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Archive for the ‘Costume drama’ Category


Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

I wanted to write something for Martin Luther King day on the web itself. So I read most of Baldwin’s If Beale Street could Talk, and then rewrote a blog written about If Beale Street could talk mostly just as a movie and from commentary about the book: I was startled to find what a tender tone is suffused throughout the book because of the inner spirit of the narrator, Tish (Clementine is a give-away of sorts, a symbolic name). It is a sort of romance! But also a book much like The Bluest Eye (a Coming of Age for girls book), except (one could say) Bluest Eye is l’ecriture-femme, Beale Street from a more masculine point of view. My theme is the tragic waste of US American racism for all, the pity of it, the terror too.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day: here in Virginia finally some mild gun control legislation has been passed by a democratic house and governor, and the result has been a threatened violent riot in Charlottesville, Va., organized by white supremacist groups with credible evidence they mean to cause havoc and use their guns; they are misrepresenting the legislation which does not at all infringe on the right of legitimate gun ownership. This demonstration and its misrepresentation of the passed gun control law has been endorsed by Trump. Governor Northam called in the FBI to investigate and three people were arrested. The day chosen was naturally this one, our National Holiday for remembering Martin Luther King, who might have been the best president we ever had — if he had lived. Murdered at 37 (before 40 like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and other black male leaders), MLK was responsible for a movement which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights act, today partly gutted by the Supreme Court. The demonstration was not violent but was immense as was the state police presence; OTOH, something a sizable majority of Virginians support gun control, and the democrats won on the issue. It is hopeful that no violence occurred because it may be that if Trump loses the next election, riots on his behalf to keep him in the presidency will be prevented.

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers trying to appeal to Victoria


But Victoria is herself walled in by her own anger, resentment hopeless impoverishment

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

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I now got hold of and read the book, before rewriting the original blog — as well as returning to David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog.

Crucially, no one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling. What is startling is how tender the tone of the novel when it comes to Fonny; the book is also a loving deeply sad romance, mourning how Fonny never had a chance.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little from the point of view of the woman who loved the man. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of the third-century Greek romance, Daphnis and Chloe, the later 18th century Rouseauistic Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Tish giving birth with her mother’s help


Bathing the baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more. At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I had placed a version of this on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.


An iconic scene from their beginning love story

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But today I know it belongs on my general blog and I have moved it here, and widened my purview in a coda where I offer my first response to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I began reading for the first time yesterday.

What a masterpiece of a first book. I recommend it and her Beloved on this day. The Bluest Eye is quiet, unassuming, the story of an American black family from the point of view of one of the younger daughter/sisters, Claudia. It brings home to me what a tragedy it is that working class white and black people in the US do not realize how much we have in common. As I read although my family did not have quite these hideous experiences (the house is burnt down – something white people did regularly and got away with until the last part of the 20th century) many of the desolating exclusionary experiences her family members know we knew. The attitudes of mind remind me of what we knew. So much in common and denied because of the use of “middle class” which skews whom one identifies with and enables people to ignore their real circumstances, what are their real expectations/hopes. Howard Zinn in his History of the People of the US shows that from the very beginning of the US state, the upper classes have been concerned to keep better off and poor whites from identifying with Native and African-Americans.

The story of the girl being given a white doll and destroying it bit by bit reminded me of Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. How Maggie hated that doll too and took it up to the attic to abuse it. I didn’t hate my dolls but an ugly story occurred around one, after which I destroyed it and had no more dolls but one Ginny (age 11) and tired of her soon with her fancy wardrobe &c The title comes from a little girl in the book, Pecola, who Claudia’s mother is kind enough to take in (her family has been smashed) and who tells her new friends, Claudia and her sister, Frieda, she longs for a blue eye, though all her features are African. Claudia is out of sympathy with this, thus producing an alienated perspective within an implicitly alienated earnest one.

The book has several of the classic incidents of a mature young girl’s novel, for example, when Pecola menstruates for the first time, is very frightened and how she is treated. By the way none of these occur in Little Women (another is sexual harassment, the closest Alcott gets to this is Meg Goes to Vanity Fair when Meg allows her hostess to sexualize her dress.) My last image for this blog is Emily Watson playing Maggie Tulliver in a 1997 BBC Mill on the Floss; she has been the best Marmee thus far too (in the 2017/8 BBC 3 part Little Women). When I got to the end of the book I was so angry, I threw it across the room and then through it out. The book ended with her forgiveness of a brother who had destroyed her life, her senseless death trying to rescue him.

We are reading these two novels by Morrison now on WomenWriters@groups.io; the last two months we read Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: she mentions only three girls’ books but two are Little Women and Mill on the Floss — she identified with Jo and Maggie. Well Claudia and Pecola and Clementine (Tish) are three more such heroines in the same vein ….

For Martin Luther King day a great powerful African-American literature and its close parallels with great powerful European-American literature by women — novels of girls growing up and the choices inflicted on them …

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Last night meaning to read a Christmas story by Anthony Trollope, I was deterred by Amazon. Amazon strikes again. On my stoop I found one of their harassed employees had left C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, finding the book irresistible, read it through instead of Trollope. And naturally a blog came …


Skating by Moonlight — Ladybird Advent Calendar

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark, where we have just experienced a sequence of Christmas scenes

In a (to Trollopians) a notorious screed against most matter produced for Christmas, Anthony Trollope defined what he thought a work for Christmas should contain:

Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity” (from An Autobiography)

Should it be that? Trollope’s own “The Widow’s Mite” is the story by him that comes closest to this but not all the others are quite that.  “Christmas at Thompson Hall” the one he produced after writing his frustrated thoughts is a story of comic anguish and strong stress in a woman trying to reach her relatives once a year from abroad on Christmas day.

What I discover is typical is a story usually set around Christmas, but it need not be (not all Trollope’s are, as for example, “Catherine Carmichael,” The Telegraph Girl,” and “Two Generals”), a story where characters are in need of kindness and show kindness, characters who forgive, reconcile or accept themselves with one another or something, but also make sudden philosophic comments appropriate to the story, who reach for some meaning.

I have a few recent Christmas movies and stories as examples, and C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a meditation on the story behind one of them, for a coda.


The last pair of lovers, the lucky Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Steevens) clutching one another wildly in front of enormous house …. (Downton Abbey, 2011)

I’ll begin with the TV “Christmas special” (two hours) I watched tonight:  appropriate to Christmas eve, thought I, a “feature” or coda which ended the second season of Downton Abbey, itself set during World War One and mostly about World War One (much softened). The sequences of events, the stories, what the characters are doing are all shaped by their occurring from a few days before December 25th, until what seems to be Twelfth Night, or January 6th, at any rate some time after the 1st when we’ve just had a “servants ball.”

Has what we have just experienced been Christmasy — well, yes, as the characters have put up and decorated a tree, had two servants’s special lunches and dinners, a Christmas eve party complete with charades, went shooting, exchanged presents. But have the individual stories been imbued “with a desire for … Christmas charity.” Not altogether but there has been much forgiveness of others and the self, some growth in self-acceptance and acceptance of one’s circumstances without blaming someone else, there’s been some real selfless love enacted, and just scenes of feeling good, partly by the characters all making sacrifices (however small) to enable another character to feel better about themselves, and have a good time. There’s been regret at having done a bad deed (but the deliberately lost dog was found), and we’ve even had ghostly doing with a ouija or spirit board.

My favorite line in the two hours is Mrs Hughes’s answer to Daisy’s “Don’t you believe in spirits, then?”: “I don’t believe they play board games.”


Audrey (Carolyn Farina) at Patrick’s Cathedral with her mother (1990 Metropolitan)

Two nights ago I saw a similar effort. The way Whit Stillman appropriated Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is to set an analogous set of characters and action in Manhattan Christmas week (starting a few days before Christmas and ending just after New Year’s Eve) in the 1990s. Metropolitan is to me a deeply appealing movie because it’s one of the few appropriations which use words from Austen (more from Emma than Mansfield Park) and mirrors some of her central ethical questionings.

We see a group of upper class twenty-year olds from very wealthy families accept among them a young man with far fewer funds (he lives on the West side, not East, takes buses and walks instead of hailing cabs); they discuss what is a good person, reject sexual harassment (and rape), worry the question of success for upper class people like themselves who have too high expectations and have never had to endure boredom, hardship or work hard as yet. The Fanny character (Audrey) rejects Lionel Trilling’s reading of Mansfield Park as egocentric, narrow-minded and domineering. (He does not like Fanny Price and says no one can; well, Audrey loves Fanny.)  The characters squabble, insult, and even fight one another (to the point of toy pistols), but the stories show our favored characters ending up tolerating, understanding, controlling themselves more out of respect for others, getting a wider perspective.

I admit I respond most deeply to the filming of typical NYC scenes during Christmas week at Rockefeller Center, on TV (the burning Yule log on Channel 11), shopping, lonely crowded streets and people going to rituals. Each time I watch I cry when Audrey and her mother sing carols in St Patrick’s cathedral.


Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) reads Goethe to Elizabeth on Christmas Day eve (towards the end of A Christmas Tale)

Last year it became my favorite Christmas movie and still is — why I began with Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. A family strained for many years by an estrangement between the middle living child, Henri, who facing bankruptcy, took advantage of the father and made him liable for his debts. The family would have lost their beloved ancient spacious house and their cloth dying business gone under, but the oldest girl, Elizabeth, is a money-making playwright and paid off the debt with the proviso Henri must be excluded from the family from now on. But Junon, the mother (played by Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia, is probably dying, so all now must pull together, including a younger son, Ivan, and Sylvia, his wife. It is explicitly a story of attempted reconciliations of all sorts.

