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Archive for the ‘21st century culture’ Category


Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton — in one of his more anxious moments as he tries to decide what he can get away with for the good of mankind (The Duke, 2020)

Dear friends,

A few weeks ago my daughter, a freelance reviewer for (among others) WETA and NBC, who keeps up with things (in order to make her fees) told me one of my favorite young actresses, Charlotte Spencer (known to me thus far from seeing Sanditon 1 & 2 where she plays Esther Denham inimitably despite it’s being a ridiculous role), was to be in a movie (or had been in a movie) with the great older actor, Hugh Bonneville (another actor with super powers who ends up in the easy drivel role of Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey). I said I’d look out for it, but this information slipped my mind until I saw Charlotte Spencer in The Duke as the hard, mean working class young woman, pregnant and unmarried, living with a young man trying to escape a subpoena to be a witness against a friend, which friend has found a temporary sanctuary in the house of the Buntons.


Charlotte Spencer as Pammy reading a Yorkshire newspaper with her perpetual sense of superiority

He has been let in by his friend, Jackie Bunton (Fionn Whitehead), the son of the house, pictured here in a typically good-natured, but unusually anxiety-free mood with his girlfriend, Irene (Aimee Kelly),

It wasn’t Hugh Bonneville, after all, I thought, it was the yet more wonderful (good at comedy) Jim Broadbent whom I’ve never seen in a bad movie. Spenser’s presence clinched it for me: I had lucked into a supreme talent-loaded movie in the old tradition of Yorkshire TV. Yorkshire TV was once a continual TV program making outfit in Northern England producing gems like the Biederbecke Tapes (I know, I know, you’ve never heard of it). The opening credits listed as producer Yorkshire Screen.  These films were known for the rich humor, off-the-cuff, off-beat ironic wit, combined with a genuine labor-left POV. And that is just what this was, a late revival of a type long gone.

It’s my knowledge that the mood of the film, which is part of what delighted me (and the person I was with) into sudden not easy to explain laughter, that has enabled me to understand the clueless reviews, which are anything from lukewarm to slightly puzzled or dismissive (“typical British”). At first I thought the disdain and also the sentimental language in which it was discussed as a “tall tale” was the result of the reactionary stupidity (what these characters are not super-rich) of contemporary mainstream US life, but then I realized the poor way it’s been advertised (what could the title mean?), as in “come for this one actor,” so that I had no idea what it was about is due to most US reviewers knowing nothing either of earlier peculiar formula Yorkshire TV. The title might mislead you into thinking this another upper-class macho male worshipping product. Mark Kermode who knows a lot about film got it right in the Guardian: a true-tale of an art-stealing pensioner

The basis for the film is a real person, Kempton Bunton, an aging pensioner, who is trying to get together money for his campaign against old-age pensioners having to pay a license fee to the BBC for having a TV. Roger Michell has long produced interesting films using this kind of material (this was his last film), especially with Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette). He also wrote the script for one of the best Austen adaptations, the 1996 BBC Persuasion.  Broadbent recently played a similar role in Le Week-end. The fun or comedy comes from a broad but kindly and sympathetic caricature of working class life and Bunton’s own self-regarding inadequate methods against entrenched systems. He and his son sit in chairs under an umbrella in the pouring rain in front of a bank with a sign demanding “No BBC licenses for OAPs.” Needing the money, he gets a job in a bread factor and notices the boss singles out for abuse a Pakistani man working there, and speaks out on the young man’s behalf; he is abruptly fired.


The incident happens over lunch where the white men are playing cards with the Pakistani man (not listed in the wikipedia credits!)

His long-suffering law-abiding wife, Dorothy, played by Helen Mirren as a combination of exasperation, bored weariness (she cleans for the living that supports them), and, along with a tender love for him, genuine fear they’ll get into trouble (he has been in prison briefly once before) lends the film an astringency (the way Barbara Flynn did her man in Beiderbecke) that the reviewers overlook. Dorothy (by the way) does not approve of Pammy because she is pregnant outside marriage, and she tries to keep the couple out of the house. But she failed against Kempton’s sense of obligation to all mankind. Besides which, the young man is his son’s friend and is on the moral side, loyalty to friends and all that (alas E. M. Forster is not quoted)


The married pair talking — of course Dorothy knits — while Mirren keeps her face flat, grim most of the time, here you can see in her held yet flexible face her incipient rising distress

The storyline: we think that Bunton has stolen a famous Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington (whence the film’s title), and, together with his son, has hidden it in a wardrobe upstairs, while he proceeds to demand a ransom from the British authorities. It’s spied out (somewhat ironically) by Pammy, who is not impressed by anyone not solely motivated by self-interest. She wants to sell the Goya for a big sum and offers to split the ill-gotten gains with Kempton, her threats precipitating him into returning the painting.

He is (naturally) easily caught, put into prison and then tried for theft, and for being a public nuisance. It was when I saw Matthew Goode was playing his lawyer — Goode often plays effective kindly upper class people — I realized there would be a deus ex machina and Bunton would not be seriously punished.

It’s a kindly fable, for we are to believe Bunton won a light sentence because the jury was moved by his goodness.


Kempton is putting flowers on his daughter’s grave with son Jackie in the background

There is a secondary plot. We slowly discover years ago the couple had a daughter who died in a bicycle accident for which Bunton blames himself as he bought the bicycle. He is writing a play in the Chekhov mode, The Girl on the Bicycle. He is self-educated, reads Orwell we see, says Shakespeare is overrated because he has all these kings and dukes in his stories. Dorothy also disapproves of his having written the play, and worse yet, sent it out to be published.  They should keep their grief private. She herself refuses to discuss their loss. This play is one of several things he sends to others (newspapers, the BBC, the museum), hinting at his identity as the man who took the painting — he wants to be found out. He wants attention to be paid to his campaign and to him. Experts in these places pronounce him an amateur, third-rate based on his handwriting. The most touching moments in the movie (and there are many) concern this girl’s death. Both parents visit her grave. As a sign of reconciliation at the end of the film, Dorothy takes the photograph of Marion out of her husband’s drawer (where he keeps it to look at), has it framed and puts it on a wall in their house.

Along the way I recognized other wonderful actors I’ve often seen in secondary and occasionally primary roles on BBC and less hyped but excellent dramas. Anna Maxwell Martin is there as Dorothy’s benign boss, married to a Yorkshire politician; she comes to court and loudly roots for Kempton, as she sits alongside the Pakistani man (grateful to Kempton he shows up) — she was the heroine in Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, my favorite Elizabeth Bennet in Death Comes to Pemberley; and taught me to love Esther Summerson in Andrew Davies’ Bleak House.  James Wilby is the judge (he was Maurice in the Merchant-Ivory film of the same name). Richard McCabe is the Home Secretary (he is just such a fine actor, most recently I’ve watched him in Foyle’s War). John Hefferman as prosecuting barrister (a typical role for him). I couldn’t catch who they all were.

There are reviews which praise the film as funny and warm-hearted (populist used positively), or very British, charming, but few take it at all seriously. Yet in the tradition of Yorkshire TV, it is both semi-oddball (no one surely would act this half-mad way) and socially critical.

Don’t miss it if you are longing for some reassurance there is still decency among people today, or recognition of what counts in life and how singularly unjust, obtuse and self-regardingly punitive most gov’ts are more and more without any mitigation. The Buntons have a hard time making ends meet and this gov’t does nothing about that. Think of the price rises in the UK and US over the past year and how nothing fundamental is done to control these. The humor and situations in this comedy reach there.

Dancing in the kitchen (there is a similar scene in Last Orders where Michael Caine is husband to Helen Mirren as long-suffering but genuinely angry wife)

At the end of the film the son confesses to an authority figure we’ve seen before, apparently the head of the National Gallery (played by Andrew Havill), that he, Kempton’s son actually did the stealing of the painting. He is told (after a while) he will not be prosecuted and then sternly warned not to tell anyone or he will regret it. Like the Pakistani man but unlike his father, Jackie is all submissive gratitude. This film is not typical or very British: it’s typical or very old-style Yorkshire TV.

Ellen

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Millais’s Good Samaritan (one of the illustrations by Millais for work other than Trollope’s I showed and discussed)

Dear friends and readers,

I am again very gratified to be able to say I gave a online talk to the London Trollope Society on-line reading group (a fourth), and it went over very well. People were interested by the pictures themselves (remember Alice in Wonderland on pictures and conversations in books), and asked questions about book illustrations in Trollope and other Victorian writers (“did people really like these?”). I was asked if I’d do another, and came up with two (!).

I’m not sure how much I’ve sufficiently emphasized the motive for all four has been more than partly personal. I just love Cornish films, film adaptations, and “Malachi’s Cove” overturns so many stereotypes about Trollope’s fiction that bother me; Dr Thorne was really the book that started me on this long journey into reading, writing, sharing something of what I’ve known and felt for Trollope (original title: On rereading Dr Thorne a half century later); I am a strong defender of Josiah Crawley, one of the many solitary semi-outcasts of Trollope’s fiction,


Frances Arthur Fraser’s “Dogged as Does It” (for a later edition of The Last Chronicle of Barset) — one of the illustrations I discuss in my talk

and was felt so moved by Lindsay Duncan’s performance as an updated version of Crawley’s long-suffering wife (The Modernity of the Last Chronicle of Barset — and The Rector’s Wife).


Lindsay Duncan as Anna Bouverie

“The Original Illustrations to Trollope’s Novels” have been dear to my heart since I wrote my long chapter in my book, Trollope on the Net on them (1999). I spent long weeks and hours in the rare book room of the Library of Congress starting at few hundred of them, and was chuffed when in Mark Turner’s review of my book he singled out this chapter to discuss as peculiarly excellent. As you know if you visit this blog with any regularity, I love pictures, studying art history (and on my other blog, women artists), and writing about film adaptations (moving pictures). And the only chance I’ve had since my book to share any of the visual art and realization in the original illustrations was in paper I gave at a Sharp-l conference some years ago now I called “Mapping Trollope; or, Georgraphies of Power. When we were a larger group on my Trollope and his Contemporaries list, we’d have people describe the original illustrations as part of what we volunteered to do — especially when the pictures are good, people showed curiosity and were comfortable talking about what they see — in the way people are about movies.

So without further ado, here it is:

Here’s the transcript on the Trollope Society website. And the page itself

Last, a brief synopsis: I present why Trollope said he so valued Millais’s pictures, described some of the obstacles in the way of understanding or appreciating them and the other central style of illustrations in the period (idyllic naturalistic versus caricature emblematic), then talk about the nature of Millais’s basic thrust (expressionistic), how far more daring than one realizes, and stunning some of them are outside the characteristic novels of the era (e.g., defying taboos) and finally describe and discuss the series on Lady Mason: as a group they create sympathy for her and reveal the cost to her of attempting to provide her son with a gentleman’s education and income, and herself with the respect and dignity and space for herself of a lady’s life: a life alone, a life apart. Mary Lady Mason is another of Trollope’s solitaries inside a fiction with radical implications about society and the nature of justice and law in court cases.


“Farewell:” the penultimate Millais illustration for Orley Farm: there is no literal basis for this scene in the novel

Ellen

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Michael Kitchen, The French Drop (aired 2004)

Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced —

Dear Friends and readers,

Our second of a proposed 4 blogs on Foyle’s War: two years have passed since the first season was aired, and 10 months in the series or war chronology since the series began (May 1940). Eight episodes have gone by and with our ninth (February 1941), a new tone sets in, darker, more tired, and Foyle becomes more involved with a Secret Intelligence Agency whose ways of dealing with war are potentially deadly for all involved, and Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) not only returns for the second time, she has a large role in the stories.


Hilda Pierce and James Wintringham (Samuel West) conferring, spy-like, apart …

This first disk of the third set (or season) has a half-hour film on how they worked hard to show us a spitfire shot to the ground, a man pulled out while on fire, and as he is dragged away, the plane explode. It took several stunt men, strongly controlled fire but there, somehow the plane is not blown up. We learn how few spitfires are left and also how proud the people are to be working with them as the left-overs of how Britain managed to keep Hitler from invading. The Companion book by Rod Green (described in my previous blog) has much information on other particulars of this episode. Horowitz tells of how his scripts are really done justice to, partly because the director is his wife. We watch two different scenes, one of Foyle and his son, the other of Sam and the son bidding adieu – done a couple of times. This material also comes from later episodes in the third set, Enemy Fire set in a hospital where they are caring for badly burnt and later when Andrew has become PTSD and also exhausted and wants to stop the spitfire business because he knows he will lose his life and does get to leave. My sense in watching this is that the third season reached a real height in the series because everyone working together for a valued set of stories.

