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Ada (Tara Fitzgerald, the Alice Roland of film story) and Flora (Anna Paquin, the Asia of the film story) — from Jane Campion’s 1993 The Piano, a very free appropriation of Mander’s 1920 novel)

Dear friends and readers,

I do not remember what year it was when I first came across Jane Mander’s traditional novel of the trials and ordeals of colonialism for the European colonizers, credited as one of the first true New Zealand novels (a product of this new culture), The Story of a New Zealand River. I found it in the Second Story bookstore in Alexandria, one of two such used book stores: one in DC (Georgetown); and this one in Alexandria, which took up a whole block, all sides and was two floors high. Long gone now such attics of “used” literature where I could rummage in past ages through their left-over books. I might have been attracted by the cover.

I recall being wholly absorbed by it, and recognizing it (not Emily Bronte, as was suggested by some film critics) as a central story source for a movie that made quite a splash with its teasing erotic content. Campion’s English heroine, a mute, coerced into marriage, with a white timber man in New Zealand, is persuaded to go through a slow strip-tease by his assistant, a white man gone native — she removes an item of clothing and in return gets to “own” a small part of her piano until she owns the whole thing), Jane Campion’s The Piano. My reaction to the movie this summer has been very different.

This summer when I decided to try to teach a course in colonialist writings, it leapt to mind as the one book I must do. As I told the people in the zoom space with me, this, together with her Allen Adair, are as worthy to be taught as regularly as the over-rated Heart of Darkness by Conrad and a couple of other favorites by men as classic colonialist books. Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is on record more than once inveighing against the deep racism of Conrad’s book. Mander at least meant not to be, and you can learn a lot more about colonialism from her for real than you can from Conrad’s mystic pompous vague ominousness. I am writing this blog in the same spirit as I taught the book: I would like more people to know about it and its contexts.

Its plot-design tells two stories. On the level of primary action, it tells of an epic romantic journey through time, experience, a river and hard adventures (including giving birth many times in a cabin in the rural woods of Nothern New Zealand in the 1870s through 80s) by Alice Roland. She is a woman whose stiff-necked estrangement from others (later understandable), narrow-minded class-based puritanism, the same suspicious authoritarianism towards others that in the book she allows to spoil her life, is in the book changed to assimilation, a broader minded toleration and understanding, an acceptance of her own and others’ sexual love life. The context for this is the difficulty of living with Tom Roland, a white timber man with whom she has little sympathy, himself creating a successful timber business from the ground up (literally) in the wilderness. When we meet her, she has married him to escape her lot as a widow with three children living in Australia (with a piano in tow — she had tried to make a living as a music teacher). She had hoped comradeship. Instead she falls in love with David Bruce, his gentlemanly assistant (also a physician), who does not go native, but becomes her friend and support of her and whole white community. The three, man, wife, friend, are at the center of all that happens. The inner core of this Campion took for her stark but (contradictorily) pessimistic movie; the outer is about people coping with the situations of colonial life and winning, just.

On the level of structure and character relationships, it is the story of a mother and daughter. The first two of the four books dramatize Asia’s growing up, struggling with and loving her mother. The third and fourth books occur ten and then fourteen years later where Asia, now grown up, turns round to teach this same mother as she achieves independence and a far more free fulfilling life than her mother is capable of. It’s a bifurcated tale. Asia is a kind of Jo March modernized — I am morally convinced the novel Mander was most influenced by was Little Women. Asia falls in love with a man married but unable to divorce, and her mother has to accept Asia’s going to live with him as the source of her happiness and life’s strength. This structure and these themes mark The Story of a New Zealand River as very much a woman’s novel. Many of the inward recognitions both women go through are the kind of thing one finds in subjective novels by women which have nothing to do with where they are particularly.

To parse the bifurcation:

Book 1 sets our scene and the themes and character paradigms that will be developed. The arrival. Alice, Asia, two small children and piano ferried deep into bush on the river by David Bruce; Asia falls overboard and Bruce saves her life. Alice’s first impulse to snub Bruce (he not being dressed as the gentlemen). She finds herself very afraid, very alone, has to give birth – this marks the woman’s birth and it’s David Bruce who is there in intimate moments. Her antagonism, her aversion turns to dependency on her part and his pity for her to love, which is acknowledged at the end of Book I. Tom takes a mistress (on the side, in town). She makes friends with a Mrs Brayton, a cultivated and wise woman who helps her learn to live in a rough environment; she clashes with her daughter at each stage in which the daughter asserts a separate and questioning identity. She learns everything she needs she must make herself. One of the things our characters are doing is “clearing the bush” and making a new society mostly in imitation of what they knew in England only shaped by the different climate, flora, fauna, kinds of foods available and grown.

Book 2 includes a gale-level storm, a flood which threaten and almost destroys Tom’s hard-built business site; David Bruce’s drinking bouts (he is a depressive). Tom Roland thinking he is facing ruin, takes poison, and is saved by David and Alice’s united efforts – tremendous inward scene between Alice and Bruce as they are tempted to let him die. Bruce becomes an uncle-father to Asia. Alice’s deep self-repression, guilty, rigidity over sex, and wanting to own her children, her Victorianism, the attitude so reprehended by Bloomsbury is also reprehended by Mander but through a Victorian fiction.

The problem throughout all this is our heroine, Alice Roland, is persistently in the wrong. She needs the putative hero, David Bruce, continually to teach her better values, among these to be nicer to her husband. It seems it’s her fault the husband treats her badly; her fault he goes into these drinking bouts (as does David himself but she cannot be blamed for that). She is told she is intolerant when he visits his mistress. And she is to consider how much of the whole encampment (all the people working for him, their families) is riding on his strength of character; it’s due to his physical and moral stamina that the timber mill is succeeding and creating wealth for him and her and money for all. Ironically what makes the book unpalatable to some readers today, scandalized her New Zealand readership until the 1930s because what Alice is being taught and Asia lives out are modern attitudes towards sex, class, parent-child relationships, work.

Books 3 & 4 (more briefly): 10 years later, Asia 18 and insists on independent life for herself, a terrible wrench for Alice. At first Alice cannot accept this modern way of life for her daughter. Bruce and Mrs Brayton enable Asia to leave, to become a sort of concert pianist going round New Zealand, but Alice again pregnant and now ill (endures yet another stillbirth), Asia returns home for a few months to nurse her. Then 2 and 1/2 years later, we find Asia now living at home (not explained) and she falls in love with Allen Ross. This part of the novel contains the most extensive descriptions of the realities of colonial life, the people who come as failures elsewhere and fail again; the landscape. Here we find the only mentions of the Maoris in the book (very traditional to leave the indigenous peoples out).

The novel’s non-modern techniques: back stories emerge. Alice had Asia as illegitimate child and punished herself all her life by his marriage; Mrs Brayton had rejected daughter who married someone Mrs B didn’t approve of, w/o help daughter died. Bruce himself did not save a man whose wife he loved and blames himself as a passive murderer (this reminded me of George Eliot, and Bruce seemed to me a Daniel Deronda).

Roland finally catches Bruce and Alice in compromising position and it emerges he thought they were lovers all these years –- especially after Bruce told him to leave Alice alone, for these pregnancies were killing her. A sub-textual argument of the book is on behalf of contraception (for which it was attacked). Does she want a divorce? No! but our noble lovers are saved when Tom dies in an accident nobly trying to save others. At novel’s end Asia and Ross have gone to live in Sidney where they hope to do good in politics. Alice and Bruce leave for Auckland to marry and find contentment as older adults together.

The book brings you into its world deeply; it is rich in description of New Zealand at the time. The characters are convincing (if contrived because of the romantic lesson-learning structuring). I find it to be melancholy: life is little to be enjoyed and much to be endured (there are various utterances which are variations on Samuel Johnson, mostly when Alice is thinking of what is to come. What is most striking to me is how the daughter is presented as more reasonable, more able to function in modern society, more daring than the mother, and they get into hard conflicts over opposed values — including directly sexual (against her daughter’s deep pleasures with Ross) as well as about a daughter’s independence.

I’ve seen this in a number of women’s books. I cite 18th century books: Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story, with two volumes each about the different heroine; Charlotte Smith’s Young Philosopher — at the time I thought of so many others where the mother-daughter paradigm was presented in just this way. In the 19th century there’s Gaskell’s work, Margaret Oliphant has several — Oliphant had her most important relationship with her mother. Oliphant’s greatest grief was the loss of a 9 year old daughter. This dual view enables a dual perspective in such books: here in Mander early colonial experience and then 20 years later where so many changes as the white settlers succeed have been made. Marianne Hirsh’s insightful and important book (still) The Mother-Daughter Plot begins with the idea that for many women, they read as mothers (this is Gaskell) or daughters (say Austen and Bronte and Alcott). Mander begins with the mother as central and crosses over to the daughter (as do Inchbald and Smith).

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Jane Mander, 1923, one of her emigration documents

She was born in 1877, so close in age to Virginia Woolf. Mander grew up in New Zealand, part of its middle class. There is a good literary biography by Dorothy Tucker. Like Asia in the novel, she had little official schooling. Mander’s father was a member of the early New Zealand parliament, a pioneer, sawmill owner, who purchased a newspaper, The Northern Advocate where Jane first wrote as a journalist. There was little audience or opportunity for a modern novelist; so first she went to Sydney and in 1912 traveled thousands of miles to New York City, to go to Columbia University. She joined the suffrage movement. She was politically active as feminist and socialist labor all her life.

It was in New York City she wrote The New Zealand River. 1923 she moves to London and gets involved with familiar names of literature today (and some less familiar) from Bloomsbury to writers of the 1920s; then she works for Harrison Press in Paris. She is fluent in French. She wrote three other novels. She had a very lively life and enjoyed it but there were bad pressures. There are parallels with Katherine Mansfield, also from the upper class of New Zealand, but much much wealthier (whom Mander still resembles in startling ways and who was one of the first reviewers of Mander’s first book). Mander might have been bisexual too — there is no record of heterosexual romance.

She seems to have missed New Zealand, and her parents in were in bad health too, so in 1932 she returned home and stayed. A long trip. She became friendly with New Zealand writer whose work is more widely known than hers: Ngaio Marsh – whose great passion was theater direction though she also wrote the detective stories for which her name is more widely known.

Having been attacked by the local community for this and subsequent books, and for not living conventionally (she never married), Mander grew depressed yet stayed on. She was part of the local higher literary culture of her country – but just could not get her act together for another novel or long work. She wrote reviews; people suggested she return to London, that she write autobiographically. She would not. She produced magazine pieces — very fresh vivid accounts you could call regional writing. Her mother had died and her father became very ill. That she lived with her father in her later years reminds me of Louisa May Alcott who lived with Bronson Alcott and died with in a few months of his death.

She lived through WW2 – and New Zealand, like Australia, was very involved. New Zealand was an independent commonwealth country by 1947. The present enlightened fine PM, Jacinda Ardern, a social democratic progressive, is no surprise; women had the vote in New Zealand in 1893; unions protected, and with an outlook like that of the British labor party after war & Australia’s progressive party, New Zealand throve.

In this first novel one can see many autobiographical connections. It’s in the 1870s when our story begins – there are a few references now and again to situate the narrative. Mander was born in 1877, so from her grand-parents and what she knew of her great-grandparents she remembers an earlier world. Jane Mander lived in the very area she brings her characters to when she was around the age of Asia -– three years before she was 12. This is period of childhood where deepest memories are etched and she continually in her imagination (according to Tucker) returns to this landscape in all her novel writing. Here Asia is she, a bridge into this novel.

Part of the reason for the book’s impact was its authenticity – it is described in books about New Zealand literature as among the first genuine culturally New Zealand books written – like Nathanial Hawthorne in the US, Emerson, Alcott – they don’t sound British any more. The places named all existed and the description of the timber industry is said to be accurate. There was never a mill at Pukekaroro or township but there was one in Puhipuhi near Kaiwaka (Maori names) a town, access in the 1970s when Dorothy Turner wrote her book on Mander was still through waterways. You can trace where the owner of the timber company (Roland) lived; there was a real wealthy Englishwoman living there, Mrs Clayton – and she had a house like Mrs Brayton’s and doubtless a fine book collection. Its specific setting is an obscure smaller arm in Kaipara Harbour, which Mander sailed into and out of herself (like Asia).