What I love about this movie is what I like so about the Downton Abbey piece and Metropolitan, only here this central characteristic is so much stronger, more in play: just about all the characters are so complex in the way of characters in a novel, and (like Rohmer and Bergmann’s movies) you can watch and re-watch and each time learn more about all the characters. A viewer probably tends to focus on Elizabeth who is so bitter and who has a good relationship with Abel, her highly intelligent reading father, but not with Paul, her son who we’d call autistic and whom she wants to put in an asylum; her husband, Claude, has little patience with the boy. Also on Henri who dislikes his mother since she dislikes him, his grief over his dead wife, and restless Jewish girlfriend. It is Henri who helps bring Paul back to himself by paying attention to Paul: Henri identifies with the boy

This time (my fourth through) I noticed Junon, the mother, had self-consciously married a man who was ugly, not of high status, because Abel is kind and competent, a protector, loyal, and that he has enabled her to spend her life keeping at a distance from everyone. Also that Simon, the best friend of Ivan, Junon and Abel’s youngest son, and Sylvia, Simon’s wife’s has been leading a depressive life, until (in this week) he and Sylvia become lovers and Abel takes him into the factory. It seems that he was a rival for Sylvia long ago and she chose (probably not wisely she sees now) Ivan. This time I noticed it is Abel who takes both Simon and Paul into the family home they all find so precious, a kind of sanctuary inside a hard industrial city. Abel is seen quietly cleaning up, always there, the mainstay those who need to, lean on. In other words, the parents as complex people began to emerge in my mind.


The Come From Away cast as puzzled passengers ….

I’ve two more, neither occur around Christmas. Briefly this past Saturday afternoon, Izzy, Laura and I saw at the Kennedy Center the extraordinary (in the depths of feeling it occasionally reached) for an group concept, Canadian musical; and astonishing (in sudden individual moments, separate soliloquies, character sketches), Come from Away. It is the upbeat story of how a large group of American planes were landed in Newfoundland, Canada, because the area had a large unused airport, and how the people living in the towns all about welcomed the people on the planes, took care of them.

It’s a story we are much in need of since the spread of hatred and fear these past few years by Trump and his regime, and others like itaround the world. I’ll content myself with a review in the New York Times. Ben Brantley explains this show and its context better than I could.


Deborah Winger and Anthony Hopkins as Joy and Jack

More at length: last week with a friend I watched Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands, the story of the slow coming together of C.S.Lewis in his later year as a Don, with Joy Gresham, an American woman with whom he had been corresponding for years. If Christmas is mentioned, that’s because the movie covers a number of years. It does show characters behaving with singular charity and forbearance towards one another. It’s Christmasy, though, because it seeks to put the events of the story, especially a painful death of Joy Gresham (played by Deborah Winger), a relatively young woman, from bone cancer; a framework that makes it meaningful at the same time as the central character, “Jack” Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) cries out in anguish over the senselessness, cruel suffering and loss such a death entails. It is shaped by Christian apologetics, so to speak, especially on the existence of pain (as found in Lewis’s own writing). In the film we see Jack giving sermons on this topic.

Shadowlands was a hit the year it came out, gained many prizes. C.S. Lewis is nowadays known widely for his children’s fantasy series, Narnia Chronicles, whose stories may be allegorized as about the life and figure of Christ. I knew Lewis’s work from my 20s in graduate school as a brilliant literary critic (The Allegory of Love springs to mind), but Jim when I met him knew and was still under the spell of Lewis’s religious apologetic polemics ( which years later Jim found abhorrent): The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and Surprized by Joy, the story of his supposed conversion from atheism to Anglicanism. Maybe this is why the movie was dared and accepted.

The problem is, for some, maybe many, Lewis’s arguments can be seen as ultimately sadistic, a romancing of pain and suffering. The movie is hagiographic, follows an idealizing biography of the Gresham-Lewis relationship (with the same title): by contrast, another by Abigail Santamara tells of how Gresham pursued Lewis consciously, was very ambitious, and how Lewis was at first reluctant, married her yes to provide her with the right to live in London, and gradually fell in love. It’s a popular-oriented film so we get this reductive idea Lewis was simply cold, inhibited, in retreat, not daring risks like the figure in The Roman de la Rose (which he lectures on), and Joy brought him out of this. She is presented probably as she was — slightly obnoxious, rude in her bluntness. But the romance is very well done, the script intelligent, tasteful — the history of Joy’s cancer; the diagnosis, first radiation treatments, the remission, the return and then the decline into death is done realistically (to some extent) and made moving. We watch Lewis by Joy’s side throughout; he is there for her as she goes out — as I was when Jim died. The movie does not stop at her death but carries on, showing Lewis at first in a rage, then slowly calming down, and towards the end still with his brother and now Joy’s boy, his son growing up, if not accepting what happened, able to deal sanely with this unexpected past.

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Helen Dahm Swiff (1878-1986), Silent Night

I’ll end on the book I was prompted to buy after seeing Shadowlands. It arrived today, just in time for Christmas Eve: Lewis’s A Grief Observed, yet another memoir of someone dealing with extreme grief over the loss for him or her of a beloved person, and the death and suffering that person knew. All four of these movies record deaths: in Downton Abbey, it’s the hero’s fiancee, then her father, the scullery maid and cook’s husband, son of a farmer who has lost all his children. A Christmas Tale begins with the death of the first boy of Abel and Junon, age 6; he is never forgotten during the film. In Metropolitan we are told of the death of some of the characters’ parents, the divorce of others, and one of the intelligent young men discusses what he says is everyone’s need to believe in God, and what he regards as the probably that there is a God. How else carry on? These kinds of inference I think come from over-reaching: you can see life as good and enjoy much even if it has no meaning beyond the experience of life itself. Come From Away shows awareness that thousands have just been killed in an engineered disaster.

As I began to read, I found myself remembering immediately what a wonderfully alive writer Lewis is, how eloquent, how daring his use of language. And how brilliant he is, and how persuasive he can be — partly because he tells enough truth, is so perceptive about whatever experiences he is getting down. He spoke home to me, and ranged widely. He kept several notebooks from which this slender book came. Towards the end he talks of the “arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ “Poor warped fragments of humanity.”

The first chapter is his own strong anger, and fear. Lewis finds grief feels like fear — yes, I felt profound terror when I first truly had the thought I would have to be alone in the world without Jim. He talks of how “it is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ In this first state he is an embarrassment to others; he cannot endure to listen to them. It resonated with me when Lewis says he cannot remember Joy’s face (he’s seen too many versions), hear her voice, imagine what she would say or do in this or that situation. She is now an absence. I like how he says Joy remained the other, a self apart, and when she would be with him, he would see how he had distorted her in his mind.

In the second chapter he draws himself up and realizes he has been thinking only of himself: what of her, of the pain she knew, of her loss, what happened as she experienced it. Then the cant: she is in God’s hands. Right. Will fatal disease be diagnosed in his body too? “What does it matter how this grief of mine evolves or what I do with it? what does it matter how I remember her or whether I remember her at all? None of these alternatives will either ease or aggravate her past anguish.”

The third and fourth chapter are much harder to capture. Unlike Julian Barnes’s masterly grief memoir in Levels of Life, Lewis does not move as an argument because in a way there is none: he sees the senselessness and cruelty of what has happened and then refuses to infer there is no God, and so moves in circles around the torturous draining traumatic and gradually therapeutic experiences he is enduring. He questions himself a lot. “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have bee so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.” He explores what love is. We all experience “love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid-career … bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.” Then what grief: “something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

There is much more: on God, on human consciousness, on misunderstanding less, on mystic experiences, and how he and Joy their intimacy could only reach so far. He ends with a quotation from Dante where Joy is likened (if I am not mistaken) to either Beatrice or some eternal presence and “Poi si torno all’eterna fontana.”

I hope all who read this manage a contented cheerful Winter Solstice.

Ellen

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Phineas (Donal McCann) off to his election campaign in Loughton, for a 2nd time (1974 Pallisers 5:9)

Dear friends and readers,

I have come to the end of teaching the second Palliser novel, Phineas Finn, or the Irish Member, and, as with the close of my teaching of the first Palliser, Can You Forgive Her?, I find so much was said of serious, and yet in such varied areas, that it would take a full chapter in a book to begin to do them justice. So, as with my first blog on teaching the Pallisers, I’m going to single out two threads or themes. One of them links Palliser 2 back to Palliser 1 and indeed many of Trollope’s novels; the other led us to some insights into Trollope’s modernity, the feeling as you read a good many of his novels, that they are not picturesque or pastiche history, but living vital modern-sounding texts.

In Can You Forgive Her? I suggested that we find heroines who seek autonomy, liberty, a way to remain true to their seemingly innate instincts by self-negating. If you refuse to be aggressively after desires that are presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find or create an identity for yourself in. A secret self, another authentic existence. These natural desires are social constructs, not natural for all of us; many of us just don’t want for real what we are assumed instinctively to want. This is Alice’s standpoint: she wants out of the choices on hand; so too Lady Glen, for when confronted with Burgo’s demand she elope with him now, for there will never be another chance, she does not.