A comparison of the first two with these second two seasons shows the stories growing darker, more pessimistic, mostly because the ways of winning the war are making the people behave in atrocious (increasingly amoral and immoral) ways. Actors on behalf of the military (with some exceptions) especially are losing their sense of what values they are fighting for. The stories show the first signs of shifting from detective to spy stories (which often show a slide into nationalism, superfluous violence, and fascism).

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Season 3, Episode 1: The French Drop, February 1941. Each time we begin with a strong dramatic incident: here it is a young man, seemingly French, dropped into enemy territory (Germany) so as to spy, blown up immediately. Usual paratext of intriguing music and turning away face.

Again Foyle is trying to be transferred from policing (absurd to be catching murderers) and goes to Sir Giles Messenger (Ronald Pickup) for help. It seems it may be possible; as Sam drives him away, she protests she and Milner need him. Messenger angry at Col James Wintringham (Samuel West) about this loss of life Winringham’s agency sustaining – the implication is the agency is incompetence – and wants to take from Wintringham’s unit the (mysterious) war work sent him at Hill House, where he and a special executive operations woman, Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington who first appeared in War Games), have a team. Meanwhile in a bookshop their son, William Messenger seems to have blown himself up. Boy’s mother grief-stricken. Chasing down this son’s background, they find he was estranged from Sir Giles, living seedy lodgings with a caricature of a landlady who supplies a suicide note and watch –- he died because of a thwarted love affair (ah yes). They meet the girl – all melancholy – story she tells is inconsistent, Milner discovers. Trail leads them back to Hill House where nearby Sam’s uncle, Aubrey Stewart, a vicar lives and works. Foyle not only gains entry into the Hill House, but Wintringham invites him to stay: Wintringham seems to be showing off. Sam lives nearby, maybe with uncle.

Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), becoming more desperate having to deal with cynical black market crooks, tells Samantha (Sam) Stewart (Honeysuckle Weekes) he is thinking of transferring

and now Sam supplies the lighter, more affecionate-heart hopeful notes by way of her relationship with a local vicar, her uncle Aubrey Stewart (Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch)

Foyle uncovers absurd and ridiculous sabotage training, as well as attitudes countenancing murder, teaching them how to endure (and perform) torture. Interesting group of men (Raymond Coulthard among them), one an ex-criminal Foyle had put in prison we see trying to sniper shoot Foyle. Colorful characters everywhere, intelligent witty dialogue. It emerges the vicar has seen an unnamed bald man who is connected to bombing murder; Sam spots this bald man and follows him, and finds he and other go to a phone booth where phone not working. Eventually she discovers it’s a place to leave notes which uncover the truth of the bombing. Another young man died recently and was buried (air raid?). Bombing going on, including glimpses of delayed action bombs, people with gas masks.

Foyle discovers that the landlady is Wintringham’s secretary; the whole story of Messenger made up: he was homosexual (in the closet). It was he who was dumped in Germany and died (with which the program began). The body found in the bombing was the recently dead young man’s corpse replanted there –- no corpse in the tomb. There’s a moleat Hill House telling Giles Messenger about what’s happening: he pretends to be French. Foyle re-arrests the sniper-happy ex-criminal (after he has tried to kill both Foyle and Sam by ruining the wheel of her car). Foyle could tell Sir Giles the truth about his son –- he might be more proud of him, but Hilda Pierce convinces Foyle not to tell so that these operations he himself disapproves of morally can go on as they aide the war effort. He loses his chance at joining naval security because Messenger takes out frustration on him.

I’ve unraveled the experience of the plot – it’s more interesting in the criss-cross way things emerge. There is a depiction of the culture of this more rural area and these young men.


In the hospital staff put on funny skits where they make fun of themselves

Episode 2: Enemy Fire, February 1941. This is a wonderful episode. Much that happens is sad and several threads (characters’ ultimate fates) remain very much unresolved, but all that just made it richer because we also saw how many of the characters meant so well and are good and doing good insofar as they can. It’s an uplifting episode — as if we needed this at this point.

The story is centered on a hospital for burnt people, severely wounded that way, and as it begins we see a very fancy castle-like structure, Digby Manor, is requisitioned and the Sir Michael (Michael Wood) who owns the castle, has been put into a cottage (big building really) on his own estate. We see him adjusting with difficulty and his housekeeper, Mrs Roecastle (Alexandra Moen). All this is based on real strides made in medicine at the time which were experimentally and humanely used in such hospitals. Bill Paterson plays the dedicated original doctor-surgeon Patrick Jamieson. We see saved men wretchedly deformed.


Andrew Foyle’s (Julian Ovenden)’s very great upset as he finds he was nearly severely burnt because of a man’s seeming carelessness

A wife-beating thug, Gordon Drake, works at the airfield nearby and is lazy and doesn’t do all the safety measures you must to keep the man in the spitfires alive enough to keep the Germans on the other side of the channel. We see Andrew Foyle berate him and his great anger because he is in danger — could be badly burnt. Drake visits a young wife who is bored with her surgeon husband, Dr Wren (whom we learn saved Paul Milner); the wife attracted to this lout. It’s apparent she is not the only woman –- this kind of thing has more than a tinge of misogyny. We are back to the pattern of the first series: vile men (at the heart of fascism and evil) and good men with such potential being hurt. A strange man tells Wren about these visits; his name is Preston and he also tells Foyle and Milner.

The hospital is being sabotaged – it’s thought by Sir Michael at a distance – perhaps paying Drake, perhaps the housekeeper.

What happens is Andrew is not given the next mission(his superior officer sees that he is exhausted) and Andrew’s friend, Greville Woods, goes, and (has been built up for) the spitfire blows up and he is almost burnt to death because Drake again did not make sure the glass to open the cockpit worked –- Drake also probably make the plane go on fire, meaning to burn Andrew to death. Greville taken to the hospital (after the spectacular stunt we are told about on one of the features) and his girlfriend needs to be shamed into seeing him and staying with him. He turns out not to be blinded.

Entertainments are put on and a couple of nights later one is done – music hall stuff which is thematically relevant and piquant – we and Foyle see Wren sneak out for a few moments.

Next we learn Drake is dead; his wife relieved but she did not do it. Wren blamed even though his wife and Milner think he couldn’t murder someone. Turns out Wren did hit Drake’s head hard but it was Preston who came by and drowned the man in a nearby street fountain. Preston turns out to be Mrs Drake’s brother, Pip, trying to protect her.

Foyle has also figured out who did the sabotage: the housekeeper; he gets her to confess by accusing Sir Michael – who then tells Foyle how bitterly he feels about himself since when he was exhausted (like Andrew) he shot himself in the leg. His batman, Drake’s father saw, in later years told his son and now Gordon Drake was blackmailing Sir Michael, demanding hush money.

It’s an episode about mental disability as well as physical. Mental for which the men are not blamed and yet the episode maintains Sir Michael has been a hollow man. The parallel here is Foyle’s son who cannot any longer bear risking his life in a spitfire and watching others die

The real ending is penultimate and then the last; Andrew has fled to Sam’s house, and Sam is hiding him there over night; when the commanding officer comes to tell Foyle his son is in danger of deserting, Sam (offstage) confesses to Foyle where Andrew is. Foyle retrieves Andrew, takes him to a pub and Andrew resolves to return. There are other scenes between them – over chess for example.

Closing touching adieus between Andrew and his father and then Andrew and Sam. Quietly acted. Beautifully. We see the spitfire with Andrew in it flying off. The commanding officer transferred him. There is deep feeling over this spitfire for it was such planes with men giving up their lives that helped prevent Hitler invading England.

Episode 3: They fought in the fields, April 1941. I had to watch this twice and the second time very slowly, and now I don’t know why I found it so hard to understand. There are two parallel stories going on, and they are intertwined. In the one Germans are coming over-head in airplanes bombing people. This way of conducting war is primary today (witness Ukraine). Soldiers murdering civilians, destroying their worlds. The episode as usual begins with a sort of “hook:” a man lands and dies. As we go through this story we discover that nearby is a place for interrogating spies, they are taken there, and it’s run by a Major Cornwall (James Wilby) who resents any interference and will not cooperate with Foyle — whom Cornwall insults

Nearby there is a farm or farms on which are working Land Army girls, Rose Henshall and Joan Dillon — very dirty hard work for little pay, but important for Britain to feed itself. There another death occurs, a murder of what seemed to me an old man, the farmer, Hugh Jackson. Of course it’s called suicide but soon it’s clear it’s a murder (this is another repeated motif in the series). The episode reminded me of the previous (Enemy Fire) where it’s the human interest of the story and situation (there bad burns, a hospital opened to deal with these) that holds us, not so much about corrupt people making money off the war.


The girls very hard at work — we do see they get ample food

I found it somewhat problematic. It opens with land-girls understandably resentful of the more middle class Foyle, Milner and Sam — I am supposed to believe they and the farmer’s son, Tom (Joe Armstrong) are won over by the goodness of Sam and generosity of Foyle. Lifelong marginalization (especially one of the girls committed some crime) doesn’t go away like that. How the farmer very old now became the lover of the other girl who is now pregnant didn’t persuade me and I was even less persuaded by how happy she is at the end to live on that farm with the farmer’s son and his bride (the other girl).

In the background is Hugh Jackson’s wife who was tired of Jackson and tried to run off — but he murdered her first and put her in a grave he drinks liquor over every night. Jackson was killed because he saw some of the shenanigan’s the Germans were up to as they tried to kill their own pilots who were imprisoned and could tell about German radar.

The murdered wife has her parallel in Barbara Hicks, a woman there to investigate wood (?), who is also bitter when Foyle first met her — she hates men because of bad experience but is also supposed won over by Foyle’s goodness. It’s too quick again, but there are some touching scenes where they refer delicately to their different pasts — and Foyle’s loss of his wife (one of the episodes begins with his annual visit to her grave).


They are so courteous to one another ….

Suddenly too Major Cornwall is sorry; he had meant well, it seems, his interrogation techniques do not include torture but also don’t protect his prisoners from one another. The Germans as a culture or group are represented as not paying fair essentially. So some unusual hostile nationalism, not surprising were we to regard these characters as in 1941 February. Well done, good performances, but it does not hold together because of this desire for an upbeat ending and rewards for the land-girls as well romance for Foyle.

Episode 4: A War of Nerves, June 1941. This one does not strain for anything — no need — it goes into the terrible increased and ever more complicated ways of bombing, the use of delayed bombs especially. And it returns to central characters cheating and making money off the war. June 1941 — the Blitz eased, but the delayed bombing tactic has spread; at the end of the episode we hear that Germany has invaded Russia and that (a coming slaughter we know) is cause to feel hope as the English gov’t is now allied with Russia. At the same time other places are starting to fall like Crete. The comment (hope) it’ll be over by next Christmas by Sam is made ironic by Foyle


Peter Capaldi unfairly treated

Two threads: one interesting, a kind of back-handed defense of communism, socialism, workers — Foyle is told he must investigate Raymond Carter (Peter Capaldi), a communist and socialist leader, find out things about him so the gov’t can arrest him. Foyle quickly finds nothing and does nothing. By the end of the hour we discover Foyle’s superior, Commissioner Rose (Colin Redgrave) ordering this is not only deeply anti-labor but angry because his daughter is planning to marry the the man — he can’t stand the idea.

The stronger thorough content is about a pair of men running a factory where they embezzle gov’t money by pretending their work force is much bigger than it is. They treat their workers badly and we see an attempt at (an illegal it’s pointed out) strike. Into this come the squad of bomb disposers, with the truth emphasized how little trained such people were, how dangerous and nerve-wracking the task. One of them “loses” it in a bar and starts a fight with his gun; he turns out to be moral, in fact balks at keeping the huge amount of money they find stashed near where a delayed bomb landed. His girlfriend is a welder in a factory whom Sam befriends. And we have another more thuggish crook and his wife who is also a welder.

The best parts are this attention to what life was like during the war …. and Foyle as moral center with Sam as the good heart center ….

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To read about Season 4, Episodes 1-4, see comments, Episode 1, Invasion, April 1942; Episode 2, Bad Blood, August 1942; Episode 3, Bleak Midwinter, December 1942; and Episode 4, Casualties of War, March 1943.


A passing moment from The Bleak Midwinter

Of great interest in all these disks, starting with the 2nd through the fourth are the various features telling the literal ways the film-makers made the episodes, about the costumes, the attitudes of mind of the people acting, the historical background. There is also much written information to click on.

