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Norwegian Wood

Friends and readers,

I braved or endured a 7 hour trip (counting to and fro from my house in Alexandria, Va, on July 16th, to the Ripley Center of the Smithsonian buildings on the National Mall) to enjoy the (as I discovered) privilege of listen to Saul Lilienstein for some 6 hours and 45 minutes. A tough travel experience (it was one of these supremely super-hot days in DC with humidity making the experience of difficulty breathing) amid crowds not decently serviced (not the fault of the Metro staff who actually drive and are on the stations of the Metro). See what goes unreported: mass prayer meeting in DC July 16th. But all this seemed no trouble at all in comparison to what this unusual man was able to say, convey, teach a small group of people willing to sit and learn.

He talked of the original and continuing British sources of Beatles’s music, its then immersion in American white and black music), accompanied by videos and sound tracks that moved me deeply for themselves and taught me generally how the Beatles came to have power over vast general audience, not only of young people.

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Lilienstein’s ostensible plot-design was not chronological and throughout he used tapes, videos, UTubes made since the 1990s technological revolution to exemplify themes. But there was an ever-inching forward in time across a life-story in time, which seems to be inevitable when one tries to account for works of signally high genius.

For the first half of the day, morning before lunch (at 12:30) he covered the sources of the Beatles’ deep early appeal, what was original and yet so utterly British and traditional in their music, and how they began to break away musically and thematically.

It’s easiest to tell something of their joint career. Music comes from 1957/68 when Lennon and MacCartney first met and started to play. They brought into their pair, Harrison at age 14 late in 1958. They played everywhere in Liverpool and back and forth in Hamburg. They had trouble finding a drummer once they wanted someone for a commercial style recording, and it was 1962 when Ringo Starr joined them

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Photo from early phase: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul MacCartney

For the first hour he showed us how the earliest Beatles music in Liverpool and Hamburg was rooted in Irish, Scottish and music hall English aesthetic traditions and ethical-class outlooks. This hour-long part of Lilienstein's talk was the least accompanied by vocal tapes, and visual videos and at the same time the most startling. The cheerful music of acceptance of one's lot in the mainstream working class culture of later 19th and early 20th century entertainment is conveyed, but also how one belonged to this milieu captured once for all by Richard Hoggart in his famous The Uses of Literacy. Lilienstein would play a rendition of familiar early Beatles hits (before they came to the US), then an Irish/Scottish ballad or musical hall song. Lilienstein pointed out that “It was 20 years ago today/Sergeant Pepper taught the bland to play”constitutes an innovative reprieve of the deeply male upper class suave dominated music of the the later half of the 20th and into the 21st century by working class, soft shoe (American black) and effeminate plangent elements.

Lilienstein put a large image of a poster of a circus coming to a local music hall pre-WW1 and showed us how lines of the song “For the benefit of Mr Kite” are all taken from this poster. “The Long winding road” is another startlingly innovative harking back. The tune of “It was 20 years ago today” is from an earlier time utterly re-orchestrated. If we would listen to the lyrics of their songs, these tell us these truths: “I read in the news today, oh boy ..” If you begin to trace these lines, you find a genuine radical critique of history. One song about 40,000 holes takes us back to WW1 and horizontally to the number of seats in the Royal Albert Music Hall. Lilienstein played an early parody by Paul of this kind of music in a song my notes tell me ran “She was just a working class girl from the north.” I cannot over-estimate how startling and unknown to me all this was.

The second phase (another hour) was to trace the American roots of their songs. Americans had no trouble connecting with the Beatles as their songs imitated, were re-creations in a urban idiom of famous songs by Buddy Holly and his Crickets (whence the name Beatles), Little Richard, Chuck Berry. He would play an originally deeply American black song popular on black stations in the 1950s, then a semi-white rendition for a more widely-popular rendition on mainstream white radio, and then the Beatles, re-injecting black American words and rhythms. “Peggy Sue” became “P.S. I love You”. Mo-Town Smoky Robinson songs were re-injected into Beatles “This boy wants you back again.” They loved Chuck Berry, and combined his song with Blue Grass from white country music, giving it an urban edge either by imagery or quick pace. He played for us the Beatles’ rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Mr Postman.”

They had an ear to pick up the most remarkable of American songs: Barnett’s “Give me Money, that’s what I want,” adding to that their own personal intensities (Lennon screamed at a wild moment the lines about “give me money”), using darker chords. Wilbur Harrison trying to make some money re-made his “Kansas city,” rubbing out all black and Detroit references; the Beatles put these back in with lines about a “black beat” which referred to their imitation of music coming out of Detroit and Negro Spirituals. Lilienstein ended this section of his talk with “A Ticket to Ride” and “Day Tripper.”

Lilienstein’s talk was not just a matter of showing likeness and repetition of lyrics and tunes. He also showed transformation of blues structure quite early on in their music. 12 bars, each subdivided into 4, from C major into subdominant F and back to major C. They broke this up, turning to minor keys, bringing in sudden other unexpected chords (Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” became “You’re gonna lose that girl”). They never tried to hide what they were doing so you can use names and titles and lines to discover affinities and transformations. An early name for Lennon, MacCartney and Harrison was “Johnny and the Moondogs,” a term which has reference to performers of blues in the US. He discussed “She’s a woman” and “Help!” — for the first time I noticed the plangent nature of the words

Then a much shorter phase was “In a rebellious generation.” While towards the end Lilienstein played some of the music the Beatles recorded specifically against the Vietnam War, his subject was their rebellion against the musical forms they had been tinkering with, imitating, urbanizing. They began genuinely to expand what was meant by the term “rock’n’roll”. Norwegian Wood (which my daughter, Izzy, recorded a version of) was among these; also “Tomorrow never Knows” where they begin to bring in the drug culture through a psychedelic sound.

They imitate the sounds of technological machines, include lots of extraneous sounds, the point was to be haphazard. The song about the LSD experience was called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in order not to be too much in your face.

At this point Paul MacCartney began to pull back, and we see him returning to Western modes, and in Victorian stories like “She’s leaving home,” about grief and loss with the music leaving traditional cadences in a way expressive of descending sorrow. “All you need is love” is memorable because it’s rhythms are off-kilter. By contrast, experiment for John Lennon meant embodying his troubled spirit, his angst in quick moving rhythms, modern songs whose lyrics showed a deep critique of the society they were living in as in “Revolution.”

Asked whether “Revolution” was an anti-war song, Lennon replied all their songs are anti-war.
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In the first half, the long morning, Lilienstein brought in how their career as a group developed, telling of their first successes with a British audience, the coming to the US, the first TV appearances and concerts (Shea Stadium). The second half, he moved into showing us the inward musicians: the composition process as recorded on pirated tapes of sessions where we see them move from a first version of a song (mostly brought in either by Paul or John, sometimes as a lyric and sometimes as a song without words), and how they hammered at these to develop a full sound with all four playing, altered the lyrics and often the very character or mood they began with. This reminded me of how Jane Austen’s few ms’s show she often began with something very coarse and conventional (in her case burlesque) and gradually revising, turned the passage to something with an almost diametrically opposed mood and character, though some core in the original idea is brought out memorably.

It’s not true that they didn’t know musical notation; MacCartney and Lennon both studied music in college. Lilienstein showed them bringing in a line from Hal Arlen’s “Somewhere over the rainbow” in one of their songs, and how they began to softly linger at a song’s end. George Martin had taught them much: how to use a recording studio; he brought in discipline and “cleaned” up songs, but Lilienstein maintained that someone else could have contributed what Martin did, and by the end (1966-69) he was just standing there recording expertly.

In this hour and one half about process we listened to at least 3-4 versions of each song. A first and last, and two intermediary. “Get Back” started out (possibly dismayingly) as an anti-immigrant song with Pakistani people told to “get back to where they once belonged: we heard them free-wheeling with chords sounds, and that Jo-Jo was originally aimed at “Yoko Ono” whom John had begun to bring to recording sessions

At the same time, Lilienstein began to show us the distinct differences in the type of music each of the two major creators, Lennon and MacCartney did, and the growing conflicts and clashes of outlook, how they wanted the group to develop, attitudes towards life (Paul was the more upbeat person, adjusted to realities, imagining stories of families, while John projected anger and despair, and self-doubt). They were fighting over who would dominant, over “ownership” of themselves and the group. In the Abbey Road album we have a group breaking apart: they can make joyful music while they are at one another’s throats. Songs combine the wild despair with the story element as in “She came through the bathroom window.”

Some of their best work came out of this period of raucous interaction. Lennon had become increasingly dependent on drugs; at least he used them to the point he’d come in stoned; he protested against the bowing to commercial demands; MacCartney was more controlled and began to write astonishingly beautiful ballads: “Yesterday,” “All the Lonely People,” “Eleanor Rigby.” “You think she needs you” could be by Brahms. We listened to the evolution of “Let it Be” (one of my favorites) which began with the essential familiar lines but it took a long while for the three who had not made the lyric to accept it, and develop it into a kind of hymn. In their earlier phases.

Lilienstein said single were often the two opposing points of view: one one you had Paul’s “Penny Lane” on the one side (pictorial, surreal reality, memories of happiness as a child, nostalgia for the past, hopeful)

On the other John’s “Strawberry Fields” where he doesn’t want to get out of bed, where life is hopeless and to be avoided, nothing to get “hung about,” easy to live with eyes closed, “It doesn’t matter much to me,”as in his song “Nowhere:”

Sometimes an album would end with a song by Lennon and characteristic of his depression, to be contradicted by the first song on the other side by MacCartney. Lennon’s “I am The walrus” (see below) makes no literal sense, an ode to personal doubt and lack of identity, and is followed by MacCarthney’s “Yes no stop go goodbye hello,” making fun of Lennon as posturing. They were not only increasingly disenchanted with one another, but their careers. George Harrison had up until this point followed these two as a guitarist; as they withdrew he began to fill the gap with a few remarkably great songs (“My guitar gently weeps”). He began with ABA structures, but soon we hear unusual things brought in: Spanish or flamingo music (“I me mine”). He wrote much less than these two, but a couple are among the best songs of the 20th century, like “Something:”

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I am aware I may not have conveyed the excitement, and cannot begin to get down the passing remarks Lilienstein made about the music as we went along. Remarkably the four went from “I wanna hold your hand” and “Love love me do” to “Hey, Jude” and “Here comes the sun” in 7 short years. It’s about what happened during these 7 years in the music that Lilienstein accounted for, went into deeply. He has all sorts of tapes, among the more moving was a beautiful tape of “Love is all you need” as surreal; the song not one of those I’ve favored as until now all the renditions I’ve heard were so sentimentalized.

As literary and art so musical creation comes of the author’s lives — how could it be otherwise? Lilienstein told of how individual songs were events in these four people’s lives — he did discuss Ringo Starr less, saying Starr said of himself, he had been so lucky to come along for the ride because he was a very good drummer and worked well with the other three. He told mainly of Lennon and MacCartney’s personalities.