Phineas as the beginner, walking through the park to reach the Pallisers’ apartment, taking a cab only for the last 2 minutes (Pallisers 4:7)

In a book about a young man building a career for himself, making a place in the world quite different from the one he was born in, this following of the innate self or desires takes another form: Bill Overton (The Unofficial Trollope) described the pattern of action as self versus society. Again and again in Phineas Finn, he decides to do something, say not follow a legal career with Mr Low, but rather go into Parliament based on one man, Barrington Erle, finding a place (a rotten borough) he thinks Phineas could win. Everyone he talks to outside the Parliamentarians and his mentor and patroness, Lady Laura Standish, tells him how wrong and self-destructive such a choice will be. We move from his father (who doesn’t mean it), to Mr and Mrs Lowe, to Bunce, to Phineas himself. Late in the novel when he decides to vote for Irish tenant rights, and thus leave his gov’t place (and salary) and then Parliament itself (as he cannot afford it), everyone but his then admired mentor, Mr Monk, tell him how wrong, self-destructive and counter-productive such a choice will be. We get two sets of chapters of people “attacking” him.


Phineas stalking Violet (Mel Martin) (Pallisers 5:9)

He is not alone. Violet Effingham has four suitors, two she is drawn to, Oswald, Lord Chiltern and Phineas, and two she is not, Lord Fawn (very foolish) and Lord Appledom (very old), and each time she draws near a choice, she is surrounded by voices who urge her against her determination, be it Chiltern, a violent idle man, or Phineas, a poor, non-ranked needy one. Lady Laura marries Lord Kennedy in spite of her father and brother’s advice, distaste; then she leaves him in spite of not only her father and brother’s reluctant approval, but the hostility of the rest of her world.

This repeating pattern is what fuels the patterns and rhythms of many of Trollope’s novels, from Mr Harding in The Warden, Josiah Crawley in Framley Parsonage and Last Chronicle, Mark Robarts and Lucy (against different people but mostly Lady Lufton) in Framley, Lily Dale against so many when she refuses Johnny Eames, and nowadays legions of readers. I could go on but I’ve said enough: it is a pattern of alienation, of resisting the pressure to socially conform. The character does not have to be making the ethical choices: Lord Chiltern resisting his father and Violet. Sometimes a character acts this way, and were we not convinced that Mary, Lady Mason did the right thing in defying and disobeying the law, forging a codicil to a will because her mean selfish elderly husband would not leave any property to the son she had by him so he could not have been educated to be a gentleman, we might say she is hardening herself in her crime.  When late in Orley Farm Lady Mason is anticipating her trial the next day Trollope raves over John Everett Millais’s depiction of her earlier in the novel:


Found in Orley Farm, Volume 1, Chapter 5, “Sir Peregrine Makes a Second Promise”

She was now left alone, and according to her daily custom would remain there till the servant told her that Mr. Lucius was waiting for her in the dining-room. In an early part of this story I have endeavoured to describe how this woman sat alone, with deep sorrow in her heart and deep thought on her mind, when she first learned what terrible things were coming on her. The idea, however, which the reader will have conceived of her as she sat there will have come to him from the skill of the artist, and not from the words of the writer. If that drawing is now near him, let him go back to it. Lady Mason was again sitting in the same room—that pleasant room, looking out through the veranda on to the sloping lawn, and in the same chair; one hand again rested open on the arm of the chair, while the other supported her face as she leaned upon her elbow; and the sorrow was still in her heart, and the deep thought in her mind. But the lines of her face were altered, and the spirit expressed by it was changed. There was less of beauty, less of charm, less of softness; but in spite of all that she had gone through there was more of strength,—more of the power to resist all that this world could do to her … As she now sat thinking of what the morrow would bring upon her,—thinking of all that the malice of that man Dockwrath had brought upon her,—she resolved that she would still struggle on with a bold front. It had been brought home to her that he, her son, the being for whom her soul had been imperilled, and all her hopes for this world destroyed,—that he must be told of his mother’s guilt and shame. Let him be told, and then let him leave her while his anguish and the feeling of his shame were hot upon him. Should she be still a free woman when this trial was over she would move herself away at once, and then let him be told. But still it would be well—well for his sake, that his mother should not be found guilty by the law. It was still worth her while to struggle. The world was very hard to her, bruising her to the very soul at every turn, allowing her no hope, offering to her no drop of cool water in her thirst. But still for him there was some future career; and that career perhaps need not be blotted by the public notice of his mother’s guilt. She would still fight against her foes,— (Orley Farm, Vol II, Chapter 63, The Evening Before the Trial)

We may seem to have gone far from Phineas: we have not. He too holds out, holds firm, stands for his version of integrity.

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Now for Trollope’s modernity:


Phineas and Mr Monk (Bryan Pringle) in Ireland around Christmas discuss the coming vote in Parliament for Irish tenant rights (Pallisers 5:10)

To move to the thesis I presented to the classes, which enough people found interesting to discuss: after all the reasons we’ve come up with to explain why after hundreds of pages of struggle to get into Parliament, please and make friends with colleagues, and thence into office, and do a good job, to show what an able orator he is, Phineas decides to do what others and he himself regard as self-destruction, self-engineered defeat from his adherence to his Irish constituents (he does not seem very Irish, let alone Catholic) and principles (Trollope will not allow him so much as a peep to curtail landlord’s property rights), to feeling he is Irish (I used McCourt’s book, Writing the Frontier, & Owen Dudley Edwards’ long article on Trollope as an Irish writer) and should have a seat which is not rotten, to sheer melancholy (self-berating, disillusioned appraisals of everyone around him and himself), I suggest Phineas behaves the way he does because he feels he does not belong to the upper class English world all around him; then when he comes home, he discovers he has become an alien of sorts there too. He belongs nowhere and yet can function everywhere: in London he can plan a good railway for western Canada. He and Madame Max are uprooted people, like many of us.

The book I suggested delves into the causes of modern uprootedness is Simone Weil’s 1940 existential L’enracinement (mistranslated as The Need for Roots)

She explains or gives a history of how money and the state came to replace much more natural attachments: local, and now the familial is a desperate resort. Nation replaced religion which was seen to be powerless to help you – only controlled you – for African-Americans church was the one place to turn to. She gives history of industrialization as a building of prisons (factories) with severe limits on people desperate for a means of survival – by money. Families break up and shame is used to silence people. Taxes are a totally arbitrary imposition by one of these totalitarian nation-state gov’ts – or groups of people sometime headed by a king. People learned to hate the state but then in an odd inversion worship the very thing in concrete forms (the country) that they hate in people forms (bureaucrats) because they are deprived by people who manipulate these gov’ts for their own aggrandizement.

Here is Sartre’s description of how this alienation forms:

we must move deep into our own minds and remain true to them. We are obligated to feel a reality of anguish and abandonment when we realize we cannot turn to others to create our own meaning; at the same time as irrespective of others, no matter how they might try to stop us, we must fulfill our talents. We find we are here existing. (This reminds me of Heidegger’s thrownness.) The individual exploration of the self is what matters. We are a presence to ourselves. At the same time we must be responsible for our acts. If circumstances are against your doing something, Sartre says it is still cowardly not to do it — he insists you have the potential or capacity to act so not to act is a choice. Beauvoir (The Ethics of Ambiguity) says we have this impulse to disclose our real selves, to be found out and then to act out amid others what this real self is.

Is not this Phineas in so many of his soliloquies and finally his speeches in Parliament so carefully performed?

Weil again: she says since industrialism, the growth of enormous cities, the eradication of a sense of place by our having to move with say a job and the job itself can disappear tomorrow – employer knows no obligation to you – so what happens people latch onto nationalism, this idea of an imagined community we all belong to and call home. This identity we attribute to others and then ourselves. Well Madame Max has moved with her marriages, and now that she is (rumored) to be paying a second husband to stay away, it seems that in Vienna she cannot live the respected high social life she craves. So she comes to London to find a new community, and works hard to be accepted and rise “towards the light,” with her exquisite dinner parties, her dress, her wit.

What is so modern about Trollope is characters who are at home nowhere, who have no sense of belonging and long to belong and are at home everywhere – Madame Max a chief surrogate for this kind of thing. You can’t belong. There is nowhere to belong to. People in the room may not be willing to go so far as me in this idea. You can try to erect your own home – halcyon place (I recall Camus with his absurdist resolutions in Sisyphus.


Máire Ní Ghráinne as Mary Flood Jones reading Phineas’ letter promising to return and marry her (an addition by Raven who felt Phineas’s return might otherwise not be believable) — there is much brilliant use of filmic episotolary in the Phineas matter of the Pallisers (6:11)

Lest my reader think me gone mad with modernity, I called attention to an essay by Henry Rogers (“The Art of Madame Max,” Philological Review, 33, Fall 2007) on being in love with Madame Max her at the close he argues that Marie Goesler is the most quintessentially autobiographical of all Trollope’s characters. She plays many roles where she discloses her self – and reveals a carefully crafted persona protects her: in her Trollope unites the self and society, the internal and external worlds, realizing herself and being hersel, but she has known and continues to know much pain and loneliess – Barbara Murray tries to convey this again and again – the singing for example – in Phineas Redux she is superb – when she learns of his marriage to Mary Flood Jones and her pregnancy remarkable moment – who could do it today?


Here is Marie at the Duke’s extravaganza party at the Horns just after Phineas has rejected her offer of her money, with or without marriage (Pallisers 6:11)

And the idea that Phineas is a surrogate for Trollope is so common (having been in effect voiced by Trollope himself) I need not argue it.

