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Archive for the ‘Costume drama’ Category


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 was allowed an over-voice, and Tomlinson is a figure in a vast pictorial landscape, not the voice which imagines or makes it (as Outlander implies).


Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) seen from middle distance, walking along short, a minute perhaps, is she thinking of the pregnancy she cannot get herself to tell Ross about as yet … the moment ever interrupted … hurt, silent …

Another difference is the first, Poldark, is far more serious about history, and much real content is woven in, with real historical figures, real places thoroughly mapped, real events, 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 (as far as I’ve read 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, and 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 substitute the 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, Kaherine 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 (near real death) ever told where he is about to be introduced by a still grieving (for Jeremy) Demelza to Ross and Dwight back in the house, waiting for him.

I do love the Francis character in the book, and the first (Clive Francis is a Joe Orton figure) and second series, and I feel for Frank in the book (where there are love-making scenes with Claire that are deeply involving) and the series. 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 so the tone and interaction of the scene is differently understood. Or the difference the presence of the actor makes in our mind’s eye as we understand the story in all its ramifications. This is a central part of what the coming paper and eventually book shall be about or maybe result from.

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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Marcus Stone, “Trevelyan at Casalunga”

Dear friends and readers,

Though it’s been some time since I taught Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, and I have published a chapter of my book (Trollope on the ‘Net) on this novel, and know there is a sizable body of subtle interesting essays on the book — on the subjects of love, sex, marriage, custody of children, gender power, male abuse of women, male sexual possessiveness and anxiety — since writing on Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? after teaching it, I’ve been wanting similarly to focus on one aspect of this enormous and complex book, which we discussed in my class. This because I feel this perspective has the power to make the book function on the side of compassion in today’s world, and it was taken up by my class with real interest as reconciling together many of its disparate elements.

We can look upon He Knew He Was Right as a modern semi-medical study of anxiety and depression. I found the idea most fully worked out by C. S. Wiesenthal in “The Body Melancholy: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, which appeared in the Dickens Studies Annual for the year 1992. In the case of Louis Trevelyan Trollope goes beyond his other studies of male who cross the line of sanity into insanity through obsession by a fixed idea, usually sexual jealousy, to present, examine and then trace the “psychopathology of melancholy.” He has gone beyond the traditional figure of melancholy (think of Durer’s famous icon) — super thinness, sleeplessness, profuse perspiration, paleness, hollow eyes, a bent back, his eyes not working right, all are slowly developed in Trevelyan.


Oliver Dimsdale brilliant as Louis Trevelyan, here he watches Emily leaving River Cottage (2004 He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

In the last session of the class we examined Louis’s descent into profound illness and finally death as a gradual piling on of mental and then physical symptoms which destroy his ability to judge rationally and see what is in front of him. This leads to his inability to be around others, to adjust to them, so that he isolates himself in a nervous irritability. Most centrally he and Emily are just not compatible; what amuses her (social life, flirting) is anathema to him (he prefers to write papers in his study). He cannot bear the solutions presented to him as what he must do to alleviate the situation — take his wife away or come out of his study. He cannot present his case, adjust his conversation to theirs, and ends up intensely alienated from everyone. We were watching him break down step-by-step, with his hiring of Bozzle just one of the stages on his journey to a loss of the identity he had. Bozzle’s jokes are not just edgy, they have a sinister feel. The actor playing the part in Davies’s film adaptation had an expression on his face of self-deprecating irony, a wild laughter at himself,a kind of cunning in his eyes. He is alienated from himself and half-watches himself acting and talking in self-destructive ways, but he cannot help himself to stop. He writes letters from time to time which he thinks are offers of compromise when they are insults, threats, and come out of paranoia. Continual nervous distress and paranoia exhaust him to the point he becomes weak with inanition. He cannot dress himself conformably, is not used to sitting down to do anything with others. Bozzle sums this process up as Mr T “is no longer becoming quite himself under his troubles,” and wants to rid himself of this client. Louis crossed a kind of Rubicon when he paid Bozzle to kidnap his son. In his dialogue with Lady Rowley when the Rowleys come to England she discerns a mentally sick man.


Geraldine James as Lady Rowley, startled by what she is seeing

Seen from this angle, we could read the novel as a defense of Trevelyan: in his Autobiography Trollope said he wanted to create sympathy for Louis, and saw that he had failed. When I say the novel then becomes out about how Trevelyan came to act so badly, I would agree that this perspective is inadequate because it omits too much: Louis’s desire to control Emily, his insulting her for being knowing in bed (“harlot” is the word he uses); his overreaction to the petty rake, Osborne. Madness was in Trollope’s era thought to manifest itself in delusions, and he is delusional about what is going on between Emily and Osborne: flirting yes, adultery no. Emily’s refusal to assuage his anxiety at the price of her social liberty, life and self-respect are understandable, and the novel is probably more convincingly seen as genuinely feminist, genuinely about insoluble conflicts in temperament in marriage, the problems of using hypocritical cant. But Trollope also blame Emily for not yielding, refusing to compromise or reassure Louis — look how by contrast Dorothy and Aunt Stanbury give in and win out because they self-negate. She drives the man (the way Desdesmona does) when he visits by her recurring to the terms of the original quarrel and demanding he make a sign of admitting some wrong done; Trevelyan in frustration, and out of spite too, angry at his inability to make the Outhouses behave the way he wants — seeks some weapon he can use to compel the others to declare Emily sexually unfaithful, a bad wife, a mother risking her children. The weapon is his kidnapping of his own child. Now all will have to deal with him since the law is on his side over this child. We are now canvassing the larger important feminist themes and humane outlook at the core of this Trollope novel.


Uncle (Mr Crump) and Camilla


She cannot


Kindly collapse

Singling out Louis’s symptoms and trajectory —- helps us appreciate the depth of insight in Trollope. You can go round him to look at the other characters, and their coping with their bleakness: like Dorothy Stanbury who will say she is nothing to others, has nothing to offer, or Nora Rowley who wants more useful tasks and power than her gender allows; Priscilla Stanbury’s deeply generous letters showing her sane perspective against her life of poverty because she will not marry (is probably lesbian). The comic analogue to Trevelyan is the madness of Camilla French and her carving knife. She caves in easily when met with common sense backed by kindness. It’s funny in the film when Claudie Blakeley as Camilla breaks down and cries and hands the knife over to her uncle. But I suggest at the core of this is Trollope exorcizing his own demons: I agree with those (the Stebbinses are not alone in this) who suggest he spent long periods depressed (he says as much of his youth in London) and he is pouring his own experience into this character.

What I liked about ending the class discussion on the novel this way, and making this perspective one of the central ones is that the feminist position can become a series of beratings, blaming of Louis, anathematizing him. How does that help?

Ellen

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Lily Collins as Fantine sometime after she sells her hair and teeth


Dominic West as Jean Valjean on the barricades


Joseph Quinn as Enjolras, the serious revolutionary

Bishop: Myriel: God tells us to love our fellow men.
Jean Valjean: How can I love my fellow man when he treats me worse than a dog?

Andrew Davies produces video masterpieces as regularly as other people simply go out to a movie, and in the last few years or so, the only material that (it seems) will do are the kind of literary masterpieces considered crucial and extraordinary works politically as well as socially. On top of this he has a penchant for choosing among such books precisely those where a previous film has been made with super-popular actors or some super-respected film-maker and seen by so many people and accepted as “unsurpassable.” Usually he has been polite about the previous (clearly to him inadequate and dated effort), as in the cases of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, the earlier BBC Bleak House (1985 Arthur Hopcraft), War and Peace (1972, Jack Pulman), but he revels in using them while inventing a new conception and in just about all the previous films he’s redone, correcting (Lean turned Pasternak’s book into anti-communist propaganda) or simply superseding them. What’s special about this new Les Miserables is Davies frankness in accurately describing the musical as “a travesty” (the 2012 film is frequently awful), and how watching it brings home to most viewers they didn’t know or understand Fantine’s story at all, hadn’t realized how crucial Waterloo and an honest depiction of street fighting against a ruthless gov’t is to Hugo’s anti-war reformist book (the 1998 film presents what it does of the complicated stories incoherently).


Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar)


Madame Thenardier (Olivia Colman)

But this is a movie which makes us want to read the book; since Davies got only 6 hours (as opposed to the more than 9 he had for War and Peace, 2016), he makes us aware we are watching a suggestive and quick-moving surface. As the novel very early on includes Waterloo and has a long historical meditation on the significance of this battle and the lost war, Davies opens on Waterloo (he is apparently the only of the many movies made from this book even to include the battle) and brings Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar) to the fore as the first active character we see: he is stealing from corpses and near dead men, not rescuing anyone as he later on claims. David Bellos (in The Novel of the Century, indispensable) says (rightly) the Thenardiers are not funny figures in Hugo. These characters represent people who are key obstacles to political progress. Bellos asks what makes them hate, resent and fleece others so. They are the kind of people who loathe the poor when they are themselves part of this class. And it’s not just greed, but a passion, they bear “grudges,” “deep furnaces of hate.” and resentful revengeful grief. Like the woman supervisor in Valjean’s factory, they want to “get back” at anyone living more easily, or anyone who rouses their considerable repertoire of hurt. We so want Fantine to return and take her child back. Olivia Colman plays Madame Thenardier as an accomplice, complicit in anger and harm of others as the most convenient rout of survival.


The Thenardier family evicted — Colman’s face registers one origin of brooding resentment that emerges as jeering abuse of others

Bellos suggests that Hugo asks, what can be done to stop such people from undermining any compassionate law, rule, institution. Davies adds that they are punished as decisively and ruthlessly as those they resent and take it out on: Thenardier beats his wife casually, her daughters too, and when last seen Madame Thenardier has been parted from her daughters and left in miserable prison.

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It opens brilliantly with shots in black-and-white of innocent animals killed (especially horses in extremis,in agons, in black silhouette), animals and trees used symbolically (crows), the exquisitely dark and dream like atmosphere is kept up in the first half — that is until we meet a grown up Cosette, and her demand that she be placed in a bourgeois environment where she can “learn about life,” catapults Jean Valjean (Dominic West) into a fiercely guarded island of an apartment in Paris. This reminds us of the Pontmercy home with the ancient grandfather (David Bradley) fiercely rejecting his son and bringing his grandson up to become an aristocratic of the now defunct ancien regime.

Church to one side, naturally, police headquarters prominently there. The wild landscape of white clay, rock, brick, the wretched prison quarters, the chains and whips everywhere are to the fore. In episode 2 The people Fantine meets are costumed like nightmare circus figures (Ron Cook as the man who cuts off Fantine’s hair and cruelly wrenches her teeth out is heavily made up) and the low budget set of streets is like the bleak corner or marketplace of a slum. So in contrast, Father Myriel’s (Derek Jacobi) hospitable table, deep gentle kindness, determination to do and be good, and the Mother superior’s convent are experienced as intense relief.


Lily Collins as Fantine, holding Mallow Defoy as the child Cosette (Episode 2) seeking work and a place to keep her child

Fantine meets Madame Thenardier: I’m on my way to Montreuil.
I’ve heard there’s some good work to be had there.
Where’s hubby? Erm He’s He’s dead.
Oh, dear.
So you’ve had a hard time of it, I dare say.
Yes, I have.
But once I get into a steady job, I’ll soon be on my feet again.
Yeah, of course you will.

The set in the second half expands outward from the provincial towns of the first, the wood where Valjean hides his treasures and earned money, and we find ourselves in Parisian gardens, then in the streets as people pour out and set up barricades, and when the fierce killing is over, in the sewers some have escaped to. The contrast is now the countryside to which Jean Valjean finds another refuge before dying. The whole ambiance is far more symbolic and artificial than Davies usually is as he tries to cover so much swiftly. For example, Jean Valjean and Cosette sitting in the snow:

Typically in all his films Davies brings new insight into the book he is realizing, and here importantly he provides further explanation for Javert’s obsession: his feeling goes beyond the homoerotic, his rage is the rage of frustrated, the man who cannot understand the humane emotions and behavior of Valjean and loathes the man as a threat. The two men are photographed in close proximity again and again:

It takes considerable skill to convey this kind of hidden and criss-crossing emotionalism (for as portrayed by West, Jean Valjean does not participate in this) and the brilliant David Oyelowo is pitch perfect, down to an intense nervousness and sense of someone at the ready for an insult from his subordinates; he is perpetually on the edge. He is fascinated by Jean Valjean (“you astonish me”) and his eyes and body convey deep attraction. This throws light on other pairs of pursuer and pursuit from Frankenstein and his creature, to Caleb Williams and Falkland — to modern doppelgangers. But he is still a police officer:

Javert upon meeting Thenardier when he is in search of ValJean:

Did he say what he wanted the girl for? No, but we’re men of the world, Inspector.
Not hard to guess.
Doesn’t bear imagining.
Y All right.
That’s all.
– That’s all? But look here – What? What are you going to do for me? Nothing.
You should think yourself lucky that I don’t charge you.

His suicide as Javert is given time– the writing of his resignation,

JAVERT: I beg, Monsieur Le Prefet, to consider these proposals for improvements to the service.
First, that we end the practice of prisoners returning from interrogations being made to remove their shoes while they await transport back to the prison.
Many are coughing when they return to their cells.
This leads to hospital experiences.
Second, a prisoner who drops a thread in the weaving room loses 10 sous.
This is an abuse of HIS RECOMMENDATIONS OVERLAP: Third, special regulation of the Fourth, surveillance is generally Fifth, gendarmes Prisoners coming back from the –

Writing this he is pictured and writes as an elegant man. Davies gives him time for a silent agon when he cannot bear to jump into that dark waters but does. He lived his life in darkness and amid filth and cruelty and hatred inflicted on others, now he ends in the dark filth. Davies’s Les Miserables includes Javert as among the wretched of the earth even if it’s he who is a relentless punisher of the wretched.

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Master crook (Ron Cook)

I can single out only a few scenes, performances, themes. In Episode 2 Lily Collins astonishingly powerful-pathetic as Fantine — without hair, without teeth, laughed at, her mouth filled with blood, spurned and finally dying, crying crying crying because she has lost her beloved daughter and is afflicted with the idea this is God’s punishment. Only if the child arrives on time, can she feel she is forgiven. This is Davies’s overlay of interpretation on the effect of religion on those like Fantine whom society condemns. Ron Cook is a nightmare masquerade figure with his dolls for sale using the human hair and teeth he has wrenched out of the vulnerable.


Josh O’Connor as Marius

Episode 3: a riveting and unexpected theme brought out is the danger of being innocent. Innocence and ignorance helps the vicious, ruthless. Davies presents Marius and Cosette as utterly innocent and ignorant. In Marius’ case the cause is a reactionary hateful embittered rich grandfather; in Cosette’s a deeply humane loving victim of the society, once a life convict, our Jean Valjean. The result is the same: show Cosette a group of prisoners being treated like animals you mean to murder shortly except put on top of this is vicious cruelty and she says what bad men they must be — and I know in Davies’ version will be automatically horrified when Valjean tries to tell her his story. Showing her these men is his first step and see the result: she rejects him. Show Marius Thenadier and have him listen or remember his own innocent father’s gratitude to Thenadier and Marius assumes he is a “great hero” of war (as was his father — without ever thinking what the war was about and what killing is); Marius goes to the police (!) to tell them of how an older man (fully described by Marius) is about to visit Thenadier and Javert suspects this Is Valjean and is there to re-capture him. It’s like informing the FBI that some good black people are in trouble from criminals: the FBI would come in in the 1970s and murder all the black people.