Ellen

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For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Wednesay mid-day, 11:45 to 1:15 pm,
Mar 30 to May 18
8 sessions online (location of building: 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va, Tallwood)
Dr Ellen Moody

Anglo-Indian Novels: the Raj, its Aftermath, and the Diaspora:

In this class we will read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown (Raj Quartet 1), and Jumpa Lahiri’s Namesake. We’ll explore a tradition of Anglo-India literature, colonialist and native cultural interactions, migrancy itself, gender fault lines, what we mean by our identity, belonging, and castes. We’ll include in our discussions Anglo-Indian movies as a genre, and see parts of and talk specifically about David Lean’s Passage to India, the Granada British TV Jewel in the Crown, Mira Nair’s Namesake and perhaps end with Merchant-Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah. We will not omit talking of Indian novels and movies too (Bollywood and Tamil). We’ll take historical and contemporary perspectives on this rich material.

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

Forster, E.M. A Passage to India, ed. Paul B. Armstrong. Norton Critical Edition. NY: Norton, 2021. 978-0-393-65598-8. A Passage to India (first published 1924) seems to me needs notes to be fully understood; this edition offers best text & superb background. There’ve been many editions; some in print today have good introductions (e.g., an Everyman introduced by P. N. Furbank, with chronology and select bibliography).

Scott, Paul. The Jewel in the Crown. The Raj Quartet 1. 1966; Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1998. 978-0=226-743490. The book has been printed in a couple of different editions (the first, Avon, mass market paperback), none come with notes or introductions that I can find.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin (Mariner), 2003 978-0-618-48422-2. This edition has been reprinted many times, & with different covers. There is a translation into Marathi, the third widest language spoken in India after Hindu and Bengali. English is still a semi-official language.

Suggested Reading:

Forster, E.M. “The Machine stops” a short story, a pdf I’ll send to the class.
Golgol, Nicholas. “The Overcoat”, trans. Constance Garnett. A short story. Online: http://www.fountainheadpress.com/expandingthearc/assets/gogolovercoat.pdf
Lahiri, Jhumpa. “A Temporary Matter,” first story in Interpreters of Maladies, a pdf for which book I’ll send to the class.

Movies we’ll discuss (all available on Prime Amazon, as DVDs from Netflix):

A Passage to India. Dir, scripted David Lean. Independently produced. Featuring: Victor Banerjee, Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, 1984.
The Jewel in the Crown. Dir. Christopher Morahan, scripted Ken Taylor. Granada TV. Featuring: Art Malik, Geraldine Jameson, Peggy Ashcroft, Saeed Jaffrey, Tim Piggott-Smith, Eric Porter. 1984 14 episodes.
The Namesake. Dir, Mira Nair, scripted Sooni Taraporevala. Independently produced. Featuring: Irfan Khan, Tabu, Kal Penn. 2006.
Shakespeare Wallah. Dir James Ivory, scripted Ruth Jhabvala. Producer Ismail Merchant. Featuring: Sashi Kapoor, Felicity Kendal, Geoffrey Kendal. 1965

The train scene from Passage to India
Daphne and Hari meeting in Bigighar Gardens (Jewel in the Crown)


Ashoke on the train reading Gogol’s The Overcoat

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. The syllabus is not engraved in cement; we can alter it and spend more time or have different emphases than the syllabus is written for.

Mar 30: 1st week: Introduction: Brief history of India, the Raj, of E.M. Forster. Begin A Passage to India. I will send the class a copy of his “What I Believe.”

Apr 6: 2nd week: Forster’s A Passage to India.

Apr 13: 3rd week: Lean’s film adaptation& Forster’s novel: I will talk about Damon Galbut’s Arctic Summer, a post-text or sequel to Forster’s own Arctic Summer (Galgut is now known for winning Booker Prize for The Promise). History: The partition

Apr 20: 4th week: Paul Scott. Historical background in book, 1942-47. Begin A Jewel in the Crown.

Apr 27: 5th week: Scott’s A Jewel in the Crown

May 4: 6th Week: Contextualized by the Raj Quartet (as we experience it in the Granada TV serial, The Jewel in the Crown) and Staying On (a Booker Prize winner). Tales of the Indian diaspora, and Jhumpa Lahiri and Mira Nair

May 11: 7th week: Lahiri’s The Namesake and Mira Nair’s movie

May 18: 8th week: Merchant-Ivory Jhabvala’s Shakespeare Wallah). And if time permits, Forster’s “The Machine Stops” and Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter.”


From Shakespeare Wallah: whole troupe of actors on the rainy hot road (shot in India)

Recommended outside reading (if you want to read further):

Allen, Charles, ed. Plain Tales from the Raj: Images of British India in the 20th century. 1976; rpt. London: Deutsch, 1986. A compilation of memoirs gathered by the BBC; the source for a couple of their programs. The title a play on Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills.
Banerjee, Jaqueline. Paul Scott. UK: Northcote, 1990.
——————-. “Abinger Ironist: E.M. Forster,” Literary Surrey. Headley Down, Hampshire: Self-published 2005. 1-873855-50-8. Delightful.
Batra, Jagdish. The Namesake: A Critical Study. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2010.
Brower, Reuben. “Beyond E.M. Forster: the Unseen,” Chicago Review, 2:3 (Fall-Winter 1948):102-112.
Cavafy, C. P. Poems, ed. trans. Avi Sharon. NY: Penguin, 2008
Forster, E. M. The Hill of Devi. London: Harvest HBJ, 1953. Autobiographical accounts of Forster’s time in the court of Dewas (1922-22).
Gascoigne, Bamber, ed. The Making of the Jewel in the Crown. London: Granada Publishing, 1983. Unexpectedly this book about the film series contains an excellent essay on the film-making of the book (Bamber Gascoigne) and one on the political history of this era (James Cameron) dramatized by Scott’s novel. The photography is also evocative. Each of the 14 episodes is outlined. Highly recommended.
Golgol, Nicholas. The Overcoat, trans. Constance Garnett. Online: http://www.fountainheadpress.com/expandingthearc/assets/gogolovercoat.pdf
Gorra, Michael. After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, and Rushdie. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1997.
Galgut, Damon. Arctic Summer. NY: Europa, 2014. A fictionalized biography of E.M Forster’s times in India. It is a continuation of a fragment of a novel Forster wrote called Arctic Summer.
Gilmore, David. The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience. London: Penguin, 2009.
Haag, Michael. Alexandria: City of Memory. New Haven: Yale, 2004. Alexandria during WW2 and just before.  Wonderfully evocative book.
Lynn, David H. Lynn, “Review-essay of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri,’ The Kenyon Review, New Series, 26: 3 (Summer, 2004):160-166
MacMillan, Margaret. Women of the Raj. NY: Random House, 2007
Metcalf, Barbara and Thomas. A Concise History of India, 3rd edition. Cambridge, UP, 2012
Moody, Ellen. My blog on early Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films. https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2021/06/12/early-merchant-ivory-jhabvala-films-the-householder-shakespeare-wallah-to-roseland-heat-and-dust/
Moffatt, Wendy. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster. NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010.
Moore, Robin. Paul Scott’s Raj. London: Heinemann, 1990. Also about Forster’s Indian experience and book.
Nityanandam, Indira. Jhumpa Lahiri: A Tale of the Diaspora. New Delhi: Creative Books, 2004.
Paxton, Nancy. Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947. New Brunswick: Rutgers U, 1999.
Pym, John. The Wandering Company: 21 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Films. London: British Film Institute, 1983
Rao, K. Bhaskara. Paul Scott. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Rubin, David. After the Raj: British Novels of India since 1947. Self-published posthumously, 2018
Scott, Paul. On Writing and the Novel, ed. intro. Shelley C. Reece. NY: William Morrow, 1987.
Schusterman, David, “The Curious Case of Professor Godbole: A Passage to India Re-examined,” PMLA 76:4 (1961):426-35
Sharpe, Jenny. Allegories of Empire: The Figure of the Woman in Colonial Texts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993. A chapter each on A Passage to India and the Raj Quartet.
Singh, Amardeep. The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité. Jackson: Univ of Mississippi, 2018.
Song, Min Hyoung, “The Children of 1965: Allegory, Postmodernism, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake,” Twentieth Century Literature, 53:3, After Postmodernism: Form and History in Contemporary American Fiction, (Fall, 2007):345-370
Spurling, Hilary. Paul Scott: The Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet. NY: Norton, 1990.
Summers, Claude, “A passage to India: ‘The Friend who Never comes,'” in his E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar, 1983.
Tharoor, Shashi. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. Australia: Scribe, 2017
Tunzelmann, Alex Von. Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. NY: Picador, 2007.

Other novels and memoirs and films which belong to the subgenre Anglo-Indian or British Indian writing and films:

Anne Cherian, A Good Indian Wife; Larry Collins and Dominic Lepierre, Freedom at Midnight; Emily Eden, Up the Country:  Letters written to her sister from the Upper Provinces of India [1836-1842]; J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur; Eliza Fay, Original Letters from India, ed. E. M. Forster; Godden, Rumer, No Time to Dance, No Time to Weep and The River;Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust and An Experience of India; M. M. Kaye, The Far Pavilions and Share of Summer (an autobiography); most of Kipling’s fiction and verse; Kamala Markandaya, The Golden Honeycomb, The Coffer Dams; John Master’s Bhowani Junction; Bharati Mukherjee, The Middleman and Other Stories; V.S. Naipaul, Enigma of Arrival; George Orwell, Burmese Days; Fanny Parkes, Begums, Thugs & White Mughals (journals ed by William Dalrymple); Mistry Rohinton, A Fine Balance; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Imaginary Homelands, Essays and Criticism, 1981-91; Viram Seth, A Suitable Boy; Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World, trans. Surendranath Tagore (a Penguin book); P.J.O Taylor’s A Star Shall Fall. Also writing by N. C. Chaudhuri, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghoshm R.K. Narayan; films of Satyajit Ray, Lagaan (translates as Taxes, a classic Bollywood film); Mani Ratman’s Guru (a Tamil hit); Richard Attenborough and John Briley, Ghandi; and 2014-25 Paul Rutman’s Indian Summers (Channel 4 and PBS)


2020 Map

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Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle

Friends and readers,

I began watching Foyle’s War around my birthday this past November by renting DVDs from Netflix. I had been told how “wonderful” it is time and again, and stubbornly had resisted — why I don’t quite know. I did not realize how these are in structures and basic tropes formulaic (including comic helper-maid, and endings where the villains often just confess when confronted by the truth) murder mystery stories. Good thing for I might never have tried them. Well, it took only the first three episodes to persuade me here was a series that transcended this popular genre, not just superbly well done, but having a complicated moral center in them individually and as a group that offered insights and warnings into the politics of our own time, especially the growth of fascism and uncontrolled capitalism. I loved the character of Foyle, what a relief as he held onto his moral compass (as good as E.M. Forster in What I Believe); this group of traits in the hero has often been cited as the programs’ highest important achievement. The core beauty. I became so fond of Sam and respectful of Milner. I could see they could solace me in my lonely evenings (the way other of my favorite British serials seen over and over).

So I had to have the whole series, be able to watch more than one episode at a time, be able to see features about how it was made, and bought the 8 season set, complete (I was promised) with features and a pamphlets. When the tall box came, and I re-began, I also began to see that I needed these features and more to understand what I was seeing: the pamphlet that came with the 8 sets (=seasons) was a help, all the various wikipedia articles I could click on, and Rod Green’s The Real History Behind Foyle’s War. What this box is is a vast film-novel of moral stories conveying the extraordinary true history of World War Two as it was experienced in Britain.

More than reading and watching, to try to grasp each episode I needed to write notes on them one at a time to appreciate all that was interwoven in. There are often four stories or threads in an episode, not counting the development of the personalities and conveying of the history of our three very sympathetic protagonists: you see Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Inspector Foyle above in an unusually softly smiling moment:  I just love the way he swings his body and his head and then asks, “Why is that?”  Just below is Honeysuckle Weeks, Foyle’s improbable driver, as she appears appealingly as a young women (not much older than 20 to start with, if that old) in the earliest seasons — why Foyle never learned to drive we are not told:

Her heart shows her the morally right thing to do and to feel. A bit further down, Anthony Howell as Paul Milner, Foyle’s Deputy Sergeant, this photo giving us a glimpse below the usually guarded stern face to see a kindly wholesome sensitive man who cannot fathom himself killing anyone.

With each of them, less is more as a style of acting.