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I conclude on how we ended our penultimate session (the last one was devoted to showing clips from Raven’s Pallisers): I brought into class an essay just printed in Trollopiana, by John Graves, where he argued that Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux are two separate books, among other things that PF stands very well just on its own with no loose ends. My two classes begged to differ. We took Trollope’s view that we have one novel or one story in two books. An overarching trajectory of the evolution of a specific group of characters over time links the two. One person even read aloud the final sentence of PF, and said when she had finished that, she turned the page expecting another chapter


In a brilliant wholly invented scene Phineas breaks up with his original friend, Laurence Fitzgibbon (Neil Stacey) as Fitzgibbon insults Phineas savagely as nobody, nothing, a cheat because Fitzgibbon thinks he has roots & rights as a landowner’s son and Phineas is threatening that (Pallisers 5:10)

Most people seemed very much to enjoy the novel and the older serial drama too — the final sessions in both classes were on Simon Raven’s Pallisers.  This series has stood the test of time (and no one else getting a true chance to re-adapt with full needed budget):  there I was describing filmic epistolarity, over voice, how a film is an art in its own right, and yes admitting to the losses of hidden inner life the novel as a form has on offer.

Next Up: The Eustace Diamonds

Ellen

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Nampara and the sea

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive! We are. We are. The past is over, gone. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow! It’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask — concluding passage spoken by Demelza in Graham’s Angry Tide is divided up, re-paraphrased to be more sentimental and spoken by Ross and Demelza in tandem as concluding passage in 8 but for Ross’s promise to return

Friends and readers,

The ending of the eighth episode of this (last?) fifth season is carefully structured so that its last scenes (and words) are those the eighth Poldark book, The Stranger from the Sea implicitly rehearses at its opening as the remembered ending of the 7th book, The Angry Tide. In case we don’t see this (Debbie Horsfield has to keep in mind the viewership may not have read the first seven books upon which the five seasons of the new Poldark are based), she underlines a projected intent with a (overdone) reiteration by Ross that he promises Demelza he will return. The music surges, his figure is seen walking into the distance rhythmically like some god or force as she watches from the cliff.


Ross’s (Aiden Turner) last words to Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson): “I swear to you, my love, I will return ….”

In this second half of the season once Despard (Vincent Reagan) is hanged, the love stories that Horsfield has developed out of Graham’s material and her additions take over what subjective space and matter there is and are more or less concluded: Cecily Hanson (Lily Dodsworth-Evans) attempts to elope to Jamaica with Geoffrey Charles (Freddie Wise) and is thwarted by her father. Morwenna (Ellise Chappell) cannot resist stalking the small child John Conan, causes emotional havoc for herself and Drake (Harry Richardson) and almost lands Drake in prison once again, except that the harridan old woman, Lady Whitworth (Rebecca Front) softens, after which we are expected to believe Morwenna goes home cured, ready to have sex with Drake. (What does one thing have to do with another? She was not avoiding sex because she was in love with this child — it was her memories of harrowing sadistic sex that froze her.)

Tess (Sofia Oxenham) functions like the femme fatale of spy thrillers (more on this in the comments) except she is a thug: she heads a band of thieves stealing precious ore from Ross’s mine, she lures Sam (Tom York) turned stupid once again, away from the good pious Rosina (Amelia Clarkson), and has an affair with Ross who himself uses her for his plot to undermine the French conspiracy to invade England.

Side stories suggested briefly: Caroline’s (Gabriella Wilde) maternal instincts are aroused when Mowenna’s baby is born and, like Morwenna with Drake, almost miraculously, she is ready once again to have sex and a child with Dwight (Luke Norris). A much better scene is the one where she thinks of how she can approach someone powerful to protect Dwight from whatever he is doing (he also keeps her in the dark)


Sam and Rosina are a convincing pair until the silly Tess material intervenes and then they given but one scene together — it is effective their making up


Caroline is given gravitas in her dress and behavior in the last parts of the fifth season — mostly during the trial and aftermath

I say what subjective matter there is because in the last two episodes of the season, the script is that of the spy-mystery thriller action-adventure melodrama so typical of serials on most TV channels in the last few years. The trajectory is that Ross (at first to save his own life when he is captured by a French traitor-revolutionary) pretends to join in on a French conspiracy to invade England; he is gathering information so that he can send it to William Wickham, and thus restore the respect he had enjoyed from this man before he became involved with Despard. He hides this motive and this aim from everyone so that he appears to have distanced himself and become another man, mean, cold, sexually unfaithful.

We are then treated (inbetween bouts of sentimental stories) antic twists and turns to as each of the characters who care so much for Ross and are so worried about him and put-off by his behavior themselves go through a trajectory of super-anguish, super-heroism, anger, and so on to match his, all presenting their inner souls in melodramatic (over-done) gestures. Time is taken out for Cecily and Geoffrey Charles to attempt two elopements, an absurd attempt of George to marry Cecily to spite his step-son (deterred by the step-son suggesting Cecily could be pregnant so George would have another illegitimate child), Ross and Demelza to hide the lovers who are nonetheless snatched away, he beaten within an inch of his life, she deciding she would rather not marry anyway, but for a moment feeling for him.

The reviews made fun of much of this, either implying or saying outright all was preposterous, outrageous improbability. Why should (for example) Meceron (Tim Dutton) and Hanson (Peter Sullivan) come to Cornwall to confide in George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) and his uncle (Pip Torrens) as their own means of revenging themselves on Ross. What should they revenge themselves on him for anyway? George Warleggan as a character is turned into convenient never-ending engine of spite against Ross until the last moment. (In the later books he dislikes Ross intensely but he has other interests.)


Geoffrey Charles and Cecily parting — they are the romance couple of the season

Everything culminates in Ross’s plan to have his friends (Drake, Sam, Zacky Martin [Tristan Sturrock]) set off fireworks to warn people (who we are told) of the invasion just as it starts (which it never seems to). He has told Dwight the truth since Dwight (whose character is utterly travestied) threatens to end the friendship unless Ross explains himself and Dwight is involved somehow or other. Since all our male friends are enlisted for this spectacle we have Morwenna and Rosina and Caroline (reminding me of Kitty in the 1950s Gunsmoke while Matt is out endangering his life) at home worrying. One of them even says “Be careful” in that usual way. At the last minute finally Demelza is told (off-stage so we have to guess) that Ross has all along been behaving as a mole-spy, having an affair with Tess as part of this cover-up.

So what does she do but rush back to Nampara to throw herself into the very danger from the French working there, which danger Ross purported to be protecting her from. A wholly improbable duel emerges because she then pretends to want to have sexual intercourse with the French leader in front of Ross to humiliate him. How far can we go? But along comes an unexpected deus ex machina: George, who turns up with a conscience and a gun to stop the dueling; he cannot bear to betray his country. (Everyone who is a major character must have some good qualities.) And (like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes) wakes everyone up to what is supposed reality.


Ross with sword — no cuckold he —

The program is now ready to swing back — in effect to erase all that has happened for 8 episodes. Geoffrey Charles (his name is never shortened), while bitterly disappointed, turns from grief to studying and training to be a soldier; he can certainly ardently love someone else – as he does in The Stranger from the Sea. Morwenna and Drake now have that baby, Loveday (with the strange name explained) we learn is growing up when we finally hear of her in Stranger from the Sea; Tess exposed, there is nothing left for Rosina and Sam but to marry as they are when the new book opens.

A self-reflexive touch was to bring Robin Ellis back as the Judge Halse who will put Merceron and Hanson away for a long time so we get Aidan Turner and Ellis shaking hands just about near the end. Poldark lives on you see – then we learn Demelza, now completely reconciled to Ross’s lying (and behavior) is pregnant again (accounting for Isabelle-Rose whom we will meet in Stranger from the Sea).

Some of these scenes could have been moving, and for fleeting moments are (Harry Richardson manages it) were it not that they are given such brief mostly unprepared for scenes and embedded in spy-thriller nonsense. I found Ross and Demelza’s last scene ludicrously overdone because of the reiterated “I will return.” If you turn off the sound, the actors are effective. By the time of Stranger in the Sea Ross has been away for months, in London and in Portugal and Spain, working for reform, and now a quiet agent-spy for George Canning. He returns to Demelza, presented as preferring Cornwall, one-third of the way into the book.


Far shot of George taking leave of Trenwith and the staff with dignity


Close up of him looking round once more at this place he had so coveted

One exception is the curiously moving silent pantomime moment given slow ritual play seen at a distance when George leaves Trenwith – which has been left abandoned when Stranger in the Sea starts again. The actor did pull it off, for a moment the last hour of this fifth season was lifted from its concluding morass of absurdities.


Ross takes out time to shame Tess (who Demelza says she feels sorry for but is smugly looking on) — the ejected bad woman

In the last two episodes especially of the fifth season we have the embarrassing spectacle of a intelligent and thoughtful woman script-writer and “creator” (the writer is the linchpin person of these costume dramas on British TV) leading a team of capable people to make a travesty out of fine somewhat seriously intended historical fiction. I presume it’s the drive for high ratings and in a gut level way her own lack of sympathy for costume drama and liberal-left politics. It saddens and dismays me to see this. She does update: Ross is “disappeared” by Hanson and Merceron at the opening of the 8th episode (like any rebel in contemporary fascist dictatorships)


Despard on the scaffold just before he begins to speak


Catherine watching from below

What is valuable in this fifth season (though represented through the lens of hostile conservative historians) is the presentation of the Despard story. I assume many more people will now have heard of this man than have done for many a decade. At the close of the fifth and sixth episodes time and dignity are afford the trial, testimonies and killing of Despard. He is allowed to give part of his speech at the time. Debbie Horsfield has read her history and the names of the men murdered alongside Despard are there and accurate.