Here Lilienstein seemed to me to be too critical of Lennon’s outlook as if it were wrong but as he talked I realized for the first time that Lennon abused his first wife and other women. Lilienstein played a song, rarely heard, by Lennon about his male jealousy where he says remorselessly he’d rather murder the woman he is with than see her with another man, and he was (I had not known this) violent, ruthless towards people, and domineering over women until he met Yoko Ono. (This is not necessarily a tribute to her moral nature;she was part of the reason for the break-up of the quartet.) I saw Lilienstein meant to register that Lennon never fulfilled his gifts; he was still finding himself when he was gunned down (as so many are in the US). I was after all glad of the condemnation however brief.

He then showed Lennon’s work was the more continually interesting and troubling. His description of “I am The Walrus” as filled with nonsense phrases, unreal words, and just sounds thrown in that Lennon heard as he was composing made the song into a kind of small Finnegan’s Wake:

Almost inevitably then MacCartney came in for the highest praise: he sustained himself, lived longer, as far as we know lived more ethically with regard to other people, kept writing and singing, and a few of his songs are among many people never tire of hearing: Lilienstein seemed to feel Hey Jude was a favorite for re-hearing for most people.

Lilienstein did not go into this but implicit in his talk was the idea the Beatles utterly transformed what rock-n-roll was thought to be, its potentials, its possibilities. At the time there were other highly original groups — who I’d say came out of the ferment of new ideas, radical, and liberating of the 60s: folk (Peter, Paul and Mary), more soft versions of rock-n-roll (Simon and Garfunckel), new kinds of country (Willie Nelson and the groups pf Austin, Texas), music coming from Nashville. So like Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater, they came out of and were part of a movement, but they were a leading force. Their records sold tremendously, they topped all charts continually. Popular music has not been the same since. The only successful parody I know is from Love Actually: Bill Nighy’s inimitable, irreverent, mock-on-the-sexism, “Christmas is All Around Us” (it’s telling the original YouTube was pulled and there is now a much tamer one, minus the electrifyingly stupifyingly-sexualized girls and salacious gestures of Nighy).

Left out by Lilienstein except at split second moments, was the band’s sexism. They’d never have a woman singing with them one of them said. It’s a strongly masculinist point of view; the stories of young girls fleeing parents are done from the parental point of view. What the girl might have been feeling in her escape beyond a desire to “have fun,” and how she would feel years later when she was thoroughly punished by her society there are no songs about. As I listen to these I feel such sorrow over what I was as a teenager at age 16. My parents had no idea how to help me, nor did I how to help myself.

Ellen

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DoubledLifecover (Small)

Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friends and readers,

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) has occupied a paradoxically at once hagiographic and controversial position in studies of Hitler’s Third Reich, which suggests an audience familiar with his name, life and writing; he is not well-known to people outside Germany, the religiously inclined, pacifists, and those who’ve studied the elite German milieus who supported Hitler as a bulwark against socialism. The reasons for the peculiarity of the way he’s been heroicized and marginalized come from the unwillingness of people to confront painful realities of the past or overturn the continuing male hegemonic structuring of much human experience and stigmatizing of people who don’t conform to simplistic sexual norms. Bonhoeffer’s is one of the (when we are telling truths) ambivalent stories of those who resisted Nazism.

His life history has been kept muted and/or distorted to erase his homosexuality (an important source for aspects of his thought), especially his relationship with Eberhardt Bethge, who, as the man Bonhoeffer was ineradically in love with, built books intended to mount a difficult barrier to get past. The widely-popular (a surprise best seller of 1953) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, edited by Bethge from unpublished manuscripts, fits squarely into the kind of first edition Donald Reiman (The Study of Modern Manuscripts: Private, Confidential, and Public) describes as a “family book” where the editor acts as an advocate of the writer’s family’s view of this writer, the family itself (Deirdre LeFaye’s edition of Jane Austen’s letters is such a book), in Bethge’s case also to obscure his actual relationship with Bonhoeffer and his own ambitious political and personal choices during Hitler’s regime.

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A photograph of Bethge and Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer has not been forgotten because his extensive original writing (very ethical in bent), the rich, powerful elite group he belonged to (which survived the Hitler era), the positions he achieved in the powerful church structures, and his imprisonment and murder for conspiring against Hitler. He has been useful as a martyr, as a conservative religious hero, an ethical thinker, and a corpus of far from disinterested books and essays continue to be written about him.

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Tubingen University Library (where Bonhoeffer studied as a young man)

Diane Reynolds has studied this secondary material, and the extensive primary documents; she interviewed people who knew those who knew Bonhoeffer, visited the places he lived in, and has produced a candid, lucidly written biographical account of the man’s life and his behavior, drawing especially on his letters (the life-blood of biography). She has been preceded by Charles Marsh’s flamboyant biography, which hers is an improvement on because of her scrupulous care not to claim anything for which there is no consistent substantial evidence. Some LGBTQ people may object to her reluctance to concede the probable where the nature of the case cannot provide evidence, such as Bonhoeffer’s sexual activity (there is evidence for more than one close male relationship and several revealing portraits of male supporters and friends, e.g., Franz Hildebrandt with whom he lived for a time) as true acceptance, respect and fulfillment, not to omit safety, for them in society requires adult understanding, but nothing else is elided over, and she is critical of her subject where criticism is called for. We see a root cause for his on the one hand, reluctant betrayal of his sister and her Jewish husband, and on the other, loyalty to an upper class luxurious community: he gave up while in the US an opportunity to escape Germany, the offer of a good position because he couldn’t bear to live apart from Bethge (241-45) or lose his sense of some meaning through belonging with numinous privileged people who shaped important social structures and beliefs.

Women readers will see how he was willing to support as his patroness the domineering reactionary Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow, who was ceaselessly coercive over her daughters’s lives and engineered the pretense of an affair with her granddaughter, Maria von Wedermeyer (herself unable to throw off the Nazi training in submissiveness and self-sacrifice until years later). We learn of Bertha Schultz, a brilliant scholar who could only get work as his housekeeper and personal assistant, translated for free for him, and then is dismissed (79-81); and Elizabeth Van Thadden who opened the genuinely anti-Nazi progressive school for girls (Maria attended), had her school taken from her, re-Nazified, and was later imprisoned and beheaded (228-29, 22, 396). He was himself deeply attachment to a number of female relatives: his grandmother, his mother, a life-long close congenial relationship with his sister, Sabine: they go on a walking tour together which may reminded readers of English poetry of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

This is an excellent biography of a man placed in the context of his time and directed to our world today.

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Family summer vacation house in Freidrichsbrunn

Reynolds’s book’s historical significance is its irrefutability and portrait of a fallible and quietly courageous highly intelligent man who was pro-active in creating moral schools (for men), who displayed far more integrity than most, and expanded his horizons: a telling time was his sojourn in New York city where he attended a black Abyssian church and experienced a religious rejuvenation and saw “a view [of life] from the bottom looking up” (66). Just about all he did was in the face of discomfort in others (he was not a manly boy). Sometimes it’s mild (from his family) pressure; he had excellent connections and was chosen for high positions, but in these he encountered outright hostility from his own church and the Nazi state it complied with. And at the last imprisonment, interrogation, and towards the end (when his part in a failed plot to kill Hitler was discovered) vicious abuse leading up to his execution.

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A clavichord Bonhoeffer and Bethge played on together

A summary with paraphrased and quoted vignettes: Her book is a narrative of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Part One situates the reader in the Bonhoeffer family background, telling of events and people who influenced Bonhoeffer’s grandparents, parents, moves through Bonhoeffer’s siblings and their childhood during World War One and its aftermath. . A characteristic chapter is called “Life Amid the Ruins:” Reynolds shows the family continuing its privileged life against the backdrop of the growing power of the Nazis, all around them desperation, Berlin crumbling, half starved Berliners, and soldiers posted everywhere in the streets, children with rickets. Hitler ominously blaming Jews, and father and uncle saying that the best types of people were killed off, glimpsing the possibility of a sociopath coming to power. But everything they read, the music they played has nothing to do with what’s happening outside; they lived within an idyllic strain in the European culture, divorced from politics. Bonhoeffer refuses to pursue a career in music (the family’s preference), and moves to theological studies. His sister and friends all marry while he evades a proposed bride for him, a third cousin, Elizabeth Zinn. Reynolds makes an astute use of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, where he constructs the image of maleness and femaleness the Nazis projected, one troublingly close to what may be seen today in popular US miliarist movies today. Against this all his life Bonhoeffer had to contend.

Part Two (“Seeking Ground”) while the Nazis begin to seize control (burn books publicly), become violent against Jews (he writes, “literally no one in Germany … can grasp it … major turning point in history:” 7 million unemployed 15 to 20 hungry), he travels (Barcelona, Manhattan, Forest Hills even, Cuba) seeking some meaning, work, relationships, to ground his existence on: he writes a second dissertation, is ordained. Vignettes from this section: “Dietrich [was] vehemently opposed compromise by his church,” sermonized to this effect, but did not go to his sister’s husband’s father’s funeral … here Bonhoeffer writes that Jews are “a problem; they needed to convert;” yet he “writes against persecution of Jews, one must help victims.” May 10, 1933 book burning night. Max Reinhardt fled to LA; Bonhoeffer’s “brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, lawyer, joins party, says keeping job helps undermine the state. Nazis imposed level of regimentation that surprised and made fear grow; 50 concentration camps by 1933 … Hans von Dohnanyi, a friend and relative by marriage [later executed] liked by Hitler so original Jewishness forgiven. German Lutheran church yields to become vitriolically anti-semitic; Catholic Youth Leagues are outlawed, Nazi or nothing. In 1933 Bonhoeffer is turned down for pastorate and in October goes to London, shaken to discover himself in radical opposition to all his friends.

Part Three is called the “Incomparable Year” (1933) and Part Four “Reconfigurations” (taking the reader up to 1938 and Bonhoeffer’s first arrest). In ’33 he met and his relationships with Bethge and Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow flowered. While the Nazis are toting machine guns and beginning their imperial conquests, he opens Finkenwalde, a “confessing” school offering an idyllic community for (male) students by the North Sea. While fighter planes are taking off, he teaches pacificism and joins the world of country landed estates. Until the concentration camps begin to open, he, his friends, associates, his sister seem to think somehow they will be insulated, and carry on their lives. Vignettes: these elite families moves to small houses in Charlottenburg (Marienbad), as good for conspiracy; musical evenings are a cover for politics, people from all walks of life, a refuge too. Karl, his brother, stays on with Nazis as psychiatrist saying he is moderating worst aspects. Bonhoeffer’s grandmother is horrified to see a cousin emigrating – having to take his chances like everyone else in this world. Ruth comes across with money for seminary in Sweden (which Bonhoeffer described as “wonderful years”). Dietrich’s prison writing includes letters to his grandmother – of how he felt for defenseless epileptics. By 1935 his sister Sabine (married to a Jew) begins to understand the terror of Nazism (they come to her door for information), but her brother “would be alive now than 30 years ago.” Bonhoeffer shows a problematic disposition to spend his sister’s money on holidays for himself.