I’ve been wondering to myself what I can add to all that has already been said without going on too long — for what I am best at is explanatory details with moralizing inferences as framework. It can be fun to be reminded of what we so enjoyed, to, as it were, relive what’s in our memories, but in the case of complicated mystery stories, with never an empty moment, it would be easy to fall into too much of a good thing. Better just to watch the TV episodes? Well, there are some ideas or patterns that one might miss, strikingly repeated stances that hold the hours together as we watch the behavior of our three protagonists interact against ever-worsening counter war techniques and protect or aid the human behavior that makes life worth living. The question is repeatedly asked: what are we fighting this war for if we consent to behave as badly as our fascist hate-filled or ruthless enemies are doing. Again and again Foyle, together with Sam and Paul as his two team-members, resist the amoral and the immoral – it is, though, he alone who articulates the actuating ideas behind the decisions and actions we see the three make. We learn about their “private” lives too. Throughout the first through fourth seasons in most of the episodes Foyle dominates almost every scene, he seems to make things happen, knit them together. This is not true across the later seasons.

This blog presents you with few notes for the 1st season and 2nd season (looking at patterns especially), and then building on what we find, I’ll write another similar blog for the 3rd and 4th. The episodes move month by month until we get to season five where we fast forward a whole year. So we get a feeling for the different phases of the war, the different emotional temperature of everyone involved.

But first an overview: at season 5, the series changes. It is said that the series was suddenly cancelled after Season 5 because Simon Shaps felt like it (that’s about as much reason for this as one is given), “causing” Anthony Horowitz to discard a series of scripts going in the same pace for Season 6. This makes no sense, and feels like hurt angry spite: I imagine Shaps complaining about some aspect of the series: maybe it’s anti-capitalist stance? (Businessmen are generally very badly behaved in this series.) So I will write separately about Season 5 and 6, which are also cut back to 3 episodes each.

Then because it was so liked, so respected, it was given yet another two series, again with only 3 episodes (it might have been the expense) — but now our characters are in a different, and actually (it turns out) deadlier era when it comes to police and gov’t spy agency behavior (the problems themselves infected by knee-jerk anti-communism and an implicit nationalism it eschewed until Season 7). That is, we shift from the subgenre type of mystery which Andrew Marr describes as sleuths, to the subgenre, spy stories. And so I will again write a separate blog for these last two (where we lose Milner).

I will try to avoid concrete retellings of stories as these are amply covered in wikipedia. And not name all the superb actors across the years as they too are usually named, unless something or someone seems to me so outstanding

***************************************
Season 1: Episode 1: The German Woman, May 1940. In this episode we are watching the formation of the team: Foyle cannot convince his superiors to let him switch from domestic policing to being a member of the war effort, and partly to keep him comfortable, he is given a driver, Sam Stewart; a young man he knew previously has been very badly wounded, lost his leg, Paul Milner, and Foyle manipulates Milner out of an angry depression and despair about having but one leg by showing how he can make his talents useful. We meet Foyle’s son, Andrew (to my ears a very British name), see their close relationship and Foyle fish.


Julian Overdone as Andrew fishing with his face: look carefully and you’ll see a look of impatience on the young man’s face

Julian Overdone is a recurring important character, but not as central to the story structures of solving the mystery (sometimes he is part of the problem that led to the murder). He is growing up, with a little help from his Dad. We learn of Foyle’s wife’s death from lovely watercolor landscapes on his wall. Kitchen dominated the 100 minutes in ways he stops doing by the 6th season and I found the episode more satisfying because of this: his firm strong morality. The murderer (a sexual cad, predator after women’s money) is despicable, especially, but at least one of the victims (the rich German woman whose fortune the murderer was seeking) and their families are humanly flawed too. The episode is against knee-jerk hatred of Germans as Germans. A scholarly German man is thrown in prison with his wife; she dies of a heart attack before Foyle can put an eend to this injustice. An innocent girl is bombed to death, and then her reputation made to suffer until Foyle discovers and exposes what happened. Here the murderer himself asserts that his important war work makes it absurd to accuse, jail and then possibly execute him. This first iteration of this idea is as unconvincing to Foyle as it will be in the 8th year, 27th episode. Here he is in charge and has the power to make his accusation stick.

Not only how young is Sam but how uneager Foyle for having her around and begins teaching her not to pick up cant; how much he is responsible for bringing Paul Milner back to effective useful life … The episode is notable for having performances by Robert Hardy, Edward Fox, James McAvoy

Episode 2: The White Feather, May 1940 still. A pattern: In most of the episodes of these four seasons, after the initial setting forth and some interludes to feed us information Foyle does not see, he is brought forward. In these first four, Foyle shows himself very emotionally engaged even if the evidence is limited to bodily gestures, facial expressions, and the very occasional outburst of stern moral truth. At one point thinking of his son, he puts his head down.

The White Feather combines the reality of nazism and fascism, juxtaposing a particularly foul kind of anti-semitism in the UK, with Dunkirk. So the whole emotional temperature of that happening as felt on the coast where small boats are setting off to rescue people is felt. There is a trio of concerned fathers: the weak man with the domineering nasty (and willing to terrify others to her will) upper class anti-semitic wife and his (in effect) neglected and angry son (a young Tobias Menzies – stealing the scenes he’s in); the old fashioned working class fisherman and his son who is involved with a young girl, an ex-servant in the anti-semitic hotel, who finds himself arrested.


Tobias Menzies as Stanley Ellis

Another pattern: in both episodes is once Foyle knows for sure the person arrested for the crime didn’t do something that resulted in serious injury or death to someone else, or didn’t have malign motives, was bullied, tricked, deluded, he frees that person. That’s important. He is a cop and I find myself thinking were this a Black man (and I believe there is a episode about race prejudice), Foyle would not be casually putting such a person away for life.

The ending at Dunkirk, and arresting the lead Nazi (Charles Dance knows how to do evil): you are made to feel why this war is worth it. Both have beautiful photography of this semi-rural part of England.

Episode 3: A Lesson in Murder. June 1940. An total snob, cruel upper class judge at the center. He coolly murders, blows to bits an 11 year old evacuee whom his daughter (not understanding quite the amount of evil her father could do) volunteered to take in a evacuee. The poor boy has terrible time all the while desperately missed by his father. Foyle’s long time friend, an Italian man (Alan Corduner), a good person, dies at the end because when Italy declares war on England, because a mob comes and set fire to, blows up his restaurant. His son, very like the young man who became involved with the servant in The White Feather, is being pressured by a bad young man, a semi-crook type — whom Sam is rude to. A scene of coffin making (a hidden factory) has its effect.


The Italian man’s restaurant set on fire because the mob has heard Italy has entered the war: he dies upstairs (this is the episode’s penultimate scene)

There is a theme of good young men thrown away or hurt badly in these episodes. This includes Foyle’s son (flying spitfires); the twisted young man that Menzies plays (capable of being so much better). James McAvoy played the role in episode 1: he was engaged to the young girl whom the murderer smeared to cover his tracks. This is part of the fathers and sons, for a familiar actor (John Shrapnel, played Creon, Achilles) is a high class man who bribed the ugly murderer to give his son a conscientious objector status. The episode opens with another young man, genuinely ant-war, being denied status and then in prison mocked, beat up, humiliated, hanging himself. David Tennant is his best friend, who turns up to be with the wife and is suspected of murdering the ugly judge. His wife did it — she was right to she says. Of course Paul Milner is such another, with a wife who has no loyalty towards him, is in fact turned off because he has lost his leg; thus he was tempted by the fascist Charles Dance; at the end of The White Feather, Foyle scolds him intensely for disloyalty — and stupidity.

Episode 4: Eagle Day, August to September 1940. Eagle Day is about sexual harassment of women. It’s not called that but the story at the center is of a Miss Lucy Smith who throws herself under a train because an intelligence agency boss (a bully, amoral, horrible man) seduces, impregnates and then rejects her. Unknown to him, Foyle’s son is assigned to the place and once her friend tells him ever so little the boss and his accomplice are determined to get rid of Andrew – this is slightly improbable but it enables Horowitz to show how easy it was/is to get up a case against an innocent man who say once was part of the communist party, how easy to stash incriminating papers in his locker and under “secrecy” orders of war (deeply anti-democrat) ruin his life – put him in prison.

Instead of now where the girl would have to sue, we see parents who want to protect the daughter’s virginity. No sign of her having any right to an independent life or sexual liberation, but they are indignant or worried. This leads to Lucy’s father murdering two men –- and as with the ugly bully in A Lesson in Murder, the murderer shows no regret and says he did the right thing. Sam’s father come to fetch her home is the ultimate embodiment of such an attitude. He decides she’s safe and doing useful work not that she has the right to an independent life. Another pattern: the first and third episode show young women badly bullied by their fathers — having no agency — my feeling is this is criticized as the result of individuals; the pattern itself accepted, no subtext against it. Sam’s father turns up because he and her mother have become convinced she should return to their village. Being in Hastings was too dangerous and what was she really contributing to the war effort anyway? Despite her being a grown woman, because she wasn’t married, her parents assumed they could still control her life and she felt she had abide by their decision. Her only chance was if Foyle would intercede for her. So it takes a man’s help for her to live the life she has chosen.

Woven in is a story of theft from a museum where the thief (Anton Lesser playing this role) uses the export of art objects to places where they will be hidden to fetch some off for himself. Paul Milner is important in discovering this as is Sam’s father who before he became a vicar studied art.

The opening sequence of this episode shows a woman coming home from work a little later than usual to find her house bombed, her husband nowhere to be seen:


Woman whose house has been bombed — there are countless such tiny episodes which are usually linked to the central threads but also there to show how people experiencing this war

Why August 1940? a month later the bombs begin to drop on civilians. This is presented a sort of sardonic comedy where Foyle’s son tries to save him and his father from these by hiding in a bunch of bundles which turn out to have highly inflammable stuff in them. Young Foyle is a young man who is daredevil in a plane but not too good at protecting himself. This last one ends up with all four in the car Sam has driven up with Milner just in time to fetch the two Foyles away to safety.

To read about Season 2, Episodes 1-4, see comments: Episode 1, Fifty Ships: September 1940; Episode 2: Among the few: September 1940; Episode 3, War Games: October 1940; Episode 4, The Funk Hole: October 1940.


From The Funk Hole, Caroline Harker as Jane Hardiman protecting a beloved dog, whom Phoebe Nicholls as Amanda Reese, novelist, disdains: a tiny thread referring to how many thousands of pets were killed by their owners at the beginning of the war; Mrs Hardiman’s crime is to buy adequate dog food on the black market

To read about Seasons 3-4, see companion blog to this (perhaps next week because another syllabus blog must come inbetween).

Ellen

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For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Thursday afternoons, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
Mar 10 to May 12
10 sessions online (location of building: 4801 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20016)
Dr Ellen Moody

Anglo-Indian Novels: the Raj, its Aftermath, and the Diaspora:

In this class we will read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown (Raj Quartet 1), and Jumpa Lahiri’s Namesake. We’ll explore a tradition of Anglo-India literature, colonialist and native cultural interactions, migrancy itself, gender fault lines, what we mean by our identity, belonging, and castes. We’ll include in our discussions Anglo-Indian movies as a genre, and see parts of and talk specifically about David Lean’s Passage to India, the Granada British TV Jewel in the Crown, Mira Nair’s Namesake and perhaps end with Merchant-Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah. We will not omit talking of Indian novels and movies too (Bollywood and Tamil). We’ll take historical and contemporary perspectives on this rich material.

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

Forster, E.M. A Passage to India, ed. Paul B. Armstrong. Norton Critical Edition. NY: Norton, 2021. 978-0-393-65598-8. A Passage to India (first published 1924) seems to me needs notes to be fully understood; this edition offers best text & superb background. There’ve been many editions; some in print today have good introductions (e.g., an Everyman introduced by P. N. Furbank, with chronology and select bibliography).

Scott, Paul. The Jewel in the Crown. The Raj Quartet 1. 1966; Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1998. 978-0=226-743490. The book has been printed in a couple of different editions (the first, Avon, mass market paperback), none come with notes or introductions that I can find.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin (Mariner), 2003 978-0-618-48422-2. This edition has been reprinted many times, & with different covers. There is a translation into Marathi, the third widest language spoken in India after Hindu and Bengali. English is still a semi-official language.

Suggested:

Forster, E.M. “The Machine stops” a short story, a pdf I’ll send to the class.
Golgol, Nicholas. “The Overcoat”, trans. Constance Garnett. A short story. Online: http://www.fountainheadpress.com/expandingthearc/assets/gogolovercoat.pdf
Lahiri, Jhumpa. “A Temporary Matter,” first story in Interpreters of Maladies, a pdf for which book I’ll send to the class.