Catherine Despard (Kerri McLean) was a pro-active intelligent woman who did all she could to publish what was cruelly inflicted on her husband and others in the prisons and to obtain a pardon for him after the guilty verdict. I was glad to see though Horsfield seemed to feel she needed to knit Catherine into the love stories so she has Dwight falling in love with Kitty (again a repeat — he fell in love with Keren Daniels, also another man’s wife Caroline reminds him) there was no sign of this woman having a romance with Dwight. Indeed in the story he is made to testify that Despard was mad and not responsible for his actions, the slur the newspapers placed on Despard’s actions, which survived into the 19th century histories of the incident.

Costumes, setting, music: Looking back over the five years I’d say one of the strongest elements has been a combining use of music and landscape to mesmerize the viewer, to create a continual mood which draws upon the place (Cornish landscape, seascape, minescape) and the projection of passion in the actors. When a sequence or scene is given some time, it’s been especially effective, but even when the scenes are swiftly and endlessly switched back and forth, the music offers a continuity that binds the experience together. The costumes blended in, did not call attention to themselves except when the character was in an occasion.

This last season a decision was made to dress Eleanor Tomlinson in an emerald green pelisse and matching squarish hat; the effect was to emphasize her height, and make her look mannish; since several times she is put on horseback, riding to some rescue, I suppose this was an attempt to make her into a female hero but found it grating, alienating. I have read comments by her which suggest how much she loves the Demelza of Graham’s books. Before this role I loved the way she embodied characters; here she has been made to alternate between a calculating hardened shrew and a woman whose understanding of love is a demand her lover prove it.


A rare unforced thoughtful moment for Tomlinson as Demelza

All along I have suggested that making Aidan Turner into a central over-sexualized fetish undermined the sometimes effective ensemble nature of the story, and what I suggest what Graham’s general aim: to provide a picture of an earlier time and place with his hero as an effective if self-contained and private presence within a group.

I was interested to notice that the ending of the second season of the first Poldark season (1975, Warleggan) where we see Ross (Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) walking on the beach as he prepares to return to the army and she to wait for him in Cornwall was in effect revived. Also an utter departure from Graham’s book

If the series does return, my hope would be that Debbie Horsfield returns to her literal closeness to the books in the first and third seasons. I think the problem for me all along has been Debbie Horsfield’s lack of sympathy with some of Graham’s central conceptions so that her stories while variations on Graham’s stories Horsfield, lack or are the reverse of his outlook. This year she dropped Graham just about altogether except his method (the choice of a minor historical figure, costume drama itself). At core what I have liked all these years is the transfer of the matter of Graham’s Poldark into these videos, realized through effective acting, dramaturgy, the whole experience of film. The anticipatory hints suggest more frustration. In lieu of Portugal and Spain as the secondary setting, and the colonialist war of the era (called the Peninsular war) at the opening of The Stranger from the Sea we might find ourselves in Paris, France, near Napoleon (better known), with Ross as Canning’s spy and Dwight as Ross’s sidekick, spending time investigating psychological “medicine” in a nearby sanitarium.


Demelza, Caroline, Dwight

Hail and farewell.

The two Rosses

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

I had not written until now on the fifth season of Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark because I’m in several minds about it. Having watched the whole season twice, and now going through carefully each episode Sunday by Sunday I know had this been the first group of serial drama episodes I saw I would never have gone on to read Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. I first read the first four quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan, written 1945-53, and set between 1783 and 1793) after watching the first four episodes of the 1975-76 Poldark (scripted by Jack Pullman, mostly directed by Christopher Barry).

I learned later Winston Graham detested Pullman’s adaptation of Ross Poldark (Pullman departed radically in linchpin scenes), but I found myself having a deep affinity with them, and unexpectedly, as the series was itself ceaselessly disdained as romance costume drama [for women], and I assumed the books would be perhaps a cut above what was called “bodice rippers” (historical fiction except for a very few writers had fallen to a debased level in the early part of the 20th century), fell in love with them. They seemed to me fine historical fiction with something serious to say to readers barely out of, recovering from the devastation of World War Two.

Horsfield seems to have made the decision to fill the ten year interval between the ending of the first trilogy of Graham’s Poldark novels (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide, written & published 1974-77/8, set 1794-99), and the beginning of the second The Stranger from the Sea, The Miller’s Dance, The Loving Cup, written & published 1982-4-84, set 1811-15) — not from the fragments of details about the intervening years found in the later five books, but by inventing a story whose source and treatment resembles that of Graham.

In my paper on the use of documentation in Graham’s historical and suspense fiction I demonstrated Graham had a penchant for choosing the minor real figures of history who were just and decent men scapegoated (using law and state terror and legal violence) by or part of a reactionary establishment but often meaning to do good or not wholly bad men. His deepest sympathy was for the humane rebel, the Che Guevara type combined with the elegance of Gainsborough historical romance males that his own hero, Ross Poldark, represents. To have picked a man like Edward Marcus Despard speaks very well of her, we must give her the credit of calling attention to this man to a wider audience than ever reads non-fiction about the French revolution, the analogous upheaval in the UK in the 1790s for reform (prompting the reign of state terror by Pitt and his state machinery).

As the promotional photo for the series suggests, in real life Despard was such another as Ross Poldark in Jeremy Poldark where we see him come near to hanging and/or transportation because his very real illegal activities leading a huge group of local ordinary desperate people to remove and use for themselves the flotsam and jetsam of two wrecks from a violent storm were used by his enemies (and the local state apparatus) to make an example of him to deter people from combining to demand a far better life and share in the good things of the earth than they had ever had. Apparently Despard was part of a revolutionary group whose deepest aims were to radically alter, overthrow (if you will) the oligarchical and unjust orders of the 18th century European gov’ts, but he was not guilty of what he was accused of. He was rather a political enlightenment Anglo-Irish Protestant around whom revolutionary people swirled, and was potentially willing to lead a rebellion if one could succeed — with say the help of the French in Ireland.


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

She also brings to the viewer’s attention other people who lived during this ten-year interval and whose life history also has much to say to us today. Joseph Merceron, a corrupt Godfather boss of Bethnal Green (or Spitalfields, as a blog about this older area of London calls it), a Trump type colluding with Pitt’s gov’t to spy on and help imprison, transport, execute anyone who wanted to change the status quo. James Hadfield, a pathetic religious fanatic, crazed by his life and experience, who tried to kill George III (Andrew Gower, fresh from his brilliant complex portrayal of Prince Charles Edward Stuart makes the few moments we glimpse this man memorable).

Catherine Despard, about whom records are sparse, come from just the period of her (probable) marriage to Despard, life with him, continual remarkable unusual pro-active activities on his behalf, including publicizing the horrific conditions in the prison he was thrown in for two years (Coldbath Fields), showing herself (probably a Creole, daughter to a freed African woman living in Nicaragua, herself alas the owner of enslaved Africans) to be better educated than many European women, until the time of his execution, whereupon she disappears from public records. It is thought she took her and Despard’s children to Ireland in an effort to appeal to the consciences of his Anglo-Irish protestant family. No picture survives


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

Catherine is interestingly accurately likened to the wholly fictional Cecily Hanson, daughter of Ralph Hanson (Peter Sullivan). Catherine was an educated woman who understood how to negotiate with upper class people and could hold her own in political salons (it takes Demelza many years to learn this). Cecily shows self-esteem and agency in her choosing to engage herself to Geoffrey Charles, and then when (in a later episode), she finds he is beaten senseless by her father’s thugs and cannot begin to hold onto their relationship, give him up. A feel of poignancy hovers around Geoffrey Charles, as the orphaned son of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark.

Hanson’s name harks back to a real brutal plantation owner from the Caribbean, Hanbury, a composite figure (such men did make money producing natural wood for mahogany found in mosquito-infested places), who Hanson attempts to coerce into an advantageous marriage with the sadly-reduced but still cruel and amoral widower George Warleggan (Jack Farthing sustains the difficult part of a man hallucinating from grief and guilt, rescued from heinous treatment by Dwight Enys, Luke Norris in the familiar Graham conception).

I’ve discovered Debbie Horsfield’s William Wickham was an under secretary of state, working for Castlereagh in 1802, the supervisor of a group of spies (see Conor’s Life and Times). (There was another William Wickham, official in the foreign office during Canning’s time — and given Graham’s respect for Canning and in the later novels make his Ross an reporter-spy-negotiator for Canning — so to use the name could leave room for a return to the 8th novel, Stranger from the Sea, which there are various signs in even the first four episodes of this series Horsfield and the film-makers, crew and actors would be willing to do. She’d conflate the two figures.)

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

So with all this important history for interested intelligent viewers to explore, which can also be linked back to Graham Winston’s own novelistic achievements and politics, what can be the cause of my dismay? 1) that Debbie Horsfield’s interpretation of Despard is that of the authorities and establishment of the later 19th century which stigmatized and degraded Despard into a “nut,” a deluded naive upper class male who courted his own destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth, but in scene after scene we have Ross and Demelza and Catherine stopping a foolish man from following the obviously provocative antics of envious revolutionary thugs; 2) that freed from any text, Horsfield abandons the middle-of-the-road perspective of Graham on the revolution (his stance might be likened to the Girondists) continually to condemn any rebellion as coming from envy and dense stupidity, actuated by spite. She turned Graham’s Keren Daniels (who had some cause for discontent) into a dense promiscuous thug; now she invents such another in the character of Tess (Sofia Oxenham). I also cannot stand the way she re-interprets Demelza to be an pro-actively distrustful wife.