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There is an audiobook, LibriVox, so unabridged and for free

The Story of a New Zealand River is a woman’s novel as well as good and important colonialist writing — as some of the classics of colonialist writing, where the man has won a Nobel prize are arguably misogynist and racist: this is true of some of V. S. Naipaul’s novels: A Bend in the River has the hero beating up his female partner and there is no real criticism of this. Action-adventure stories characterize a good deal of Kipling (who is painfully racist and prejudice against non-white cultures). I just loved how Mander showed the way women were part of the colonialist project, central to it, and what they endured, their friendships, networks, deeper relationships with female relatives.

Mander does neglect the Maoris: they are seen only from afar when the reality is in this period a series of wars had been concluded, but feeling between the indigenous people and the interlopers was hostile, with outbreaks of violence on all sides. I discussed in the class and encouraged everyone to see The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, to be sure about an aborigine man in Australia, but a rare movie for depicting the horrifying treatment of indigenous people. Mander’s brother marred a Maori woman.

I’ll end on the use of the piano in The Story of a New Zealand River. It’s not a chance move by Campion to focus so on this symbol of middle class, settled, white upper class life, gentility. In “The Piano as Symbolic Capital in New Zealand Fiction, 1860-1940,” Journal of New Zealand Literature (JNZL) 28 (2010):34-60, Kristine Moffat shows the depiction of the piano in most novels and movies in the later 19th and most of the first half of the 20th century is as particularly a woman’s instrument, an instrument through which women can express deeper and unconventional longings, as her symbolic capital, her status, distorts the history of the piano.  It’s partly false. Evidence shows that the piano was played by men and it functioned not just in the home where there was no radio. Historical records shows that pubs, music halls, clubs, brothels, working men as part of music making groups – it is a versatile percussive instrument (a harp on its side) – means of entertainment; in the first decades of the 20th century Maori people took to having pianos, military camps, concerts.

Towards the end of Moffat’s essay, she focuses on Mander’s novels; in New Zealand River, for Alice the piano is also a symbol of “home,” which is of course England. In one of Alice’s first visits to Mrs Brayton she is drawn irresistibly to this Broadview Grand and starts playing Beethoven’s sonatas with deep feeling and is embarrassed to have let go so – how much had been repressed – the journey is so difficult. She had tried to make a living teaching music; when Asia grows up we are told that she succeeds as a concert pianist in an orchestra that travels around Australia and New Zealand, to places of entertainment. I was not that surprised to read about that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (Mander’s first reviewer as I said) fit into this paradigm.

Ellen

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Mally (Veronica Quilligan) and Jess, her donkey (1973 Malachi’s Cove, Penrith Film)

Dear friends and readers,

I am delighted to be able to say I gave a third successful on-line talk about an Anthony Trollope story to a group of people who have been meeting every two weeks since March 2020 online to discuss Anthony Trollope and his writings (sponsored by the London Trollope Society); that is, since self-quarantining for the COVID pandemic began. In June as a way of transitioning from Framley Parsonage (the fourth Barsetshire novel), I introduced Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset by comparing it to Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife (the first written 1866, the second 1991). Then about five months ago (March 2021) I gave a talk on Dr Thorne as the book by Trollope I first read and one I remain especially fond of. This time, last Monday, I spoke about one of his short stories, “Malachi’s Cove.” The group is still enthusiastic — we are having fun — still going strong, with plans for a another of Trollope’s novels, The American Senator, to begin September 5th.

My paper talk on this story and a comparison of it to its film adaptation by Henry Herbert (1973, Penrith film company) is another paper that comes out of a blog I wrote. But it has a larger context as my subtitle suggests.


John Everett Millais, “Waiting at the Railway Station,” from Good Words

For a long time now I’ve known that Trollope’s short stories are not sufficiently appreciated, mostly because they remain unread even by his more devoted readership. I taught these as a group to college students way back in the early 1990s when I realized that they were a good length to assign students, were written in clear, entertaining, often comic but sometimes tragic ways, and could and did interest college-age students: among other things, they are travel stories (Trollope gathered them more than one as “Tales of All Countries”) and about colonialism. The students were more open-minded towards these old tales than I expected, at first more so than the people on a listserv I was moderating at the time, perhaps because they came to Trollope with no expectations whatsoever — most of them never having heard of Anthony Trollope before. Then a few years later (1997) to the other adults on a listserv I was moderating, I again proposed reading and discussing all the stories; after a while it went over so well that I was able to put on my website a record of what we said and thought. We liked them sufficiently that years later we went through a selection of the stories once again (“The Spotted Dog,” “Why Frau Frohman Raised her Prices,” “Journey to Panama” among these. Each Christmas we still read a couple of the Christmas tales (for example, “Christmas at Thompson Hall”).


John Everett Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

Malachi’s Cove represents one of masterpieces of the genre that Trollope wrote — which I name in my paper.

So, now Dominic Edwards, our fearless moderator and leader (and Chairman of the Trollope Society) this summer proposed for August we as a group read a few of the short stories — as a kind of break from the longer works. (We had just finished The Way We Live Now.) He chose “An Unprotected Female at the Pyramids” and “A Ride Across Palestine” (sometimes called “The Banks of the Jordan”). I know I showed a lot of enthusiasm about the stories, and he asked me would I present a talk on “Malachi’s Cove” to start us off. It emerged that in fact the place on the London Trollope Society website where you can find all sorts of information about “Malachi’s Cove” (story, characters, publication date) is one of the most popular spots on the site. I was happy to do a talk.

In brief, I first showed that Trollope’s tale is a violent mood piece presented as a parable: we experience a persuasive glimpse of two people surviving together through “a hard and perilous trade” (460) in Cornwall: the girl rakes seaweed from the cliffs and rocks on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean where it washes up on the shore, to sell it for fertilizer. She makes it seems just enough to stave off destitution for herself and her grandfather who appears to have custody of her. Then I take the reader through the film adaptation, which I also think superb, and demonstrate how the Penrith film (the name of the company) develops from Trollope’s matter a haunting coming-of-age film (a familiar movie subgenre), an atmospheric Cornish story of intense loss, grief, anger and providential renewal.

So, here as before, is a link to the video on the website, which Dominic kindly accompanied by setting forth talk itself beautifully, “Malachi’s Cove: An Edge Tale: On behalf of Trollope’s Short stories.”. And as before I transfer the video from the Trollope Society site here for your convenience and to have it as part of my blog site:

You can also read the text at academia.edu


Malachi’s Cove, the opening far shot: Mally and Jess as specks by the shore

There is, as any regular reader of this blog will know, another context: I am enormously interested in films, especially adaptations of books. I love them personally and have published papers on them professionally and here on my website and blogs. So my paper values the film as much as it does the story.


Malachi’s Cove, the Vicar (John Barrett) talking with Mally in the graveyard by her dead parents’ gravestone

Ellen

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Caryl Phillips (born 1958)

There are those who are willing to pay the highest price imaginable to resist people who would police their identities. And there are those who will pay the highest price imaginable to secure an identity — Phillips, “Color Me English”

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve another author, Caryl Phillips, specific quietly stunning novel by him, Crossing the River (short-listed for the Booker the year it was published, 1993) to urge you to read. Until you do, you are missing out! and thus far (what I’ve read) the novels, Cambridge (1991, powerful double journal of white European woman and young enslaved well educated Black man, brought to a violent brutal Carribean plantation), The Lost Child (2015, a sequel to Wuthering Heights, aka Heathcliff’s story), and original biographical fiction of Jean Rhys’ life, A view of the Empire at Sunset 92018); two books of essays, The European Tribe (a sort of travel book), and Color Me English (more autobiographical, about memory), and all the occasional essays I’ve come across (e.g.”One Grim Winter Evening,” TLS 2012, on the Windrush generation, now being harassed or threatened with deportation!, upon he occasion of the Olympics in London, TLS). I am thus explicit because it’s been my experience than when I mention this man’s name, I get a blank look! Nowadays you need to have a movie made of your book to achieve more instant recognition. But he is well-known enough; here he is speaking to a group of people at a Canadian institution in Vancouver on The City and the Newcomer:

Phillips says he presents “migrant experience in its broadest context; he is draw to the intense frustration and destructive laws, customs and hurt the non-white child knows, the insuperable difficulty of truly participating. What are in a culture true signs of inclusivity and change. Why do immigrants refugees when so punished by the place they come to persist in wanting to stay –- it’s question that could be asked of the Kendalls in the movie Shakespeare Wallah. Why do they want to be loyal (and then of course appreciated, understood as belonging) when they go out and fight for this place and culture and be willing to lose their very lives because it is their country too …

For myself I think what caught my eye or attention was the information he was brought up in Leeds (so I first bought Color Me English), where I spent over 2 and one half transformative years of my life with Jim: where I went to university, married him, and stayed on to work at John Waddington (at the time a card and game company), to wander around the West Riding on buses, see York Minister one day, and just become part of the Northern Yorkshire culture for a brief fulfilling (sometimes hard) moment of my life. The above video will show you how formative Phillips’s experience of Leeds was in his life.


Jim sitting on the gate in front of Leeds Church, 1968

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Crossing the River, is, like a number of Phillips’s novels, a historical fiction, one not made up of one long stories, but several intertwined, with a framing that makes his book, though clearly out of the African diaspora, one which is deeply invested in the vulnerable powerless subaltern person of any race, all genders, from a linked group of imagined interinvolved communities. Three of the four stories are about enslavement, enslaved people, two 19th century, one mid-18th. The fourth is about a young working class woman in England during World War Two, given little opportunity to develop her gifts, find herself, thwarted by her class, then ignorant husband; she meets a young Black man in the American military and they fall in love.

“The Pagan Coast,” centers on the relationship between Nash Williams, a freed enslaved man who is sent by the American Colonization Society to Liberia, and his beloved and loving patron and former master, a father, and once lover, Edward Williams. Nash is repatriated there in the 1830s to establish a Christian mission and colony. And much to his deep sense of loss and grief, he fails. As he story opens, it is seven years since Nash was freed by his master, Edward Williams and sent to Liberia. Now a letter arrives, which Edward reads and teaches him that all the letters Nash had sent had been destroyed before he could see them by his recently deceased wife, Amelia (who just drowned herself); in these letters Nash had at first asked for help of all sorts (money, equipment, advice, support) and then increasingly desperate cried out in despair and loneliness, missing his home and all the people he knew so badly; we read them eventually and learn of the impossibility of the task set before him – the unreality given the circumstances of this country and culture of the people. The novella is about these two men, their characters, their relationship, the painful nature of what each does to try to come up to the ideals the other has of him, and in the case of Edward to himself go to Africa, and rescue Nash — too late.

They are deeply appealing characters whom we see embedded in, unable to extricate themselves from the evils and failures of several different groups of people they encounter on their journey in time and space.

“West” is the tale of the life of an enslaved Black woman, birth to death: like the first, it is told through a flashback – we begin in present time when Martha is old, sick, dying, exhausted, and has been left to freeze or starve to death but in a central street in a town where it’s hoped (supposedly by those fellow “colored pioneers” who had to abandon her they felt as too much of a burden) she will be rescued. She is taken to a bare cold room with a thin bed (the stove cannot be got to work) by a kindly woman who appears to be part of some group who rescue the homeless, and as she lays there that night she dreams of her life. I am telling the story in more straight chronological order than it is told — it weaves beautifully from experience to experience. She was snatched from her mother with her two brothers, put onto a slave ship, brought to the US and sold to a plantation owner who names her Martha — she becomes Randolph as that is his family name (we wonder if we are near the Jeffersons). Sold and the second set of scenes is of her married to a loving man, Lucas, who we first met in exhausted silent despair (suicidal, drunk) because the present owner has died, and he, Martha, and their young child, Eliza Mae are to be sold with the other property. He must tell her: “he took me in the circle of his arms and laid me down” — She also remembers the fear and bewilderment of her daughter, and her inability as mother to provide any protection for her child: “I did not suckle this child at the breast nor did I cradle her in my arms and shower her with what love I have, to see her taken away from me …. My Eliza-Mae holds on to me, but it will be of no avail. She will be a prime purchase. And on her own she stands a better chance of a fine family. I want to tell her this, to encourage her to let go, but I have not the heart. . . . ‘Moma’ Eliza-Mae whispers the word over and over again, as though this were the only word she possessed. This word. This word only.”
This is the moment her mind returns to throughout the story; what she longs for most of all is to be reunited with a dream of this daughter grown up, strong, beautiful, living in a fine house, on a broad avenue — towards the end in California.