Eponine (Erin Kellyman)


Gavroche (Reece Yates)

Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter) — a poor man who works at the church Marius’s grandfather’s woman servant takes him to each Sunday

The one innocent who hurts no one is Eponine: she seems so without any partisan or protector. Similarly, her younger brother (or step-brother, in the novel he is only semi-adopted, Gavroche (Reece Yates) who thinks what is happening is a game, tries to protect his younger brothers, and dies senselessly. The old man, Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter), his one revolutionary gesture in a spirit of fine hope is killed by sniper fire


The revolutionary young men: Enjolras (Joseph Quinn), Courfeyrac (Archie Madekwe), Grantaire (Turlough Convery)

Parts 5 and 6: the street fighting. In this version the revolutionaries are not presented as frivolous students, but genuinely aroused revolutionaries; yes some of them drink, they make bad decisions, but they are serious about demanding a better life for all. Marius is an outsider. With all the talk about street fighting that I have come across (the one book I know is Tariq Ali’s) this is the very first attempt I’ve come acrosss to show how terrifying it is to revolt against a govt, and really give a feel of the what it’s like to know a bunch of paid human beings are there to murder you, and see it happen all around you. Davies’s switches points of view, partly as individuals go down, but the most frequent is Enjolas. The episode even had a warning for viewers that the violence here is exceptional: it’s not; what’s rare is to show how paid police and militia will kill citizens. During the Obama era only glimpses were seen of what was done to the Occupy Wall Street people when some prominent person’s son or daughter’s body was destroyed — not all die when they are horrifically maimed nowadays. It was very moving when Grantaire (Turlough Convery) chooses to die standing with Enjolras. I’d say Joseph Quinn had a major role in this film


The death scene

The death scene of Valjean collapsing and put to bed with Cosette next to him put me in mind of Andrei’s death in Davies’s War and Peace. Davies had more time in War and Peace (9 episodes of differing length) so he showed the process of dying (and James Norton is a virtuoso actor) — but we may ask, Is it enough for this man that Cosette loved him? There is a bit too much poetic justice perhaps: Thenardier tells us in his losing scene that he is ending in shit. Hugo’s Les Miserables is not Shakespeare’s Lear

ValJean dying with Cosette by his side:

WEAKLY: Are you still there? Yes, Papa.
I had things to tell you.
Never mind.

Somewhat differently conceived a narrator and over-voice would have helped. Davies has rightly conceived of the piece as an epic but is driven down to individual metonymy too often. Is it though right to feel that Jean Valjean has let us down? Had he made it an educational opportunity for Cosette from all we have seen I doubt she could have understood.

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Father Myriel


Sister Simplice

Bellos mentions as another flaw in Hugo’s book the long sequence about the convent. In a book overtly anti-clerical, rightly critical of the church’s role in repression, to make two of the characters, Myriel at the opening and now the mother superior (Georgie Glenn) as well as Sister Simplice (Natalie Simpson) near saints does more than tend to mute the radical point of view on life. Bellos suggests that like many authors, Hugo is ambivalent; his politics are also partly conservative at times — as would be understandable given his background


We must have the upper class couple: Ellie Bamber as Cosette grown up; Josh O’Connor as Marius

Davies counters this: in each of his adaptations, while it is Davies’s spirit and presence that unites them all (and there are remarkable parallels among the actors he chooses for his heroes), in each he is reacting to and producing a content which is partly a recreated version of his author’s so he is reacting to the author. In Les Miserables Davies turns a sentimentality towards Catholicism at times into a humane secularism, and convent and moral life become symbols for finding peace and safety amid the evils of human nature and the society this nature creates. Davies pulls out of Hugo’s retreat narratives what a good person wants in life is peace and safety. His good people are rarely ambitious; they may want to work hard for the meaning of this, to help others, but they most of them do not seek high position. The bad people are those who value others for their high rank irrespective of anything else. What Jean Valjean seeks for Cosette and himself as the best that can be gotten generally is a framework, a place apart from the world that allows each individual to know individual private happiness in whatever way he or she can achieve – play music, read, whatever.

The priest, the mother superior and the nun who cared for Fantine, were seeking and created peace and safety for all under their protection. That more than any religious belief is the point; it’s the respect the state pays to religious space and offices that allows them to do this for Jean Valjean. We see in the revolutionaries that although Enjolras is a good man and well meaning, all the men surrounding him are too vain, follow their appetites, and simply haven’t the firepower to achieve what this man is after — some other mode of achieving more for “mankind” is needed. So in the meantime we make do.

Voltaire’s famous ending of Candide throws scepticism on the ability of Candide and his friends to protect their garden, and the sense is how tenuous and fragile their space is, it can be invaded at any time.

Another important original move is to genuinely hire as many black as white actors: this is a thoroughly color-blind and integrated cast, from Thenardier, from Arab backgrounds to many black and white actors and actresses, not omitting the usual blonde princess Cosette. There was a black population in France from the 18th century on, but this casting mirrors an ideal for our own times.

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Douglas Hodges as the unbowed Lydgate with whom the film adaptation begins (the book begins with Dorothea)


Juliette Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on her plans for workers’ cottages, which are never built

To conclude, I have been watching Davies’s films as a kind of year-long marathon, and much as the originality and relevance of Les Miserables to today, makes it the one to see now, I suggest that his finest art, the ones beyond those I cited in my opening paragraph, the finest of his film adaptations occurred in the 1990s; I’m thinking of film adaptations like Moll Flanders (1996), Vanity Fair (1998), and early 2000s The Way We Live Now (2001), Daniel Deronda (2002), and especially Middlemarch (1994, the narrator’s voice is Judi Dench and by the end I find myself weeping uncontrollably as the destinies of each play out). This Les Miserables is another of the better recently dumbed-down serial dramas: the language is simple, crude, not much given over to subtlety of thought such as we find in his mid-career films.

Enjolras and Marius in front of the other revolutionaries:

I have to say, first, I’m not royalist any more.
What are you now then? I’m a Bonapartist and a Democrat.
Now, that’s a step in the right direction.
Napoleon was a defender of the Republic before he made himself Emperor.
Well, have a drink.
Yes, have a lot of drinks.
[THEY SING AND CHANT] I say down with all nations and down with all kings.
What about emperors? An emperor is just a king by another name, only worse.
I won’t have it.
Napoleon made this country great.
He brought reforms through his conquests.
What a joy to serve under such a man as that.
What could be greater? To be free.
I want to be a citizen of the Republic, not a subject of a king or an emperor.
One day we’ll all be fighting to the death about that, on one side or another.

Ironic and satiric comedy is closer to Davies’s own spirit (and can be just glimpsed abovve), and deep musing grief for the price we all pay for our failures in life and society’s control, punishment and thwarting of our dreams and innate selves, but also a buoyant enough spirit for self-examination to find strength to play out the roles that are offered us as ethically as we can. Davies does not despair. He offers deep filmic pleasures and humane liberal content still, and has created a wealth of video libraries from books — early on more in his own right individually (education and daily ordinary life his theme), then from popular romance and sentimental novels (Delderfield), from the 1990s on the very entertaining and relevant (House of Cards) as well as some of the greatest novels ever written.

Fingers crossed his star is rising again, and he has the years left to do a new The Pallisers.

Ellen

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Caroline Mortimer as Alice Vavasour reading the morning after her and Lady Glen’s night in the priory at Matching … (1974 BBC Pallisers)


Alice brooding just before she accepts John Grey (from original illustrations to the novel by Miss E Taylor)

Friends and readers,

What a time we had in my two classes with Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? Nobody wished it longer but apart from one Doubting Person (isn’t Trollope just bit repetitive?) most seemed to think the length justified. We had so many different kinds of conversations about the characters, Trollope’s landscapes and uses of symbolic houses, his plot-design and themes, epistolarity in the novels, irony, point of view, and much that has been probably said elsewhere, but one perspective I used is perhaps not the usual: from Arlene Rodriguez’s “Self-sacrifice as desire”, a thesis for a masters’ degree (sent by one of the people in the class): it attracts me partly because it forms a counterpart to Trollope’s definition of manliness (as I saw it years ago in a paper at a Trollope conference): Trollope’s Comfort Romances for Men.

Ms Rodriguez begins with a group of ideas that she takes from John Kucich in his Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Charles Dickens, ideas ultimately adapted from Michael Foucault and Judith Butler – theorizers of sexuality. Like Lucy Snowe, Dorothea Brooke, Esther Summerson, Alice Vavasour is a self-controlled repressed figure, the kind of heroine who seems not so much masochistic but simply refusing to join in on things you might suppose she wants very badly. Trollope has a number of such characters and they are very much disliked by the fans, who can become vehement in their distaste, particularly those women who refuse to marry for a long time or not at all, but the type behaves in this supposedly self-negating manner in other areas of life, take for example, Mary, Lady Mason, a forger for her son, in Orley Farm.