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

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

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

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


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

I find the relentless pace of these four episodes and constant switching back and forth of the scenes destructive of any development of conversation or thought. Many of the recap blogs wax snarky over this. Debbie Horsfield does trust her viewer to have the patience to see small moments develop slowly. We cannot dwell in the relationship of Ross and Demelza when it is deeply companionable because the scenes are so rushed and embedded in distractions (juxtaposition, switching back and forth):


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

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

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

A few elements to praise:

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

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

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


Ross watched by spies, enemies ….

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

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


Epitomizing shot

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

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

Ellen

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

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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


An ancient vase found in Naples area

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


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


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

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


John Frederick Lewis’s Cairo: Indoor Gossip

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Ellen

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The Upstairs set come out to greet the king and queen


The Downstairs set toast the king and queen (Downton Abbey, the film, 2019)

Friends and readers,

The old magic, the trick played on us by Julian Fellowes and his teams of people — for those susceptible to it — does not begin until at least one-third and maybe closer to half the way through. Anibundel over on NBC has argued that this cinema continuation carries on one important characteristic of the 5 year series at its best: nothing much or nothing overt happens to change anything in the visible life of these sets of people very much. I agree with her that the first season was particularly strong because more or less this formula was kept to. A crippled man arrives to become Lord Grantham’s butler (Brendan Coyle as Mr Bates), and after much stigmatizing and complaints, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonnville) keeps him on, because “it’s just not right” to fire him. An old suitor of Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) turns up and asks her to go to a fair because at long last free he wants to propose marriage, and after much heart-wrenching, she decides to stay where she is. Lady Mary, the princess of the family, eldest lovely virgin daughter (Michelle Dockery) is (arguably) raped and the cad (Theo James who blackmailed the homosexual butler, Barrow, Robert James-Collier, to sneak him in as a surprise attack) dies during the fuck! But (awkwardly, with difficulty, comically) the corpse is carried back and there is no scandal at all!

But I want to qualify the implications here. The trick of the thing is to present a character in the throes of some inner crisis that matters to him or her and dramatize how some decision no one but the character and his or her closest intimates see, affects in some central way the rest of the emotional temperature or outlook of that character, the decisions he or she make afterwards, for the rest of their lives. This trick is most effective when it’s played out with the Downstairs people who are more vulnerable to deep hurt or an ejection (getting “sacked”) from the apparent social safety of the orderly household. Add to this what you find in many serial dramas, strong emotionalism, the stance that most people behave in warm and even caring ways to one another, at least emotionally. This does not distinguish Downton Abbey from other serial dramas, but Julian Fellowes is good at making this kind of thing believable. In life most people we meet behave anywhere from indifferently or with a hard edge. An adult might be extra benign to a child. I feel this sentimentalism is central to why people watch what are called realistic (naturalistic) domestic drama movies.

As everyone knows who has paid the slightest attention to the advertisements what happens at Downton is George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) invite themselves for a one-night stay at Downton while they are traveling through Yorkshire and this creates an nearly traumatic emotional reaction as everyone in the household gear up to present an appearance of high excellence and welcome. As late as one-third or later the way through it becomes apparent the exclusionary snobbish tactics of the royal household decree that its staff replace any local staff. It also sets up a confrontation between the queen’s lady-companion, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and the Dowager Duchess Violet (Maggie Smith) who are related kin but have been estranged for years; it is rumored she is determined to leave her fortune elsewhere than Lord Grantham. Gradually this visit, these two social dramas ripple outward to affect the inner lives of a number of vulnerable characters and at least momentarily affect the self-esteem and comfort of everyone else.


Imelda Staunton as Lady Maud Bagshaw (a name from Trollope)

The problem the movie has is these things take time, and when you have say anywhere from 8 to 10 episodes (plus Christmas specials) you have the requisite time; so it’s in the third episode of the first season that Mr Bates throws away the torture instrument he has put on his leg to make his disability less apparent. We have learned to feel for him for two episodes before this. Plus since Julian Fellowes has been determined to present the world order as ultimately benign, the last we saw of everyone they were apparently set for life in good and fulfilling circumstances. This was not so to begin with, nor did the shape of the series emerge as benign providential patterning until the fourth season when the series began to have problems finding crucial traumas and had to introduce new characters and put old ones through twists and turns of misery (especially Mr Bates and Anna as his wife, aka Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart).

So, Fellowes strains to invent inner troubles that matter. He has a couple and adds some: Thomas Barrow is still a vulnerable homosexual man; Daisy (Sophie McShea) has not agreed to set a marriage date with a footman, Andy (Michael C. Fox); Tom Bransome is still not trusted as an ex-chauffeur radical Irishman; and over the course of the couple of hours we discover Lady Maud is trying to leave her estate to her illegitimate daughter disguised as lady’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).


Anna and Mr Bates — brief scene showing her telling her idea to him and his loving her for it

What’s more: several favorite characters and a couple of new ones become powerful linchpins in securing respect and power for one another. It’s Anna Bates who seems to think up the plot that puts the royal staff out of commission (drugged, locked in rooms, hoaxed away) and recognizes the queen’s lady is a thief; Bransome saves the king’s life and falls in love with Lucy Smith; she likewise and they are last seen dancing a ballroom dance on the terrace in a lovely landscape (since she is not yet acceptable to the Upstairs people in the ballroom). Daisy leads Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichol) for once to kindly lie to the grocer and accept an order of food she thinks they will not need.


Allen Leech as Thomas Bransome (working with Lady Mary again)

It does not all work: You would think Bransome was trusted by this time and a few others seem a stretch: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still feeling undervalued and left alone; the rivalry of the Dowager and Isobel, Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton) has become tiresome; their quips no longer amuse. Lady Mary is still unsure she doesn’t want to disburden herself of Downton. Mr Carson (Jim Carter) is still absurdly proud and wants to work as a butler; Moseley (Kevin Doyle) makes a fatuous worshipper of himself. But Fellowes does have a gift for endowing his characters with good feelings and kindliness towards one another, and those endangered in some way, yearning for some kind of companionship, security achieve this by film’s end.

I’m saying I don’t think the movie quite succeeds. Those who like it are giving it slack — extra patience like you would an old friend.

Some will say this is not what draws people to this series. It’s the super-rich glamour of the house, the grounds, the gorgeous clothes, the leisured existences, the evocative music, the nostalgic escape into a world that never was — the servants were not treated in the way this series dramatizes; it omits 9/10s of the population of England. On top of that, the whole idea this order was a non-violent one is ludicrous. I can’t deny that might be why many people watched the TV series year after year and are making the Downton matter once again a big box-office money-maker. Who does not enjoy seeing a ball? I do. I love the beautiful photographed landscapes. There is the reiterated idea that these super-rich privileged people lead troubled lives themselves — so let’s not envy Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) as she tries to have a life with some emotional satisfaction with a cold mean man. (As if this were anything like the desperate needs and anguished conditions of ordinary people everywhere.)


Princess Mary (Kate Phillips who most of the time ends up dead or otherwise pulverized — as in Davies’ War and Peace …)

To that I can only say, I am not fooled, this kind of supposed comfort (?) is not for me. The thought we are offered at the end that the building, Downton Abbey, and this way of life will last another 100 years and more does not make me happy. It’s sad to think that so many will remain without and desperate so that the money may be gathered by this privileged class to live this way. I suggest that there are many like myself — since this trick so in evidence (for at least three years of TV time) is at the core of the plot-design once again. I know I would be an utter outsider and long ago (say the 2nd season) been ejected as unfit, perhaps scapegoated as a seduced woman. I don’t belong in this series anywhere — the closest I come is to Anna as she was presented in the first couple of seasons. Even then she is such a “good” girl, so filled with respect for the order that keeps her at work long hours most of her life — this is wholly anathema to my finding something to live for in my hours of existence as I recall them.

Yet I found tears coming to my eyes when a character is once again rescued from the possible exposure and punishment — Barrow is lured into going to a homosexual club, something very new, taken in to jail by a police raid but then released on the say-so of one of the king’s footmen, himself homosexual. I wish there had been more of the inner life of Anna and Bates (my favorites) but it’s clear their lives are all content, comfortable, good — as are those of Mrs Hughes (now Elsie to Mr Carson) and Mr Carson (Charlie to her) and others. I am fond enough of them all to feel good seeing them surviving still — like Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) still waiting to marry Moseley.


Moseley and Baxter — behind the scenes (promotional) hsppy moment

I am not dead or broke yet myself. The magic is the trick of involving you, getting you to believe and identify.


Thomas finds a friend and ally, the king’s footman, Richard Ellis (Max Brown)

If you can respond to these carefully studied characters presented with tact and mostly compassion, and most of all, if you watched and liked the TV series for that first and second (occurring during WW1) seasons, here it is back again, trying to repeat what it managed in the first season especially. There is something for everyone, some qualification to enable us to identify. I agree with Anibundel the sweetest story is of that Barrow at long last finding a world forming he can join, and that the charm the wanting to hold onto this world is it feels like a blessed escape.  Quiet lives. So if you want a happy ending, yes, that’s there, but if you are into quiet melancholy, it’s here too.