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Finkelwalde by the sea: now a Bonhoeffer memorial

Parts Five through Seven (“Cornered”) bring us to the heart of the book (1937/8-43): Reynolds weaves the unfolding of the Nazi barbaric world inside Germany with the lives, work and reaction of Bonhoeffer and many of his friends and associates. The great value of this part of the book are these individual stories and the depiction of intimate life of the semi-protected elite, what emerged in public social life in Nazi Germany at the time, and the punitive patriotic culture of Nazism easily sliding into cruelty to the weak, vulnerable, despised, anyone who dissented. Bonhoeffer seems to have joined the “underground” resistance about 1938; some of his associates compromise, some try to ignore what was happening all around them; others looked simply to survival (insofar as one could as food shortages and bombing had begun). Vignettes: November 1937 27 Finkenwalde seminarians imprisoned; 1938 Dietrich arrested, interrogated, banned from Berlin. He has underground collective pastorates, apprentices in a remote village (with Bethge there, later doing “quite well”) … Dietrich living a nomadic life working on ms’s. Neimoller released and then swept up, disappears; Confessing church fools take an oath of allegiance that Hitler treats with [the] contempt [it deserved].

A revealing element about Bonhoeffer is he continues to write optimistically, perhaps conceiving himself as supporting the spirits of others; a close friend said it was pride that kept him from revealing his anguish, but the letters have a jarring disconnect. His theological writings “encode” (that’s the word Reynolds uses) justifications for homosexual love; his bitterness against Bethge; his misery at the harsh isolated conditions of the prison (he does use the word “horrible” once). But the letters keep his hidden life in a closet.

Reynolds shows how average Germans appear to have felt about the war at this time: we have to remember Germans supported the war, and Bonhoeffer’s activity would have been seen as that of a traitor: So more vignettes: June 17, 1940 France caves. German newsreels exulted. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy quoted. Fair haired young men: “what does it matter if we destroy the world? When it is ours, we’ll build it up again” … Germans are ecstatic at victory over France; foresee short war; Germans torpedo 600 prisoners headed for Canada; meanwhile Bonhoeffer’s sister, Sabine, now in Oxford moves with her husband to one room with 14 trunks. Bethge’s behavior reminds me of the enigmatic amoral characters in LeCarre’s novels: he decides to marry a Bonhoeffer niece, Renate, many years younger than he since he finds himself in “untenable” position. The long sections on the reality of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria are important to read: we see her mother tried to protect her, regards Ruth’s tactics as a nuisance; for Bonhoeffer Maria is cover and unreal wish fulfillment dreams (of what neither he or she wanted). After Stalingrad, Bethge sends Bonhoeffer a picture of Napoleon; a letter remembering a year ago they were together when they shared a hotel room. Reynolds brings in the male couple in another surprising best seller of the era: Santayana’s The last Puritan.

Parts Eight (“Locked in”) through Ten (“Saints”) take us through Bonhoeffer’s years of imprisonment, his murder and the first build-up of hagiography. This was for me the most moving part of the biography. The conditions in which Bonhoeffer lived and eventually (he managed to make friends, his prestige and connections and his family’s money brought him food) even wrote were utterly wretched and dangerous. Reynolds maintains her cool stance towards the letters, pointing out repeatedly the undercurrents of bitterness (towards Bethge), egoism (in his approach to Maria), leaving the reader to feel uncomfortable, askance, compassion or astonishment. Just one vignette from many: Hitler carried a whip, beat his dogs and took disproportionate revenge on those within his reach after the bomb (detonated under a table) failed to kill him. Newspapers presented this as a coup of officers power-hungry … he writes suffering a way to freedom. He looked ill on his daily walk. There seems to have been opportunities for him to escape, but he withdrew with the excuse he didn’t want to endanger others: throughout his life he had what (I’d call) bad dreams of having a devout death which he yearned for, and one explanation for his persistent refusal to escape is a probably half-conscious death-wish.

One can fill out this section with some of the material Bethge published in 1953 (now available in an expanded edition): the book as constructed by Bethge presents a striking contrast to Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce. Readers are not shown which letters were meant to be passed around by his relatives, which private (very few): Bonhoeffer persists in hoping, presenting himself as looking forward to release (his mother was fooled for a long time), comfortable. But there are striking breaks: for example, the narrative of Lance Corporal Berg, where suddenly Bonhoeffer reveals a gift for narrative, powerful drama: we first witness an interrogation which shows us how one need not resort openly to violence, torture, emotional bullying to subdue a prisoner. He shows how prison itself is an excruciating experience because those running it are implicitly bullying all prisoners all the time. A man with his face blown away shows up, and everyone is horrified by the ugliness of the man and they are mostly very kind to him, they feel sorry for him, they respect him for having allowed this to happen to him, but when for a moment he loses it and began to cry and complain, immediately they are hostile. Another man they deride, berate, kick, just shit on because he ‘deserted” — would not obey orders. It includes poems (e.g, Night Voices in Tegel) about his experience of the night in these prisons.

Reynolds shows how Marie distanced herself from the Bonhoeffer society, and tried to tell some truths, but her silence (as well as his sister Sabine’s) implied consent to Bethge and other interested witnesses’ stories. Her upper class strong sense of herself and understanding of how to get along in higher echelons served her well, and she somewhat recovered, even married, became a highly successful businesswomen.

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Maria von Wedermeyer

If I have some criticism, it’s that I missed a sense of deep inwardness, which might have come from more analysis and quotation of Bonhoeffer’s ethical and religious treatises. Take the “Prologue: A Reckoning made at New Year 1943, also called “After Ten Years.”

He opens up with a (Samuel) Johnsonian meditation about time. “Time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable.” He writes of people “with no ground under their feet.” Here he recognizes that obedience to others to erase the self comes from cowardice and Germans have been deluded to think they kept their liberty by service to the community. An extraordinary passage about folly: folly is far more dangerous than anger; it’s worse than evil. Again folly there is no defense. No matter what you see the fool carries on. (This reminds me of Trump supporters.) The fool is self-satisfied, it’s easy for him to become aggressive, he’s harder to cope with than a scoundrel. Folly is capable of any evil. He reminded me here of Erasmus’s profound ironic (sardonic) In Praise of Folly. The worst blaspheme is contempt for others. (Again I thought of Trump, his insistent derision of others.) Bonhoeffer insists we must regard others not in terms of what they can do or do do but in the light of what they suffer. That in social life there are laws that cannot be eradicated and are powerful than anything that may claim to dominate them. How reprehensible to sow mistrust, how dangerous, when we should strengthen confidence in the self and others. (I thought of training programs in the US gov’t today where employers are taught to suspect and turn others in.) I liked his definition of quality. To have an experience of nobility, of quality you have to renounce all place-hunting, break with the cult of stars, must look to pleasure in private life as well as have courage to enter public life. Most people only learn wisdom (at all?) from personal experience. This explain insensibility to suffering. Death has become what people live with daily. We must not romanticize it; we do still know too much about the good things in life and that helps. But prolonged insecurity, and destructiveness of prolonged anxiety dissolves attachment to life. Which leads to him asking if people individually or as a group are of any use? He insists an experience of incomparable value is to experience life from below, and if you can’t at least try to see and empathize with those from below: history from below, the outcasts, suspects, maltreated, powerless, oppressed, reviled.

I want to emphasize that Diane Reynolds’s book is an enjoyable book to read. She recreates places, times, idyllic and nightmare experience. The reader who is familiar with 19th century novels will find parallels between characters in Tolstoy and this German milieu (Ruth as kind of Prussian cross between Countess Rostov and Anna Mikhailovna). It belongs to our conversations today about how what happened in Germany between the 1920s and well after the end of WW2 parallels the increase we see today of violence, racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds and intolerance and the complicity of our present (ever self-regarding, enrichening, luxurious) establishment as found in books like Volker Ulrich’s Hitler’s Ascent, 1889-1939. Reading it ought to worry readers right now.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman in LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man: about extraordinary rendition in the context of an exaggerated “war on terror” which has led to stark erosions of civil and social liberty — I can see Hoffman playing Bonhoeffer

Ellen

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The latest Oxford World Classics W&P, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, revised and edited by Amy Mandelker

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A recent Vintage W&P translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

jottings in Tolstoy’s diary for 1865: 29 September, “reading Trollope, good if there weren’t so much diffuseness”; 30 September, “Trollope good”; 1 October, “Bertrams, capital”; 3 October, “finished Trollope, too conventional” (XLVIII, 63-64) — from N. John Hall

Dear friends and reades,

We are on Trollope19thCStudies are about to embark on a summer-long reading and discussion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and I write this blog to invite those who might want to, to join in. The venue, or social platform as they now say, is a Yahoo listserv. We are a list who regard Anthony Trollope as our chief star or author, and every other book we read is by or about him. This is our third summer devoted to a long masterpiece by another 19th century fiction writer.

How do we go about it? While we are a old listserv and have become very relaxed of late years, so don’t practice summaries or synopses of each chapter and are informal about chapters for the week, we do have a sort of calendar. We try not to have too many or too few pages over a week, and for War and Peace we thought we’d start at 5-6 chapters a week (announced briefly sometime each Friday for the week starting the following Sunday). As we have done for a long book, if the group posting finds we are going too slow, we up the number of chapters, and if we find the chapters are in fact much longer in reading than we thought, we decrease the number. We are trying not to make work for ourselves, and follow what rhythms emerge that fit in to people’s schedules and are fun, not an extra burden.

So we’ll start on July 17th, Part 1, Book 1, Chapters 1-5 or 6, and see how it goes.

We also use the time of the reading journey together to talk (post) about books or essays about the author or book, and I try to share any readable essays I find from time to time once we really get into the book. I invite others to do likewise. Biographies, lit crit, a year of reading kind of books, e.g.,

Kaufman

If members want, they can read another novel or story or essay by the Tolstoy or a by related contemporary author or artist and post about that too.

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1891 painting: Tolstoy in his Study by Ilya Repin

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Photograph of Tolstoy late in life

Since this is a translated text for just about all of us, everyone is welcome to read what translation he or she wants, and we really welcome any talk about the differences in the translations into English (or another language if you have read War and Peace in another language). I counted at least six English ones beyond the two pictured above and one below, and I know of one modern French La Guerre et la Paix (available in inexpensive paperback), and an Italian (by A. Polledro). There are at least two unabridged versions read aloud (CDs), one of Constance Garnett, reader David Case (aka Frederick Davidson), two abridged (not so very savagely, reader Edward Petherbridge)

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Set of 46 (!) CDS read by Davidson/Case

We are very open to talk about film adaptations, and with this book, there are at least 10! Yahoo permits albums of pictures and I’ve set up a new Trollope (our short name for the list) album so any member of the list can put pictures in and we have one for War and Peace films,” and I’ve started us off with two from an early BBC mini-series

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Anthony Hopkins as the very young Pierre when we first meet him in War and Peace (1972 BBC, Episode 1, script Jack Pulman)

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Morag Hood as the even or much younger Natasha (1972, Episode 1)

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Frank Middlemass as Kutusov (at Austerlitz, 1972)

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Brunn, Austria 1805 (2016, BBC, Episode 2, script Andrew Davies)

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Tuppence Middleton as a young Helene with Paul Dano as the young Pierre (Davies adds his own note, and breaks with traditions of images, Episode 1)

I don’t know of any published scripts for the films, though 5 of Davies’s six are available at the Springfield site for TV and film scripts. Otherwise, all I know of is Tom Stoppard’s superb screenplay, Anne Karenina.