What happens is she is sold to a couple, the Hoffmans, who themselves seem to own only a very few people, up close to her they see how traumatized she is, and try to help her by taking her to some evangelical events; these do not take her out of her abject state of mind; then they do poorly and must they plan sell her and with the money they hope to make return to the east. At the last minute, they relent and allow her to escape (with nothing but her clothes a bundle of things she gathers together before fleeing). She knows some happiness once again: next scene shows her working with a beloved Black woman friend, Lucy, both cooks in a shop and laundresses, somewhere in the west, protected by Chester, a man who is kindly, generous, the lover of Martha. The story is dated by her saying during this time she is told she is now free because of the emancipation proclamation, but says it has little influence on her life as far as she can tell. Alas, Chester gets into a card game with some white men, they cheat him, he complains and they return and shoot him to death. She and Lucy are no longer safe; Lucy has a man willing to take her with him to California, but not willing to bring Martha along. That’s how she ends up with a group of pioneers making their way west, and for quite a while worked very hard for them (washing, cooking, ordering things) but finally grew ill, and they feel they cannot keep her, whence she is sitting where we come upon her when the story opens.

The story is deep tragedy – she dies, with dreams of Eliza Mae ahead of her, and unknown to her is given a yet another name by the woman who does not know her name. She has more than once voiced how she dislikes being renamed — it is a form of not having an identity when she has one. Or had. All of Martha’s geographical journeys are also journeys in search of family, and journeys that create and perform kinship ties. She finds other daughters (Lucy) and other husbands (Chester) and they all echo her original family. She mothers the pioneers in their trail westwards, “rallying them to their feet” in order that they may realize their dreams of freedom in California. What emerges from Martha’s story is diaspora of connectedness via the pain of original loss.


Dorothy Lange photo of a elderly Black woman in the 1930s

Two more. I can be brief about the third: it is based on captain’s journal, John Newton, whom we might see or argue is the lowest of low human beings – doing just horrific things to all the people he seeks to control, from his officers, to the impressed men, to the enslaved people in chains (or instruments of torture around their necks), a man who resorts to the lash continually, a slave trader, named by Phillips James Hamilton. For some who have not imagined this or read deeply detailed historical accounts (I recommend Clifford D. Conner’s biography of Colonel Despard, who briefly turns up in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels as Anglo-Irish rebel turned revolutionary who is guillotined for his pains, as a scapegoat but also spent years as the leader of British men in the Carribean trying to steal the Native’s lands from the ferocious Spanish and build communities in the fiercely hot diseased ridden islands using enslaved people.) How hard a business his was – he has difficulties picking and buying enslaved people, they run away, they rebel, they also get sick and die; his men get drunk, humiliate the enslaved, insurrections, disease, diarrhea (he feeds everyone rice) aboard ship as well his life (letters home to a beloved woman whom he treats with dainty kindness, discretion, courtesy) is strewn with difficulties.

How can you leave out the colonialist slaver? the nightmares might not have happened had such people not been possible, not existed …. not somehow been allowed to ply their vileness almost globally. I could have gone over the injustice and cruelties step-by-step. Like reading a day in the life of a guard in a concentration camp in Europe during WW2 – maybe not as – a day in the life of police force in the famous ghetto Lodz. But I spare myself and my possible readers.


Scene from a World War Two movie focusing on a heroine ….

Then the last. I unravel a story told in the Faulkner-Graham Swift mode by voice and diary entries arranged not chronologically but thematically so we must slowly work out the outer story as we confront the inner hidden life of Joyce Kitson — whose name also only gradually is told.

The novella-length piece is presented in a journal or diary form in the voice of Joyce, a young woman during the years leading up to and through World War II. Consistent with the title, the small town and smaller village from which Joyce observes wartime England remains unnamed. Joyce has had a hard childhood continually pressured by her hostile mother who has never gotten over the death of her military husband in the First World War and has taken refuge in religious zealotry. Her mother makes her leave school when she is very bright and loves to read – her mother resent this one pleasure of hers. She goes to work in a factory, and does not fit in. One night she goes to a theater to see the Christmas pantomime and meets an actor named Herbert playing in Mother Goose. Suffice to say she gets pregnant, and when she gets no answers for her letters, has an abortion out of fear of ostracizing and pressure from others, but goes to London to find Herbert. When she does, what a disillusion! He flees her within ten minutes (July 1936 to February 1938 but her relationship with her mother is interwoven throughout the letters from the very opening to her mother’s death). When the story opens Joyce has married a working class (it turned out thuggish, violent) young man, shopkeeper named Len from a small village near the town where she lives with her mother. We eventually discover Len beats her, and Joyce knew almost immediately that the marriage is a mistake Len eventually goes to prison for dealing in the black market during the war, leaving Joyce to run the village shop. She feels for him over this as an injustice.

There is a parallel story: a friend, Sandra has a similar experience of marriage (maybe not as bad) but her husband is also gone to war and either she had married him because she was pregnant by him (or another) and has had a child, Tommy, whom she cannot breast-fed (partly anxiety partly lack of nourishing food) and whom she seems anxious to hide from her husband. She says that she has never been able to deal well with people (she thinks Joyce does) and becomes pregnant again (with a friend of Len’s). Joyce advises her to write and tell her husband. Among other things, she cannot put the baby up for adoption without the husband’s permission. Alas he returns and kills her, shoots her dead instantly. As Joyce’s one friend, Joyce never forgets her or that Tommy, the child, was taken away.

Not long after Joyce’s job has enabled her to meet a young Black (colored) man from the US. The U.S. Army stationed a detachment of black soldiers near the village where Joyce lives, and she falls in love with one of the officers named Travis. He is kind, courteous, fun to be with; they lead off a dance one night. He is beaten once by some white officers for returning late (or perhaps for going out with a white woman). She becomes pregnant by Travis just before he is shipped off to Italy. He is able to return on leave to marry Joyce – whose divorce from Len is finally settled (after scenes of his rage beating of her, demanding she give him the shop — Travis intervenes in one beating) – just days before the birth of their baby, Greer. Travis is killed in Italy, and Joyce is forced to give Greer up to the county as a war orphan. (A parallel to Martha and Eliza Mae.) The only time she sees him again is in 1963, when he comes as a young man to visit her in a new life. Joyce secretly continues to love Travis, even in her new better life, still a working class woman, now with 2 children, and she is portrayed as a good person, caught up in bigotry and circumstances beyond her control.

I have probably not conveyed how this story told another way could take 500 pages and how it wrung my heart. The story includes the bombing and destruction of part of her village – which she registers fully the horrors and ordinariness of — which bombing her mother dies in as she will not flee to a shelter.

The book has a prologue and coda spoken by a symbolic father who has foolishly sold his children into slavery, driven to it he says by starvation. He turns into a universal figure standing for those who give into society, who simply provides as children and then grown-ups the characters whose suffering we live through across the centuries. The coda connects Edward and Nash, Martha, Joyce, Travis, to specific cases and types of the hurt and victimized in the 20th and 21st century. All his children. Phillips brings back some of the most painful poetry in each of the sections.

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Poster Art on the Banks of the Gaza Strip

Orwell said “who controls the past (the way it is described, discussed, taught), controls the future.” There has been and continues to be a real drive to erase the injustices of the past and create self-glorifying – or justifying tales for the winners and powerful to tell of their power, well-meaning good acts. Phillips realizes common ground among the subalterns of the world. – subaltern is a person of low or lower status – those excluded from the hierarchy of power. They may get to row a boat but no say in how or why it’s rowed or for what or whom. I love how he often has women at the center of his books – not that common for male writers and I give him the great compliment that he does not see them from a masculinist POV at all. Why do we read colonialist, post-colonialist writing? So we may understand what we are seeing happening in our world all around us today — and we hope be able to do something to improve matters however small.

Ellen

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The Householder (1963): husband, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and wife, Indu (Leela Naidu) not getting along


Shakespeare Wallah (1965): daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendall) and mother Carla Buckingham (Laura Liddell, Felicity’s real mother) playing Shakespeare


Roseland (1977): a few of the chief presences sitting around one of many tables just outside the dance floor


Heat and Dust (1983): chief characters: Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) and his kept man, Harry (Nickolas Grace) and the English Official’s Wife, Olivia (Gretta Scacchi) out for a picnic

Friends and readers,

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen at least 16 of some 40 films (and some several times) made by the whole M-I-J team or two of the three over half a century. A few are bound up with memories that matter: going out to the cinema one summer’s day with Thao, a young woman I am motherly towards, and Izzy and seeing the Chekhovian The City of Your Final Destination (2009, so very late, after Merchant’s death); one night very late, Jim asleep, I burst into hysterical tears at the sense of a life thrown away, in The Remains of the Day (1993) and rushed into a room in the front of the house so as not to awaken Jim; during our trip into Quebec one summer, about (I thought at the time) retreat, Heat and Dust (1983), and now I’ll remember Shakespeare Wallah (1965), studying, trying to understand the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for a course I’m about to teach, and feelings about England deeply awakened by the poignancy of the characters having to leave India to go home …

While they are quite varied, I’d say at the core what makes them so often so compelling, so memorable is the true feeling caught or theatricalized in their actually usually quietly understated films; themes like memory, inexplicable longings, an undercurrent of melancholy. Film stories carefully developed, so the hidden life of social scenes is revealed before us. I didn’t chose the most striking shots from the many many brilliant actors who have performed for them, some of them almost unrecognizable by the time they were swept up into the film world (especially once Maggie Smith transformed) though the shots released to the public bring out the actor from the part to sell the picture:


A young Shashi Kapoor as Prem, the intensely frustrated, repressed (before his mother) and occasionally distraught husband in The Householder


Julie Christie as Anne supposed independent young woman come to India to research the life and places her great-aunt Olivia ended up in India in Heat and Dust

Ismail Merchant in one of the many short films he made with Ivory abut their work, and now to be found (if you are lucky), as features in re-digitalized DVDs, said what differentiated their work was they all worked with “heart, intelligence, art.” They were earnest as well as playful about their trade (Wallah can be translates into a trade). I find in their best moments, they approach the work of Ingmar Bergmann; there are also many fallings away, as they stumble, try for non-cinematic almost non-dramatic material (Roseland), attempt to please an audience with simply lush photography (The Bostonians). There is a love affair with the English southern countryside, though three continents, three cultures are their groundwork: India first (Southasia), then England (and Anglo places wherever found), then NYC (very late South America) and Italy (Europe). They could take a photograph: in their very first movies, The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, they had the direct help of Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer from whom they learned much about cutting, editing. I feel they were drawn to the misty and intangible currents emanating from characters to one another


Felicity Kendall, the wandering half-broke troupe’s daughter, and Shashi Kapoor, the young Indian aristocrat in Shakespeare Wallah


Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse and Helen Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a View (1985)

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I have vowed to make these blogs shorter and so readable; my aim here is to encourage the reader (and watcher) to watch the earlier films (1962-83), perhaps in the black-and-white versions off-putting at first (little is compromised, they are not bland)go to Amazon prime or YouTube (where many are to be found), rent one of the older DVDs from Netflix (or better yet, splurge and buy a newly re-digitalized version with features as long as the movie), so perhaps the best thing, swiftest is to make a picture worth a thousand words by linking in the whole of Householder from YouTube

with a precise, carefully observed detailed study of the film’s art and the human story’s appeal. What I can add as to the story:

The Householder is a close adaptation of Jhabvala’s apparently fourth novel (in books on her The Householder is said to be her first). Now I realize it has in embryo central motifs and types of characters she has throughout her fiction, from beginning (all India) to middle (English women drawn into India and their original personality destroyed by the experience) to end (cool stories of corrupt individuals exploiting vulnerable ones across the Indian/American divide), — you can see a parallel plot in way (putting aside too literal alignments) in Heat and Dust (which I chose as the end of the early films as it was their first true hit, and ever after they were too often tempted into cream and enigmatic evasion).

The Householder is also a utterly believable story of two young Indian people put into an arranged marriage, and then left to make it on their own with the husband, Prem, having a low level job as teacher on a small salary. One of the aspects of all Jhabvala’s novels is that as we begin (and in many of her novels this does not change) in pairs of characters supposed to spend their lives together at least one, sometimes both have no concern or love for one another, are not congenial and what’s more don’t expect to be (particularly true here). Prem is having a very hard time adjusting to teaching in a crude place with no help from colleagues, no education in education, students absolutely w/o any real motivation to learn what he’s teaching (a dialect of Sanskrit); Indu (Leela Naidu, also an actress in France) is given nothing to do, no one to be with, her only function to serve him and he’s gone all day. One of his big mistakes is to bring his mother to live with them — a greedy, self-centered woman, rather stupid. The wife flees back to her parents and what she remembers as a happy household of sisters when she discovers she is pregnant. It’s this period away that awakens our hero to his need of her and desire to be a successful husband (householder). Amanda Vickery did a three part series on men in the 18th century and one of hours was how men wanted and needed to marry to belong, to have status, to be seen as successful males. So often 18th century England resembles 20th century India.

