once married: her conflicts with her mother (Flye) and sister (Caitlin Cisco) who feel neglected, his with his ministers in the person of Arlington (Jeff Keogh), who feels more than neglected. The most powerful because for a moment believable scenes are two in which Arlington threatens Nell with disappearing and other ominous ends if she doesn’t remove herself. She wins out, to fall in love with the king and he her (she is pregnant by this time), time telescopes to Charles’s attempt to reign by himself, his death and the famous line: “Not let poor Nelly starve.”


King thoughtful

It has had a number of very favorable reviews: DC Theater Scene; Andrew White of Broadway World; Nora Dick in Maryland Theater World. Only the Washington Post was “disappointed.”

I’m not sure why the last nitpicked; maybe there was an expectation of an heroic life; this play stays determinedly in the terrain of what we may suppose would be ordinary diurnal experiences of a group of players, an unconnected woman with no money, a high ranked courtier. I admit I began to despair that they would not enact any parts of the plays of the time — only comically allude in parodic ways to Shakespeare’s (The Tempest, Lear — a marvelous comedy we are told), Dryden and Etheredge’s, and the story of the Titanic as conceived in many movies. Did they think these so bad. But at the close of the play after Charles has died, and Nell returns to her old stage friends, they do a quick pantomime of Tyrannic Love in order to end on Dryden’s famous epilogue spoken openly by Nellie, and conveyed with energy by Luff:

Hold, are you mad? you damn’d confounded Dog,
I am to rise, and speak the Epilogue.
To the Audience. I come, kind Gentlemen, strange news to tell ye
I am the Ghost of poor departed Nelly.
Sweet Ladies, be not frighted, I’le be civil,
I’m what I was, a little harmless Devil.
For after death, we Sprights, have just such Natures,
We had for all the World, when humane Creatures;
And therefore I that was an Actress here,
Play all my Tricks in Hell, a Goblin there.
Gallants, look to’t, you say there are no Sprights;
But I’le come dance about your Beds at nights.
And faith you’l be in a sweet kind of taking,
When I surprise you between sleep and waking.
To tell you true, I walk because I dye
Out of my Calling in a Tragedy.
O Poet, damn’d dull Poet, who could prove
So sensless! to make Nelly dye for Love,
Nay, what’s yet worse, to kill me in the prime
Of Easter-Term, in Tart and Cheese-cake time!
I’le fit the Fopp; for I’le not one word say
T’excuse his godly out of fashion Play.
A Play which if you dare but twice sit out,
You’l all be slander’d, and be thought devout.
But, farwel Gentlemen, make haste to me,
I’m sure e’re long to have your company.
As for my Epitaph when I am gone,
I’le trust no Poet, but will write my own.

Here Nelly lies, who, though she liv’d a Slater’n,
Yet dy’d a Princess acting in S. Cathar’n.

The subtext of the play is a young woman’s awakened determination to have, direct and enjoy her life. This was the era in which “everything changed” (as the players say) because women came onto the boards.

As with Davenant’s Macbeth, there was an attempt to evoke the 17th century stage world: a glorious rich curtain to suggest a framed stage, candle holders to the front bottom stage, the costumes (Mariah Anzaldo Hale), luxurious sex. with  a woman once again at the center.


The King with Lady Castlemaine (Regina Acquino)

The company’s fourth choice this year is another that asks for creativity in costume with its complicated play within a play, and is hard to do because of all the poetry quoting: Loves Labour’s Lost. I look forward to it. In the meantime in a couple of weeks Izzy and I will go to our first Folger consort performance this year, a spring festival of Spanish and Italian music, with a Renaissance band to provide dancing and a variety of older instruments, all around the Mediterranean.

“The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo” — the last words of Love’s Labor’s Lost, which I took heed of and so presented Shakespeare’s King John before Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn.

Ellen

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