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All topics having to do with Tolstoy or his wife or the novel’s themes are welcome, any links and parallels with Trollope and Trollope’s art; we just ask that everyone be courteous.

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Also filmed

It’s also okay to read and post about any kind of post-text(a general term for all sorts of sequels) you like, say Jay Parini’s The Last Station (and this one has been filmed with Helen Mirren as Sofya and Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy); there is a graphic novel in French:

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Rest assured though, our concentration will be on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, probably 5-6 chapters a week, starting July 17th for however long it takes.

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Signet text translated by Ann Dunnigan (1440 pages)

Ellen

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To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive — Robert Louis Stevenson.

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Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) arriving at Inverness (Outlander 2015, 1st episode, opening)

Rhyme of a Journey from London to Edinburgh (1914)

Farewell to one city
a dawning of light
and hail to another
at fall of the night

On in the North steams
triumphant the train
ceaselessly grinding
a rhythmic refrain

Meadows fly past and
a luminous sheet
of wind-rippled water,
a grimy back street.

Stark rows of houses
break up the pale sky,
a jangle of coal-trucks,
a station passed by.

Cast the old thoughts that
troubled your mind
to drown in that river
left gleaming behind,

new ones come stirring
with live young wings
from rhythmical power
and swift-running things.

There’s a cathedral
in mist: as a dream
it has vanished, and slowly
we slacken and steam
into that station
whose girders of might
curve upwards, transfigured
in columns of light.

No stopping! No staying!
mad demons of speed
have boarded the engine
are hissing their greed.

Sudden lurch forward
and once more away
and see, we are racing
the dying of day!

A bridge we are crossing
with thunderous swerve;
left and right flashes
a river’s gold curve;

Glittering windows
rise tier upon tier
held steeped in the sunset
what city is here?

To twilight, to darkness
and night has begun
The miles of our journey
ae nearly outrun

Waken, wan travellers,
Look! very high
there stands the great castle
along the dark sky …
— Dorothy Seward Walton (When Evening Comes in the City, 1934)

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of nights ago I went to an enjoyable, informative and perceptive (what more could you want?) lecture at the Smithsonian museum on Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and writing by Stephen Arata, the professor editing the complete works of RLS (39 volumes and still going): towards the end telling us of Stevenson in the South Sea Islands and how gradually he began to write deeply sympathetically to the native cultures, in effect from a post-colonial critical standpoint, Prof Arata said Stevenson wrote that the Scots people were peculiarly well-situated to write from a global perspective. That might seem contradictory, given their half an island is mostly rock, not arable for farming, their intellectual “world” city small (half of it very old), but if you think about their relationship to England as a nearby colony, the massacre at Culloden and the enforced diaspora, and how they set forth to become colonialists themselves as well as subaltern people, it makes sense. More to the point: they write this way.

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John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

There is no coming back … on the impetuous stream of life. And we must all set our pocket-watches by the clock of fate. There is a headlong, forthright tide, that bears away man with his fancies like a straw, and runs fast in time and space — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Last summer I was working on a paper on Trollope from a post-colonialist standpoint; that meant reading about and works written in, and films from Australia as context; for Charlotte Smith this summer I am on the same wave length of a perspective, but the focus texts are two of her novels partly in Scotland, Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake (early novel, global in reach) and The Young Philosopher (last long fiction, ends in America), and whose affinities with Scottish women poets and novelists I wrote about this past fall, I’ve turned to Scotland. This a perfect excuse for immersion (wallowing is the more apt term) in the first season of Outlander (I’m one of those cut off from the present second season until it comes out on DVD), whose motifs and characters are uncannily like those of the second volume of Smith’s Young Philosopher (Englishwoman elopes to Highlands with Scottish laird, abducted, threatened with rape, saved in the nick of time &c&c), but that’s late at night.

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Daylight hours, I’ve read Margaret Oliphant’s the Ladies Lindores and her Autobiography, Scottish women’s poetry, and Margaret Atwood’s poetical sequence, the Journals of Susannah Moodie, Elizabeth Bohls’s Romantic Literature and Post-colonial studies (no less than two chapters on Scotland), some wonderful essays on Scottish women novelists in Lyndsay Luncan, Carla Sassi (&c&c&)’s Re-visioning Scotland, on Nan Shepherd, Christian Isobel Johnstone (nearly contemporary with Jane Austen, would you believe, on war and nationalism), all of which I heartily recommend. I moved into male Scottish writers’ texts too: I’ve just finished what might be the first English novel set partly in India, Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter (one of 3 novellas called Canongate Chronicles), and am now thinking of adding to my love of Stevenson’s essays, short stories, and travel books (Travels on a Donkey, The Amateur Emigrant), some of his South Sea Islands writing. I am most interested in the intersection of feminist insights with a post-colonial perspective on structuring of the characters’ experience otherwise. I’ll write about Stevenson and Atwood in a separate blogs dedicated to them alone.

THE PLANTERS
From Atwood’s Journals of Susannah Moodie (an book which is itself literally a work of art)

Free fall
is falling but at least it’s
free. I don’t even know
whether I jumped or was pushed,
but it hardly matters now
I’m up here. No wings
or net but for an instant
anyway there’s a great
view: the sea,
a line of surf, brown cliffs
tufted with scrub, your upturned
face a white zero.
I wish I knew
whether you’ll catch or watch.
— From Atwood, “Small Poems for the Winter Solstice,” True Stories (1981)

Tonight I thought I’d confine myself to sharing a little bit of Oliphant, Scott, a third poem (from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed Catherine Kerrigan) and a few remarks from the essays I’ve read, not to omit suggestive stills and words from Outlander.

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Edward Lear, Civita Castellan (1844) — in her extraordinarily genuine account of her life as a writer, supporting her own and brother’s children, with her three boys and beloved Margaret (at age 9) dying before her, she tells of her travels to Italy and around Europe, a classical cosmopolitan landscape emerges

I loved Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores and am anxious to read the sequel, The (later) life of Lady Carr. It’s a mix of a sensible and saturnine meditative insightful text (recalling Trollope repeatedly) within a deeply Scottish world from a quietly feminist standpoint. The story-line is complicated, with (like Scott’s) several divagating turns, a back-story set of characters who emerge to become the central figures, and then cannot forget back stories we never see dramatized. We begin with a great Scottish house, Dalrulzian whom John Erskine, a young Scotsman who has been brought up to be English, has come to live. For years Robert Lindores, a younger son living on a limited income in a cheap French spa, suddenly inherits a title and another grand house in the neighborhood, and proceeds to try to make his two daughters and son’s lives the means for him now to become well-connected, in power. The most memorable story dramatizes how he bullies his sensitive daughter Lady Caroline Lindores into marrying Pat Torrance, a man who ferociously bullies, mocks, and terrifies her. His wife’s values remain humane, decent, and she is appalled by the changes in him, but years of passivity, her real dependence, and not having values to oppose his with, has not the strength of character to oppose him. The third Lindores lady is the wry, sceptical Lady Edith, who escapes his Net, just and marries Erksine. A son, Lord Rintoul, by accident causes Pat Torrance to topple over a cliff, and Rolls, Erskine’s servant ends up confessing, thinking he is protecting his master, Erskine. Lady Car is enabled to marry Beaufort, the man she met at the spa, and has dreamed of ever since, seemingly congenial, sensitive, but like Erskine, Rintoul, he turns out to be less than admirable, and Lady Car’s marriage filled quieter tense dissatisfactions. An English young woman, living in Scotland, Nora, with a wise spinster Aunt Barbara, accepts Rintoul knowing what he has done. There is a disabled character (in effect), Millefleurs, an awkward wealthy cousin the father wanted Edith to marry grotesquely short; the irony of the novel is he is the best husband material of them all. The Scottish servants are the loyal and constant characters, keep the whole order steady, and together with the bourgeois characters (lawyers, doctors) and rescue the upper class ones from calamity.

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Horatio McCullough, 19th century Scottish landscape painter

Margaret Rubrik has written deeply engagingly about Olipant’s sceptical and unromantic attitudes, especially toward marriage, and about the Caroline story in The Ladies Lindores:

“Only wishful thinkers refuse to accept the unpleasant insight that even the beloved is a simple person with warts. Wherever idealists are not willing to cut their dreams down to size and accommodate themselves to all too human flaws, marriages end tragically, as in the case of Lady Car, whose career Oliphant pursues through two novels -— The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car -— and two unhappy marriages.

Unlike the docile things whom time teaches to cherish the “proper” feelings for their husbands, Lady Car continues to view her brutal first husband with unabated repugnance. Her feelings of nausea and sexual violation, as she had to comply with her repulsive husband’s desires at his bidding, are illustrated by her overt jubilation at his death and symbolised in the image of his trespassing into her room.

“To think I shall never be subject to all that any more—that he can never come in here again— that I am free—that I can be alone. Oh mother, how can you tell what it is? Never to be alone: never to have a corner in the world where— some one else has not a right to come, a better right than yourself. I don’t know how I have borne it. I don’t know how I can have lived, disgusted, loathing myself.” (The Ladies Lindores, II,14, 232f.)

In her second marriage to her childhood sweetheart Car does not find the hoped-for happiness either. She secretly blames Beaufort for letting her marry someone else first; for allowing her to be forced to perform sexual acts with a man she hated and for allowing her children to be fathered by a brute. All of these humiliations are so completely beyond a man’s scope of perception that he cannot understand them.

“Why expose me to all the degradations which nobody could impose on you?” (Lady Car, 7,123)

Beaufort cannot grasp the horror she feels at any association with her prior life, and thoughtlessly relishes his deceased rival’s luxury.

However, it is bitterest for Car to share the insight typical of Oliphant’s heroines that Beaufort is not the epitome of the crusader and social reformer she first fell in love with. She, who, like Dorothea Brooke, wanted to act as a muse for her husband’s magnum opus, attempts desperately, but in vain, to reawaken his enthusiasm for the visions he has lost all interest in.

Don Quixote disenchanted, ready to burn all his chevalier books, and see the fun of his misadventures, but urged to take the field by some delicate Dulcinea, could not have been more embarrassed and disturbed. (Lady Car, 4,74)

Car is one of those dreamers who seek perfection and do not content themselves with less than the absolute. In her analysis of the novel, Showalter reproaches Oliphant for identifying with Car’s disappointment at her indolent husband and her dull children, and for wanting to solicit pity for a passive, indeed even parasitic form of life.

Mrs. Oliphant never fully faces the dangers of a social myth that places the whole weight of feminine fulfilment on husband and children … [and] The tone of the book is certainly pathetic at times. However, it would be erroneous to believe that Oliphant sees her heroine uncritically or fails to recognise the fallacy of the domestic myth. On the contrary, she realises the problematic nature of Car’s immature idealism, and in many other novels she draws women who are not dependent on marriage and the family for their self-esteem. Car, on the other hand, must fail in her attempt to achieve the Victorian ideal that expects a woman to find complete fulfilment in marriage and her children.