Movies we’ll discuss (all available on Prime Amazon, as DVDs from Netflix):

A Passage to India. Dir, scripted David Lean. Independently produced. Featuring: Victor Banerjee, Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, 1984.
The Jewel in the Crown. Dir. Christopher Morahan, scripted Ken Taylor. Granada TV. Featuring: Art Malik, Geraldine Jameson, Peggy Ashcroft, Saeed Jaffrey, Tim Piggott-Smith, Eric Porter. 1984 14 episodes.
The Namesake. Dir, Mira Nair, scripted Sooni Taraporevala. Independently produced. Featuring: Irfan Khan, Tabu, Kal Penn. 2006.
Shakespeare Wallah. Dir James Ivory, scripted Ruth Jhabvala. Producer Ismail Merchant. Featuring: Sashi Kapoor, Felicity Kendal, Geoffrey Kendal. 1965

The train scene from Passage to India
Daphne and Hari meeting in Bigighar Gardens (Jewel in the Crown)


Ashoke on the train reading Gogol’s The Overcoat

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. The syllabus is not engraved in cement; I can alter it and we can spend more time on Passage to India or Jewel in the Crown if people want to. I’ve put aside the 10th session for other Indian films and books in order to make wiggle room.

Mar 10: 1st week: Introduction.  History of East India Company & British Raj; E.M. Forster.

Mar 17: 2nd week: Forster’s A Passage to India. David Lean’s film adaptation, A Passage to India

Mar 24: 3rd week:  Finish Passage to India;  Forster’s Aspects of the Novel & writing from 1930s on.

Mar 31: 4th week: Paul Scott. Historical and Political background to A Jewel in the Crown.

Apr 7: 5th week: Scott’s A Jewel in the Crown

Apr 14: 6th Week:  Jewel in the Crown contextualized by the Raj Quartet (via discussion of Granada TV Jewel in the Crown).

Apr 21: 7th week:  Finish Jewel in the Crown, about Staying on; then Indian diaspora and Jhumpa Lahiri and Mira Nair.

Apr 28: 8th week: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake

May 5: 9th week: Lahiri’s Namesake and Mira Nair’s film adaptation.

May 12: 10th week: Merchant-Ivory Jhabvala w/Satyajit Ray, Shakespeare Wallah; Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (a pdf), and if we have time the first story in Lahiri’s collection, Interpreters of Maladies, “A Temporary Matter.”


From Shakespeare Wallah: whole troupe of actors on the rainy hot road (shot in India)

Recommended outside reading (if you want to read further):

Allen, Charles, ed. Plain Tales from the Raj: Images of British India in the 20th century. 1976; rpt. London: Deutsch, 1986. A compilation of memoirs gathered by the BBC; the source for a couple of their programs. The title a play on Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills.
Banerjee, Jaqueline. Paul Scott. UK: Northcote, 1990.
——————-. “Abinger Ironist: E.M. Forster,” Literary Surrey. Headley Down, Hampshire: Self-published 2005. 1-873855-50-8. Delightful.
Batra, Jagdish. The Namesake: A Critical Study. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2010.
Cavafy, C. P. Poems, ed. trans. Avi Sharon. NY: Penguin, 2008
Forster, E. M. The Hill of Devi. London: Harvest HBJ, 1953. Autobiographical accounts of Forster’s time in the court of Dewas (1922-22).
Gascoigne, Bamber, ed. The Making of the Jewel in the Crown. London: Granada Publishing, 1983. Unexpectedly this book about the film series contains an excellent essay on the film-making of the book (Bamber Gascoigne) and one on the political history of this era (James Cameron) dramatized by Scott’s novel. The photography is also evocative. Each of the 14 episodes is outlined. Highly recommended

Gorra, Michael. After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, and Rushdie. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1997.
Galgut, Damon. Arctic Summer. NY: Europa, 2014. A fictionalized biography of E.M Forster’s times in India. It is a continuation of a fragment of a novel Forster wrote called Arctic Summer.
Gilmore, David. The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience. London: Penguin, 2019.
Haag, Michael. Alexandria: City of Memory. New Haven: Yale, 2004. Alexandria during WW2 and just before.  Wonderfully evocative book.
Lynn, David H. Lynn, “Review-essay of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri,’ The Kenyon Review, New Series, 26: 3 (Summer, 2004):160-166
MacMillan, Margaret. Women of the Raj. NY: Random House, 2007
Metcalf, Barbara and Thomas. A Concise History of India, 3rd edition. Cambridge, UP, 2012
Moody, Ellen. My blog on early Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films. https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2021/06/12/early-merchant-ivory-jhabvala-films-the-householder-shakespeare-wallah-to-roseland-heat-and-dust/
Moffatt, Wendy. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster. NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010.
Morey, Peter. Fictions of India: Narratives of Power. Edinburgh: Univ of Edinburgh Press, 2000.
Moore, Robin. Paul Scott’s Raj. London: Heinemann, 1990. Also about Forster’s Indian experience and book.
Nityanandam, Indira. Jhumpa Lahiri: A Tale of the Diaspora. New Delhi: Creative Books, 2004.
Paxton, Nancy. Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947. New Brunswick: Rutgers U, 1999.
Pym, John. The Wandering Company: 21 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Films. London: British Film Institute, 1983
Rao, K. Bhaskara. Paul Scott. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Rubin, David. After the Raj: British Novels of India since 1947. Self-published posthumously, 2018.
Scott, Paul. On Writing and the Novel, ed. intro. Shelley C. Reece. NY: William Morrow, 1987.
Schusterman, David, “The Curious Case of Professor Godbole: A Passage to India Re-examined,” PMLA 76:4 (1961):426-35
Singh, Amardeep. The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité. Jackson: Univ of Mississippi, 2018.
Sharpe, Jenny. Allegories of Empire: The Figure of the Woman in the Colonial Text. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Contains a chapter each on A Passage to India and the Raj Quartet.
Song, Min Hyoung, “The Children of 1965: Allegory, Postmodernism, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake,” Twentieth Century Literature, 53:3, After Postmodernism: Form and History in Contemporary American Fiction, (Fall, 2007):345-370
Spurling, Hilary. Paul Scott: The Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet. NY: Norton, 1990.
Summers, Claude, “A passage to India: ‘The Friend who Never comes,'” in his E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar, 1983.
Tharoor, Shashi. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. Australia: Scribe, 2017
Tunzelmann, Alex Von. Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. NY: Picador, 2007.

Other novels and memoirs and films which belong to the subgenre Anglo-Indian or British Indian writing and films:

Anne Cherian, A Good Indian Wife; Larry Collins and Dominic Lepierre, Freedom at Midnight; Emily Eden, Up the Country:  Letters written to her sister from the Upper Provinces of India [1836-1842]; J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur; Eliza Fay, Original Letters from India, ed. E. M. Forster; Godden, Rumer, No Time to Dance, No Time to Weep and The River; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust and An Experience of India; M. M. Kaye, The Far Pavilions and Share of Summer (an autobiography); most of Kipling’s fiction and verse; Kamala Markandaya, The Coffer Dams, The Golden Honeycomb; John Master’s Bhowani Junction; Bharati Mukherjee, The Middleman and Other Stories; V.S. Naipaul, Enigma of Arrival; George Orwell, Burmese Days; Fanny Parkes, Begums, Thugs & White Mughals (journals ed by William Dalrymple); Mistry Rohinton, A Fine Balance; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children‎ and Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91; Viram Seth, A Suitable Boy; Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World, trans. Surendranath Tagore (a Penguin book); P.J.O Taylor’s A Star Shall Fall. Also writing by N. C. Chaudhuri, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, R.K. Narayan; films of Satyajit Ray, Lagaan (translates as Taxes, a classic Bollywood film); Mani Ratman’s Guru (a Tamil hit); Richard Attenborough and John Briley, Ghandi; 2014-15 Indian Summers, scripted Paul Rutman (Channel 4 & PBS).


2020 Map

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Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King in the background


James Baldwin (see I am not your Negro)

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” — George Orwell

“Why of all the multitudinous groups of people in this country do you have to single out Negroes and give them this separate treatment?” — Thurgood Marshall, arguing in Brown vs the Board of Education.

Dear friends and readers,

For the past couple of years, beginning around the time the pandemic quarantine began (March 2020) I’ve been taking courses in Black history at the two colleges for retired people where I also teach: OLLI at AU and OLLI at Mason.  These included: “The History of Reconstruction;” “Racism in America Civil to Post World Wars,” “Teaching Black history in Virginia;” “Black History;” “The Life and Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks,” August Wilson’s American Century Cycle. I’ve made an effort to watch Black films, .g. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing); King Richard (very recently), on Richard Williams and his two tennis-champion daughters, Venus and Serena).

I’ve gone to museum exhibits, The Warmth of Other Suns (adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s book), made a real effort to teach Black authors (Caryl Philips and Toni Morrison) and Black History myself.

I discovered a history of cruel devastation inflicted on people of color whose ancestry was in Africa, not only during enslavement, but for over a hundred years thereafter, with 1965 an important gain but not enough to offset hundreds of years of money and labor exploitation, imprisonment, humiliation, periodic massacres as part of a reign of terror (lynching just one aspect of this), to say nothing of their renewal in the 1990s with the movement to mass incarcerate Black men and the continued casual killing of Black people by police in the streets.

I had when a teacher of undergraduates regularly taught James Baldwin, once tried Richard Wright’s Native Son and once Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (very painful experiences), as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

Lincoln’s birthday. In NYC when I was growing up, we got the day off in school and other places and lots of ceremonies remembered him. Heather Cox Richardson (2/12) shows the logic that Lincoln used to show how dangerous and pernicious the right to and legal practice of enslaving others is. I know from my own reading one term where I taught a course for American University called American Literary Masterpieces that Lincoln’s speeches all show a man repeatedly arguing for the equality of man (alas he does not mention women) and against enslavement of people. It’s unmistakable – whatever historians say about the delay of the Emancipation Proclamation. I felt I could not teach a course in American literature of the 19th century without some real grasp of who Lincoln was. It was that class where I read with students Frederick Douglas’s autobiography, told of slave narratives and we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (as one of the units).

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So from this long complicated history of egregious injustice, from all these heart-rending and uplifting stories (because Black nonetheless have made astonishing advances in the few years of liberal outlook (say 1960 to 1980s in custom, in law 1965 until the present Supreme court began to gut all the civil rights legislation that had been passed since the 1960s), what can I offer to add to public memory.

One sobering pattern: repeatedly throughout Black history in the US when a great and good Black man rises to prominence and begins to do wide-spread good he is murdered in his later 30s (true of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, David Walker; see also demonstrations/protests; my blogs on LiveJournal under racism in America). John Lewis almost was.

One heartening one:


Henry Ossawa Tanner — The Banjo Lesson

The history of the initiation and growth of Black education in the US, the slow creation of colleges so that what one saw briefly in reconstruction for a very few people slowly slowly grows to have a network and buildings and libraries and places of order and safety of which today Howard University is a kind of crown jewel. – though recently they too have wiped out, gotten rid of their classic department – no more Latin and Greek study. It is through hard study, her education, going to Howard University (itself infected by class and racism), as teacher at a historically black college, and then editor in a publishing company.

Students who are freshman are sometimes so puzzled as to why learning this text is going to lead somewhere – why memorizing this or that formula matters – experience teaches them if they have not had parents who were able to. Also Civil Rights (1866 Gates mentions) acts which while ignored or undermined were put on the books and when we come to obey the law matter.

Focus on Oberlin College, founded in 1833 as a communitarian settlement, admitted more Black students than all other American colleges combined before 1865. It was coeducational and early in its history had financial troubles under pressure white males only but they held out. One private preparatory school for Black children supplied 1/3rd of the Black student body. They had some extraordinary individuals even in the early years; a weakening between 1880 and 1948 when Black and white students made to eat separately and segregated housing. Again and again in the history by Gates you see Oberlin active for good for enabling Black people to become professional, to be trained, to later seek places for some power. Oberlin is now the base for the Toni Morrison society

In the perspective I’m outlining the importance of Affirmative action can be seen.