Lady Mary at the opening of the film, tough lady left in charge at the end

And, for those who would find some satisfaction in thinking this meretricious stuff will go away for good after this, in the last scene Violet tells Lady Mary that she has been diagnosed with a mortal illness and will be gone from from the scene before long. It is a moving moment as she turns the Abbey over to Lady Mary as her replacement. One thing I liked across the series (and think it’s what makes it so appealing to women) is that we have strong women characters through out; it’s the woman’s anguish and loss and power that is often focused most upon. And so it is in this installment.

Ellen

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Ellen

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Poster for Chernobyl (2019, scripted Craig Mazin, directed Johan Renck)


Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) looking through the plastic (her baby still died of radiation) at her husband dying howling and wretched with pain

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled — Richard Feynman, Appendix F on the causes of the Challenger disaster

The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants.
It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions.
It will lie in wait for all time
And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl.
Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?
— over-voice of Valery Legasov

Friends,

Chernobyl is not a summer movie — it is a riveting melodrama whose political implications should be frighteningly relevant in political worlds shaped by man (Trump) whose modus vivendi is by lying, small, big, outrageous, cruel, bigoted and dangerous lies. The history we choose to tell each year is the one that we intuits matters that year (not that nuclear power plants as potentially catastrophic places are limited in time or space) Anibundel reads the movie succinctly through the perspective Marzin sets up: the cost of lying was then and will be again limitless suffering and the sacrifice of lives and worlds of thousands of people. I write to add another, from Richard Feynman about how NASA operated and produced the Challenger disaster, and also uttered in the concluding eloquent voice-over of film’s learned scientist, Valery Legasov (played painfully effectively by Jared Harris): there are limits to how far you can manipulate the natural world and coerce frightened powerless people to serve the interests of ambitious men whose pride and position in an organization for them take precedence over everything else.


Jared Harris makes the movie, he just carries it

This dual lesson is dramatized in five episodes as carefully laid out as HBO’s previous political film this year: Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Most people recognize that HBO movies have had distinguishing features for some time (contemporary subjects or treatment, box-office brilliant actors, quality production); they have recently added a new one: the hard-hitting demonstration. Both movies are well-proportioned wholes, clearly set out, complete and (to quote George Eliot) “natty” as nuts on a stem. It may seem peculiar to use aesthetic language about episodes which drain us with the horror of what they are presenting, but the film’s effect is so strong because they are so effectively plotted.


The explosion

The first episode throws us in medias res (though we only realize this when we come to the end of the last episode), the high crisis of an exploded nuclear plant core, catapulting into the air, everywhere in the peopled environment burning lethal poisons. We experience the explosion from the point of view of those it first impacted: the people driven to set it off and the people all around the reactor, among whom we see the immediate chief culprits, a boss of the unit, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), who was told to get the test done that night “or else”, and his boss, Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neil), manager of the Chernobyl plant; the first responder firemen and their families, where we follow the heart-breaking story of Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) and his wife. Our central protagonist is among those called out of bed, Legasov (Jared Harris) by a high ranking officer in the communist party, also in charge of the department of energy (and perhaps other related things) in the Soviet gov’t, Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård)


“Boris moves from hostility and antagonism towards Legasov to an effective working relationship, both emerging as decent men

Each episode focuses on one or more incidents which are terrifying to watch, where the film-makers pull out all their techniques so that we shall feel the visceral pain, hardness of task, sheer physical stuff people were required to cope to the death with. In this first men are uselessly exposed to acute radiation as they try to hose the nuclear bomb down (as if it were a fire), make visual inspections, go into the area to try to prevent various components coming together to cause a meltdown (this was hopeless as it was happening). And each episode dramatizes different groups trying to cover up some aspect of what happened, no matter whose or how many deaths this causes, and each time the group is thwarted because they cannot stop the natural processes going on and find it politically and humanely impossible to let death spread everywhere. We see how small and vulnerable we are singly and in large groups too


Inside just one of the terrified engineers, Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms)

By the second episode people in nearby countries are registering spikes in radiation, which are reported in newspapers and so cannot be dismissed. Slowly the various officials are driven to take what has happened seriously; they would like to deny and refute all the Legasov and a woman scientist, a single character who stands for the many scientists who became involved, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) have to tell them. What she understands immediately and travels to tell the leaders of this disaster is the lava-like mess of molten fuel threatening to melt down into the earth would render the ground water of Ukraine’s 50 million inhabitants toxic for life.


Here she has realized the air has been contaminated

They aksi learn unless they follow what these two have to say, they are confronted with immediate death — they must not fly heliocopters over the core even if that’s convenient; they have to get rid of the radioactive graphite (not deny its there) and boron and sand is what must be poured on the fire.

We see meetings of high officials, including someone playing Gorbachev, and evacuation begins. Another motif which was seen in the first episode emerges explicitly: this is a society where people volunteer to help one another, where the idea that we are socially connected as groups and to help ourselves, we must contribute all our energies and talents (without seeking an individual big reward) seems to shape people’s behavior. We see three of the engineers go on a lethal mission to drain water (basically turn by hand valves) to prevent a meltdown (it happens in part anyway). In the third episode the miners called up to excavate the area below the central reactor — in terrific heat, subject to radiation (only 100 of 400 lived past 40) — Liam Nelson their captain


They eventually work naked because that is the best way to endure the heat, the clothes they are given to protect them are useless

The moment of highest admiration in the five hours is for these working class men, doing hard and dangerous work — the officials (“bureaucrats”) have to confront the necessity of truth here, for lie, prevaricate, evade and the captain will take his men back to their usual mining. The hospital is now overwhelmed; we see individual vignettes

and we follow Lyudmilla as she frantically tries to reach her husband, follows him to Moscow and will not be stopped from seeing and comforting him until she can no longer reach emotionally, much less physically. A moment of strong poignancy (the film works by contrasts) is that where we see her standing with a group of women watching a line of lead coffins (in which what was left of their husband’s bodies) are placed into a deep hole and boron and sand poured over them.

The instructions given a group of men who have to behave as close as they can to quick-moving robots:

Because of the nature of the working area, you will each have no more than 90 seconds to solve this problem.
Listen carefully to each of my instructions, and do exactly as you have been told.
This is for your own safety and the safety of your comrades.
You will enter Reactor Building Three, climb the stairs but do not immediately proceed to the roof.
When you get to the top, wait inside, behind the entrance to the roof and catch your breath.
You will need it for what comes next.
This is the working area.
We must clear the graphite.
Some of it is in blocks, weighing approximately 40 to 50 kilograms.
They all must be thrown over the edge here.
Watch your comrades moving fast from this opening, then turning to the left, and entering the workspace here.
Take care not to stumble.
There’s a hole in the roof.
Take care not to fall.
You will need to move quickly, and you will need to move carefully.
Do you understand your mission as I have described it? Yes, Comrade General.
These are the most important 90 seconds of your lives.
Commit your task to memory, then do your job.
It’s time to go.
After 90 seconds, I will ring a bell.

It seems (from comments and other reviews) that perhaps the hardest episode is in the fourth: we watch an older man teaching a younger one to gun down and kill all the pet animals left behind in an evacuated city. The POV is that of the boy. I had to turn away as a dog came leaping forward, only to realize something was wrong and be shot. The boy moves from inability to kill, to inability to shoot more than once in order to be sure and (so his mentor tells him) “prevent the animal from suffering,” to killing and shooting grimly. We see the animals hiding, one aging cat looking puzzled, and a group of puppies around a mother. We are glad not to have to watch when the older man ushers out the boy and so it’s (only?) the repeated shots and sudden cries that tell us what is happening. Read and see the story as told by Svetlana Alexievich (actual camera pictures of the animals).

But the strongest episode is the concluding one, where we realize that in fact what happened can be explained. First the point is being made that so often we are told things are complicated, complex and cannot be unraveled and they can. Structurally (or as a movie), the effect is something like a mystery, only in this movie almost everyone we see does not want the explanation.


I found the explanation fascinating — it may be that this scene cannot have taken place quite in the coherent full blown way it did ….

The episode cannot wholly rely on testimony in the courtroom: it’s framed by a brief conversation where we experience how Bryukhanov bullied Dyatlov, how he was himself allured by the prospect of replacing Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) if he could pull off this hard feat (test the safety of the plant is the irony). Then bravely and against protests, Legasov patiently explains how reactors work and how this disaster happened (partly no one in the room truly understood what they were dealing with) and insists there is a serious flaw in the way 16 nuclear reactors are designed, and the reason they has not been fixed, is it would cost a great deal of money to redesign the reactors. For this by the end of the episode Legasov has been mortally threatened but let to live (as it would look bad after his testimony) so “merely” lost his job, salary, place in the world, the ability to communicate with others.

The film opened with him recording on a tape this story, putting the tapes in a bucket, hiding the bucket and then hanging himself; it closes with his over-voice and then (just as DuVernay does at the end of When They See Us), photos of the real people played by these marvelous actors. Once again this is very effective.


Valery Legasov at a Vienna conference

We have seen that Lyudmilla lost her baby and are just told she had multiple strokes and was herself told she would never have children — because she exposed herself to stay near her husband. In fact she is one of those who survive and today lives in Kiev with her son. Most of the characters we see died of cancer.