The question as to how a relationship can work without admiration or even respect for one’s partner is posed time and again in Oliphant’ s novels because of her unconventional view of gender roles.

It must be admitted this is not a novel where a post-colonial perspective is of much help; it is rather deeply rooted Scottish landscape from which its visual poetry comes. In the novel I am especially drawn to her disillusioned axioms about life: such a we all live alone no matter how surrounded by others. Quiet convincing. Her tone so immediate and strong, with a real voice coming through.

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Persephone books cover

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Walter Scott (of course): The Surgeon’s Daughter has a pattern I see repeated over and over: a woman is swallowed up by the traditional culture: she either elects to marry or become a mistress of the non-western male, or she is threatened with or actually raped, traumatized, never the same again. The result is the same: retirement, retreat from the outward world. Who thought Scott would link to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love. But so it is, with Smith’s two texts (Ethelinde, Young Philosopher), a first or early formulation. In the case of the poets, the women poets become sympathetic ethnographers and mythologers. In Scott’s novella, What I enjoyed best are the two ironic prefaces: these stumbling made up older male characters Scott writes as — it’s funny and melancholy about publishing and writing issues. Also a brief retelling in swift effective tones of the story as found in some newspaper or chronicle. Rob Rob has a similarly chilling retelling of a bloody set of murders — these are by Scott himself people forget. I also liked the opening where we meet the Scots country doctor, his son, who also becomes a doctor, the villain-protagonists, and our prosaic heroine. Our moral compass is found here, in the home-y early rural scenes. Maybe one way of accounting for the richness of Scott, how much can be taken from him is that his “filler” counts so enormously too and is so varied.

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John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Reception (1873) — Scott’s vision is orientalist

The interesting thing about the text is that the threat of being a sex slave hovering over our heroine begins at the outset as in the older editions of the 19th century, the chronicle tale where the kernel story is told in less than 2 pages was put first. I have an old Everyman of rob Rob where a bloody chronicle tale is put first. It is important to remember that Scott wrote these too, supposedly paraphrasing with great concision. Yet we get back to that so circuitously. Another one is Kenilworth: I have an old Everyman where the poem Scott cites as his inspiration is put first. Then suddenly at the end of the novel we have this gorgeous barbaric scene. The inference to be drawn (as is common in Scott’s novels) is how irrational and ruthless are men, how prone to horrific violence, which they constrain by their ceremonies. After all as with Ivanhoe and other of Scott’s novels, the surgeon’s daughter though at the end the crux of the issue (will she become a sex slave of a son of a powerful Indian prince), is a minor character in the book. She is rarely on stage, and when she is we do not get much individual insight into her: she remains archetypal.

I know that those film adaptations of Scott I’ve seen often zero as quickly as they can on just those immediate active evens which lead to one of his denouements, stripping away introductions, prefaces, and especially those (often long) parts of the story which dramatize prosaic “ordinary” scenes which are nonetheless essential to understand what is going on, what to infer and what is the inference. From a post-colonial standpoint Scott shows us how as a group the Europeans are viciously exploitative so that individuals can come away super-rich, but also that the native people in power are just as bad to their people. We have the usual very few virtuous characters, many ambivalent ones and a presentation of what power does. We also how people’s characters can change as they cross borders of different cultural groups.

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I don’t want to be overlong so end on a few thoughts gleaned from Bohls and Sassia, and a poem by Margaret Gillies Brown, “Emigrant Journey.”

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Women dancing around the stones (paratexts of Outlander 2015-16)

How can we present and read landscape so that it is not equated with nature and thus women’s bodies? Women dominate the landscape, and women’s medical magic is drawn from botany and particulars of Scottish landscape, but they are punished for this as witches, so their rituals at the stones, their dance may be turned against them. Their individual identities dissolve away as stories of women from the 19th century and before are read by 20th and 21st century female relatives, or just readers; they cross borders and belong nowhere (connected only by connection to a man within a family structure). Thus (like Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, Soueif’s Map of Love) Atwood’s Alias Grace blends the several women, not from different times, but classes and places: Susannah Moodie who wrote of Grace accused of murder: aliases.

Emigrant Journey

There was the comfort and the all mod-con of home
With its recognisable dangers;
There was the journey,
1he endless coming on of the same wave,
The no-land time of ocean and high hopes
Until the icebergs rose
Like crystal palaces …

There was the moving days
And weary nights of train-hours overland,
The trees, the lakes, the straight and rolling plains
Until time stopped in sheer fantasy
Of a pre-dawn winter morning –
Gloved hand swinging the iron-hard handle

Of a frozen water pump
At the edge of a bark-rough cabin;
Above, the sky, moving strange magnificence,
Voile curtains of colour
Changing, shifting imperceptibly;
Below, the star sparkled snow –
A virgin’s looking glass
Where spruce trees shot the only shadows
That made no movement –
Silence, immensity of silence,
Oil fires were burning brands
Reaching for chiffon robes
Of an aurora of dancers
Repeating dream sequences …
I tried to wake from unreality,
Felt my spine freeze,
heard coyotes howling down the night.

—Margaret Gillies-Brown (poetry published 1970s-80s)

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Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Clare (Caitronia Balfe) crossing the highlands to Lallybroch (Outlander)

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Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) going over the manuscripts together

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Maggie (Greta Gerwig) and Georgette (Julianne Moore) plotting to trick John (Ethan Hawke) to go to a conference with Georgette (where Zizek is speaking! — John’s favorite) – two women plotting over worthless man

Dear readers and friends,

Reviews of Michael Grandage’s Genius (script Joshua Logan) haven’t been exactly ecstatic (come to think of it an embarrassing title); like the reviews of Rebecca Miller and Maggie’s Plan, we are told to rejoice that this is not another senseless alpha male action-adventure, or Marvel cartoon.

In her Maggie’s Plan, Rebecca Miller has given us 2nd rate Woodie Allen (3rd rate is closer to the mark but would be unkind) from a story by Karen Rinaldi. It’s good-natured — mostly from the warmth and awareness Gert Getwig endowed her generous (all-giving) heroine with, but tepid in its unwillingness to make it clear what a self-indulgent narcissistic male is Ethan Hawke’s thankless John, whom the two women were supporting, giving themselves bodily to and fighting over. What did occur that revealed this (and other aspects of their lives) was then made nonsense of by a tacked-on sudden switch to your happy ending, nostalgic music to the fore, no not a wedding, but everyone happily ice-skating in Central Park. Maggie’s core is that of a woman’s film, the dream of a single woman to have a child without having to marry a man since she is not inclined to stay “in love” with anyone she meets, and the great joke that after all the prowess of John did not impregnate Maggie, some artificially inseminated sperm from a pickle dealer (Travis Fimmel) did. Critics have been unduly kind, though Roger Ebert’s continuing blog recognized tired romance.

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Your falling in love scene

I concede it did not aggress at me, and there was occasionally some wry wisdom on display (Julie Delpy’s feminization of Allen, Two Days in Paris, was actually witty). At his best and in his prime Allen’s films made serious statements about American mores and culture (and recently he did one about British culture: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). This movie represents an off-day, a retreat from her career thus far That Miller is daughter to Arthur Miller and his long-time photographer wife, Inge Morath, and her previous work might account for the critical “delight” in Maggie’s Plan. Maybe we are not meant to find the film pleasant but probably we are.

Genius (a seeming team effort) reminded me of Trumbo: a fine idea turned into a mainstream film where the character preach to one another in ways no one would in life, so that the audience can understand some subtle unusual ideas, ending in an inspirational moment: here after Wolfe’s death, a letter by Wolfe reaches Perkins where Wolfe thanks him. Suffragettes suffered from having been turned into a ratcheted up chase thriller. Two ostensibly art movies I’ve seen this summer (which will go unnamed) were insufferably pompous, over-produced, literally hard-to-follow, and sexed up in an misguided attempt to make them widely appealing commodities. The result: no one is pleased. Love and Friendship (click for my review), the third endurable film still playing at my local “better” movie theater, is a disappointing timid period drama. Women are going and men accompanying them because it’s billed as a Jane Austen film and looks and feels like what’s expected. It’s what PBS is not doing any more.

In Genius, there are no women authors even to be heard of. The mid-20th century is an era replete with great women writers. Perhaps Perkins didn’t edit any of them, but I can’t believe Scribner’s didn’t publish any. Not to mention even one in passing gives the falsity of the picture of publishing away. It’s a curiously empty story, as if the production people had insisted on few characters in order to have few actors to pay. The second woman in the film would not pass the Bechtel movie test either: no woman talks to another, and Nicole Kidman is another brittle possessive woman who has given all her to her man, including leaving her husband, and children and supporting him (as the women in Maggie’s Plan support their shared man). Prestige pandering (like the two supposed art films I saw earlier this season) is what Rolling Stone magazine accused this film of? But I see an insistent erasure of women which is unreal today.

Both films have spirited performances (as does Love and Friendship), Moore as the erudite professor:

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Firth as usual scrupulously not over-acting a character presented as reserved without vicariously enacting, living out the passion he reads and crosses out (though his accent was not quite American)

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with Laura Linney as his long-suffering, half-neglected but convincingly loving loyal wife (who writes plays which he seems not to publish)

Genius does have something more and so I recommend going (though don’t drive major distances) before it disappears (rapidly I fear) from theaters. What you will see are characters genuinely concerned to make good books. No small thing. The film-makers dare to make the process of revision of a gargantuan text to a recognizable “classic” central to the plot-design. Logan’s script make the inner psychology of authors however simplified the story –cameo appearances of a depressed Scott Fitzgerald, desperately woebegone Zelda, Hemingway as the apparently firm male icon whose self-control doesn’t require editing. the story.

The relationship of Wolfe with the famed editor, Maxwell Perkins is proverbial (I suppose that’s why the film was dared in the first place): Perkins was far more ambitious and driving than appears in the film (though we see how beautifully paid he is by the mansion he lives in, and well-educated comfortable lives he is providing for seven daughters), while Wolfe’s madly self-enthusiastic fits (as enacted by Jude Law) are said to have happened: he would burst from his apartment, wild with pleasure from something he had written, and run downstairs to the street to tell passers-by of his joy, maybe share the passage. The profit motive is there: Perkins is cutting and shaping Wolfe’s manuscripts so they will be coherent and sell, but he is not re-making them, not demanding they be other than they are, say another genre, in a different mood, with language smoothed out to be easy — which is what editors demand of authors before they will even accept a script for consideration that a film whose aesthetic core is a belief in the effectiveness and staying power of beautifully written, (we have to take this on credit) visionary poetic prose is not to be overlooked. And Firth and Linney were convincing as a couple who understood why they were living the way they did and valued high literary careers and considerate behavior to other people and one another. I felt uplift and cheered in a way Maggie’s Plan failed at (though Maggie’s Plan was trying ever so hard as Genius was not) and finally not disappointed.