After emancipation, 1865 Freedman’s Bureau, Freedman’s Aid societies, Northern missionary groups establish schools. The most enduring ones have been Fisk University, 1865, Morehouse College and Howard University 1867, Hampton University 1868. Since I have to go fast I fast forward to the important conflict between those I’ll call appeasers, Booker T Washington and not just aspirationalists but aware that being taught to be more than skilled people in trade jobs was crucial for Black people to build a society– among these an important voice. W.E.Dubois, famous for Souls of Black Folks. Which I have read. He sounds like a hard Emerson. What shall be in the curriculum intensely important. One needs Black physicians for a start. Black people conflicted themselves over their goals and how to go about it early on. As Malcolm X and MLK did. By 1890s should you include Black people and achievements in international expositions. Black journalism promoted by liberal whites (previously abolitionists)

In popular history a great deal is made of the star – star athlete, singers, musicians, fighting in these wars too. There are so many in different walks of life I’ll confine myself to one: Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander, 1898-1989; she earned a Ph.D in economy at the University of Pa, dissertation was Standard of Living Among one Hundred Negro Migrant families in Philadelphia. She went to law school, serves in National Urban League, ACLU, hired by Truman for committees, for Kennedy and for Carter. History of wonderful paintings – early Henry Osssawa Tanner The Banjo Lesson.

The central importance of the church for African-American people – and its leaders. Rev William Barber comes to mind

Two individuals lost from memory, whom you may not have heard of.


1875-1950

Carter G. Woodson, 1926, a historian, determined to write The Negro in History. He was one of the moving people behind the successful creation of the NAACP. From his achievements:

In January 1916, Woodson began publication of the scholarly Journal of Negro History. It has never missed an issue, despite the Great Depression, loss of support from foundations, and two World Wars. In 2002, it was renamed the Journal of African American History and continues to be published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Woodson published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. His other books followed: A Century of Negro Migration (1918) and The History of the Negro Church (1927). His work The Negro in Our History has been reprinted in numerous editions and was revised by Charles H. Wesley after Woodson’s death in 1950. Woodson described the purpose of the ASNLH as the “scientific study” of the “neglected aspects of Negro life and history” by training a new generation of Black people in historical research and methodology. Believing that history belonged to everybody, not just the historians, Woodson sought to engage Black civic leaders, high school teachers, clergymen, women’s groups and fraternal associations in his project to improve the understanding of African-American history.

He served as Academic Dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University, from 1920 to 1922.[26] By 1922, Woodson’s experience of academic politics and intrigue had left him so disenchanted with university life that he vowed never to work in academia again. He continued to write publish and lecture nationwide. He studied many aspects of African-American history. For instance, in 1924, he published the first survey of free Black slaveowners in the United States in 1830.

And David Walker (1796-1830) — one of those murdered in his later 30s. His centrally important was was An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Read his life and work in wikipedia; here is a central section of An Appeal:


Freedom’s Journal, first newspaper owned and operated by Black people in the US

In his Appeal Walker implored the black community to take action against slavery and discrimination. “What gives unity to Walker’s polemic,” historian Paul Goodman has argued, “is the argument for racial equality and the active part to be taken by black people in achieving it.” Literary scholar Chris Apap has echoed these sentiments. The Appeal, Apap has asserted, rejected the notion that the black community should do nothing more than pray for its liberation. Apap has drawn particular attention to a passage of the Appeal in which Walker encourages blacks to “[n]ever make an attempt to gain freedom or natural right, from under our cruel oppressors and murderers, until you see your ways clear; when that hour arrives and you move, be not afraid or dismayed.” Apap has interpreted Walker’s words as a play on the Biblical injunction to “be not afraid or dismayed.” As he points out, “‘be not afraid or dismayed’ is a direct quote from 2 Chronicles 20.15, where the Israelites are told to ‘be not afraid or dismayed’ because God would fight the battle for them and save them from their enemies without their having to lift a finger.”[33] In the Bible, all the Israelites are expected to do is pray, but Walker asserts that the black community must “move.” Apap insists that in prompting his readers to “move”, Walker rejected the notion that the blacks should “sit idly by and wait for God to fight their battles — they must (and implicit in Walker’s language is the assumption that they will) take action and move to claim what is rightfully and morally theirs.”

[W]e colored people of these United States are the most degraded, wretched, and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began, and I pray God, that none like us ever may live until time shall be no more. They tell us of the Israelites in Egypt, the Helots in Sparta, and of the Roman slaves …whose sufferings under those ancient and heathen nations, were, in comparison with ours, under this enlightened and Christian nation, no more than a cypher. Or in other words, those heathen nations of antiquity had but little more among them than the name and form of slavery; while wretchedness and endless miseries were reserved, apparently in a phial, to be poured out upon our fathers, ourselves, and our children by Christian Americans.


The Frontispiece

— Walker’s Appeal, page 1 (lightly edited)
Walker’s Appeal argued that blacks had to assume responsibility for themselves if they wanted to overcome oppression. According to historian Peter Hinks, Walker believed that the “key to the uplift of the race was a zealous commitment to the tenets of individual moral improvement: education, temperance, protestant religious practice, regular work habits, and self-regulation.”

Of course I hope you don’t need to be taught about A Philip Randolph (he succeeded in unionizing the Pullman Porters, organized the March on Washington) and Ida Wells (What didn’t this courageous woman do — she openly exposed and fought against lynching).


A Philip Randolph — one of my father’s heroes


A strong book — so too Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about a group of Black people who migrated from the south to the north and the hardships and fierce discrimination that ceaselessly they encountered

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Just now around the US there is going on an apparently successful attempt to stop people of color, poor people, aging people from voting, with gerrymandering especially aimed “with surgical precision” as one judge wrote, to prevent Black people from achieving Black representation in all forms of government, especially when the representative is a person of color (non-white, of any type). Numerous states, among them Virginia (where I live) the teaching of Black history is outlawed; a hotline is set up for any parent anywhere to report on any teacher said to teach anything divisive; any thing that can be labelled “Critical Race Theory.” The teaching of Black history as part of US history has only begun in the last few years (I certainly learned almost nothing) is to be stopped. Why? Not because what has been taught is false, or because it might make some white child uncomfortable. The point is, as Orwell suggested, to control the future by erasing the past, and in this case perpetuate a male white Protestant supremacy.

All should know that a law was passed in 1672 in Virginia that “any person [who was] a slave who resisted a white person could be [casually] killed. Absolutely legal in the colony of Virginia. The only qualification was that the colony could compensate the owner for the loss of his property (when this would seem appropriate it’s not clear from the wording of the law). Why? to see the continuity with today.

So I want to write in opposition and thought I’d write this one time for specifically for Black History Month.  My problem is I know so little and have over the course of my life done so little politically — except vote and write blogs and teach. It is only in the last 20 years I’ve begun to learn and to teach Black history and think, read and write about colonialism.

Gwendolyn Brooks’s was the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. So where better to end for now.  I don’t know if “To Prisoners,” is her best poem (see my foremother poet blog) but you can (if you know how to do this) download an exquisitely moving video where you hear four wrongfully convicted Black ex-convicts who are now poets or ordinary citizens reading this poem aloud so beautifully and movingly. They tell you how they interpret its words. The interviewer is Anna Deavere Smith, playwright and activist. Here she also interviews John McCain who recites a poem aloud that he wrote and memorized and shared with a prison mate next door to him. The doing of this helped him stay alive:


Opening image: a prison hall

https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/pia18.ela.brooksprisoners/brooks-to-prisoners/

To Prisoners

I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark.
Dark gardening
in the vertigo cold.
in the hot paralysis.
Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences.
Where it is dry.
Where it is dry.
I call for you
cultivation of victory Over
long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get.
Over
what wants to crumble you down, to sicken
you. I call for you
cultivation of strength to heal and enhance
in the non-cheering dark,
in the many many mornings-after;
in the chalk and choke.

Ray Charles is very old in this video (imagine what he went through) and to my mind there is something ironic and heart-breaking to watch and hear him sing his own lyrics to this poignant tune:

Ellen

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All Creatures Great and Small, Christmas episode, 2021 (closing scene … )

Friends and readers,

A long while ago, a new subgenre emerged — it may have occurred before TV, but certainly with TV: the Christmas special. At first the kind was a variety show, comedy and songs, with our weekly host/hostess, but didn’t take long for the filmed drama, serial style, to enter our lives directly into this holiday season everyone (seemingly) in the northern (and now even the southern — witness Australia) hemisphere seems determined to act out. In all the Christmas blogs I’ve done over the years, I have among the classic movies (1951 Scrooge, 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life), ghost, romance (Poldark), and popular Christmas movies, probably “done” a Christmas special. Indeed I remember writing about Downton Abbey in Scotland. There’s no use condescending, for some of these hours are brilliant and sustain us today still, for example, the early Sesame Street Christmas, the one where Mr Hooper and Bert and Ernie played out the O.Henry story, and Big Bird talked of Santa “stacked over Kennedy”.

Though James Herriot’s books have now provided at least one fine movie (1974, with Anthony Hopkins as Siegfried Farnon), and I’m told of eight entertaining years of British TV, beginning a few years after that (1978-90, with Robert Hardy as Farnon, and Christopher Timothy as Herriot, Peter Davison as Tristan), and last year was an unexpected hit (“Snuggling down in the Yorkshire Dales to save a few cows turned out to be just what the doctor ordered last winter.” , — I don’t know if anyone paid any special attention to Episode 7. I wasn’t inclined to until I started watching it. This evening I helped myself loosen the tightness I feel as I work at being cheerful under the prolonged strain of Covid — the isolater — by watching it twice!


Opening scene with James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) opening gate in fence to move on through the beautiful countryside to a worn old house where an aging couple, white farmer with a black English wife, have called him because she is worried over a dog having trouble producing her puppies


Matching first scene with Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley, superb in the part), far more than housekeeper, to one side, and Siegfried Farnon (now Samuel West) to the other of a perfect tree: she is urging him not to open Tristan’s veterinarian test results, for looking won’t change them, and knowing (he’s failed once again) may spoil the days to come

By this time or as of this evening, I confess to having watched this new and third iteration of a first season (2021) through twice, its second season (2022) once (minus the Christmas episode which has not been played yet on British TV), a segment on YouTube of the 1974 movie once, and about 8 episodes of the first season of the 1975 version, once each. At first I was slightly hostile, instinctively alienated by the self-conscious pastoralism of the paratexts (please no meretricious Arcadias was my thought):


In the Christmas episode underneath the refrain associated with, framing the series, could be heard lightly Christmas bells …

Then the events occurring seemed dismayingly predictable.  But as I became involved with the animal care, and then the developing relationships and personalities, especially that of Mrs Hall, I was drawn in, and then amiably addicted. I remembered the paratexts from the 2016 Durrells and how I learned to love that series, and eventually bought the books by Gerry, a group biography, then a wonderful travel meditative book on Corfu, and before you know it, I was reading another of Lawrence Durrell’s travel books with different eyes, understanding where they came from far more. I am a fan of Keeley Hawes for life now.

As the first season went on, not only did it move beyond its kind conventions, the film-makers defied, went against the way the comic-emotional tropes are usually developed. This Christmas episode outdid itself. Most Christmas stories end with the characters getting some version of their heart’s desires, having clearly become life’s winners, not quite here. We learn eventually in fact Tristan (the puzzlingly marvelous Callum Woodhouse — also an unexpected mainstay of The Durrells) has not passed his exams, but when Siegfried opens the letter and reads pass/fail, he lies and then puts the letter in the fire. He will (at least for now) treat his younger brother insofar as he can as a certified veterinarian.  During this episode we watch Tristan learning on the job, not only to care for animals (a donkey requisitioned for the Christmas pageant) but the human being who is its caretaker and is in as much need of alert attention if any good is to be done for the donkey.


Tristan (dressed in the elf outfit to please his brother, Siefgfried) congratulating a small boy dressed as a wise man on telling that he fed the donkey mistletoe – now Tristan can try to figure out how to help the creature’s obvious pain

All episode long Mrs Hall is expecting, waiting, watching, eagerly anticipating the return of her son, Edward, to her (after a jail sentence in which her evidence helped convict him), only to about 3/4s through realize he is not coming. We see her hold up in church, the singing forcing her to control her crying (Siegfried holding her hand over the song book), and while appearing to accept, still in that last still not forgetting him. Because this is the way most Christmas stories end, like her I kept expecting him, but no miraculous forgiveness and reconciliation, only a growing awareness of the hardness of what his reality might now be.


The subtitle, Repeat the sounding joy, functions ironically

Most striking of all, after all Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) does not marry Hugh Hulton (Matthew Lewis). Several episodes seem to have brought them together, and now a main motive of this episode is her coming wedding, complete with bachelor’s party for him, the beautiful dress, the congratulations, the ceremony to be performed tomorrow as a key community event. But she cannot face it, and has apparently herself understood she loves Herriot; she urges Herriot to take her with him as he returns late in the evening to the the aging couple and their distressed female dog. The birth takes several hours, fog comes in, they cannot return until morning. We learn of how this couple came to marry, how they loved and have been true to their love against much prejudice and ostracizing.