It’s important not to see this as story about communism or a particular culture at all, and to say that the inferences apply to more than larger political issues. The same sort of cover-up was attempted over the Challenger and it was only Richard Feynman’s Appendix F which told the truth. As everyone knows who read Feynman’s report and his story of the Challenger, the reason the Challenger went up in January when the weather was too cold and the o-rings could not dilate was due to several decisions which ignored nature: among these, one, they built the thing top down and they knew they had a design failure: the o-rings were not originally designed to fill a gap when the glue hardens. Nonetheless, they persisted in relying on this. And two, they knew that they needed the weather to be warm or above a certain temperature. Nonetheless, they went through with a January launch on a very cold morning because that was the day the State of the Union address is given, and Reagan wanted a publicity stunt: that he would give the state of the union address the evening after this launch.

In the flashback scenes in the final episode (interspersed and juxtaposed with Legasov’s lesson to judges and jury) the engineers (Akimov, Toptunov and others) in the room knew enough to know this was terrifically dangerous and they were breaking all protocol — they had to be bullied and threatened to get them to do it, and when they saw the core explode (and in effect the reactor turn into a nuclear bomb), were driven to lie and not tell what had happened. How: by the threat of loss of job, or loss of promotion, or their place in the organization. This is how all bullies (including Trump who backs this up by suing you, and then paying you to stay silent) frighten people. We are so susceptible to these sorts of threats. Now Dyatlov was immediately responsible but the situation that led to that was the same as the one at NASA: a refusal to spend money, a refusal to fix a design flaw, and not educating and giving authority to people involved. The human dimension of this film drills down to everyday life.

You can read the scripts online

Each episode tough & riveting to watch, each had remarkable heroism, and remarkable unspeakable pain. The story itself (as Arendt suggested about the nature of evil) at core is the banal one of the behavior of human beings trying to get promoted, protect a job; the refusal of a gov’t to spend money for public safety. And most people lie or they fall silent. If they can find a group to belong to, they might speak out as a member of that group.

Ellen

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The four principals of the film: JRR Tolkien, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Q Gilson, Christopher Wiseman — at leisure, sports and war

Friends and readers,

I thought I’d write a brief review of the biopic film about Tolkien’s life that is just now leaving most movie theaters after a fairly successful run. The reviews have been mixed, and most resembling John Tuttle’s: he likes the art and filmic aspects of the film, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted, moving story, but he complains not so much that what is presented is all that wrong, but that the emphases are inadequate: he wants more about Tolkien’s religion, more about all the sources of his creativity, a more accurate account of this or that aspect of his earlier and later life: it seems that in later life Tolkien again bonded with a small group of like-minded men of similar attitudes and class. Tuttle doesn’t mind that the film made much of Tolkien’s relationship with Edith Bratt, only says it was presented as suspenseful when it wasn’t. “Everyone” (that is all interested in Tolkien) knows he married her. A similar stance (with different particulars perhaps) is found in Sheila O’Malley’s at RogerEbert.com; David Appleby at Rolling Stone was bored: it was so convoluted and yet did not bring our miraculous author to life. Tellingly, what they all agree on is how grating and excessive are the scenes of war, “oh bother” says Appleby. I could quote others to the same effect.

What no one seems to say is that the this is a film not much interested in Tolkien’s inner creative life: the imagery from his dreams, from his early anguish at the death of his father, mother, fear of being neglected and poor with his brother), and then, as shared with the love of his life, Edith fantasy operas and books, and finally World War One are all in effect decorations; extras piled on to give the film heightened apocalyptic fantasy ominous (exciting?) imagery. The plot-design of this movie is that of the common popular genre, the nostalgic boys’ public school, interlaced with a feminist-inflected romance with strong critiques against class snobbery.

As the film begins, Tolkien is orphaned. His father dies and then his self-sacrificing mother (played to the hilt by Laura Donnelly, familiar to some as Jenny Murray of Outlander), and he and his brother are left stranded. They are taken to live in a boarding house run by a cold snobbish woman (Pam Ferris) by the Catholic priest who has been made their guardian. What saves Tolkien is he is so intelligent, he is taken into the British private aka public school system and there nurtured by deep friendship, and high academic standards that force him to study hard. The public school is presented positively: while there are grossly unfair tutors (one wants to eject Tolkien on the basis he hasn’t got sufficient drive), others (Derek Jacobi) because they are not part of a structured system can eccentrically take him in.


The young man and his professor

The story of Edith is there as part of the usual matter of heritage films.


Courting — the upper class (if orphaned) boy courting the female boarder

It’s worth it to point out the limitations of the heritage tropes: as in so many of them, class is supposedly attacked or critiqued, when we find it is also upheld; in this film, this is done together with religion. Tolkien was a believing Catholic in life; this was his heritage (perhaps from the mother) but also a result of making a priest his guardian. In the film this priest refuses to support Tolkien if he carries on with his courtship of Edith. Tolkien protests, thinks of rebelling but then caves in. We are to feel that he does this out of respect for the guardian as well as concern for his career, but there is a feeling that he recognizes that Edith is indeed not of his class.

As the film moves on, and Tolkien overcomes the prejudices of the people at Oxford, and the war begins, he again meets Edith. Edith is as genteel looking as Celia Johnson in any 1940s film (Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, Happy Days) and now engaged, and it’s made plain she has done so to support herself. It takes only a few minutes of film time for Tolkien to say he still loves her, for her to reciprocate and (presumably) break the engagement. Later in the film the priest admits he was wrong, and sometime after that Tolkien and Edith are married. This may follow Tolkien’s actual behavior, but we can see that class and obedience to religious and parental authorities are upheld.

The second part of the film is the fulfillment of the first, the war story essential to this genre. It is the final proving ground. Instead of showing us that the values that lead to war are the real basis of public school experience, bullying, competition, physical prowess, daring, separation from one’s family (part of the training that teaches you to be part of an upper class negotiating environment), we are repeatedly shown the great joy, manners, bonding that the young men learn from these exclusive groups within an intellectual demanding environment, which in this case included high intellectual camaraderie, and of course also fierce “healthy” competition in games (we are shown the four young men playing rough sports again and again) . Of course war is horrific, and two of them die, a third maimed for life. No heritage film today is openly militaristic, but the scenes that are individualized show our heroes performing utter self-sacrifice for one another. A small subplot includes Tolkien’s batman, of course named Sam, risking his life to save Tolkien from death, and bring him tea too.


Here is Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien searching for his friend (dead elsewhere several days before)

It’s important to bring this central design of the film out because this elite experience is 1) misrepresented and 2) lies at the core of not just militarism and war, but leads to and shapes colonialism and is behind the mindset promoting Brexit, nationalism, arrogance (the boy becomes privileged, and is kept separate from and encouraged to think he know better than the “lower orders. Joanna Scutts lays out the connection in The New Republic: Britain’s Boarding School problem. The war itself is presented as part of the dream life that led to the exciting adventures, violence, monsters of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve seen so many films of this type: Harry Potter feeds into it; Andrew Davies got his start with the multi-episode To Serve Them All My Days (based on Delderfield’s sentimental depiction of the life of a schoolmaster). I do not say I haven’t enjoyed such films. I enjoy heritage films, I loved the romance, and felt for Edith presented as at the time given no opportunity to have a career of her own, but given the times we are living in, when I read several reviews passing by the central explanatory idea of this film, and seemed even unaware of it. I felt something ought to be said.

I’ll add another corrective here too: nowadays upper class and elite girls are sent to such schools regularly too, and then elite universities. Kate Middleton’s great “rise” came from her having gone to the right private boarding school which got her to St Andrews where she met William, the heir. As Scutts points out, huge fees are extracted (such schools are apparently tax-exempt!, like our churches). As a side note I recall now how startled I was at Vicinus’s account of girls’ private boarding schools in her Independent Women: Work and community for Single Women, 1850-1930, because she didn’t seem to care at all and even was for the psychological manipulation of the girls’ friendship patterns and girls-and-female mentors because it trains girls (who thrived in this) to know how to get and keep and use power. As today parents of boys who suffer badly from bullying, and are emotionally twisted or scarred take that as the price of getting them the right connections and “toughening” them, so Vicinus was for allowing girls to emotionally over-wrought, blackmailed, made miserable by girls’ exclusionary coteries as the price of making girls into women who are embedded in power arrangements and understand how they come about.


Tolkien late in life (photo)

As for Tolkien’s actual and later life: the other male group consisted of deeply reactionary Christianizing critics like C.S. Lewis who also wrote an epic of fantasy wars, Narnia, sheltered dons and learned poets like himself. Dorothy Sayers was a hanger-on, for at the time when a young woman finished university there would be no place for her in university. Think of her Lord Peter Wimsey with his batman turned valet, Bunter. Bob Dixon has analysed the fascist vision of life behind Narnia and (dare I say) and other fantasy epics by over-praised writers like Ursula Le Guin. See also Empire Follows the Flag. Tolkien’s later career as a writer included studies and defenses of Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval English and Chaucer, translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl — delicate lovely poetry with subtle ethical ideas.

I was again startled when I first began to watch the Peter Jackson film of The Fellowship. I had read the books in the 1960s when the illustrations were still taken from romance, fairy books, and looked like feminine depictions Arthurian romance. How had it become a boys’ action-adventure story, filled with violence and Dante-like apocalyptic visions? I have since read that the earliest illustrations were delicate fanciful landscapes done by a woman friend of Tolkien. I dare say a film genuinely interested in his creative life and reading, might help rescue his books from being used or packaged the way they are today. I am told that a five part series, Looking for the Hobbit (on Amazon Prime) does justice to other ignored sources, but I wouldn’t count on it.


Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien deeply engaged with his books

Ellen

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