I went home and read for the first time the chapter in Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds [on American prose writers of the 20th century, one chapter only on women] about Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, the first of whom I’ve never read and Faulkner I dislike very much (violent, like Flannery O’Connor something mean-spirited there). I took a course in American literary naturalism and the 1920s and as a result since then have read and liked Upton Sinclair, Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Elinor Wylie, Ambrose Bierce. I felt Hemingway all about broken American males and not much more, though “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is a story which hits centrally at American myths; Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby also, but over-assigned to students and read because it’s so slender. Jim did not read much American literature: I remember him reading e.e. cummings, Truman Capote, American historians and contemporary essayists; mostly he turned to British and European writers. So I have in my house only a few books by Fitzgerald and Hemingway and of Wolfe only an old copy of a old-fashioned 50 cent paperback (New American Library, Signet) of Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously by Harper, with another editor shaping and cutting).

I found this: Kazin says like other male American writers he admires so much: as did Henry Miller (this appallingly bad writer is discussed seriously by Kazin), Melville, Whitman, Saul Bellow (Kazin’s chapter on two American women writers shows he has little use for them as they are apolitical — he does not understand Ellen Glasgow or Willa Cather), “Just so did Wolfe burn himself out trying to bring all the rivers, sights, sounds, pleasures, torments, books in America within a single compass of the long long novel he wrote all his life. Just so did he express his final contempt in You Can’t Go Home Again, for ‘the world’s fool-bigotry, fool-ignorance, fool-cowardice, fool-faddism, fool mockery, fool-stylism, and fool hatred for anyone who was not corrupted, beaten and a fool'” (468). The world is the enemy. Genius left out Wolfe’s frantic critique and self-ironic disillusionment: all we were told (by one of the two women. perhaps Linney as Mrs Perkins) is Wolfe is searching for a father, and Perkins a son (pop psychology).

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Thomas Wolfe in 1937

Several things are going badly wrong with better films in the movie-houses this summer. In the three mentioned disrespect for the audience (at least 50% women), failures of nerve, and a curious indifference to the very matter (Wolfe’s text, Maggie and her baby, Lady Susan’s inhumanity) chosen to be filmed.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

A major 19th century woman novelist, travel writer, Woolson depicts the south after the civil war, writes visionary landscape of the great lakes (ice and snow), realistic novels, with (in effect) feminist stance, very enjoyable travel writing. Anne Boyd Rioux has written a fine biography showing what the career of a women of letters in America was like — obstacles many. Woolson moved to Europe. And of course the deep friendship with Henry James. She situates herself among the major women novelists of her generation, knew quite a number of them, translated George Sand, never forgot Jane Eyre. She even liked Anthony Trollope, his autobiography, admired his relentless traveling:

“Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography, yes, I have read it. It gave me such a feeling! Naturally I noticed more especially his way of working. What could he have been made of! What would I not give for the hundredth part of his robust vitality. I never can do anything by lamplight, nothing when I am tired, nothing–it almost seems sometimes–at any time! . . . And here was this great English Trollope hauled out of bed long before daylight every morning for years, writing by lamplight three hours before he began the “regular” work (post office and hunting!) of the day. Well, he was English and therefore had no nerves, fortunate man ….

I have no less than five or six books to recommend (!), or to make this sound less like a task of too many pages, an author you might not have heard of, or only heard of as a rejected mistress of Henry James, now known to have been if not actively homosexual (he probably quietly was), at least as regards heterosexuality celibate: Constance Fenimore Woolson wrote splendid novels, novellas, short stories and travel books in the post-reconstruction era of the US, from her escape sites in Europe, mostly Italy. Over the past couple of months, I’ve read her powerful first novel, Anne (which ought to have a title that gives some sense of its content, e.g, An Internal Exile) in an edition, which included the original touching and expressive illustrations:

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The heroine’s aunt, Miss Lois,

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A striking minor male character ….

a few remarkable short stories and gothic landscape fantasies, in Castle Nowhere, and her depictions of the bitterness of the defeated southerners, immersed in death, near bankruptcy (those who had been wealthy had been so off the bodies and minds of their slaves), and destructive self-thwarting norms, best read as a group in Rayburn S. Moore’s old-fashioned “masterworks of literature series, For the Major and other Stories, though a couple are reprinted in Rioux’s Miss Grief and Other Stories. Anne Boyd Rioux’s Portrait of a Novelist (the title modeled on Gorra’s) also depicts the norms and prejudices that marginalized and erased American women fiction writers of the 19th century (see her Bluestocking Bulletin). Woolson is a major American voice of the second half of the 19th century. Try her.

Unfortunately, Woolson is best known for either having accidentally died or killed herself at age 54 by falling out a window in Venice, probably (it’s thought) because she was rejected as a romantic partner by Henry James (see Ruth Bernard Yeazell, “In what sense did she love him?”, LRB, 36:9, 8 May 2014). Often this event which Rioux presents carefully is treated as a ridiculous joke because Henry James, so upset at what happened, came to help with her effects, and distressed attempted to drown Woolson’s dresses in the Venice lagoon and they all floated up around him. What happened is a combination of life-long depression, and some serious illness in her early fifties (not uncommon before there was an understanding of various human organs) led to a decline, too much medicine, bad pain, and a half-willed suicide. Woolson is a major character in Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, a psycho-biography of Henry James’s creation of the story of Isabel Archer, and not overlooked altogether by Colm Toibin in The Master. That she has at long last arrived may be seen in a volume of critical essays devoted to her:

Reconstruction.

It’s said though that the shared or mutual hidden or inner lives of James and Woolson is portrayed best by Lyndall Gordon in her biography of Henry James.

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I’m going to differ from most accounts by my emphasis and what I recommend to start with: the travel books, say The Benedicts Abroad (a family effort) or better yet, her own Mentone, Cairo, and Corfu, which, like Anne, comes accompanied by lovely appropriate illustrations:

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It’s a perfect summer book; perhaps you can’t afford to go to the Riveria this year; it’s the closest thing as a read I’ve come across to the once wonderfully evocative Miramax movies of lonely sensitive reading people traveling to some dream place, e.g., A Month by the Lake (Venessa Redgrave and Edward Fox in an H.E. Bates’s short story). A group of variously witty, desperate, amused, and knowledgable (about the undersides of history, geology, biography, tourist sites) have awakening adventures together.

Then instead of plunging into a longer novel, read some of her short stories. In the US the fiction writer did not have to produce three-volume tomes for Mudie’s Library, or the Cornhill or other similar venues. You won’t forget “Rodman the Keeper” or For the Major. Rodman is one of Woolson’s many solitary souls, a caretaker for a national cemetery of the union (pro-Northern) dead; like most of the central characters of Woolson’s stories I’ve read, he tries to retreat from society insofar as he can, but is dragged back in by his conscience and need. He comes across an impoverished dying ex-confederate soldier who is not at all reconciled to defeat and nurses this man through his last illness. This is centrally about the devastation of the civil war and the complex hatreds in the aftermath, the beauty of black people’s magnanimity, generosity of feeling, living down south still. Again the illustrations are remarkable:

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For the Major is about intensely repressed lives where the gradually emerging white heroine has misrepresented everything about herself for years. There is insight, some degree of self-acceptance and fulfillment by breaking through taboos but no false redemption. Woolson provides the source of the hatred of the south for the north well into the 20th century and even the 21st. I hadn’t thought about how the conquered might feel in a situation: a woman’s apparently non-political fiction gives us the inner life of the impotent rage then turned against black people who since they represented a large percentage of the population would have had to be given real freedom for the region to thrive; the southern characters refuse to stop pretending they are rich aristocrats. They will not admit to having disabled people in their families. They will not permit women to live independent lives apart from marriage (now more or less out of the question as so many had died. There are flaws: while she does depicts black people with real empathy and dignity, she also portrays them as helplessly loyal to their ex-owners as if they cannot make their own lives.

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The title story of Castle Nowhere reads like a distillation of the opening sequence of Anne. It’s set in a region of Michigan, the islands of the Great Lakes of Michigan, Woolson spent formative years in: like the opening of Anne, it reminded me of Daphnis and Chloe, or Paul et Virginie: an intensely solitary group of people live a quietly ecstatic existence in a dangerously cold, ice, snow and lake place. They succour one another and are deeply fulfilled. Tyler Tichelaar suggests this particular story focuses on a aging male solitary wanderer, but there is also a fairy tale element as the loving heterosexual couple who emerge (as in Anne) end up with a deeply contented life together. It can also recall the 1790s Radcliffe-like gothics, only the “machinery” or furniture is that of the wild landscape and hardships of mid-America. The bleak yet exalted (in Woolson’s curiously postive way of writing gothic) landscape of a spiritual lighthouse existence in St Clair Flats contains the same beauty as Woolf’s novel of creativity and aspiration.

I don’t know if “Miss Grief,” possibly the best-known story by Woolson was first published among her Italian stories; it has been interpreted (like Jupiter Lights, a late novel) as feminist. It is the one story I’ve read that directly concerns her life as a novelist. Like For the Major the narrative voice is that of implied sardonic irony: a fatuous complacent money-making successful male author finds himself besieged by a Miss Crief whose name he hears as Miss Grief. No one will publish her work, but when under intense pressure he begins to read one of her stories, he finds it has passion, strength, sincerity his lacks. Woolson wants us to feel precisely where and when this man is shallow his work is popular. Miss Grief reads aloud precisely the passage from the author’s work that he knows he is most authentic in, and he is riveted by her and her writing. But she will not temper it, will not eliminate half-crazed elements, will not change the plot to be acceptable story so the work can’t be sold. She has a great play but in order to get it performed, she must compromise. (This sounds like her sympathetic account of James’s own theatrical failures.) The story ends melodramatically with her happy death. She has had the fulfillment of his approbation. Some have read the story as about James and Woolson, though it was Edith Wharton who made the huge success, and during her life Woolson made a great deal of money on Anne and was well-known, respected and reviewed (if not favorably by Howells, who, like Hawthorne, seems to have wanted to marginalize women).

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Another illustration for Anne

Of the longer works I read but two but liked them both. Anne was Woolson’s first long novel, and it’s very strong until near the end when it collapses into melodrama. People have written about her books to place them alongside Henry James; it’s more accurate to see them in the context of other women’s books, women’s writing, and visionary landscapes. The book opens on Mackinak Island in the straits of Mackinac where the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan meet, near the top of Lake Huron. the descriptions of ice, snow, waters are visionary. The story is of a highly intelligent young woman living a semi-solitary (again) impoverished life on a frontier who is willing to sacrifice all to the needs of her desperate family; she finds herself deeply congenial with a young man, Rasta.

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The motif of the boy and girl growing up together in a world of snow and lakes repeats itself

Woolson has affinities with the work of Willa Cather: Woolson is even drawn to ethnic French people. As the novel progresses, Anne is forced to leave the island – for money, for schooling, to grow up — and she gains female mentors along the way. In this and the love affair that Anne flees from to avoid transgressive sex recall Jane Eyre. The first is the loving spinster who lives on the island near her family, Miss Lois, quietly in love with Anne’s half-philandering self-indulgent father; she is taken in by a hard mean aunt but finds friendship with an older generous and sophisticated friend, Helen Lorrington; when later in the book she becomes desperate for employment she is hired and kept going by a French teacher, Jean-Armande. Anne is betrayed by her French half-sister, by the educational system which develops the more shallow aspects of Rasta’s character, and finds the upper class mercenary social life of her rich aunt appalling, unlivable in. This anticipates Ellen Glasgow. In fact except that there are powerful depictions of the civil war (which the book’s time frame crosses), Woolson’s book could fit into he (dismissive) chapter on women writers in Alfred Kazin’s book On Native Grounds. She is not interested in socialism, not a political muck-raker; instead she writes l’ecriture-femme about women’s lives. Anne’s continual flights are from the situations women are put in to push them into narrow schooling, marriage, and motherhood. The men in the book are wastrels, weak, and (alas) all of them at some point in love with Anne, but here the psychology of courtship, the rivalries, are astutely depicted. I believed in the characters.