There are remarkable scenes of fights between teachers, of his attempt to get a rise in salary and get his rent put down, a friendship with a young man very like himself, but having an easier time adjusting to what the society has given him as his fate. We are shown that marriage is no picnic at all — The Namesake of Jumpha Lahiri (a writer whose franker work teaches you much about Jhabvala’s) is an idealized depiction — in Jhabvala these males are just so rude and commanding to the imprisoned females whose feeble weapon is to strike back by being awful in conversation. Prem gets involved with very ego centered Americans who have come to India to escape to some sublime nirvana (as does Anne in Heat and Dust) and we meet both sincere gurus and crooks. This is a sketch of the kinds of people and social interactions which matter which she repeatedly, almost obsessively develops at length in her later stories. I hope women today in India in some classes are offered far more in life for real individual fulfillment.

A Daphnis and Chloe archetype underlies this story, for at its end we are asked to believe they are making a happy adjustment at last


Returning home together on the train

I’ve not got a video of the whole Shakespeare Wallah for free online, but I can supply some remarkable reviews, from the New York Times archive; in The Guardian, the professional Chris Weigand approaches with concision some adequacy on the film’s complicated arts: Bollywood and the Bard

In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor (Geoffrey Kendal): “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognize that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.


Geoffrey Kendal doubting the value of what he has spent his life so beautifully on

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades

And now my words:

A wandering troupe of actors have made a living traveling around parts of India doing Shakespeare and other classics (as the film opens we see a Sheridan play in progress before a mass group of boys in suits — white, Indian and one Black).


In 18th century costume performing on a bike

But they find they are no longer wanted in the same numbers or way. Gigs dwindle: the local places would rather Sanskrit poetry; the British schools are closing; they are paid much less. We see their truck break down on the road. They are aging, one man dies. The Gleneagles Hotel (pitch perfect that Scots name) that used to accommodate them – very British – is closing. Felicity Kendall is not comic in this and she is not thin — no need to be near anorexic in the 1960s. She and Sanju, an Indian man who rescues them on the road fall in love ad who has as his mistress, Manjula, a Bollywood star who performs one of their sexualized songs, Madhur Jaffrey (she is the Begum in Heat and Dust).


Manjula performing a Bollywood song and dance for Sanju

The poignant question is, Can They Stay On?


Exhausted, on the road, rainy, hot ….

So this is a version of Paul Scott’s famous masterpiece, Staying On, a story retold by Olivia Manning in The Rain Forest (franker and nowhere as well know, and yet more visionary, acerbic, yet in Manning our hero and heroine after some scarifying ordeals escape back; in Scott’s the man dies and we leave our heroine in a desperate situation, just holding on in a beauty shop and hostile hotel. They and this are all autobiographical: the Kendalls did live this way and in one of the features, a mature Felicity tells us at first her father was disappointed with the film as it did not show their triumphs, the fantastical fun they had living the way they did, it too emphasized the ending and sense of loss

We see several famous scenes from Shakespeare done very well in what seems an old-fashioned 19th century way (disrupted now).
Saying goodbye; her parents know it’s best for Lizzie to return to an aunt in the UK; they will follow when they find they must — now they will go round just doing “gems from Shakespeare”. The way it is discussed off-hand by ordinary people suggests a rollicking comedy (!), but while it does not end tragically and there are very comic moments, it is a melancholy and oddly realistic film.

It’s very realistic in the sense that we get feel for India. Jhabvala is the author of the script which while not as subtle as her later ones is very good — no book behind it. I am slowly beginning to appreciate her stories for the very first time ever –understanding her better and being older less emotionally involved, more distant myself.

These two films are a pair.

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Roseland, the place and marquee


The dancefloor

I would call Roseland one of the team’s noble failures. They actually filmed in the real Roseland theater, and with some professional actors, used the aging and ordinary people dancing of an evening: the idea seems to have been to concentrate on the dancing itself, with the stories barely sketched and the repetitive obsessions of those who come to such places regularly emphasized. It has its moments (Geraldine Chaplin of the professionals manages best); there are some professional dancers who catch our attention now and again, but it is fatally unrealized because it is trying to show us that the shell of these places is quite other than what is unexaminedly celebrated briefly in commercial films and histories.

This evening’s task is nearly done. I am passing over the effective The Europeans (1979): sorry to do this as it features a young Robin Ellis (also Lee Remnick — see just below) is a Henry James story, about clashing cultures, which is picked up later on, as just the sort of thing that M-I-J were particularly good at. Its themes differ from those of the other early films and the film anticipate other Henry James stories as well as several of the later, E.M. Forster stories — all set in England — or the US as The Europeans seems to be. It is not one of their best; they grew better at this type as they went on.

Heat and Dust has been if anything over-reviewed. Jhabvala’s novel had won the Booker Prize (so it sold fantastically well). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian

After 37 years, Heat and Dust stands up as an intelligent, ambitious, substantial picture – with flaws but also intriguing aspects that were perhaps not sufficiently understood at the time. Is the movie’s love story a diversionary heterosexualisation of something else?


Anne after reading her aunt’s letters seems (mysteriously) taken by their content, next to her Chidananda allowed back in (he lives off her)

Yes, the Nawab is homosexual (the team also had real empathy for homosexual men), and the ending is not happiness; Olivia and now Anne turn out not to be free spirits but frustrated women who allow themselves to become the sexual partners, Anne, for example, as deluded as the successfully for a bit stubborn shaved American with his faux-Indian name, Chidananda (Charles McCaughan), and her landlord Inder Lal (Zaki Hussain, another less scrupulous Prem). She does not know who the father of her child is, and her retirement for help in the transformed building that Olivia ended her isolated life in as far from self-actualization as Olivia. The Nawab we have learned is a corrupt thug.

Bradshaw concentrates on the wonderful performances, and hidden meanings that leap out today, as well as the facile nature of the Anne parallel (just compare a real depiction of such a household, with the wife subject to epileptic fits, the mother-in-law supplying counterproductive punishing remedies). I want to add that what helped make people keep coming to the film after they satisfied an early Booker Prize enthusiasm, is the simplicity with which the stories is filmed — almost the hollowed out nature. Like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah (and the quietly complex The Europeans), nothing is over-produced or over-emphatic at all, even if feel of the film’s images and music is so sensual — which gave our film-makers their nuggets for turning to a commercially successful second half (later M-I-J).

What people remember best — who saw it — is the parallel plot, exquisitely dove-tailed into the same places — Anne (Julie Christie) comes back to India to see the place her great-Aunt Olivia’s (Gretta Scacchi) life played out, to understand it better by inhabiting the living context – and we go back and forth between the 1920s elegant Raj (once again Shashi Kapoor) with its desperate people and high violence (not seen by us but heard about off-stage) and the 1970s in exactly same places in India. The parallels including both women getting pregnant by the India man closest by, only Olivia has an abortion and the disgrace leads her to desert her (boring) English husband, Douglas (Christopher Cazenove doing a serious job a la Leonard Woolf) for the alluring (to Olivia glamorous because strange) Raj — a retreat which deepens when he is said to visit her only 3 times a year — in deference to his mother, the Begum (Madhur Jaffrey from Householder now grown 20 years older), and then stop altogether. Like so many of the women in Jhabvala’s stories, Olivia is utterly alienated from all the women she meets, and some have good advice, try to support her. Anne is your liberated young woman, but supposed sensible, with her affair with her landlord (Inder Lal) emerging slowly. But unlike Olivia, she stops short of an abortion


Anne stops the woman in mid-performance

and is seen joyously retreating to a building now a hospice institution, hospital, where we last watched Olivia live her life playing the piano, until the very end when (it is hinted) Olivia ended in desperate poverty. It seems the Begum has won at long last


Jhabvala presents these Indian mothers-in-law as vengeful when given any power

We have the saturninely bitter-witty gay companion, kept and bullied the Raj — Harry (Nickolas Grace, young in the 1920s, and made up to be very ancient in the 1960s; Grace played this type too many times — Brideshead Revisited, Dance to Music of Time. He can convey no wisdom to Anne now grown old, back in England so safer and more comfortable, but storyless — we learn nothing of the inbetween time — it is story which thickens out characters in films.


The two take tea many years later, miraculously Anne has aged little

Maybe what was liked were the scenes of playful social activity, rituals done so quietly (not much gossip) and dinners at length, Anglophilic with the important qualification none of the white men or women show any understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to be governing, except maybe Douglas at his table in the heat trying to dispense justice.


Maybe it’s his stiff white shirt and tie that make Douglas (Christopher Casenove) so unappealing to Olivia (Gretta Scacchi)

But unlike the stories of her later career, Jhabvala is willing to grant her heroines a refuge with the implication they have accepted being women alone or subject to others.

I recognize the types and themes (people performing, a foolish American following gurus, who at the film’s end, somewhat unusually escapes relatively unscathed — like Lizzie, he is headed home to his aunt, in his case it seems almost a Kansas of Dorothy-like security and safety. This is the paradigm for Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love who gives the story post-colonial politics, with dollops of feminism, strong heroines in the past and present and the central heroine at book’s end her own person, bringing up a daughter, companion to her deceased husband’s elderly (kind and gentle) father in middle class Kensington.

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Early in the partnership

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s most central theme in her books (as also Jhumpa Lahiri) comes from her thoroughly post-colonial roots; born in Germany of a Polish father whose nuclear family were killed in German concentration camps (he later killed himself), brought up in England (she writes in English), studying literature, she married to an Indian Bengali man, spending 25 years in India (read “Myself in India”), and the last phase of her existence in New York City. She was a perfect fit for the Englishman James Ivory who had come to India, and Ismail Merchant A major theme of her fiction — searching for, building an identity, which even people who stay put at first sometimes must do as the one the nuclear family and community they live among seeks to impose one that violates their innermost nature which seeks actualization. This is the central theme of The Namesake (Lahiri also has a multiple identity now: Indian, English, US, and now Italian. It fits the Merchant-Ivory perspective as seen in the writing and interviews by and about them. She died in 2013.

Merchant appears to have personally been a secular man, but as an Indian born he grew up in a religiously-laden society, with opposing groups (Muslim, Hindi). In the online biography at wikipedia His father, a textile manufacturer, was the head of the Muslim League, and he refused to move to Pakistan at the time of independence and partition. “Family networks” enabled him at a young age to become friends with people influential and in the film industry. He studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and received BA degree of University of Bombay, moved to New York City where he worked as a messenger for the UN, and showed his talent for attracting funds from Indian delegates for film projects. He was the producer, the man who made the money come, and when he died, Ivory did not have the same talent. He and Ivory had met in 1961 when he was in the US on a scholarship in a New York coffee shop; at the time Ivory was an Ivy Leaguer with aims to work in artful cinema. He died in 2005.

Ivory’s biography in wikipedia tells us he came from middling people in Oregon, where he first went to University, he moved to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he directed the short film Four in the Morning (1953). He wrote, photographed, and produced Venice: Theme and Variations, a half-hour documentary submitted as his thesis film for his master’s degree in cinema. The film was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. He graduated from USC in 1957. Here we are told Ivory met producer Ismail Merchant at a screening of Ivory’s documentary The Sword and the Flute in New York City in 1959; but we meet up with the other biography for we learn they formed their company in 1961. He wrote and or collaborated with all four books on them as a team.

Neither man seems ever to have married or had a public partner.


The three continual creative spirits grown older …

In Robert Emmet Long’s wonderful (full of wonders) and useful book, The Films of Merchant-Ivory: there are good biographies, much better than the ones I’ve provided, insightfl details about stages in their careers, the gifts they showed, where learned their crafts, then descriptions and accounts of many of the films, many beautiful and thought-provoking photographs and stills. Long calls these three “unique uncommon individuals” who make “unique uncommon films.”