I had a hard time with it because it seems perverse and anything on the face of it perverse ought to be scrutinized. The idea is if you self-negate, 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. For example, I never in my life wanted a wedding, much less a big one. I never had one. The last thing in the world I’d want to bothered with. Vexation and cost and time-consuming. That’s conformity forced on us: you concede you’ll have a small affair and before you know it you are involved with a large headache. In the usual paradigm we have characters filled with appetites that are thwarted by society who forces conformity on them.

But what equally if you don’t want to get sexually involved; you don’t want to fall into paradigms of self-abnegation, be a subordinate woman; you really don’t want to elope with this guy; or, you don’t like the person others admire, or the career your parent wants you to choose, or in Can You Forgive Her? sticking by an engagement or being coerced into a marriage that will leave you unable to do what you enjoy (say live in London), suits the aggrandizement of others (Burgo Fitzgerald) or helps them hide themselves. What if truly you want none of this?


Kate Vavasour — after George wrenches her arm, drawn parallel to Alice — Sharon Marcus suggests she is Trollope’s portrait of a lesbian secret self; marginalized in the theme adaptation she is repeatedly central to the Vavasour story

You don’t like the choices on offer. The example I can think of best which captures this and which I do understand is anorexia. People have a hard time accepting someone who does not want to eat? surely eating is natural, and needed. Who would give up eating? Many young women? why? As Hilary Mantel put it, “Girls want Out” (a diary entry in the London Review of Books one year). Mara Selvini Palazzi’s Self-starvation is about how family and school pressures are as central to anorexia as sexual pressure. In order to obtain some autonomy, to escape social’s demands you don’t enjoy. This condition of mind is found increasingly in upper class Indian women. Alice is ever eager not to go out. Kate, we are told, never dreams of marriage to a man. She proposes on George’s behalf to Alice. She may be said to violate Alice when she gives George Alice’s letter. Very aggressive for what she wants that no one will recognize. She ends living with Aunt Greenow at Vavasour Hall — I love how Aunt Greenow ends up in charge of the family country house. Poor Miss Arabella Vavasour that was.

Kucich argues that self-negation was very well understood by Victorians and enabled them to have a far livelier and more varied sex life than we suppose because they practiced public self-negation. Turn to Eleanor Bold a central character in three of the six Barsetshire novels. She likens herself to Iphigenia; she will immolate herself on her father’s behalf. He wants out, and she wants out too. She refuses to marry or have anything to do with John Bold until he gives up his case in the newspapers. She performs self-negation several times in Barchester Towers, and thus achieves not only autonomy and peace of mind for herself but also her father.


Donald Pleasance as Mr Harding, Janet Maw as Eleanor, sharing a well-deserved drink at the end of The Warden … (1982 BBC Barchester Chronicles)

We went over so many examples of this kind of behavior in Alice I don’t know where to begin; but there is a problem for unlike say Lily Dale, Mr Harding, Mary Mason, and in Dickens Arthur Clenham (males can practice this kind of carapace too) Alice ends up in a situation she is still ambivalent over, and in the last chapter of the book her author-narrator cannot stop himself from needling her and having the characters around her triumph unkindly, from Lady Midlothian (it’s as if a Lady Catherine de Bourgh took a central role in Darcy and Elizabeth’s wedding), to china, to diamonds. On these latter I wished Lizzie Eustace had been there to embody the notion that diamonds are being made to mean more the money (for myself I ended up endlessly pawning mine from my first marriage until I simply sold them). To the end of the book Alice has more in common with Isabel Archer than is supposed: thinking about having said yes to John Grey,

“She would have striven, at any rate, to [think as he thought] But she could not become unambitious, tranquil, fond of retirement, and philosophic, with an argument on the matter — without being allowed even the poor grace of owning herself to be convinced. If a man takes a dog with him from the country up to town, the dog must live a town life or die a town death. But a woman should not be treated like a dog.”

The probability of the ending does not validate it as the choice Alice wanted. In the film series, Simon Raven alters the question so that it becomes she must choose life as this is the only life on offer for her (Raven has Grey ask Alice not just in a graveyard but inside a tomb).

And the paradigm makes hay of the parallels set up by Lady Glen’s story whose reference archetypes are take us in another direction, though the drawing by Miss E Taylor configures her outwardly analogously.


Lady Glen after Lady Monk’s ball from which she has not eloped with Burgo


Philip Latham as Palliser at the breakfast table – he wins in the book because the argumet is conducted on his grounds, where he is hurt, not hers

In the film, by mid-morning the brooder is Palliser:


Now walking away from his colleagues, he passes a woman selling flowers, a church, meets George: Raven gives him voice-over

“The quidnuncs of the town, who chanced to see him, and who had heard something of the political movements of the day, thought, no doubt, that he was meditating his future ministerial career. But he had not been there long before he resolved that no ministerial career was at present open to him. ‘It has been my own fault,’ he said, as he returned to his house, ‘and with God’s help I will mend it, if it be possible.

Trollope’s definition of manliness I once argued undermines macho- and predatory male norms, and functions as a counterpart to female self-negation. A rooted original trauma in his life is at the core of these fictions.

“My boyhood was, I think, as unhappy as that of a young gentleman could be, my misfortunes arising from a mixture of poverty and gentle standing on the part of my father, and from an utter want on my part of that juvenile manhood which enables some boys to hold up their heads even among the distresses which such a position is sure to produce” (1:2)

A few paragraphs later he offers concrete examples of what he means by an “utter want” of “juvenile manhood:”

“Then another and a different horror fell to my fate. My college bills had not been paid, and the school tradesmen who administered to the wants of the boys were told not to extend their credit to me … My schoolfellows of course knew that it was so, and I became a Pariah. It is the nature of boys to be cruel. I have sometimes doubted whether among each other they do usually suffer much, one from the other’s cruelty; but I suffered horribly! I could make no stand against it. I had no friend to whom I could pour out my sorrows. I was big, and awkward, and ugly, and, I have no doubt, skulked about in a most unattractive manner. Of course I was ill-dressed and dirty. But, ah! how well I remember all the agonies of my young heart; how I considered whether I should always be alone.

In my paper I wrote:

In many Victorian texts, successful manliness is equated with “courage, resolution, and tenacity,” “the repression of the self,” “financial independence,” and doing useful work. In Trollope’s novels, however, the use of the term “manliness” and all its cognates usually refers to a more narrowly-conceived social behavior. When the young Trollope had insufficient “juvenile manhood,” he was not able to exercise a self-government sufficient to hide his social predicament and to maintain the respect of others. … manliness also manifests itself in [A] firm limiting OF susceptibility to pressure from the views of others in ways that permit a perceived private self to assert an individual presence, self-esteem and power implicitlY.” Thus Palliser can reject the position of Chancellor of the Exechequer after long pressure from his colleagues.

It is important to be emphasize Trollope is making a case against conventional norms. The character who is ugly, awkward, dressed wrongly, relatively poor, and even not quite a gentleman is frequently presented as nonetheless admirably manly. [While physical bravery matters], the word “manly” is much more often attributed to moral courage of the type which enables Mr Harding steadily to quit a compromised position. Trollope repeatedly dramatizes stories which reveal that when a woman chooses a partner based on how well he enacts conventional social norms for heterosexual male sexuality, she courts emotional disaster.