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A depiction of Anne towards the end of the novel

Another worthwhile novel is East Angels. It’s about how woman as a woman spends her life hiding her inner self, and has been likened to Turgenev’s novels. She threw a great deal of ambition and adult emotion from within her artist’s life into the book. Rioux suggests the only way this heroine can “maintain her self worth” is to “maintain her self control.” Male critics, espeically Howells panned it (they didn’t believe in this heroine), but a number of reviewers an readers too felt it showed “her remarkable powers of observation,” great art (see Rioux, pp 174-178, 200-202). East Angels sold much better than James’s work at the time, if not as well as Anne, and is in print as an ebook

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Rioux’s excellent biography is very good from the angle of revealing what life was like for a woman who might aspire to be a serious writer in the US in the 19th century. I have read a few lives of and some fiction by 19th century American women writers, but and until this book my knowledge of what American women specifically were up against was minimal. Rioux cites Kate Field, the woman Trollope loved who lived as a modern woman writer, traveling, lecturing; the life and work of Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe are part of Rioux’s earlier context — as well as finishing schools for upper class girls. The depiction of the way sacrifice was inculcated, the way motherhood and wife-hood was used to leave no room whatsoever for individual development, what was one of the best schools, which Woolson went to, but how it had no goal for the woman to use her knowledge — all bring home to me that it was much more difficult in the US than the UK to become a woman of letters. No wonder Woolson fled to Europe. While she loved the elite and old Spanish cities of the south and Florida, and dutiful as she was to her mother, and finding deep companionship with her father, Woolson could not get herself to publish a large major adult novel until she went to Europe.

Rioux’s depiction of Woolson’s career as a journalist is again a story of a woman up against exclusionary practices and a demand she not have a mind of her own. In her stories what was wanted was pious moralizing and she resisted that. She was pushed into imitating Alcott for her first novel, The Old Stone House, a children’s novel. She translated Sand’s La Mare au Diable but it was not published! Alas. Someone else had translated it. I wish hers had been published too: She is also a strong reader of George Eliot, admires Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She is a little too earl for Edith Wharton. She tries poetry, but discouraged by others’ responses gives it up with the argument novels are as important.

I found a house, at Florence, on the hill
Of Bellosguardo. ‘Tis a tower that keeps
A post of double-observation o’er
The valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city) straight towards Fiesole
and Mount Morello and the setting sun, —
The Vallombrosan mountains to the right, …
No sun could die, nor yet be born,
unseen by dwellers at my villa: morn and eve
Were magnified before us in the pure
Illimitable space and pause of sky
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh — Woolson told friends in letters to understand how she felt about her home in Florence, read this passage( the 200 year old Villa Bichieri is photographed by Rioux in her book)

She had been responsible for her mother from the time of her father’s death, the loss a sympathetic brother-in-law also makes her sister more broke and dependent: she lived where her mother lived, with her, in elite, old (a Florida city founded in mid-16th century) moving “north” in summer (Asheville, North Carolina). But as she would ever be, she felt (and was) isolated and Rioux says of her she was a solitary author writing columns from afar. Depression was common in her family and her brother killed himself eventually because he could not cope with the demands made on him to live a commercially successful life. She had some great good luck: she had an income from investments her family set up for her; she had connections with the powerful and intelligent in the US and then Europe, especially male critics, diplomats (John Hay), and educated critics, literary friendships with men (Edmund Clarence Stedman). When her mother died, she could afford to go to Europe to cultured cities. She never came back. She found herself there — as did Henry James. Her attitude towards Europe reminded me of my own: as an American who has read so much of British literature, you feel you are nostalgically coming home.

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Palazzo Semitecolo, the last of Woolson’s homes, this in Venice

This is not the place to attempt to go into the twists and turns of her life nearby, with and apart from Henry James (but communicating by reading one another and letters); suffice to say Florence was central to her, and that at times they lived in the same house together, writing on different floors, in different apartments. Her deafness has been insufficiently emphasized. It began early and became much much worse. Harriet Martineau, far franker than Woolson, said the worst experiences for deaf people were dinner parties. Her work was widely reviewed. She was known to many people, including Margaret Oliphant (who did not stay in Italy, did not like travel). Woolson’s sister and her niece visited and traveled with her. She wrote sensitively of the cruelties she saw in her own nand other cultures. She lived for a time in Oxford too — and found Cheltanham dull. She chose to be alone to work, to think, because she felt unlike many people, but she experienced despair from loneliness too. She and Alice James recognized one another. She eventually became close to an American family living in Italy: Francis Boott, a highly cultured wealth gentleman, his daughter, Lizzie Duvnack, and her husband, lived near her in Bellosguardo. Lizzie’s death was one of the devastating blows late in life that led to Woolson’s own death. She kept up an extensive correspondence with Boott where she revealed more of herself openly than anywhere else (says Rioux). In her last illness, Woolson was often doubled over with pain (diverticulitis? or gripping gut as they called it in the 18th century).

The last chapter on Woolson’s after life is moving, especially her burial in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. I probably have walked by her grave. Jim and I spent over an hour or so in that cemetery one afternoon in August 1994. It is a haven, a beautiful quiet place, if your corpse is going to be buried and you remembered that way, it’s not a bad place to have your grave stone. If I ever get to go there again (unlikely) I will be sure and stand by her gravestone too.

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A drawing of Woolson by Lizzie Duveneck

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Afterwards

Oh, my beloved, shall you and I
Ever be young again, be young again?
The people that were resigned said to me
—Peace will come and you will lie
Under the larches up in Sheer,
Sleeping,
And eating strawberries and cream and cakes—
O cakes, O cakes, O cakes, from Fuller’s!
And, quite forgetting there’s a train to town,
Plotting in an afternoon the new curves for the world.

And peace came. And lying in Sheer
I look round at the corpses of the larches
Whom they slew to make pit-props
For mining the coal for the great armies.
And think, a pit-prop cannot move in the wind,
Nor have red manes hanging in spring from its branches,
And sap making the warm air sweet.
Though you planted it out on the hill again it would be dead.
And if these years have made you into a pit-prop,
To carry the twisting galleries of the world’s reconstruction
(Where you may thank God, I suppose
That they set you the sole stay of a nasty corner)
What use is it to you? What use
To have your body lying here
In Sheer, underneath the larches?
Margaret Postgate Cole (1893-1980)

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From the first episode: Ashe (Anthony Andrews) goes down into the pit to defuse a bomb for the first time, the men wait up on the ground; we see Sergeant James (important character, Maurice Roeves) LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) and Corporal Horrocks (Ken Kitson)

Friends and readers,

I thought at this moment — after the bombing of the Brussels airport and central train station, considering what might happen short- and long-term as a result, the turn to the extreme right in South America (Brazil, Argentina) — that it might be appropriate to write about serious anti-war films, of which the 1979 Danger UXB is a mini-series you should not miss. It seems so a propos.

The stories are about a bomb disposal unit in World War Two, where about one-third of the characters we become involved with are blown up in their efforts to defuse bombs planted all over England (it seems) during World War Two. I cannot speak too highly of it — it’s the quietude and lack of melodrama with which it’s done too. One earlier episode called Butterfly Winter is about how Germans littered towns with hundreds of small bombs — how do you cope with these. How find 254 bombs in an area? One man does die when he goes out by himself too quickly, too humane; he should have waited for another member of the team to help. We just see the sudden explosions from slightly afar each time, or as they would have been seen by survivors. Then the unit commander, Brian Ashe (Anthony Andrews in one of the superior roles he enacted) is told, they rush to the spot and identify what’s left of the body. A moving scene in a church not overdone for once brought tears to my eyes.

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LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) listening to his distraught wife after he insists they must leave where they are, which she has made a sort of life for herself in (Digging Out)

Digging out is another I’ll single out (the 9th). It’s semi-famous, written by Paul Wheeler, who wrote episodes 5-8 of the 1975 Poldark series. Here we follow one of the non-officers in a unit whose wife and children live in an area of England just then being bombed heavily by the Germans. He wants leave to go to his wife to persuade her to move which move she is resisting. During the course of the hour he becomes drunk in oe of these corroded awful bathrooms I recognize from Leeds in the later 1960s — the harsh realities of every day life in England are really presented in this series. He comes across a girl caught in a collapse of a building near a bomb and risks his life and that of his mates (against orders) saving her: they are as non-officers and non-trained people not supposed to cope with bombs. He is crushed by what happens in both cases, and then punished for disobeying orders — which our hero, Anthony Andrews, head of the unit tries to mitigate.

I watched, riveted to my chair each time. I’ve found myself beginning to worry with intense anxiety over Brian Ashe, whom I’ve gradually invested so much concern for. The 8th episode they and he alone — are trying to defuse a new kind of trickier bomb — each time the Nazis make them harder to defuse. This time they must freeze the mechanism. Use liquid nitrogen. The focus in the episodes is repeatedly on working the technology right and its trickiness; instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Once the men save a young woman pinned down by a bomb and the only way they can think to save her is pull the bomb up by chains, swing it over her onto a wagon and then rush like crazy with the wagon to the sea and heave it high. The bomb explodes mightily in the water. They were dangering their lives and those of anyone in the factory. The heroine (Judy Geeson plays the part — she is to me drippy, just grates with her upper class mannerisms but she is supposed to be upper class) has a husband who works at Bletchley and he has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills psychologically; it demands an attitude of mind unnatural to people.

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The group rushes to take Ashe to the hospital (The Pier)

The final episode shows what happens to Brian Ashe as his body recovers from a blast that hits him in episode 12: I know I’ve said I’m one who doesn’t care if someone tells me the ending of whatever the novel or story is — except in some peculiar cases. Well I am that different from others that yesterday I found I couldn’t watch until I finally went over to wikipedia and ascertained that Ashe, my favorite character, did not die at the close of 8, merely very badly wounded ….

In our last hour, he is deeply depressed is the way people would put it, distressed is the word I’d use, angered at the deaths and destruction he’s seen, feeling the futility and failure of what he’s done, blaming himself, also simply in a lot of pain. The problem with series comes out in how he seems to overcome this: he wants to return to bomb disposal, and he’s not up to it. He does manage this with great pain, and the others let him risk his life to do this. They chose a bomb where only one person is needed. Two men offer to be next to him but he won’t let them — against the rules. So he is risking just his life. The problem is the show can’t help but endorse heroism and war at long last by doing this. Also the norm of the “stiff upper lip:” he apologizes to others too often.

We have a conventional toned down marriage where another set of mainstream values is endorsed. Class. The men are all enjoying themselves with working class women in jolly ways that the officers seem not to join in on; no they go off and have an elegant dinner.