Ellen

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Haylet Atwell as Margaret Schlegel in HBO Howards End (scripted Kenneth Lonergan)


Anthony Hopkins as Mr Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton in 1993 Remains of the Day (scripted by Harold Pinter, then revised Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala, 1993)

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Days: Monday mornings, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm,
June 7 to 28,
4 sessions online, zoom meeting style (location of building: 4801 Massachusetts Ave, NW) 20016
Dr Ellen Moody


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


Dyrham Park (South Gloucester) used for Darlington Hall in 1993 Remains of the Day

Description of Course: SG 1620 Summer 2021 Two novels of longing at two ends of an Imperialist century

The class will read as a diptych E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989). Both examine class, race, war, fascism and colonialism; family, sex, and property relationships from the “empire’s center,” England, from a post-colonial POV. The core center of both novels is the human needs of their characters against capitalist, gender- and class-based backgrounds. I urge people see on their own either or both the 1992 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film Howards End (w/Thompson & Hopkins) and 2015 HBO serial, Howards End (Kenneth Lonergan w/Atwell & Macfayden); and the 1993 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film The Remains of the Day (also w/Thompson & Hopkins). We can ask how ironic romances can teach us fundamental lessons about how to survive and thrive in today’s worlds.

Required Texts:

E. M. Forster, Howards End, ed Abinger Edition, introd, notes David Lodge. London: Penguin, 2000. ISBN 978-0-14-118231-1
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day. NY: Knopf, 1989; or Vintage International, 1990. ISBN 978-06-7973172-1
There are readily available relatively inexpensive MP3CD sets of the Howards End read by Nadia May (Blackstone) and Remains of the Day by Simon Prebble (Tantor). Both are superb. A more expensive CD audio of Howards End by Colleen Prendergast. All unabridged.
All three movies (films? streaming videos?) are available on Amazon prime (small price for viewing or none at all).

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

June 7: Introduction: Forster, his life & other writing, Bloomsbury (kept short), Forster’s Howards End

June 14: Howards End and the 2 film adaptations

June 21: Transition from Howards End to The Remains of the Day

June 28: The Remains of the Day, the one film adaptation, and if time permits Ishiguro’s other novels (esp. A Pale View of the Hills, Never Let Me Go, When We Were Orphans) & 2 films made from Ishiguro’s books beyond what’s cited above, viz., The White Countess (Ishiguro wrote the screenplay) and Never Let Me Go.


Emma Thompson seen from afar as Miss Kenton, walking as much in the corridors of Mr Stevens’ mind as those of Darlington Hall (she also plays Margaret Schlegel in the 1993 Howards End)


Helena Bonham Carter as Helen Schlegel (the younger sister, a Marianne Dashwood type) (1993 Howards End)

Outside reading or watching:

There is an enormous literature on Forster and he himself left a large body of writing. The best biography because it’s the one candid one about Forster’s sexual orientation and his life is Wendy Moffatt’s A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life by E.M. Forster NY: Farrar, Strauss, an Giroux, 2010. Then I recommend for the text and the rich backgrounds and criticism section, The Norton edition of Howards End, ed. Paul B. Armstrong, who brings together remarkable material both on and by Forster, and includes Forster’s “What I Believe” (central to understanding him and his relevance to us today). I’ll also sent as attachments or URLs: Barbara C. Morden, “Howards End and the condition of England,” May 2016, Literature 1900–1950, British Library, Oliver Tearle, “Revisiting Howards End: Notes towards an Analysis of Forster’s Novel, Interesting Literature, n.d; on the 4 part HBO film scripted by Lonergan, Roslyn Sulcras, “A Howards End: True to Then and Now, the New York Times, online: https://tinyurl.com/37s564xf. See also my blog on Howards End, book & movies.

There are many essays on Ishiguro, his novels, and especially The Remains of the Day (and not a few on the various films too), but many seem not to understand him or this and his other earlier seemingly realistic book (s) or to be beside the point — perhaps because the post-modern post-colonial perspective and Ishiguro’s mix of realism, symbolic allegory and surrealism, different genres and anti-realism (symbolism) gets in the way of understanding this particular story as told by the butler. I will send along Wroe, Nicholas, “Living Memories: Kazuo Ishiguro,” The Guardian (biography entries), 18 February 2005, online at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/19/fiction.kazuoishiguro …; Lee, Hermione, “Books & the Arts: Quiet Desolation,” The New Republic, 202 (January 1990):36-39; Deborah Guth, “Submerged Narratives in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day,” Modern Language Studies, 35:2 (1999):126-37; Meera Tamaya, Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day”: The Empire Strikes Back,” Modern Language Studies, 22:2 (Spring 1992):45-56. See also my blog on Remains of the Day, the book and movie. We’ll also use the fascinating online interview of Ishiguro at YouTube (TIFF Bell Lightbox for a post-screening discussion of the film adaptation of The Remains of the Day): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1P6c3yomp0

Recommended for both books:   Jacqueline Banerjee’s Literary SurreyHampshire:  John Owen Smith, 2005; and Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Big House,” in her Collected Impressions. NY: Knopf, 1950.

Volumes of wonderful close readings of wonderful novels and discussions of issue include: Claude J Summers, E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar,1983; Barry Lewis and Sebastian Groes, Kazuo Ishiguro: New Critical Issues of the Novels. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. On Forster from the standpoint of all his writings: John Colmer, E.M. Forster: The Personal Voice. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.


Hugh Grant as Lord Darlington’s nephew, young Mr Cardinal confronting Mr Stevens (1993 Remains of the Day)

Samuel West as Leonard Bast, wandering in a vision he has of a park he walks in (1993 Howards End)

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Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam), Mr Carter (Dudley Sutton), and Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn) — in the school cafeteria (see Beiderbecke Affair for cast)

Jill: How many records do you have in your collection?
Trevor: No idea. Never counted. Maybe a thousand. Or two thousand. Plus a few tapes. [Takes some out to show her]
Jill: Thank you, I know what a tape looks like.
Trevor: Well, there’s a few tapes.
Jill: How many?
Trevor: No idea. Never counted. Maybe —

Best of all the pleasures on offer is the music, jazz themes that stay in your head long after you’ve watched, lingering like some Sondheim theme, and within the programs cheering, providing the beats, the pace, the meaning, part of the content of each episode (sometimes quite explicitly)

Friends and readers,

I was going to begin this fervent recommendation to stop all you are doing and obtain the three seasons of what we may call The Beiderbecke Trilogy, closely associated (for once) with the name of its wonderful script-writer, Alan Plater, with a paradoxical apology, admitting that the films are almost impossible to get and the books difficult too. Except tonight I have discovered they aren’t — as long as you have a working DVD player — or access to one. The books too are available at reasonable prices (showing just the Trilogy), if you don’t mind used paperbacks from Bookfinder.com


Little Norm (Danny Schiller), Jill and Big Al (Terence Rigby) — waiting to be interrogated by the police

I’ve been for the last month or more watching these seasons on and off, sometimes two episodes a night, sometimes one, together with a couple of hour-long documentary features about Plater: on The Beiderbecke Tapes DVD is Images of Yorkshire, all about Plater’s career writing for Yorkshire TV, with the man himself interviewed — and very interesting he was; on Fortunes of War, the 3 DVD set (Region 2), TimeShifts, a posthumous moving life-and-works beginning with his first play and carrying on to his last programs and books, emphasizing what he brought originally to TV: the real language of everyday England from all classes used by characters, and music integrated and used so that we remember the tunes and they stand for themes, ideas, characters distinctly. I wrote about Plater earlier this season (Hearing the Music) so will not repeat his biography nor signal accomplishments nor filmography (as it’s called). This is “just” to recommend Beiderbecke.

And it’s not easy to do unless you’ve seen the series or at least read the books. William Gallagher, a TV historian, journalist, critic, and dramatist in his own right captures the tones and tells the story of how the programs first emerged, the several process through which they were made, synopses of episodes, complete with representative witty dialogue, and assessments. Retelling the stories (see also Tapes and Connection), and saying they are gentle parodies of mystery/spy/thrillers. Gallagher says they combine prosaic quiet realisms with “the absurd,” but the better word is wacky — what literally happens is slightly and more wacky, versions of daily life turned askew so the underlying silly sudden contingent desperation of some of our behaviors lies open to view. This though sounds too stark (even if here and there the action skirts real danger, risk, threat) for the controlling mode is droll and the pace utterly leisured. This may be seen visually in the way repeated we see the two people get into the yellow van (old, battered, with signs from Jill’s campaigns) and go back and forth to their jobs or wherever they are going. No show today would waste such time with what’s “not needed.”


But we are perpetually in our cars too, with the sun in our eyes, we talk there to one another


It becomes a motif, a sort of symbol for the series

People also say (rightly) that for quite a while after the program is over you hear the strong jazz music (played by a band, with Frank Riccotti the composer). Remembering it you have in your head a kind of rhythm (this is what Sondheim achieves too in his best songs and musicals), the lingering effect.

No one ever hurries, there is no pile up of action, and no ratcheting up of tension, a kind of cumulative effect is felt but not so we really become anxious or stressed about anything. Part of this is the benignity, sanity, low expectations, & ironic distanced temperature of our central lovers (the term feels overdone), Trevor and Jill. When the building Trevor is living in to make way for a road (gov’t is not looked upon as having any common sense) is knocked down, Jill invites him to come live with her in a much less phony-looking house where she is first found (her aspiring ex-husband’s taste) as “probationary cohab.” They do love companionably, sentimentally, in friendship and duress, but they don’t romance. They approach love-making by first defining what are erogenous zones, then discussing further, and then the covers are pulled up or the light goes out. Two of the series (Tapes and Connection) end with our two high on a Yorkshire hill overlooking the dales, with the second by their side a cot for First-Born (their baby to whom they have not as yet given a name by the time the the third season ended


Feel the fresh breezes


With their first baby (first-born implies there may be more), to whom we hear Trevor tells tender stories to

Much is happening all the time, but it does not always lead to high melodramatic action (in fact there is little melodrama in the serials and when it does occur, say in Beiderbecke Tapes, you realize the series is straining); characters are thinking, deciding, doing things they need to do, becoming, helping one another or following some direction that is part of the story and itself issues in denouements that teach us or them something or other; we are learning a lot. Especially important are the many throw-away lines; typically the brilliant sudden intrusions of this or that ironical comment is spoken in a quick understated way. Why did the police arrest you? Trevor asks Jill. “I was intercepted with sealed envelopes from the Kremlin” is her quick quiet response. What else did you expect? Answers that go nowhere and are themselves filled with questions are what Jill and Trevor typically tell Mr Carter, their sceptical colleague, or the earnest imbecilic headmaster, Mr Wheeler (Keith Smith).

In one interview Plater says when he conceives a character, he or the character asks three questions which the action pursues: “who am I? How did I get here? What am I going to do tomorrow?”

They are supported by an inimitable cast, some of actors semi-famous, and others (to me) unknown (and perhaps never became BBC regulars). These are mostly variants in comedy, but when pushed move into semi-neurotic memories of unjust treatment. Terence Rigby as Al was told he was redundant so he set up a warehouse of goods in the basement of a church and sells them by having his “sister,” Janey (archetypical beautiful platinum blonde) go round neighborhoods with a thick catalogue. He was a major character actor at the time; not so Janey (Sue Jenkins) or Yvonne, the baby-sitter (Judy Brooke) who confesses a nagging deprivation leads her to steal:


Judy Brooke as Yvonne Fairweather.

I was delighted to re-find Maggie Jones as the pub-owner’s wife, Bella Atkinson (she was in the 1971 Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Quiverful in the 1982 Barchester Chronicles), Beryl Reid as Sylvia Jill’s old friend, companion in radical women’s circles (doubtless named for Sylvia Pankhurst, who was “consistent” we are told), now living in what seemed to be assisted living for disabled people and Jill’s confident and occasional advisor.


Jill with Sylvia who says she cannot understand why people think the old want to sit near ducks in ponds …

I recognized Eamon Boland as Jill’s errant and now petty criminal of an ex-husband when he appeared

Editorial use only
Eamon Boland as Peter Swinburne

The attentive reader will have realize the POV of this series is pro-labor, egalitarian, compassionate – – one of its pleasures for me — as all Plater’s original work and some of his choices (J. B. Priestley’s Good Companions) reveals. This goes along with having central low status characters (whose actors are not name people) make wry comments and play major roles: in the Beiderbecke Affair, it is “the [nameless] man with a dog called Jason” (Keith Marsh) who remarks there are no neighborhoods, no neighbors any more, who snitches to the police for money; the Chief Superintendent Forrest (a star elsewhere, Colin Blakely) an ultimate crook; and a very funny over-enthusiastic (half-mad) Sgt Hobson (Dominic Jepcott) trying so hard (he gets a Ph.D, but cannot think outside his script


Dominic Jephcott as DS Hudson and Terence Rigby as Big Al — the Sergeant scrambling about over rocks is described by “the man with the dog called Jason” as “having a bit of a crawl” as he watches him

I also so enjoyed all the shots of Yorkshire: not just the countryside, but typical and real streets, compounds of houses — I lived there for over 2 years, and was very happy with Jim — euphoric in the first months of our marriage.