A Black English woman was always an outsider says the wife, Hattie Edkins (Hetty Rudd)

First Helen and then James settle down to sleep on separate couches. With real difficulty he manages to start the car (it is very cold) and return her to her waiting dress, father. Then taking the kindly meant but conventional advice of Mrs Hall and Siegfried, James starts to drive away back to Glasgow (for Christmas with his parents), but at a symbolic crossroads, reverses and drives back. He discovers that Helen did not go through with the wedding, and now sits on a bench, alone, maybe waiting for him?


James sits next to her, and we watch them from the back, gradually talk, and hold hands, walking out of the church, the right couple at last

Hugh vanishes from the stage after his brief appearance at the party, on his way to a bachelor’s party — he has lost a lot of money as well as pride and his heart’s desire.

Of course it’s not all quiet trauma and doubt. The actresses are all very pretty, Helen especially in her melancholy and strong stasis


Helen brooding at a window (same posture seen in Anna Maddeley as Mrs Hall), standing in front of the car on the cold morning, enduring the coming wedding still

There are two other romances, which while moving at glacial paces, seem to be getting somewhere. Lovely ceremoniousness between Siegfried and an older woman friend of Mrs Hall, Dorothy (Maimie McCoy); like my present hero, Christopher Foyle (who knows not Michael Kitchen?), Siegfried says he is having difficulty forgetting his deceased wife. Tristan is perhaps more than flirting with Maggie (Mollie Winnard).


James and Helen with Connie (Charlie May-Clark) who has hopes of Herriot and finds everything so festive


Preparations for the coming feast — Siegfried overlooking what Mrs Hall has set out in the kitchen

Throughout the episode there is much happy activity, Christmas party, Christmas dancing, Siefried as Santa in green and white; the farmer’s market, Mrs Hall’s food, her shopping for Brussel sprouts. The dog does give birth finally and we watch the first puppy struggle for life and survive. Christmas carrolling in church (de rigueur in such films). Scenes of people eating together, drinking, just (as at the end) being together. All well-meaning. That does seem to be a universal tendency of these Christmas stories; when we meet a genuine evil man, like Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in It’s a Wonderful Life, he is hated by all and thwarted, to the great satisfaction of all viewers, including this one.

If you are like me, home alone, you can vicariously join in to a Christmas that is believable. I do most days need some cheering up, so often so sad that right now my movie-watching includes this year’s All Creatures Great and Small, the set of DVDs sent me by my friend Rory. They still my heart with the strong projection of love, understanding, kindness between one another. I am especially fond of the direct emphasis on the animals the Vets and everyone else too are caring so tenderly for. That the first episode of the second season (about to start on US TV on PBS) opened with an temporarily ill but still adorable cat being taken care of by James was perhaps overdoing it …


Mrs Pumphrey (Diana Rigg) and Tricky-Woo — alas they are not in the Christmas episode

A few words about the differences between this 21st century version and the 20th: The 1978 serial is realer, its pastoral qualities quieter or not so determined, for money comes up right away, people have vexed and unforgiving temperaments.  The housekeeper is not so pretty or obliging and motherly (she keeps her distance, is a paid servant). There is far less depth of emotion. The literal events are much closer to the book.  This 21st century version has added characters (Helen’s sister for example, Herriot’s mother), usually a sign of strong change. I’m glad to see the overbearing dictatorial mother of the 21st century is not in the book. The women in the first series simply go to work, and are less self-conscious about it — dare I say the 20th century version is more quietly feminist? The 1978 series makes no strong effort to be pro-family the way this new series does — everyone does not become a honorary family member somewhere. Hugh’s role is smaller; he is simply preferred by Helen’s family for his higher rank and money. Much less is made of Mrs Pumphrey (Diana Rigg in the new iteration) and Tricky-Woo, the pampered pug. It seems in the 21st century the film-makers assume we long for imagined strong communities where people live up to some social obligations they usually don’t in real life. The 1978 is quicker in pace; I don’t feel it’s more comic though it’s trying to be. We might say the 2020/21 is a more romantic familial series (following in the steps of the 21st century The Durrells?)

Both series show the characters caring for the farm animals and pets, but as far as I watched of the 1978 version (I stayed only for a trial week) the cameras don’t come up as close to them, and I feel at more intensely caring approach is felt in the 2021 episodes. The wikipedia articles tells you that Nicholas Ralph had to do quite a bit of training to enact his role. Mrs Hall (Audrey) is centrally involved in all the veterinarian business too (all personal and professional issues). The impersonal minor presence on the typewriter, in the kitchen in the old 1978 series in this 2021 version holds up the light by which Herriot performs a dangerous operation on a cow.

I would say the 2021/2 version of All Creatures Great and Small is far more theatrical than any of the previous (including the original movie)

Gentle reader, you could do far worse than spend one of these holiday evenings watching the Christmas episode of the 2021 All Creatures Great and Small.

Ellen

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Donal McCann as Phineas Finn defending the Duke of Omnium in Parliament (1974 BBC Pallisers, scripted Simon Raven, Episode 23)


Dillsborough as drawn by the Geroulds; an alternative title for The American Senator (written 1875, serialized 1876) is A Chronicle of a Winter at Dillsborough

Dear Friends and readers,

Tempus fugit. It was mid-November when I finished teaching The Prime Minister (written 1874, serialized 1875) to two OLLIs classes; in both the book taught later in the day had proved a hard sell as I lost half the class, but with those who stayed, it was a resounding success. I don’t recall classes as involved, quoting passages at me, coming up with interesting interpretations, so engaged. It is one of several outstanding masterpieces by Trollope. A week or so later the London Society Trollope zoom group finished its reading and discussion of The American Senator.

As in the original publication of these two books written in close temporal proximity, The American Senator held far more people (once we got over the initial complicatedly laid-out place and geneaologies), was far more popular than The Prime Minister (well over 100 people stuck it out to the end of The American Senator), but by the end it was not clear that the mix of caricature, philosophical-political analysis, and ironic domestic story in AS had been as seriously probing, and ended as having the same large philosophical and anthropological (as a study of how politics works) application as PM. AS could still command a review in the 1940s Scrutiny, as a political fable well worth the perusal, but PM withstood (so to speak) the imaginative attention to transformed detail, psychologically complex characters, and politics (from angles like newspaper humiliation) we see in Raven’s adaptation. Taken together, both give the reader a sense of a realistic depiction the life of the average middle class to fabulously wealthy people in the UK at the time.

I here compare the two books here concisely with the aim of encouraging readers to read them, about them, and watch the film adaptation (Episodes 20 to 23 of the BBC 1974 Pallisers).


The two friends, Susan Hamilton as the Duchess and Barbara Murray, as Mrs Flynn plotting the coming ministry (Pallisers Episode 20)

The Prime Minister is the fifth Palliser, the final culminating story of the couple Lady Glen and Plantangenet Palliser that began in The Small House of Allington (the fifth Barsetshire book) and comes to the end on the first page of The Duke’s Children (Palliser 6) with the death of the Duchess in the novel’s first sentence. Arguably it’s the 11th novel in a vast roman fleuve comprised of 12 books (the 6 Pallisers coming out of the 6 Barsetshires’ landscape imaginary). A new angle of scrutiny is dramatized before us: what is meant by political work? where is it done? how do people go about it? how does this activity connect to what happens in Parliament? and how does what’s decided in Parliament impinge upon, shape, the lives of the people governed.

The American Senator is a singleton, a free standing book, but some of the characters and a place near Dillsborough recur in Ayala’s Angel (1880).

I’d like to focus on what seems original in Trollope, and peculiar to him, and then what is peculiar to each of these two novels. For both: An underlying paradigm of the Self versus Society once again holds Trollope’s multiplot patterns together in both novels. Long passages of interiority, interior views of characters show characters in search of their heart desires (or pocketbook’s needs). Characters are fiercely independent, guard their inner autonomy. They obstinately hold on and hold out.

As in Phineas Redux, in PM Trollope alludes to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s meditative poem, “A Musical Instrument” the high cost to individuals of succeeding in life; how it is important to resist while conforming insofar as you need to, must, or want. In both books we have some panoramic sweep combined with precise detail. Never mind whether the character feels he or she is doing good, it’s the priority of their self’s conditions or terms of existence we see the working out, while all the while they know they cannot thrive unless they are embedded in their communities.


Barsetshire, East and West, with the railway to London at Silverbridge, and Matching Priory and Gatherum in the west (by Michael Sadleir, based on Trollope’s own map)

The Prime Minister has (like many of the twelve books) a second plot-pattern which in various ways contrasts to, parallels, ironically undermines and crucially intersects with the political matter. The story of the failure of the marriage of Ferdinand Lopez to Emily Wharton, of his attempt at a political career using the Duchess as patroness, and using egregious astonishing lying, a story of a rise to high respectability from nothing at all, and near momentary triumph, in corrupt stockbroking, familial, marital and sexual conflicts & violence. It includes a segment which brings in colonialist imperialism, in Latin American (Guatemala).

Trollope comes as close as he dares to portraying how a young woman beginning life as firm in herself, of high self-esteem, and under the strains of emotional manipulation, isolation, abuse, ending a shattered hammered-at easily distressed wife, then widow: it will take her a long while to come back to self-acceptance and a fate she perhaps mistook as one she didn’t want.  Lopez is the dark Hamlet of the book, the most fascinating and least (or perhaps most) knowable character of the book, given the most powerful scene in all Trollope. He is perhaps derived from a Jacobean play.


Sheila Ruskin as Emily, rueful, realizing how mistaken she was in the nature of the man she has married (Episode 22)


Stuart Wilson as Ferdinand Lopez, pained and humiliated before lashing out furiously (Episode 22)

Arguably each of the Palliser or Parliamentary novels deals with political behavior in different ways. In Can You Forgive Her? has a man without money try to stay in Parliament in a London district – finds he cannot afford it, even begin. It’s a book against the kind of patronage and bribery that were prevalent before the 1867 and 1872 acts. In the two Phineas books Trollope dramatizes issues fought out (important ones like the franchise, group representative, secret ballot) and we see Trollope’s hero trying to keep to his conscience, so vote against the gov’t which has given him a paid job because of what he promised and how he wants to serve his constituency.

In The Prime Minister we learn that politics is socializing, partying with people, that’s the way you build coalitions and get bills passed, but if you become indifferent to what is passed, lose all sense of boundaries or have no genuine political beliefs, meaningful action is erased away. Selling yourself, being willing to bend and tolerate all sorts of POVs not your own to the point that you become indifferent to what precisely you are voting for is to be there sheerly for power, money and high rank. In all four books the way these themes are worked out is through large groups of characters over long stretches of prose, many incidents coming to climaxes I for one am often riveted by. Glencora is on the side of looking at politics as a power game, as socializing as central to an individual triumph; Plantagenet wants to do useful things for his constituencies, and finds the triumphs a burden.

Here is but one scene faithfully transposed by Raven from a typical high conflict between Lady Glen (the Duchess) and Plantagenet (the Duke): From Trollope’s Prime Minister, II, Chapter 32.