I told the people in the class: Drawing on his personal experience, Trollope dwells over and over in unheroic heroes and redefines worldly loss, defeat and individual withdrawals from social life and competition as misunderstood and understandable choices whose courage is underrated And then for the happy ending he shows the self engulfed – Alice wanted just one bridesmaid. Forget it. Or you integrate in a compromised ironic way. That is the ending of Phineas Finn: a position as a workhouse inspector in Ireland. Characters are unable or unwilling to articulate their point of view because they fear shaming and defeat. Their inability or refusal to manipulate these social codes disables them in the continual struggle for dominance against submission that Trollope depicts as also what shapes most human relationships. I do see homoeroticism coming out in some of the male relationships, especially when they are after the same woman (or have had her, as in the case of Burgo and Palliser or Phineas and Lord Chiltern)


Susan Hampshire as Lady Glen turning away from Burgo one more time …


An extraordinary scene between Palliser and Burgo (Barry Justice) at Baden …

Yes Trollope is intensely concerned over achieving a modern career (“making your way”). It was not having a job but a position you rise in to become someone influential and important. George Vavasour may not have had the patience, but he also didn’t have the money. Nicolas Dames in his essay on careers in Trollope suggests Trollope redefines the successful artist in term of money success with his vocation emerging as mere obsessive motivation, not the negotiation of fitting into a situation, finding the inner logic of what will make for promotion, which is what counts in gaining respect. The older Trollope criticism emphasized ethical relativity and went on about specific values; this way of seeing Trollope is post-modern: you achieve a life-style, a career or marital discipline as you rotate endlessly “upward towards the light,” ” except for those who fall by the wayside. So the first desire of most people is protect their place in organization. Suddenly Barsetshire becomes the world we live in today. I’ve felt that The Three Clerks ought to be have titled: The Way We Work Now.

But I have moved away from our Victorian heroines who have no need of forgiveness, much less vehement dislike, only understanding — for they are some of us.


Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson looking at herself in the mirror when she is beginning to recover from small pox (2005 Bleak House)

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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


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

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


An emphasis on community

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

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


Contemporary playing cards

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


The cloak that Ross buys Demelza in the 2015 adaptation

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


Maria Edgeworth by John Downman (1807)

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


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

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


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

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


Anne Vallayer-Costa, White Soup Tureen

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


Marked up page of Gilpin book

Ellen

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Sophie Rundle as Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey (from Walsh’s 2015 An Inspector Calls)


Ruth Wilson as Alison Wilson, a fictionalization of the deceit of a male “patriot” of four women and the families he biologically fathered

Dear friends,

Over the past week I’ve been lucky enough to watch the kind of “thriller & suspense or crime and/or detective novel,” which turns on its head the older hero-centered often misogynistic genre into a satisfying dramatization and examination of disquieting destructive values and norms in many societies. One example, I just loved two weeks ago now, was In a Better World.

Billed as a “thriller,” this Danish film, written and directed by Suzanne Bier, tells the story of a sensitive dedicated Swedish physician, Anton, whose wife has left him after he had an affair with another woman, and whose son is the type of boy who is susceptible to cruel bullying in schools. Elias is rescued not by the school authorities (who like those in real life I’ve encountered) refuse to recognize and stop the cruelty but another boy, Christian, angry at his father because his father was unable to save his mother from dying of cancer and was even relieved when she did die after a long period of mutual suffering. It’s an exploration of sadism in adult political life in Africa. It is when such stories are discussed in this way that we realize the formula for carrying along a mass audience is there merely as a vehicle.


Mikael Persbrandt trying to explain to his son why not to respond to bigoted violence with more violence is an act of desperately needed courage

The film struck me because I am just now reading and studying a group of these formulaic books by Winston Graham, which keep to the misogynistic outward plot-design so that the vulnerable woman is seen as the evil person whom the other characters have to root out (Take My Life) or the self-destructive bewildered victim of a crook who used the resistance movement in France for his own profitable exploitation and sexual predatory habits, and whom an essentially good hero (in this version, crippled himself by war) is right to stalk and pressure until she sees that giving herself over to him will bring her protection (Night Without Stars). Both were made into film noir movies. I am looking for a way to discuss them that brings out this hidden backstory. And sometimes I despair when I see how the generic surface is still presented as valid and tedious as the puzzle-unraveling is when speeded up, made terrifyingly violent sells widely.

So I am gratified when I see “all is not lost,” and the books and films which win worthy prizes, a better and/or female audience (not the same thing) are becoming as common. I am not saying anything many people have not observed before me.

In 1997 Marion Frank wrote a good essay called “The Transformation of a Genre — the Feminist Mystery Novel (printed in Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon, Setting Standards of Taste, ed. Susan Faulkner [NY: Edwin Meller Press, 1997]) where she traces not just the feminization of the central hero but a transformation of the values and the kinds of stories such material uses: Frank moves from Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, woman-centered and mildly feminist while upholding the hierarchical and patriarchal establishment to Joan Smith’s genuine feminist, then radical (not just liberal) humanist detective novels (A Masculine Ending to What Men Say).


Joan Smith

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For tonight I want to compare Aisling’s Walsh’s 2015 adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s “classic” everyone-did-it play, An Inspector Calls to the 1954 adaptation, famously starring Alistair Sim, so pitch perfect as the sinister and menacing Inspector Goole (in Priestley’s the name resonates as ghoul) that the 1954 film still has a following, and can be bought as a blu-ray:

and a re-boot has been successful


Pray forgive the conventional frozen promotional shot from the 2015 re-boot

I was reminded of J. B. Priestley early last week when someone on one of my listservs asked if anyone had seen the Walsh TV movie (now streaming on Amazon Prime)? A wonderful humanistic man of letters, novelist, radio host and commentator, playwright, erased by the media after World War Two because he would not give up his membership in the communist party and remained overtly a committed socialist. He was probably actually much better liked than Churchill during the war (Orwell just about says):

But he has been disappeared (like Mike Leigh’s recent movie, Peterloo) lest we have any encouragement for social decency in our media. A few years ago I went to a book history conference where a man gave a paper demonstrating that no communist after the mid-1930s was ever given a prestigious European prize. If you were not a communist openly, but were a socialist and known to be so, your book was suspect from the start. You’d be lucky to be in the short list and don’t expect a movie.

As an 18 year old girl I cherished two novels by him, The Good Companions and Angel Pavement. I sill have the old-fashioned hardbacks in my library which I read nearly half a century ago. At the time I was contemplating returning to college full-time and remember reading a history of English literature by Priestley, which I took out of the library. It stirred and spurred me on; his novels gave me courage and cheer – now I realize how the picaro novel is not one where compassion is the key note, but irony (Sarah Fielding’s David Simple never does find a friend). In later years (when I got to college) I realized Priestley was sneered at, called middle brow, and if I persisted in citing this allegiance of mine I’d be seen as showing I was not part of the knowing cultural world. A little far more candid and non-snobbish talk that day led me to watch Walsh’s rendition on my laptop that night and a kind friend sent me a copy of Helen Edmundson’s adaptation in 1954 and I watched that. I also remembered Walsh was centrally the creator of Maudie, a film about a disabled uneducated man and equally vulnerable woman artist.

So what is made central in the Walsh re-boot:

The conventional barely glimpsed back-story of a dubious unchaste working class girl becomes the central meat of the dish — the reason for having so many identities is she is trying to protect herself again and again, as each time she tries to conform and yet ask for decent usage (wages, respect, courtesy, kindness, a place to stay, companionship) she is used, dropped and sinks lower.

You can find a bit of the storyline in the wikipedia article on the 1954 version. Basically each member of the Birling family was responsible for ostracizing, firing, using and erasing Eva Smith; the worst moment is her humiliation before the smug mother supposedly running a charitable organization.

And in the 1954 film, much closer to Priestley (by Guy Hamilton as director and Edmundson as writer), we do see our heroine Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey but only in swift short takes and the focus of the scenes is not on her. Indeed in some of them she emerges as stereotypically a “tramp” or loose woman. But there is little going outside the room so we rely mostly on words to learn of the outside world. The kinds of arguments made are in cliches about responsibility. I feel that it is less believable these people would be guilty — their interactions are far less lethal, the family structure presented as far more conventionally okay.

Watch the 2015 immediately afterwards, and you see there were many more scenes with Sophie Rundle as central presence, scenes of her alone, scenes of her interacting with others, many giving her real gravitas, intelligence, and depth of feeling. What’s more the family is now made bitterly internecine and due to the inspector’s prompting presence are led to truly enter intimately into and expose their corrosive relationships. I’d call Walsh’s film feminist, Marxist, egalitarian, coming down to a human level in its demands, and really turning the “crime” genre inside out, while the 1954 one is Marxist and sentimental, still respecting the hierarchy and pious family “healing” at the end.