It’s a kind of little upstairs (officers) and downstairs (men), with our Sergeant James just looking on at the men. He is the person who got Ashe to return, a liaison individual who belongs no where. Too serious for these working people and not elegant enough for dining. I suppose it reflects a reality but this reality while consciously shown is endorsed.

The quiet, lack of exaggeration and deep impulse to show what the experience of war is, how terrible fills each hour. I find myself having to stand by the door of a room while watching it so I can run away if anyone who I’ve grown attached to is killed — or anyone at all really. Each episode ends so quietly too, no cliff hangers. Just about every show has an important death, and often accompanied by anti-climactic behavior on the part of the people biologically, familially or by where they lived attached to the dead person, sort of flat. The men in the unit are quietly deeply disturbed but move on. Nothing melodramatic so you almost overlook it as sometimes it does not occur at the hour’s every end. It’s brought home to me how bombs are so horrifying, how they are still used — cluster bombs nowadays are used. Bombs laced with poison gas. Think of these drones. No trial to prove someone guilty of anything; a whole group of people hideously hurt, killed, their lives and futures wiped out.

Danger UXB is a work of real integrity. Writers included Jack Pulman (again), Alan Plater, other familiar names from the 1970s I recognized. It is very much told from a man’s point of view. Judy Geeson (Caroline Penvennen in Poldark) is susan, the one repeating woman character and like the others docilely domestic — almost. She has an affair with Andrews thought she’s married to a man working at Bletchley. So here too it breaks taboos: good heroines were not supposed to have affairs like this — without great trauma.

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Susan (Geeson) looking out the window — there are many such quiet stills

It’s usually talked about as having no women. That’s not so; they are not central but they are there, I’d say almost very mainstream values for women are in place. They are shown to have sex themselves and enjoy sex; they drink; our chief heroine is an adulteress. Our heroine is also ever so obedient to Daddy who is this “generous man” but of course knows she should go back to her husband and if he had not had a breakdown (from Bletchley stress) and died, she’d not have been able to become Ashe’s partner/wife at the last. So the sexuality of the programs are not presented to liberate women so much as something that pleases male viewers because of the way it’s presented. They are finally docile sidekicks. The final episode has the girl who early on presented as a manipulative tramp getting involved with Ashe’s batman, and finally pregnant and Brian Ashe’s batman marries her. Ashe has told him he need not, how does he know her baby is his? So no it’s not at all feminist. Women are seen from the outside as men see them.

The overarching struggle of the series is the education, and disillusionment and moral strengthening of Brian Ashe as he learns to be a good commander: he learns about himself and finally has this moral triumph; each episode is show the unit overcomes some technical difficulty — or not. Now Susan the one major character is a woman who does not have a lineal story of triumph; she moves from her father’s daughter, to adulteress deeply in love, back to wife to nurse her husband who kills himself anyway, and then onto becoming Brian’s fiancee; from man to man. She works behind the scenes effectively to help Brian by enlisting her father’s patronage network in the same repeated ways; at the end she’s where she was at the beginning but her emotional and moral life is so much more satisfying. Like Ashe’s batman, Salt (after the death of his wife from a bombing) becomes involved with less respectable woman, a music hall entertainer who we later meet as a prostitute; she is doing the same job for higher fees is her view. He cannot accept that and maybe he’s right. She is living a hollow life. We glimpse women suddenly made widows. Brian’s aunt is a longtime widow who apparently lives a quiet upper class gentry life where she has time to make herself available to Brian as caring stable surrogate mother.

Machinery

The mini-series’ central focus is technology: danger clever deadly device here. Instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Judy Geeson’s husband who works at Bletchley has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills too. What makes Ashe a hero is he can do technology well. Some intuition usually bettered this kind of theme: he leaves engineering school before he can get his degree so in the last program he cannot be promoted to a job higher than he had to keep him in bomb disposal. He doesn’t have the certificate. In fact he had not been at Oxford or Cambridge but was in the Technical Modern school (or whatever they used to call them). It showed up how injustice happens over these certificates and kinds of schools available to people. The paratexts opening and closing each episode show us the noise and strength of the machinery building bombs, firing them, sending them off to be used. The mini-series shows us how frail people are as they used this iron, steel and their electrical killing devices.

Some mini-series have not been re-booted; I suggest perhaps one sign of real superiority is the sense that you cannot reboot. This one cannot be re-booted; it’s not just that sensationalism has invaded and pervades the BBC nowadays but the whole mindset of integrity and true anti-war presentation (somehow not glorifying war at al and yet respectful of those risking their lives, fighting, the civilians.

A comparable work from the later 1980s shows up some flaws in Danger UXB. A Piece of Cake, like Danger UXB, has been admired as an unusual anti-war war film. It was done in the later 1980s and I’ve begun watching it. Only 6 parts it still merits discussion on the level of Danger UXB — or the recent (hardly seen at all, it disappeared in the US so quickly) Kilo Two Bravo. A Piece of Cake is about a flight squadron in WW2. It falls off towards the end, suddenly the incidents become shorter and the themes are not focused. A couple of romances start up where women are hardly distinguished from one another. (They have no coherent story.) It’s as the movie did not have the courage to paint as dark a picture of the human sides of the reality of group combat as it seemed to be moving towards.

oldfilm

A Piece of Cake surprised me in two ways: first it’s ironic; the characters are presented as these admirable upper class males but as you watch you realize a couple are real shits, the commanding officer who seems so knowing and elegant and competent is a fool who thinks of war as an excuse for adventure and living in French castles where there is luxury and servants. It is unusual for a film to be ironic: to expect us to realize how inadequate awful &c characters are. One I can think of is the 1972 Emma. Its center is an unhandsome intelligence office, the actor who played Hooper (Thomas Hope) in Brideshead Revisited and is now Dr Pascoe in the new Poldark.

There is a technology theme here too: the captain at first insists on following heroic kinds of group behaviors that are not longer applicable and threaten everyone’s lives. The group must fight individually. He loses a number of men to his stubbornness. He wants to control them and be Top Male. Then the use of the technology of the airplane endangers them. There is zenophobia against their allies the French who we see them with. Again and again their own blindnesses, mores (which are after all why they are fighting), make it difficult for them to use the new technologies the way intended.

Piece of Cake shows up Danger UXB in two ways. First A Piece of Cake brought home to me how improbably nice and kind are most of the men in Danger UXB (one episode is about a shit commander, petty, enjoys tormenting the men with the “rules,” but he is outed quickly because all conspire together to get rid of him), how well meaning, how respectful between classes. In Piece of Cake they are more real — nasty some of them, use class to put down the men below, corrosive. In Danger UXB the survivors are technically very good (not physically brave or heroic necessarily at all, not conventionally), but in Piece of Cake you also have to have the kind of personality that survives corrosive competition, put downs; you must not be the person in the playground recognized to have coolies — and the second person to die was the type who others bullied and he tried to do a stunt in his plane. This level of human nature is kept out of Danger UXB for the most part. It is responsible for some of the deaths, and then having funerals conducted in ways that grate on people because too much class distinction is observed.

And far more people die in this series. I did realize that of the 12 we become really attached to in Danger UXB only 4 died and 2 we don’t know. That’s softening too. Almost everyone dies in A Piece of Cake; by the end we have a whole new bunch going up, and we feel they are not going to last much longer either — flying war planes is not a piece of cake. Churchill’s speech about their “sacrifice” registered this. Some of the actors who had individual stories and were grieved over when dead were almost nobodies when they were in it and went on to become stars (though it took time): — Jeremy Northam, Nathaniel Parker are among them. I did think the quiet bitterness of the film superb.

***************************
After watching all 20 episodes of Jack Pulman’s 1972 BBC brilliant, moving and complex, War and Peace, I’m convinced this is another such mini-series, taking its considered quietly tragic vision from Tolstoy’s book.

Takentowatchhisfathersdeat
Anthony Hopkins as the young Pierre, come to be there as his father dies, stalked Anne Blake by the Countess Drubetskoya, anxious lest the letter which leaves the estate to him is snatched out of his hands (Pulman’s first episode)

Notably powerful were Frank Middlemas as General Kutusov, David Swift as Napoleon.

AngelaDowne
Angela Down as Maria Bolkonsky (another of my favorite actresses from this era) – we watch our princpals age, learn, become sober thinking adults and yet ironically remain what they were when they started, learning in effect very little in a deeper way, or unable to change or take in what happened to behave differently

As I love movies so and think watching them can be as reading a book, I’m going to watch alternatively with this (thanks to a friend), the 1966 Russian epic War and Peace by Bondarchuk, and the sadly abbreviated but intelligent and well-shaped Andrew Davies’s 2016 version. We have agreed to read this book over the summer on Trollope19thStudies @ Yahoo (hoping the site remains), starting probably sometime in June and ending September. My project for it is going to include books on Tolstoy’s book, and I’ve gotten myself an older good translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, as revised and edited by Amy Mandelker; as well as a novel focusing on Sofay, Parini’s The Last Station, and Rimvydas Silbajoris’s War and Peace: Tolstoy’s Mirror of the World. I’ll at long last listen to all of David Case’s reading aloud of this book which I gave up on twice because I was trying to listen while my husband was dying of cancer.

JourneysEndrecentlyrevivedJamesNorton
Recently revived as a film, Journey’s End with James Norton (who plays Andrei Bolkonsky in Davies’ War and Peace film)

REGENERATION, Tanya Allen, Jonny Lee Miller, 1997. Tanya Allen and (a favorite actor for me) Jonny Lee Miller (Regeneration, 1997)

I had registered for a Smithsonian course in World War One supposedly centered on a group of books, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, R. C. Sherriff’s frightening play, Journey’s End (I experienced it with Jim – the whole theater is made to feel as if you are in a bomb field), but when I saw how superficially All Quiet on the Western Front was treated (out of three hours, no more than 20 minutes — if that — of discussion) and how the history was presented as top down and about elites quarreling — and how upbeat the presentations I lost heart. So I am going to try Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (short-listed for the Man Booker), Sebastien Japrisot’s Un long dimache de fiancailles (I’ve got the translation too, by Linda Coverdale and I saw the film with Izzy when it came out) and Pat Barker’s Regeneration on my own (a film here too). When I don’t know: I hope to get to them this summer. I almost hope a proposal for a paper on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (which I have prepared an edition of for Valancourt Press, and the editor-publisher is stalling on) to be given at a conference at Chawton Library is rejected, so I can do this.

What can I do better in the world as a reader and writer than read and write about and maybe teach such books?

behind-the-linesRegeneration
A landscape still from Regeneration

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

I’ll close on two more poems written during World War One, both by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

war-and-peace-ep1-battle-horse
In battle scenes from Davies’s 2016 War and Peace we see the horses dying too

As the Team’s Head-Brass

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
    The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

castposing (Medium)
The cast or crew in Danger UXB acting out posing as the Bomb disposal unit posing for photos in a town they are trying to rid of planted landmines – we see how awkward it is to pose as heroes in the expected way — the mini-series has endless nuances of this type in all sorts of situations

Ellen

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