The Duchess unpinning her elegant hat as the scene begins

Duke: “Cora!”
Duchess: “Yes” (looking in the mirror at herself). Mastershot shows us the configuration of the room, where they are in relation to one another, the maid. She is still humming.
He closes the door. Irritated dark look in his face.
Duke: “Why is it hard to kill an established evil?”
Duchess: “What evil have you failed to kill, Duke?”
He is standing looking at cork soled boots, picks one up, looks at soles. (We are to recall that when Lady Rosina talked about cork soled boots she meant nothing else, no subtext; the Duchess is endlesss subtext.)
Duke: “The people in Silverbridge (the maid comes over to where he is and he begins to help her pick up the basket by handing it to her), they’re still saying I want to return a candidate for ’em.”
Duchess: “Oh! (looks hesitant and smiles placatingly). So that’s the evil. It seems to me to be an admirable (maid quietly walks out the door, new mastershot of room from another angle) institution which for some reason you wish to murder.”
Duke (soft voice): “Well, I must do what I think is right. I’m sorry I don’t carry you with me in this matter, Cora.” (He turns round to face her). “But I think you’ll agree on this (piercing look at her, she looks down though not facing him, but us) that when I say a thing should be done, then it should be done.”
She sighs and with a wry expression on her face she puts on gloves.
He looks grim.
Duchess: “Any more suicidal thing than throwing away that borough was never done in all history.
Who will thank you? How will it help you? It is like King Lear throwing off his clothes in the storm because his daughters threw him out.”
Duke (deep voice) “Glencora. Cora.” (Bridling and he walks to the wide door and closes both sides of one facing us. He means to endure a scene.)
She sits, now gloveless and begins to take off her hat.
Duke turns round. “Now I have chosen that I shall know nothing about this election in Silverbridge because I think that that is right.”
Duchess. “Yes, Uncle Lear.”
Duke: “And I’ve chosen that you should know nothing about it. (Walks behind her and sits to her side, but nearby), and yet they’re saying at Silverbridge that you are canvassing for Mr Lopez.”
Glencora (turns round, close up, concerned face). “Who says that?”
Duke: “I don’t think that it matters who said it so long as it is untrue. Now I trust that it is untrue.”
Duchess (look perturbed and worried). (Gulps.) “Of course I haven’t been canvassing for Mr Lopez.”
Camera on his dark face listening.
Duchess: “But I did just happen to mention to Mr Sprout the cork-sole man that I rather approve of Mr Lopez in a general social way.”
Duke (low voice): “Well, Mr Sprout is a very prominent citizen in Silverbridge. Well, I particularly asked you not to speak on this matter to anyone at all.”
Duchess: “But I only said that I thought .. think that he … ”
Duke (interrupts fiercely) “What business had you to say anything” (loud, emphatic, the feel of him hitting something without doing it).
She looks up at him. “Well, I suppose I may have my sympathies as well as another. You’ve become so autocratic (she gets up and walks over to the door, looks like she is about to open it) I shall have to go in for women’s rights.”
Duke (other side of the room). “Cora. Cora. Don’t separate yourself from me. Don’t disjoin yourself from me in all these troubles” (crying sound in his voice).
Duchess (high pitched and turns round) “What am I to do when you consistently scold me. ‘What right had you to say anything?’ No woman likes that sort of thing, and I do not know of any who like it less than Glencora (comes over to sofa and curtsies) Duchess of Omnium.”


The Duke’s listening face

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By contrast, in AS, you have a single figure, Senator Go-to-bed, who castigates with direct invective and rhetoric and subjects through sarcasm, his own acts, and continually irony all the characters of Dillsborough to an often hostile critical analysis of what they are doing. He is often literally accurate, if you take away the local culture (hunting), unfortunately offensive (even to those whose unfair circumstances he supposedly is aiming to ameliorate), and is himself the target of fleecing corruption by those he’s trying to help.

Gotobed is embedded, provides a sort of link for several intertwined stories. The mirror he holds up reflects multiple directions and perspectives within these groups of characters and stories, and on topics like the woman question (the problems of women finding a suitable partner whom she wants to marry and who wants to marry her in a world where the alternative seems destitution or humbling dependency), church incomes, the class-biased court system. The other characters are psychologically believable but are allowed to behave in (to contemporaries) bizarrely-taboo breaking ways to expose cracking systems (the aristocratic way of courtship and enforced marriage).

The concentration on “way out” behavior is meant to startle and sometimes sympathize with a character in desperation (Arabella Trefoil) even if they bring the destruction nearly down on themselves. It’s important that the highest titled person, the man the aristocratic women are panting to marry (especially Arabella Trefoil), Lord Rufford, is a weak cad, a drone, and eventually becomes the henpecked husband of a petty spiteful aristocratic woman.

To me it seems another quietly ironic attack on the British hierarchical systems; but Gotobed offers a problematic depiction of the US at the time. 1876, the year AS was published saw the bargain election of Rutherford Hayes and the abandonment of reconstruction by the US congress so that a reign of racial terror began to spread across the south; in an article Trollope himself wrote for St Paul’s Magazine, he shows himself against a universal equal franchise and especially against giving previously enslaved or any Negro the vote.  Gotobed holds the US up as an egalitarian and just world, one man one vote, and it’s not.

There is much comedy in The American Senator, so I’ll give an example of Trollope at his most tactful good-natured best in in Chapter 27, “Wonderful [or talkative] Bird!”:

An unnamed old lady and her parrot impinge on the semi-courting of one of the two heroines, Mary Masters, by my favorite among the gentlemen Mortons, Reginald (he prefers to read) as they travel by train from Dillsborough (not yet identified) to Cheltenham (a real place). It is a comic piece filled with good feeling, tactfully presented.

Reginald Morton has offered to accompany Mary Masters to his aunt, Lady Ushant’s house. It would seem it was still strongly preferable for a middle class girl to be accompanied on a long journey. He and she find themselves in a compartment for a journey of thirty miles — except for an old lady ‘who has a parrot in a cage, for which she had taken a first-class ticket’. The old lady is slightly anxious because as the couple come in, she says: ‘”I can’t offer you this seat . . . because it has been booked and paid for for my bird”‘. Our narrator assures us our young friends had no desire to separate themselves one from the other to sit near the old lady.

The idea is to undercut sentiment by the pragmatic presence of a wisely indifferent animal. Our parrot is, however, as indifferent to his mistress as he is to our romantic couple. Our old lady is also less obtrusive than the careless reader might think. Since Reginald and Mary regard the old lady sheerly in the light of an obstacle, her words are bathed in their sense of her; read more carefully, she emerges as somewhat more vulnerable and in need of her bird than one might think. Her bird is, however, like some force of nature. Sometimes his noise goes with her, and sometimes it goes against her. For example, she asks Mary, ‘”don’t you think you’d be less liable to cold with that window closed?” the old lady said, to Mary. ‘Cosed, — cosed, — cosed, ‘ said the bird, and Morton was of course constrained to shut the window.’ So the old lady gets her way. Towards the end of the chapter we discover that the old lady and her bird did not do so well when they went into another carriage:

Her bird had been ill-treated by some scurrilous, ill- conditioned travelers and she had therefore returned to the comparative kindness of her former companions. ‘They threatened to put him out of the window, sir’, said the old woman to Morton, as she was forcing her way in. ‘Windersir, — windersir’, said the parrot.
‘I hope he’ll behave himself here, ma’am’, said Morton.

‘Heremam, — hereman, — heremam’, said the parrot.

‘Now go to bed like a good bird’, said the old lady, putting her shawl over the cage, — whereupon the parrot made a more diabolical noise than ever under the curtain’.

In Gilbert and Sullivan songs the fun is sometimes in irrational mockery of nonsense syllables. Reginald apologizes for his behavior at Bragton, ‘”I always am a bear when I am not pleased’, “Peas, — peas, — peas”, said the parrot.’ Reginald is himself not keen on the parrot’s presence, ‘”I shall be a bear to that brute of a bird before long . . . He is a public nuisance”‘. Then he tries to speak of when he and Mary ‘were always together’, and the bird says, ‘”Gedder, — gedder, — gedder”‘. Morton gets angry and thinks to speak to the guard, and this wakes the apparently sleeping old lady. She is alive to the threat although she has paid for the first- class ticket, and says, ‘”Polly mustn’t talk”‘, to which the bird replies, ‘”Tok, — tok, — tok”‘ (p. 184). Ungrateful bird.

The scene is not wholly undercut in this manner. Reginald does manage to apologize for something he did, and Mary does manage to tell Reginald she is not engaged to Larry Twentyman. Reginald manages to tell Mary that he ‘”is glad to hear it”‘ and fill her mind once again with the sense that she is above Larry Twentyman, or ought to think herself so. In this scene Trollope conveys a deep sense of sincere loving emotions going on between this couple of which they themselves are not wholly aware. They are eager, anxious, at moments uncomfortable, but trying to reach one another somehow.

We might look upon the old lady and her bird as another pair of far more incongruous but equally unconscious potential partners for life.


Fred Walker, a novel illustrator, painter of the era: Spring: this could be Mary Masters as a younger girl or one of her sisters, say Kate who marries Larry Twentyman

I have written on both books elsewhere. Happily, on my website I gathered together a good deal that I wrote with a group of people who read The American Senator together and refer my reader there. You can also see what Trollope thought about American society in his travel book, North America. Here on the Net there is more on The Prime Minister as dramatized in Raven’s Pallisers than the book itself. See Phineas Finn into The Prime Minister and The Prime Minister into The Duke’s children here

Ellen

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Untitled (Still Life) — Alma Thomas


[Pine] Trees [from Maine series] — David Driskell

Today I saw with a friend, a dual exhibit at the Phillips Collection of the marvelously luminous and comforting paintings, puppets, costume, and prints of Alma Thomas and the visionary, sorrowful, African American paintings, prints and stained glass window work of David Driskell


Alma W. Thomas, 1963


David Driskell, recently

I’ve been to the Phillips many times before, the last time to see the exhibit made from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. This earlier one was on the theme of global displacement. Here we concentrated on the work of two individual geniuses, African-American both, lifelong teachers of art both, with Driskell, a student of Thomas’s. I didn’t buy the heavy expensive catalogue books, so cannot share images except those I’ve found here on the Net. No matter. If you live close by, you can go, and the two exhibits have been traveling about the US for some time now.

It includes two excellent movies, the one about Alma Thomas focusing more on her life and how her work emerged form that; the one about David Driskell focusing on details of his art, how he did the prints, his religion. She found great solace and fulfillment in her 35 years in one classroom; he spoke of the ugly things he saw in social worlds in his experience and sought to escape. One of the most frightening moments in the two exhibits was a clip from his film showing a gang of Ku Klux Klan people in white sheets in the dark of night setting on fire icons on the grounds of the traditionally Negro college Driskell attended. One of the most poignant moments of of hers was her gladness at never having married, at having been a Miss Thomas all her life, and the independence that meant; at one point late in life she had a bad case of arthritis and was bedridden for two years; when she started painting again, she used pillows and whatever came to hand to paint huge canvases (some seen at the exhibit).

I’ve linked in the two excellent wikipedia and Phillips’ articles about their lives and work. I will find articles and more modest books, obtain them and add to this blog.

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Two of the galleries with Alma Thomas’s art

For now what I’d like to emphasize about Alma Thomas, is she lived a long life as an African-American, with all its hardships and painful experiences, but also embedded in communities of Black people in DC and of artists (once she grew older and had gone to Howard University), these gradually including the finest artists of the century. So when she says “everything is beautiful,” and declares so roundly on the joys of creativity and how much she rejoiced in teaching and her experiences of life, she is speaking from the heart. Her art developed from a quiet realism, some of it a kind of naive school,


Alma Thomas’s Mandolin

to her own brand of abstract expressionism — thousands of squares of color making figures and designs her titles give concrete allusive meaning to. This is from her Journey to Abstraction:

This is just a gorgeous pink when literally seen on the wall:

From her Flower Garden:

The many circles are a transposition of deeply rooted memories of a garden she saw as a child; she loves controlled precise forms too

I like realism more and wish I could share with you her pictures of her grandfather’s house, of a neighborhood of quiet private houses seen from the POV of their back yards (you see above her mandolin). Each of her drawings has a consistency with the others in mood and tone. Her mother was a dressmaker, she participated in putting on plays, making costumes herself, drawing some figures that looked like dreams of historical romance, and made a puppet set once:


Clown and woman marionettes, Fabric, wood, paint, and strings

The touching qualities of these, with their hints of African-American life in enslavement must be seen live.

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Here is David Driskell, surrounded by his paintings in his studio

Driskell’s art is a lot more aggressive, and troubling, much more African motifs, strong contrasting colors:

He presents his own image here and there, very somber:

He seems to love trees:


Winter Trees, this is called

Here is Driskell’s obituary with hard pictures of African-American men, far angrier than anything seen in the Phillips. In the Phillips’ exhibit there were a number of modern versions of writhing Christs and the film showed stained glass windows with modern Church imagery in African-American churches

Here he is surrounded by his work once again, this time in a Maine Contemporary Center for Art

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What to say? how to conclude, now that I know the history of lynching and repeated massacres and arson burn-outs of African American people and communities — Thomas’s grandfather was born enslaved, and as a girl she lived in Georgia where she could not progress in school past the 9th grade. That was one reason her parents moved with her and her sisters to DC. Here is what she wrote in 1970:

“Creative art is for all time and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality; the statement may stand unchallenged.”
-Alma Thomas

Here is his hopeful strong statement:

“I was not looking for a unified theme,” he told The Times in 1977. “And this, of course, usually upsets the critics because they want to see a continuous kind of thing. I was looking for a body of work which showed first of all that blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years, and by stable participants I simply mean that in many cases they had been the backbone.”

Both went to Howard University; for both education, what happened to them in schools and then churches (though she was not herself personally religious at all) were central to achieving, and pride of recognition and belonging to a world of superior spirits. And all that the Civil Rights Era has won for all of us which groups of deeply harm-driven people are trying to undermine.


Thomas’s depiction of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King uttered his famous “I have dream” speech

Ellen

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