Grim

In 1954 Sims as the inspector vanishes and it really does seem as if he’s a ghost of Christmas whatever come to be therapeutic for this family. In 2015 David Thewlis as the inspector is not a ghost; as in Priestley’s he is lead in by the maid, and then let out. In the film we then see him watch (from afar Sophie) walking by the sea, then writing in her diary, and finally drinking the detergent; she is then seen whisked along a hospital corridor to an emergency room with a tube is put down her mouth and stomach (painful) as they try to save her. At the last he is sitting by her dead body at the end. IN both the family is then phoned and then told a girl has died and an inspector is coming.

The question in the 2015 is who is Goole? he is not ghoul as in 1954. Are we to take him as possibly some relative? some spirit conjured up against the capitalist male hegemonic order — almost magical realism rather than the female gothic.


Promotional shot of Soller and Pirrie as the Birlings still cheerful

I was much moved by the second film and not at all for real by the first. I do find Kyle Soller as great actor, and am drawn to Chloe Pirrie in all the roles I’ve ever seen her in.

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I encourage my readers also to watch, not to miss, Mrs Wilson on PBS, one of the more recent of these modern feminist humane “thrillers” — two hours last night (Sunday, 3/31/19) and another hour next week. There are of course the exegeses which try to stay on the surface, but the content so clearly calls out for the “backstory” to be told since the “thriller’s structure is now the emotional exposure by the women or the man’s grown children step-by-step of the male liar at the center. As Mike Hale of the NYTimes writes:

Alexander Wilson lived an improbable, deceitful, destructive but undeniably intriguing life. An author of popular spy novels and a British secret agent himself in World War II, he married four women from the 1920s through the 50s without bothering to divorce any of them. He managed to keep his four families mostly secret from each other during his lifetime, and his children (and many grandchildren) only got to know one another more than 40 years after he died …

Ruth Wilson of “Luther” and “The Affair” is the granddaughter of Alec’s third wife, Alison, and she plays her victimized, mystified grandmother in “Mrs. Wilson,” of which she’s also an executive producer.

So rather than the historical adventure or romance it might have been in an earlier era, “Mrs. Wilson” is an interrogation of history, a feminist critique of mid-20th-century British society, a mystery and, least satisfyingly, a character study. The strangeness of the story, and Ruth Wilson’s characteristic intensity, pull us along. But Alison and Alec, and their motivations, never seem to come completely into focus. The series feels caught between fiction and real life, as if the writers (Anna Symon and Tim Crook) and the director (Richard Laxton) were unwilling to fully dramatize a history that’s still murky, partly hidden in the files of the British Foreign Office.


Iain Glen

It could be said that perhaps the new feminist turn as gone too far in making the male an utter shit — I’m only 2/3s through though. One of the intriguing aspects is how the program makes mince meat of all this talk of patriotism and how keeping secrets for the gov’t is a noble patriotic occupation. Iain Glen the male lead often plays this sort of on the surface enigmatic male in female gothics — he was this kind of character in a recent re-do of a LeFanu novel, Wyvern Mysteries, which partly imitate the plot-design of Jane Eyre, except now there is real empathy for the mad wife chained in the attic. Keeley Hawes is getting old, alas, and Fiona Shaw even older … but are very good in their parts.


Keeley Hawes as Mary, drawn to be Wilson’s second wife


Fiona Shaw as Coleman (a sort of M)

Ruth Wilson ever since I saw her in Small Island, and then Jane Eyre, and now recently in an HD screening of an Ibsen play (Hedda Gabler, with Kyle Soller as the husband) remains one of my favorite actresses. I have never seen her in a film or a role where I didn’t bond with her.

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How to conclude? Don’t give up. Hang in there. Ripeness is all. Despite the horrors being perpetrated in the US by the heads of the federal gov’t, and sustained by its reactionary minority senate and judges in the public realm, there are still a large percentage of people from whom good can come, and who can make effective socially critical art from what Julian Symons (in Bloody Murder) rightly calls an inferior genre-game, which is still frequently obtuse to its own potentials.


A photo taken yesterday (3/31/19), the height of the flowering tree April bloom by my daughter, Izzy, as she walked along the tidal basin — we had the day before (3/30/19) endured more than 3 hours of driving on highways and DC streets to see and hear the Folger spring concert, an oasis of lovely, moving, fun, intelligently and passionately lovingly performed Elizabethan music and song

Ellen

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

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

Friends,

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And now this:

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


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

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

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


Hart acting between Nancy and Rose, Nell’s sister

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


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

He has to wrench her from the ensemble


Ensemble

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


King thoughtful

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

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

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

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

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

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


The King with Lady Castlemaine (Regina Acquino)

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

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

Ellen

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Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. I live with them daily, after all … Any library is filled with them. I can take a book from dusty shelves, and be haunted by the thoughts of one long dead, still lively as ever in their winding sheet of words … Look back, hold a torch to light the recesses of the dark. Listen to the footsteps that echo behind, when you walk alone. All the time the ghosts flit past and through us, hiding in the future. We look in the mirror and see the shades of other faces looking back through the years; we see the shape of memory, standing solid in an empty doorway. By blood and by choice, we make our ghosts; we haunt ourselves — from The Prologue to Drums of Autumn

Friends,

The serial drama, Outlander, has become something of an addiction with me. I watch it one episode at a time, night after night. This winter I went through Seasons 1 and 2, and am now well into 3. At the same time I kept my weekly appointment with Season 4 each Sunday night at 8 pm, and sometimes we had second date, on another late night, a re-run. I’ve posted on a use of Christmas in Gabaldon’s novel, Drums of Autumn, to which I can now add:

Christmas in Scotland in 1967, Drums of Autumn, Part 6, Chapters 17-18: “Home for the Holidays.” Roger and Brianna go to a Christmas service in a Catholic church — Briana is said to be Catholic — I think Claire might be — as I recall her friendship with Mother Hildegarde in Dragonfly in Amber and her response to the stillborn birth of Faith. Roger is presbyterian by upbringing from his step-father, the Reverend Wakefield. Roger moves out of his adopted father’s house, gives away, puts in libaries and sells many books, and rehearses his memories very touchingingly. There is an erotic sequence between the young lovers at home ….

Nothing spectacular: it’s like Austen, Christmas seems to happen to be there and adds touches as when in the opening of the third season of the series, Roger arrives in Boston Christmas-time and the events of revelation, research, and Claire’s return to the 18th century through the stones occur amid the rituals of a 20th century American Christmas.

My last blog-review of the series was of Voyager as the watery, water-drenched end of Season 3; and I find I hadn’t sufficiently emphasized how central Claire and Brianna’s relationship was to the first half of this third book, nor its overall structuralizing conflicts, with strong women in rivalry. Geillis becomes a weird witch, with Claire her nemesis.


About to build a life together

By contrast, Drums of Autumn and Season 4 are rooted in the land, building on it, hunting, fishing, each person doing their part to contribute to this (to them) new place, and for Claire it’s her medicine book, her surgery and care that’s needed for the invention of a new society. Along with this, what’s enacted this time, by Jamie repeatedly, by Frank across one crucial episode (“Down the Rabbit Hole”), are scenes of good fathers: Jamie and Willie, Jamie and Brianna, Jamie and Ian, Frank and Brianna. A central image-symbol for the book is Jamie and Claire’s log cabin; for the series, this cabin shares the imaginary with River Run, a plantation based on slave labor; a river down which Jamie and Claire and Ian float, and twice meet Stephen Bonnet; the wood and home of the Indians, and Wilmington, the town from which the colonialist order is run.


River Run

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Some notes, recaps and commentary for the first seven of the thirteen episodes:


After Jamie and Claire agree to take Bonnet with them (he’s escaped hanging), she tends to some of his wounds ….

Episode 1, the ironically titled “America the Beautiful:” At first I thought I might be driven to give up when they began on how wonderful the American experiment, outlined the American dream (you can do anything if you’ve the will &c) but pretty quickly this was savagely ironized as explicitly Jamie protests to Claire (despite English accent presented as American in the stories) about slavery and we see the slaves, and we experience violence as a way of life (for once repudiated) so that the idea is what’s a dream for some is a nightmare for others. And corruption rife. Ed Speleers continues his successful career: as the treacherous Mr Bonnet he was memorable, charismatic in his face.