In one of the semi-wacky sequences Jill and Trevor deliver a man who seems to be a Polish refugee to the Lancashire border because they cannot get him to the Mexican one — you can see here the casual continual photographing of Northern England

I did assume the books must be inferior; they were written after the series aired but are not simply novelizations. The stories differ somewhat; there is a real attempt to use the narrator, to have appealing effective description, pace, subjectivity, but what really makes them an equivalent reminder, substitute let’s say on a train, or bus, is Plater has recreated the tone of the series — the same wry undercutting wit, ironies, crisp dialogue whose words surprise you — there is poetry in Plater’s language. My copy is a many times read book.

So far from having to apologize for recommending something the reader will not be able to access, I’ve discovered the cult that arose at the time (over five years, for there were breaks in the seasons — not all the people high in the BBC believed in this program’s ability to attract viewers), is not gone altogether. The show is remembered and people are still buying and watching it. Barbara Flynn is not the only one of the actors and other professionals involved who remembers the experience with real fondness and pride. She supplied most of the photos in Gallagher’s book


This seem to be an ad for Britbox (a subscription site on the Internet where you might be able to see the serial): they have chosen to show hero and heroine in Amsterdam (Beiderbecke Tapes goes to Amsterdam and Edinburgh)

Ellen

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For a US person I infer an analogy to these South African trials is the present trial in Minneapolis of the murderer of George Floyd (who thinks he will get off).  I’ve learned (I watched only the briefest clips but have read what is said) that police protocols in Minnesota and in much of the United States are intended to intimidate and murder Blacks — to hold them in terror so as to bully them at will. Not as searingly cruel as So. African militaries, but very much the same behavior in principle. And it’s upheld: in the court no one questions the police protocol; the only question is did Chauvan “overdo” it.

An article in Guardian by Oliver Laughland describes how the trial of Chauvin is being conducted as a way of assuaging a traumatized community

Dear Friends and readers,

Over the last three or four nights I embarked on a journey through four films telling the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After Apartheid finally ended, and Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, in 1996 a commission of concerned and able citizens was set up to hold public trials where people could come and tell of the horrific wrongs they and their friends and relatives suffered during the long decades apartheid was imposed on South Africa.

It was mostly Black people who testified about such experiences. I notice in each case a second person sits next to the victim witness there to soothe — and control — them. The people telling what had happened grieve, and occasionally become hysterical. The people who had perpetrated the wrongs the specific Black people were describing were invited to come to the same trial and if they admitted the whole truth of what had happened (which before this had been egregiously lied about, not told at all, distorted and falsifying details presented) and could demonstrate convincingly they were actuated by a political motive, a jury might grant them amnesty. This is not the same as forgiveness: it means a court has pardoned someone for an offense, which he or she can then not in law be blamed for again.


Four young South African men who were brutally murdered (Long Night’s Journey into Day, produced, directed by Deborah Hoffman, Frances Reid)

It was expected that the perpetrator should show remorse and apologize, and most did; a few became genuinely grieved and talked of how they had not since the time they did these deeds been able to sleep or live with themselves easily, but at least four men justified what they were doing by saying that is what they understood to be effective and necessary deeds at the time to achieve “stable gov’t” — and two of these were clearly in their hearts fiercely angry at being forced (if they wanted pardon) to own up. One white woman who came to complain about the death of her white son at the hands of a Black man was livid with hatred, indignation, and not for a moment accepted his explanation that he was driven by the deprived life and ferocious punishments that had been visited upon him. Yet of the three men all received amnesty. The people who did not receive amnesty were the ones where the torture they inflicted on the people they were murdering was hideously in excess in pain and suffering of what was needed to say “extract information” subdue or kill them.

When I first read about these commissions and what they were doing (in the 1990s), and have come across articles since, I was dismissive of what they could achieve. I thought that in reality by telling these terrible acts to those who have been mortally wounded basically for the rest of their lives, those listening would and could never forgive but would generally be made more angry. I now realize I was wrong; I had not read deeply enough, not read any descriptions of these trials at length and especially not seen any enactment. After watching the fictionalized retelling, Boorman and his team’s In My Country (1994); the shaped documentary Hoffman and Reid’s Long Night’s Journey into Day; and a two part report-like documentary made in 1997 by the South African Truth Commission, I’ve changed my mind.


Langston Whitfield (Samuel Jackson), Anna (Juliette Binoche) and Dumi (Menzi Ngubane) in John Boorman’s In My Country (1994, scripted Ann Peacock, Antji Krog)

On my own behalf, as an excuse I suppose for my obtuseness, one problem was the aim of the commission and the results were not being told clearly: the point isn’t forgiveness. Most of the anguished people I’ve now watched over some six hours of film could not forgive the people who did what they did; there was hardly a human relationship between them. The aim was something far more practical and less personal. In In My Country, it was called ubuntu (if I’ve the word correctly), a word which refers to a recognition that all must live together in one community and are bound together as one people, and must live in peace side-by-side. The aim was to achieve understanding of what had happened by uncovering all the details no matter how painful. Catharsis.  I now see tha good was done.  The person who had been so hurt at least had his (or her) day in court even if by proxy.  Also a hand was held out by the Black people who had so suffered for decades to the whites to be reconciled.

Of the three movies I’ve watched thus far, only the SA Commission Documentary admitted that few whites were in the audiences of these trials, that many whites refused to believe that the trials were telling the truth. Alas, for the most part the only whites who showed were the police and other militarized men seeking amnesty, telling of their deeds, and the relative of a rare white murdered either by gov’t death squads (let’s call them all) or a sudden uprising of mob rage by Black people (uncommon because of the terrible reprisal policies).


From Long Night’s Journey into Day: a rare young white woman, Canadian, who came to South Africa to help work against apartheid was mistakenly murdered
in a hysterical mob action simply on the grounds she was white — we see her anguished parents come to the commission, describe what happened, listen to the Black men who did that deed admit it and say they were grossly wrong and apologize profusely.

There is a fourth film I mean to see, but find The Power of Forgiveness by Martin Doblmeier, yet another documentary, is available as a DVD to be bought. I must wait for it to arrive by regular mail from the post office or Amazon.  The film is said to explore the nature and examples of forgiveness, including personal stories about Northern Ireland, the Amish, 9/11 and the Garden of Forgiveness, Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Weisel; to use scientific studies, and of course humanistic discourse. I’m glad I watched the others first, for the implied demand here (you must forgive) skews the nature of what these trials meant to achieve: the aim is not forgiveness of the people who committed such horrific acts by the people wronged; rather it is an attempt by a people to live to live with their past and with those who have inflicted hideous damage on them by asking them to tell the truth and ask for legal pardon.

What I concluded is that the tiny number of white people in South Africa determined to set up a white supremacist state with whites wholly in charge, with all the wealth at their disposal, took horrendous and just cruel weapons of all kinds and hired and kept active armies who treated all Black South Africans as if they lived in a concentration camp where gov’t thugs were free to arrest, beat up mercilessly, torture, desecrate Black people’s bodies at will – and did. They did this because they were such a tiny minority — they used Blacks too as part of their police and surveillance: these were collaborators.

Similarly in Minneapolis, the prosecutors are allowing all the Black people who were forced to stand around and watch a fellow Black person murdered before their very eyes are testifying to the world what they experienced. If this protocol of intimidation and terror forced on Black people and communities all over the is not being openly admitted to, we are seeing it. That this is the way it is being understood can be seen in a British reporter for a far away newspaper picking the reality up and explaining it. The people being reconciled are themselves also potential victims and victims’ families — not all of them are up to it — they are of course hoping that at long last some justice may be done, and if this protocol not be done away with, the man who used it excessively, exultingly, will be judged rightly guilty of gross murder. Many weep as they tell what happened and then have to listen to the excuses and insulting of them and the victim the perpetrator’s lawyer. Apparently the ranks are breaking and some police officers are coming forward to say Chauvan used excessive force.

**************************************
I’d like to offer a few details of the three films I’ve seen thus, and when I’ve seen the fourth, add my commentary on it to this blog in the comments.


Anna and Langston at a trial as a South African TV reporter and American reporter for the Washington Post

In My Country is a fictional film, or a historical film fictionalized by the story of an Afrikaner white poet-reporter, Anna (Juliette Binoche) who has come with Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), a Black African man to cover the trials for a TV station and Langstan Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) an Black American reporter who strikes up a relationship them. What conventional suspense we experience is worry for their safety and watching their relationships develop. Anna belongs to an Afrikaner family most of whom disapprove of the trials and her empathy with Black people; her husband supports her and she leaves him with their children to follow the trials as they occur around Africa.


Anna and Dumi

Gradually she becomes friends with the young Black South African man assigned to her as technician, and lovers with the Black American reporter: it is a witty and tender relationship, beginning in antagonism and ending in understanding. She does return to her family and there is tension and loss. Dumi in the one false note in the film at its end is made to confront his past in a brutal scene with other Black Africans.

Juliette Binoche is another actress who appears in films and plays with a social conscience which are beautifully well done; she was a moving Antigone at the Kennedy Center years ago. Samuel Jackson is a well-known multi-faceted star.

But we are also — I was — riveted by the stories told in the hearings and seeing the white men as portrayed by white and black actors.  What happened is I realized that the commissions did succeed in what they set out to do for many. In fact the point was to allow hundreds of Black people to confront their hideous oppressors and tell them to their faces in front of a crowd what they had done — the point was a kind of tranquil shaming. If a particular officer or person showed he was politically motivated (had to do it) and did not go about the job with disproportionate cruelty (which many did), he could achieve amnesty — and the Black person learned what had happened to their beloved relative, friend or heard it said aloud and believed. Brendan Gleeson played the white Afrikan officer whose crimes were so disproportionate and whose remorse so ambivalent he is not granted amnesty but must stand trial for 63 murders.

I have found the whole of In My Country and been able to link it in here, and hope the people who put it on YouTube do not remove it.

Long Night’s Journey into Day was much tougher because the four cases (out of 22,000) detailed were real and there was no sweetening romance.  You learn more seriously the horrors of what Black people were subjected to for decades in South Africa. What I came away remembering best was that there are still many white who are not only unremorseful but angry that either one of their relatives/friends were killed and see themselves as having no responsibility to other people. One white man who did horrific things clearly was as cruel and brutal as ever and he was granted amnesty – for telling the truth. I also saw so many Black people and especially the mothers of those murdered years later still living maimed lives. I saw their continuing poverty. And I saw one white Canadian mother, father and brother, attempting to live up to what their white daughter in her idealism had tried to achieve. I thought this emphasis on women was perhaps a result of having two female director/producers.


One of the mothers of the four murdered young men featured in the posters (see above)

It’s a vimeo:


A young Deborah Hoffman — I can find no image of Frances Reid

Last, the straight two hour documentary made by the SA Commission. It is here we most often meet and listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu — he speaks of the white people who refuse to participate as missing an important chance to admit knowing what happened, to become better by doing so, to function more effectively in the true worlds of South Africa. It is a powerful film; I’d see it over two nights.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_QZO_onxlo (50 MIN)

I regret I have read so few books by South Africans about South Africa. I keep trying to persuade my WomenWriters@groups.io to read Nadime Gorimer with me. As of tonight I’ve only read a couple of marvelous short stories by Gorimer. I have read much Doris Lessing, but most of it not set in South Africa. One exception is The Grass is Singing

Ellen

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A Bridge Party by Barbara Loftus (1995?)


From A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma), Nina Hoss, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Irm Hermann (German, Max Färberböck 2008)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Thursdays, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
April 1 to May 20
4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032 but conducted online via zoom

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: 20th Century Women’s Political Novels

We’ll travel across 20th century wars, politics, and social life in fiction and memoir: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), about an Anglo-Irish household during the 1920s civil wars; Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune (1960) and The Spoilt City (1962), on the fascist take-over of Romania in 1939; Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time (1975), her experience as a target of the paranoic McCarthy era, 1950s USA; and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), African-American experiences of life in early to mid-century America. We’ll learn of the authors; the woman’s perspective on earlier and today’s era and how women’s political and war novels differ from men’s. There are numerous excellent films which connect directly to these books; I cite a number (below) that people may profit from by watching on their own: of these, two are direct film adaptations of our books:  1999 Deborah Warner’s adaptation, The Last September; 1987 Alan Plater & Cellan Jones BBC serial film adaptation of Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogy titled The Fortunes of War.

Required books (in the order we’ll read them):

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. Anchor, 2000 978-0-386-72014-4.

Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City (the 1st and 2nd of 3 novels called The Balkan Trilogy set in Romania, one continuous story) are available separately, but I have them in the more much more frequently printed The Balkan Trilogy. Penguin 1974. You get three for what you pay and the novels become more brilliant as they go on. The URL for this older print is 0-14-010996-X. The trilogy has been recently reprinted with the dual Title, The Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy, introd. by Rachel Cusk. Penguin, 2010. 978-1-59017331-1. Both printings have the same pagination for the text.

Lillian Hellman. Scoundrel Time, introd Garry Wills. Little, Brown 1976. This same edition is available reprinted in 2000. The old URL is 0-316-35294.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. Vintage, 1970. 978-0-307-27844-9.


Bowen’s Court, now pulled down

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. For the first week read as much of Bowen’s novel as you can.

April 1 Introduction:  A kind of novel, historical as well as political & about war; when written by women; 4 era. Using film. Contrasting memoirs & fantasy dystopias: Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (gang-rape); Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (nursing); Virginia Woolf, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison (polemicists, home front stories). Bowen’s books: Irish War of Independence & Irish Civil War; WW2 bombing

April 8 Bowen’s life & POV. Bowen’s The Last September (with comments on The Heat of the Day and The Demon Lover).

April 15 The two film adaptations of Bowen. Fascism; the fascist take-over of Romania. British colonialism.

April 22 Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Manning’s The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City.

April 29 The 1987 BBC Serial, The Fortunes of War. Eras of “great fear:” the later 1940s, the Smith Act, into McCarthy era; Watergate.

May 6 Lillian Hellman, especially her plays & movies, with something of Dashiell Hammett. Scoundrel Time

May 13 Black history in the US. Toni Morrison’s life & career & novels.

May 20; The Bluest Eye. If time permits, tentative thoughts on political-history novels, esp as written by women. The four eras we covered.


Guy and Harriet Pringle (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) with Prince Yakimov (Ronald Pickup) in the Pringle Flat (Fortunes of War, 2nd episode)


From Julia, Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) and Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) going over Autumn Garden (1977)

Suggested Films:

The Heat of the Day. Dir Christopher Morahan. Script: Harold Pinter. Perf. Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, Michael York &c. 1989. Available as DVD to rent, buy from Amazon, and as a whole on YouTube.
The Last September. Dir. Deborah Warren. Script: John Banville. Perf. Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, David Tennant, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, &c. 1999. Available as DVD from Netflix or to buy on Amazon. Also found on YouTube in 10 minute segments.
The Little Foxes. Dr William Wyler. Script: Lillian Helmann. Perf. Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright &c MGM, 1941. Amazon prime.
The Fortunes of War. Dir. John Cellan Jones. Script: Alan Plater. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Ronald Pickup, Alan Bennet, Rupert Graves &c. 1987. Right now available as 7 YouTubes and DVD Region 2 to buy.
Michael Collins. Dir. Script. Neil Jordan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts. 1996. Available on Amazon Prime, as a DVD on Netflix to rent and on Amazon as a DVD to buy. As a DVD it comes with a documentary by Melvyn Bragg, very much worth the watching.
Watch on the Rhine. Dir. Herman Shulmin. Script: Hellman and Hammett. Perf. Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, Donald Woods &c 1943 Warner Bros. Amazon prime.
Julia. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Hellman and Alvin Sergeant. Perf. Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robarts, Maximillian Schell, Meryl Strep &c 1977 20thC Fox. DVD to buy and to rent from Netflix.
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf Benjamin Whitlow, Charles Gray, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden &c. BBC, 1981. DVD to rent from Netflix.
The Pieces that I am. Dir. Timothy Greenfield-Saunders. Perf. Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Ophrah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Walter Moseley &c 2019 Perfect Day Films. Amazon Prime, DVD to rent  from Netflix.


Lillian Hellman, 1947, Photograph by Irving Penn

Suggested Outside Reading:

Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics & Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford and Hellman. University of Va, 2001.
Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Impressions. NY: Knopft, 1950.
Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. NY: Simon and Shuster, 1978.
David, Deirdre. Olivia Manning: A Woman at War. Oxford UP, 2012.
Foster, R.F. Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. London, Penguin, 1993.
Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: A Biography. NY: Knopft, 1977.
Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life. NY: Random House, 1983.
Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vintage, 1999.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Lillian Hellman: A Difficult Woman. NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2012
Lassner, Phyllis; British Women Writers of World War II. London: Palgrave, 1998; Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of Empire. NJ: Rutgers, 2004.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. State University of NY, 2004
Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. NY: Counterpoint, Perseus Books Group, 2005.
Patten, Eve. Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War. Cork UP, 2011.
Roymon, Tessa. The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison. Cambridge UP, 2012.
Staley, Thomas. Twentieth Century Women Novelists. Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies, trans from German by Stephen Conway. 2 volumes. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987. A study of fascism.


A recent photo, from The Pieces That I am

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Hellman photographed next to her probably beloved typewriter


Jane Fonda in similar posture, as Julia (in the movie of the same name) typing her plays — calling to Hammett — an enjoyable moving film

Friends and readers,

It was in December 2013 that I wrote a blog here on Hellman’s four part memoir: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento (with Julia), Scoundrel Time and Maybe. My husband Jim had died two months earlier, and somehow I found this brave, stalwart, candid self-portrait of a genuinely strong woman, and its plain style strength of mind, integrity of behavior, with portraits of non-conformists (misfits, so-called), her own identification with these, was an appealing consolation. I was so foolish as to find in her portrait of Dashiell Hammett, my Jim, and in their life-long relationship a mirror of mine with Jim.

At the time I vowed to read the plays. Easier said than done. My inexpensive edition (1979 last reprint) has no notes, no annotations, and I found the psychological complexity of the characters and quite what they were doing on stage did not come across: I needed a narrator. I bought the biography by Alice Kessler-Harris, but tired of it as I have again as it is shaped by knee-jerk anti-communism when it comes to dealing with Lillian’s politics and political activity: K-H is perpetually apologizing for Hellman, and not conveying her beliefs. This time though I am teaching Hellman as a woman political writer of the 20th century, and the spur of standing (or sitting) in front of others (zoom on my computer) has pushed me into doing more work than that astute blog I wrote.


From Watch on the Rhine, where unusual for all plays, the dialogue is specifically anti-fascist, with fascism exposed — the noble Paul Lukas is risking his life to fight Hitler, with Bette Davis as the achingly loyal wife to a husband not appreciated


The Little Foxes Davis is the woman in the family who is far more a capitalist exploiter than her bumbling brothers or (to her) weak ill (from living with her) husband

So I read through three of her plays, The Children’s Hour (1934), The Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Autumn Garden (1951), and watched four via DVD or YouTube videor, The Little Foxes (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943, this script mostly by Dashiell Hammett), Another Part of the Forest (1948) The Children’s Hour (1961) — and the superb film adaptation of the inset story of her memoir, Pentimento, Julia (1977). Each of these films is either adapted (which means real changes), or revised to some extent, but they all thoroughly reflect her spirit, are what she wanted on the stage or screen. I read some startling criticism of these, much of it hostile, but some perceptive about her concerns. I also read in a book called Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. The plays held my interest intensely despite creakiness of sets, obsolete attitudes: they are driven by intense passions working themselves out unexpectedly but compulsively.

Then I went back to a intelligent unbiased true analysis of the McCarthy era, setting it in the long history of the US against any kind of socialism in thought or political action by many powerful groups of people: David Caute’s The Great Fear and skim-read that. It is apparent that today Hellman is being erased and forgotten partly as a woman but more because she once was a communist, remained strongly committed to socialism — and offended the Partisan Review and other centrist democratic types who were for the capitalist establishment where they were themselves thriving. They wanted mild reforms no more; they colluded and could not bear that she should show up their lukewarm wishy-washyness; their chummy careerisms. I know from the Conversations she is not the kind of writer who analyses herself so it would not be easy for her to defend herself. Politics she can talk penetratingly; but is careful to say nothing about individuals in conversation and most of the time in her writing. So she is a partly unconscious writer, letting herself go, reticent about autobiographical elements too raw for to confront. I can believe she appreciated Hammett’s help as an empathetic editor.

You can watch the whole of Another part of the Forest unabridged on YouTube for free: I hope it stays linked in here:

So — if you’ve watched the film, or now go back to it, see if you agree with some of my general usual critic-like conclusions. Hellman was a powerful insightful writer who has much to tell us about American culture, human beings, gender relationships, with her characters driven by intense desires for power, love, respect and money (the two go together in her universe), sexual desire, beautiful things; they are often fiercely aggressive, or self-protective against the expected aggressions of others; they do yearn for love; they can have strong ideals and stick to them and work hard to defeat what they see as evil beliefs and ways. They may be dressed anachronistically to us, be surrounded by absurd settings, over-emote in the sentimental way expected in the the 1940s and still in popular movies and theater. Hellman is not a writer for small subtle coteries. She gets them quickly into emotional imbroglios which we (or I) watch or read with fascination — sometimes appalled. Another Part of the Forest woke me up to the continual racism of 1940s movies — it was such another as Gone With the Wind with its recreation of this Southern world still mourning the defeat of the confederacy. Black people are only there as servants, sometimes good strong people (especially older woman) but also presented as childlike, doing only menial tasks. Maybe all the more they are not at all obsolete because they teach us about attitudes held towards Black people as late as the 1940s, though for some of the films you’d have to cut scenes, and for others you could color-blind cast and get an even stronger play.

I’d like to devote the rest of this blog just to The Children’s Hour, as it reveals some of Hellman’s more hidden values & feelings not usually discussed.

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Shirley MacLaine as Mabel Dobie and Audrey Hepburn as Karan Wright (1961 Children’s Hour, directed by Wm Wyler)

Half-way through reading the play:

I’m often struck by what people don’t talk about in literary (or other art) works. I’ve read half-way through Hellman’s now semi-famous The Children’s Hour, and while I would acknowledge the (in the play) the centrality of “ugly,” unacceptable, “unnatural” (a word used hedged with horror) desires of one female teacher for another (Martha for Karen and probably vice-versa), what’s really striking is until near the end of the second act is everything else — the motivations and behavior of a group of girls in a school ruled over by unmarried women. The school lying bully, Mary Tilford is the a girl who finds it conduces to increase her power over other girls (threats, intimidation, physical hurting, demands they become her obedient instruments) by saying and do anything, the more outrageous the better as long as she backs it up, doubles down on it, and her presence in the school brings out the worst in all around her. One man, single, Dr Joseph Cardin is the only male in the play half way through — it’s all women, very unusual — only unlike Cukor’s The Women, there is no soft affection for these characters at all. Then the lesbianism is never named; it seems to me at this point Lillian Hellman shows deep hostility to all girls’ schools, and sees females as likely to torment one another emotionally; the school itself is disciplining the girls to be obedient and gives them no reason why they should memorize what they are memorizing.

I thought of Martha Vicinus’s book on how independence was gained for the first time by numbers of women in later Victorian period, and how important it was for a girl to be allowed to go away to a school. And yes how appalled I was at her detailing and approval (it seemed) to how some girls took power over other girls through sexual relationships (not always consummated in any way) as this would form networks and mentors later on. Vicinus said such relationships were feared by parents perhaps more than a relationship with a boy, even if not sexual. Nowhere in Vicinus is the reality of mean emotions that such groups form on — this is what Hellman is after and the intimidation structures at the heart of schooling.

Curious that this is Hellman’s first original full length play — she denies writing as a woman in a way but she always is doing this. She does say she never makes a man the center of her works, it is always the female who is her important character. The real powerhouse of this play is Mary Tilford’s rich grandmother (a lot of prestige) who told that the two teachers are “unnatural” in their desires immediately phones the others parents who immediately withdraw their daughters. The girl Mary Tilford is getting back at Karen who tried to divide the nasty clique that had grown up by re-assigning bedrooms. Last thing I recognize aspects of Hellman in this worst character: like Mary, Hellman ran away, had this tight relationship with a powerful maternal grandmother, was a determined strong character ….

Upon finishing the play:

It is outdated because of the persistent even horror invested in the idea that Martha and Karen are sexually entangled and perhaps even had some physical intimacy. The implicit inference to the play is how horrible that two lives — actually 4 if you include beyond Martha and Karen, the suitor Joe, and the cousin to Martha, Mrs Mortar (what a name). In the third act there has been a trial for libel, and we come into the room where once there was a school seeing three desolated people. I was reminded of the close of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The school has been destroyed; Karen and Martha appear to have lost a libel case against Mrs Tilford, who did the phoning to all the parents to tell them they must whisk their daughters away. Tellingly all these women but the super-wealthy Mrs Tilford fear homelessness — so did I until sometime after Jim died and I still did when Trump used to talk of terminating social security and more gov’t jobs (that’s what Izzy has). Until this generation of women who are brought up to work outside the home for remuneration and demand a living wage, have a career, this was a common fear.