Floating downstream

Amid the hanging of Jamie’s old comrade-in-prison, the refusal of his corpse by a church-controlled graveyard, so melancholy and mockery, as the raft moves downstream, the characters have bad dreams, long flashbacks which are juxtaposed to the present back and forth. These slow down the narrative sometimes until we reach the closing sequence of mayhem where all voice stops and we watch a pantomime of violence and grief distanced from us by stylization in the acting. The effect is to make the episode more inward, and very effective.

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Episode 2: “Do No Harm:” The film-makers have had the astonishing courage to make central, the heinous practice of lynching black men by white men. Lynching central to US life until the 1950s. They did not distract us with several stories at once but kept their eyes on this one happening. So not just slavery and its accompanying justification, racism, but the hideous unjust violence that sustained it – including whipping as a matter of course — is put before us. Claire is again center, with some voice-over, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as the blind Jocasta Mackenzie, somehow monumental as a successful plantation owner of long standing. The young black women who are enslaved are also individualized and as memorable. I was even more moved the second time because I watched it during the day (a rerun) and got more out of what was said. This season is beautifully photographed but this had the effect of keeping us at a distance from the captured African people working in the fields …


Jamie and Claire greeted by Jocasta, Ulysses and Phoebe

The unexpectedness of the story line kept me on tenterhooks. After the conclusion of the pantomime third exit, where Jamie and Claire have been robbed by an ungrateful ruthless but debonair Mr Bonnet (Ed Speleers), they turn to Jamie’s relatives. Lucky man has all these rich relatives scattered around the world. But when they come to Aunt Jocasta, they discover her dependence on slavery in house and fields, no matter how much she wants to turn the management of River Run over to Jamie and Claire, both balk but Claire more. Faery gold as Aunt Jocasta wantsto turn her property over to Jamie; wants to make him heir but before this goes further, a young black man, now named Rufus, whipped by some overseer has responded by cutting the guy’s ear off, and the mob (I don’t want to use the word community which is such an honorific), has strung him up on a hook thrust deep into his belly. This was taking the law into their own hands and Jamie manages to wrest the body back and we watch Claire and young Ian operate on him and him come back to life. He could have lived.


Jamie, Claire and Jocasta face the angry mob of white men determined to torture an enslaved black man to death: Claire has enabled him to die a peaceful death

But there are laws 1) again freeing slaves without pay 100 pounds bond for each 2) signing documents to the effect they will hurt no one and if they do, you get killed 3) that such an act of rebellion must be responded to by execution. A mob comes and Claire finds she must feed Rufus arsenic to save him from torture — the sleeping death is the kindest thing that might be done. Then the body is handed over. One can see that Claire and Jamie will not be able to stop at this plantation but go have to go west — where of course they will encounter Native American and the hideous casual violence, described by Jill Lepore in her King Philip’s war.

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Episode 3: “False Bride: Basically Jamie and Claire refuse to take on Jocasta’s plantation if it means owning and driving people as slaves. But there is an odd subtext here: the way the house servants are presented show them as well dressed, well fed, and happy enough: it’s almost a justification of slavery where Claire comes out as unreasonably austere in not agreeing to go with the system. After all, are not unfortunate injustices rife everywhere: that’s Jocasta’s stance and there is little to counter act it – the only cruelty we see is the one which murders Rufus..


Jocasta left alone

They go west and immediately as a couple Jamie and Claire do have a believable momentary trauma: Ian goes off with Mr Myers (why I’m not sure but they go on ahead) and the donkey bolts and Claire rides after it.. No surprise when she gets lost and then another tempest. Much juxtaposition of scenes so tension created until we get back. Then Claire has a dream of a nightmare ghost, an Indian or Native American whose head is broke open, and then she finds a skull with fillings not possible until two centuries later. Is there another person who crossed those stones now in distress trying to get into contact with her.

But Jamie finds her, all is well again and after some serious conversation, he agrees to stay there in this relatively place and try to make a home. We wonder if it’s too far from where other whites are and the Indians will attack — they have been mentioned as “more civil” in this part of the world but the reassurance itself sows doubts.


Roger and Brianna dancing at the Scots festival in 1967

Parallel is Roger and Brianna’s story. Here the film differs from the book. In the book after initial awkwardness: Roger at first and continues to stand for all Briana dreads about her parents and biological father) they become lovers – he is a wonderful folk singer and plays ancient instruments in the Scots festival. In the book it’s Boston, here North Carolina – I suppose to make more contrast and parallel. I am told that there are three separate encounters in the book where the young couple gets to know one another. Here is it just pressed into one time and maybe that accounts for the inconsistencies.

In the film Roger turns out to be way “behind the times:” he wanted Brianna to marry him, and he won’t countenance just fucking — to him, it’s all or nothing. But as she says she’s not ready, she has her schooling, her career, she’s not sure. An impasse. Is his song about a false functioning as a warning of what’s come. Often songs sung in a film have some resonance. False bride. In the song the man is betrayed by the girl who married someone else. Now we can say this refers to the initial Jamie and Claire story where she is (forced we remember) to marry Jamie and thus betray Frank – and when she returns to Frank she cannot love him any more for real.

There are strawberries in the song; but where in the book (the conclusion of the sequence) Claire and Jamie eat strawberries idyllically in a paradisal set-piece is omitted.

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Episode 4: “Common Ground:” This was a very well-meaning story and the tone throughout was appealing especially in moments where Jamie and Claire and Ian were working on their new home together: the theme is pro-settler colonialism with Jamie and Claire & Ian identified as very well-meaning refugees (in effect) from Scotland where life has become hard if not impossible for them – dangerous and poverty stricken.

One spectacular incident involving Jamie is of over-the-top St George and the Dragon archetype. (I don’t mind these, and they can have a sort of pizzazz if you have the nerve to do it — as in the first season when in Both Sides now Evil Black Jack Randall is about to carve holes in Claire’s body and rape her high in a castle dungeon and suddenly from the window, there is our hero gun in hand, I’ll thank you to keep your hands off my wife — or words to this effect). So a fearful creature, at first they think an Indian and then a bear attacks them and Jamie to the rescue. Turns the bear is not a bear but a murderous man who had put claws on his hands to claw people to death. Where he got these or why he thinks he is a bear this way we are not told. He does real damage to the trader with whom Claire and Jamie and Ian have made friends and Claire now to the rescue with her medical box and tools and knowhow.


Claire and Adawehi

This incident enables our friends to make friends with the local Indians. A story is told that this man was someone who beat and raped a woman and so was ejected from the Indian community (I was glad to see such upright humane attitudes, albeit perhaps anachronistic?). So all are grateful to our hero for killing the insane man with his wild claws and bear outfit and this gives Jamie a chance to make his gestures of friendship, which are reciprocated. A film has a problem here of translating what in a verbal text is easy to conjure up by a reader’s imagination; made concrete by concrete means it is susceptible of rejection as impossible or absurd. A sub-arch is about this ghost of an Indian who Claire thinks is another person who crossed those stones. The title is well-put: they are all living on common ground. Europeans and Native Americans.


Roger on the phone

The parallel thread is of Claire and her friend, African American, in college in Boston receiving a phone call from Roger who has come across a document showing that Jamie and Claire became settlers in North Carolina and called her to tell her. We learn that Roger’s Scottish housekeeper, Fiona (granddaughter of Mrs Graham now deceased, — in season 1 & 2 important) knows all about the stones and what happened to Claire. We learn she knows because the story line requires that she show Roger a document which suggests that 12 years after Claire and Jamie came to North Carolina they died. She says she heard all the conversation in the house (go back to the 2nd and 3rd seasons) This naturally distresses Roger because even if in realism Jamie and Claire have been dead now 200 years, it will upset Briana to think of her mother as not able to come back through the stones. Roger thinks he must phone again but now discovers that Brianna left for Scotland two weeks ago (!) to be with or join or find her mother.

These scenes are touching — they are now our young lovers.

We are (I suggest) supposed to remember there is a contradiction in the documents or concrete relics. At the grave yard in Scotland in the 20th century, Claire came across a tombstone showing that Jamie died in Scotland with a sub-header of “beloved husband of Claire” (or word to this effect). 17—the two last digits were wiped out. So did he die in Scotland? When? Is the young housekeeper’s document wrong or the document they died in North Carolina wrong. Stay tuned.