However, they are not giving up. Plans are afoot for Joe and Karen to marry and go with Martha to Vienna, but as the act evolves, these fall to pieces as each of the three suspects the other of lying (or telling the truth about lesbian feelings and even acts as the case may be). After protesting undying loyalty to Karen, Joe seems readily persuaded to leave Karen for ever. Mrs Mortar comes in: the nerve, she never showed up at the trial and would have been a help. She is shameless and has nowhere else to go and Karen and Martha are apparently not prepared to throw her on the streets. This happens before Martha confesses to Karen she really loves her horrifies Karen who nonetheless lets slip that she, Karen, may also have sexual desire for Karen. Martha leaves the stage, overwrought. Soon after we hear a shot — Martha has killed herself off stage. I thought of Jocasta hanging herself. Mrs Tilford arrives to apologize, to explain how she has learned that Mary was lying and had bullied another girl, Rosalie into backing her up. There is a hint Mrs Tilford still suspects that Karen and Martha are susceptible to such a dreadful love — nonetheless, they had not behaved that way, and she offers money to Karen who relents to say maybe she’ll take it — she now has nowhere to go. What’s striking though is how lesbianism is never once defended. It is telling somehow that this is Hellman’s first play, the first matter she chose to imagine and bring it before the public. A bad dream out of Vicinus’s book. I mentioned Mary, the thug lying child who spread the rumor, has aspects of Lillian Hellman as a child running away, her aggression too.

I’ll mention a role for a Black woman, Agatha, Mrs Tilford’s cook/maid/housekeeper. Very circumspect, acting on behalf of her employer while trying not to hurt anyone — very moral as all the Black characters are in all Hellman’s plays and prose. The play’s list of characters does not call for a black woman but it seems to me the character as envisaged is how Black people are seen Hellman’s texts.


The male is there central to the exposure of the girl’s lies

The 1961 movie

So now I’ve watched the 1961 movie adaptation with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner — directed by William Wyler, if I’m not mistaken with Hellman working on the script too. Unlike the 1934 movie, which ludicrously eliminated the central element of lesbianism, this one presents it as fully as Hellman apparently dared to in the year she wrote it 1934.

What I wanted to record is my amazement that as late as the 1960s the topic of lesbianism is treated with a sense of appalled horror — in the written play and now this movie, the word is never used. The characters speak of sexual love between women as just something deeply perverse and horrific. Reading about the play, it’s one of her first produced and that is fascinating because at the same time she claimed she wrote “as an exercise.” That is, she was not engaged with the topic; she further absolved herself (so to speak) by saying the story was suggested the Dashiell Hammett who came across it as something that happened in real life and told it to her.

In Kessler-Harris’s book she talks of how the original girl in the story was part of a minority group treated very badly by the majority, and thus had good reason to do what she did to disrupt the school.  The girl herself had been treated with disdainful discrimination. Hellman eliminated all that (what a shame) but wanted to claim her real interest was this girl. It is true reading the play she is exposing the pettiness and cruelty of girls to one another, but I did not realize that Hellman’s changes in the girl’s ethnicity and motives and insisting on this clash between “good and evil” works to ignore in discourse what most of the powerful ending of the play is — the two women admitting to sexual feeling. In fact only one does and she kills herself — in both the play and movie. The girl’s bullying and lies are made much of when they are exposed, and Martha kills herself off stage never to be seen again. I recalled how E.M. Forster said that he could have published Maurice far earlier had he been willing to have punitive ending for his pair of young men. What was not acceptable was the happy ending — and now I know in classrooms the “problem” here for Maurice is readers can dismiss it as unrealistic. But here Karen is erased altogether

In the written play as far as I can tell it is all crushing misery for poor Karen, though she seems likely to take the money the grandmother of the mean girl offers her as compensation. In the movie there is an attempt to present Karen (Hepburn) as rising above all that happened, as somehow escaping this conformist society whose children she was schooling to be conformist. We see her walking proudly away from Karen’s funeral as if she is washing her hands and body of all this foulness. It might be too that with James Garner watching her from the sidelines the movie watcher would say, ha, see they’ll marry. I remember someone interpreting Winston Graham’s Cordelia so as to have the transgressive heroine marrying one of the male family members at the end. No sense that if this is so, it negates the whole novel.

The 1961 movie is still powerful. Since Hellman would not discuss the lesbianism as important and said it was an exercise, and that Dash gave her the story there is no easily getting beyond the barrier she builds to stop questions — unless you are a Hellman scholar and know where to look. It’s not a pleasant movie and to the modern viewer — me — off putting because of the awed sense of taboo everywhere. As late as 1961 you could present middle class people are over-dressed and living in super-elegant houses as if it were 1931.

There have been more recent play productions; as radio plays: in 1971, the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series starring Jill Bennett and Prunella Scales; in 1994, the play was again produced for the radio by the BBC in its Monday Play series, starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margolyes and Margaret Robertson.

The critics:


A beautiful still of Julia and Lillian talking — I am aware that the story of their relationship is highly fictionalized, and take it to be autofiction

I worried I was being a bit hard on Hellman for suggesting she was wiping away lesbianism, showing far more hostility than ambivalence towards women’s sexuality — well last night I read three articles on this play — not a bit of it. One critic, Mary Titus (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature) argued Hellman was murdering lesbianism, that she was exorcising out what she feared she’d be accused of for separating herself from her first husband and living independently. She linked The Children Hour to the story of Julia where it’s apparent a deep loving relationship emerged from Hellman’s and Julia’s childhood — one could call its continuance homoerotic love. Hellman would not have wanted the relationship to be seen that way.

Julia is the story of two women in love with one another, especially Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Julia is destroyed — like Marttha. There is a scene in the movie where one of Lillian’s old friends, a male (possibly representing Dorothy Parker’s husband who annoyed Hellman), accuses her and Julia of having lesbian feelings from childhood; she gets up and smashes him across the face and walks out.

Benjamin Kahan (Criticism) takes a different tack and suggested Hellman’s open stance as semi-promiscuous, acting like an aggressive man when it came to initiating relationships, was also a guarded performance against being accused of being a prig, a dike, a man-hater. In the 1930s audiences would regard all girls’ schools as possibly luring a girl into relationships which would get in the way of the important marriage. I do not think this play an insincere disguise — Judith Butler’s idea that behavior is one long performance has a lot to answer for. Hellman punishes the one open lesbian hard.

In a third essay, this one reviewing the history of films meant for a wider public daring to deal with issues of homosexuality and lesbianism, Chon Noriega (Cinema Journal) found that lesbianism was less accepted than male homosexuality, at the same time it was seen (in the play and film from the point of view of aimed-at watcher-response) as showing the dangers of putting girls together in all women environments. I felt there was hostility in Hellman’s original play to the whole idea of an all girl school taught all by women. I would here agree with Vicinus how unfortunate this reaction is — for it was in such schools and environments women were given the first chance they had to train and hope for professional lives outside marriage.

I do know that nowadays with all the talk of Hellman as a great playwright it is very hard to get copies of her plays. Hardly any of her screenplays are in print — only the one she is said to have written with Hammett. And there is such emphasis on how he wrote with her, corrected her stuff. Her prose memoirs are what’s wanted. My edition of her plays is old and has no notes. The one summer Jim and I and Izzy rented a house in Vermont and each evening took a drive to see a great play we saw a production of Autumn Garden. Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer. Unfortunately neither of us remembers much as we were sitting way in the back and it was a long drive.


1977: Lily (Jane Fonda) and Dash (Jason Robards)

Ellen

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Alan Plater (1935-2010), screenplay writer extraordinaire, playwright, musician-composer

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight in my efforts to watch a Region 2 version of the 1987 Fortunes of War, a brilliant 7 episode serial adaptation of Olivia Manning’s brilliant trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy, I was driven to use my multiregional player attached to my flat TV. My vlc viewer just was not strong enough to get through the occasional damage on the disks (in this set there are 3), and I clicked by mistake on something called “Timeshift.” I just could not get out of this program, and was irritated until within a minute or so I realized it was BBC documentary, lovingly and intelligently done, appreciative, of the life’s work of Alan Plater: Hearing the Music (unfortunately not available from the site it’s now announced on).

In the 1960s (many one and two hour plays) and early 1970s he wrote over 50 screenplays for the BBC; he wrote fewer in the later 1970s and into the 1990s running up to 2000 (his last) but these include the memorable whole of the Barchester Chronicles, this Fortunes of War, and one of the best of the episodes of the important Danger UXB; his work includes Misterioso, The Good Companions (J. B. Priestley novel turned into a musical), A Very British Coupso many it’s hard to look them all up. With many stunning performances, from Judy Dench to my favorite, Barbara Flynn, playing Jill Swinburne, whom Plater said was a version of himself.

Although this Guardian obituary does justice to Plater by beginning by naming him as one of the screenplay writers for British TV who made an important difference in the quality of its drama, and changed what you could represent and how ever after, in the tone of respect and felt appreciation for his work, the writer does not emphasize sufficiently Plater’s love of music, jazz and modern rock, his use of it in his work — and his political point of view (socialist). According to Timeshift (and other pieces I’ve read), Plater was a highly original writer for TV in the 1960s strongly because of his Hull and musical background (he studied to be an architect and that probably helped his sense of structure). At the time most shows displayed upper class accents and working class people were given cockney accents, with the dialogue often stiff or naive, or utterly conventionalized so as not to be realistic. With his roots in Northern England, especially Hull, he was one of those who changed all that, writing dialogue for the real spoken voices, kinds of accents different idiolects across Britain. He slowed down the action, and often wrote scenes between two or three characters conceived of as the core of the drama. Most of all he integrated music into his plays, conveying meaning through music. Music told the identity, the culture, the past, the feel of his characters; in talking of how he wrote his plays he called his process like that of Jazz; he has 12 bars, and within that he provides variations.

Here is one 10 minute segment on him, together with a discussion of a four season series made for Yorkshire ITV, the much respected and popular Beiderbecke Trilogy:

You hear and see Barbara Flynn talking too.

He conveyed how people really talk by writing less dialogue too and leaving spaces for pause, for really felt enacting by the actors together. He loved to develop what the author of a novel might have left out — what was the sermon the Reverend Slope spoke from Barchester Chronicles — it’s not in Trollope but improvised as the script developed by Plater.

Plater is not alone unsung. I cannot express how often I have had the experience of identifying a wonderful TV drama show by its writer, and been greeted by a blank look. If I’ve tried to tell the person who was the writer, what his or her career, what other programs he or she wrote, they politely wait for me to finish. They don’t seem to realize their love of Dickens is a love of Alexander Baron (prolific screenplay writer of the 1980s with some of them peculiarly fine, and a good novelist too) or Andrew Davies or Arthur Hopcraft or Simon Raven (of the Pallisers). Nowadays many women write these screenplays, Sandy Welch (Our Mutual Friend 1999) is an older practitioner, so too Fay Weldon (1979 Pride and Prejudice) more recently, Fiona Seres (2018 Woman in White). In the BBC until recently the screenwriter was the linchpin or (as the position is now called) one of the showrunners of the series. In cinema they are now named early in credits and paid much better; so too in some more prestigious (or pushed) serial adaptations (Poldark, Deborah Horsfield; Downton Abbey, Jerome Fellowes), but not as much (how many people know the names of the remarkable team writing Outlander under the general direction of Ronald Moore). Misterioso is perhaps one of his finest later dramas (1991, based on his own novel.

Hours, days, months, years of fine entertainment are due to such people — of course the cinematographer, the directors, producers, costumers, but in the case of the writer you can find biographies and you can trace a personality and point of view that is interesting across the work. I wish more people would pay attention to these unsung heroes and heroines. I hear in my head for hours afterwards the music that plays across The Fortunes of War

As a coda treat, it is said of Plater he combined Coronation Street with the feel and outlook of Chekhov story or play. I cannot locate Misterioso (the name is after a Jazz number), nor anything more than the kind of 2 to 10 minute clip included in the above interview so instead here is one of those Play of the Month productions (not by Plater) but of how Chekhov has been seen and done on the BBC: Francesca Annis and Ian Holm, 1974 in The Wood Demon (I believe it’s the whole thing)

Ellen

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