There were some very good moments between Claire and Jamie too.

The title is well-put: they are all living on common ground. Europeans and Native Americans; nevertheless, there is a kind of strangeness to this series this time in all these attempts to realize the book’s vision of America and the past now versus the present and keep them distinct. I wish they didn’t call her a healer so often (it just jars) — the word physician was common in this era among white Europeans. The Europeans would have called her a doctor. Much progress had been made by the later-18th century as her box shows – in the book there are interesting insertions in italics by the doctor who owned the box and his experiences as a physician. Claire reads them in Drums of Autumn itself, an instance of epistolarity, & very well done.

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Murtagh

Episode 5: “Savages” has clarity in the way the storyline is designed. The developments: Jamie re-meets Murtagh, now a blacksmith, suitably enough “aged” by make-up. A few sentences explain a long period of indentured servitude, ending luckily (faery gold again) for him in inheriting a smithy. At first Murtagh seems unwilling to leave his place to come live closely with Jamie and Claire once again because he is politically involved with a group of people protesting (among other things) taxes, but by the end of the hour he has turned up at Fraser’s Ridge. In the book I believe there is a Dunton who performs the role that Murtagh is about to take.

The other is that Brianna appears to have had a message that Claire and Jamie are in “terrible danger,” and she must travel back in time to help/warn them. Two sets of brief scenes with Roger Wakefield and a shot of her at the stones and then vanished. Is this another false one? These are neatly brought in not far from the opening of the hour and conclude at the conclusion.

In 18th century America, Claire helps a German girl to give birth to a baby, which baby catches the measles as well as the mother and dies. The grandfather blames the Indians (this is the term used in the series) who had passed by his land and drank some water. They left a blessing, which he thinks was a curse. He seeks a violent revenge on them and murders the good old woman who functions as their “healer;” in retaliation the Indian kill him and his wife and burn down their house. We are to mourn for her death.

The idea is Handy Dandy, who are the savages …. this includes the British gov’t wrenching taxes from the colonists, the original arrests and transportation of people in servitude, the German family, the Native Americans — everyone but our friends.


Remembering the Boogie Woogie song (from “The Search” Season 1, Episode 14)

The elements of fantasy seem to me to be coming out strongly or somehow more jarringly in this fourth season — Murtagh is still so hearty and strong – what works in a book is harder to put across in the visual concrete realism of a movie – which for the audience at large it even depends upon. Brianna almost at will crosses the stones. This put me in mind of The Wizard of Oz, which if I’m not mistaken Gabaldon alludes to in her first book, and the lines did turn up in the first season’s episodes. Claire as Dorothy longing to go home – sans Toto. Soon people will be traveling back and forth (joke alert).

I see no sign of the story of the young girl who was impregnated by a vicious man who was one of the prison guards at Ardsmuir. She either kills herself or tries to have an abortion and dies in the attempt. She is helped by an enslaved friend who is then hunted down according to the savage laws of this land’s people. Jamie, Claire and Ian find this girl and take her to live with the Indians. I hope it’s not cut as it certainly fits the theme of savages. .Handy dandy, who is the savage here – not “our friends” or the victims they come across now and again of this monstrous European colonialist order.

And I do enjoy the letters in the book: Ian’s conveying Jenny’s was especially very pleasant, filled with good feeling. It’s too bad they can’t or don’t try to convey that.

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Jamie and Lord John meet again, in front of the cabin

Episode 6: “Blood of my blood:” I enjoyed most of last night’s episode, but did cringe at some. The story for the hour is Lord John brings Willy to North Carolina, with a variety of reasons why, omitting at first only that he longs himself to see Jamie: Willy should see his father, he, Lord John just happened to be in the area (Virginia is not in the area of North Carolina Jamie points out), is there to reconnoitre the area &c&c

Early on there is an interesting series of inexorable political clashes between Murtagh now called Mr Fitzgibbons: Murtagh is a “regulator” (I’m not sure what that is) and he has been in political meetings with people in the area outraged at the taxes; Lord John commends the Governor’s mansion, “a true monument to elegance.” That elegance is off the back of the colonists and anyone else the British can demand payment from. Jamie tries to stifle this because he is determined not to get on the wrong side of the law again. Murtagh leaves.

There is a scene of chess-playing between Jamie and Lord John: some could come away again feeling a strong homoerotic relationship (without the sex longing on Jamie’s part). Lord John is a rival because Jamie had been willing to confide in him. It’s here that Claire’s jealousy is understandable, though the two relationships are so very different: I feel Jamie and Claire are classically heterosexual in their social and sexual behavior (especially in the areas of dependence and independence).

The most moving moments are between Jamie and young Willie who wants to be called Master William and speaks in a plumy English accent. Lord John introduces them as if they have never met and the boy says nothing, but when he left alone outside with Jamie he immediately asks him if he also has the name Mackenzie and it emerges the boy remembers a lot. What throws them together in the wilderness alone is Lord John comes down with measles — remember the last episode of a family died of measles. It was a virulent deadly disease — still is very dangerous. But no vaccination possible for 18th century people. Conveniently Jamie had it and survived, so Claire is left to nurse Lord John back to health.

Since Caitriona Balfe has rightly been nominated for a Golden Globe, let me say how admirably Sam Heughan acts his part of unacknowledged father and how touching the scenes.Indeed he is excellent throughout the series: The boy is difficult and used to his way and goes outside the boundaries to Indian land and the two are confronted by the Indians. They say they must have blood and in the desperation of the moment, Jamie says the boy is his son and he will bleed for him; Willie then speaks up that it was he who crossed the borders and the Indian leader just nicks him. The “cat is not out of the bag” as when the Indians have gone it’s clear the boy thinks Jamie lied. The boy is very attached to his father and longs to return to him more than once.

Lord John’s wife, Isabel has died — I suppose this erasure of an inconvenient character comes from the book. Back in the cabin Lord John reveals this and while some of the interaction is understandable, I cringe over the submissive lines given Lord John, his abjection before Claire. In some of her jealousy and envy of hi, I felt her unfair; she excuses herself that she and Jamie have been deprived of 10 years. That’s not his fault. When Lord John brings forward the boy as an excuse for his visit, she suddenly tells him she and Jamie have a daughter. That is what she is envious of: the child. Hers lives in Boston. Lord John cannot know Boston in 1967.

At the close I was as usual touched by the love-making and concluding scene. I know it’s improbable that they could have such a comfortable place alone in a wood, and that the log cabin could be so pretty. But this is a fantasy romance material.

The episode seemed like a quiet interlude. Except for the clash between Lord John and Mr Fitzgibbon aka Murtagh, these events will not lead to anything — indeed much of this season has been quiet or highly dramatic moments not linked forward to an on-going story, The story that is ongoing is the development of Briana’s determination to cross the stones back to her mother.

With Fiona and Roger, and Murtagh, when Brianna crosses back there will be 6 characters who know the story of Claire’s crossing, 3 and eventually 4 (for Roger crosses back) in the 18th century. I wonder if Lord John is ever told?

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Outlander Season 4 Episode 7: Down the Rabbit Hole

I watched 2 times this week and then half of it again. I am at the same time slowly re-watching Season 1 and am up to the 15th episode (which I find hard to go through, it is far too cruel and the voyeurism to me is suspect). Anyway I was riveted by this one, just loved it, and crucial for me to its affects and effect was the re-appearance of Tobias Menzies as as a loving, tired, suffering father and yes betrayed husband. The scenes between him as Frank Randall and Briana Randall (the name she gives made me for the first time think maybe the actress, Sophie Skelton has the depths necessary for the character to keep the series viscerally felt. The second actor whose talent is slightly uncanny is Edward Speleers; there he is again (last seen a couple of episodes ago): as the fiercely violent, altogether oblivious to humanity or any reasoning loyalty, Mr Bonnet, Proteus himself in how he flashes from type to type, he’s electrifyingly charismatic. Terrifying because he is all gaiety and courtesy as he does horrific deeds. He reminds me of some of the characters of the first season lost in the second. Several other characters re-appeared – or recurred – for the first time this season. Nell Hudson as Laoghaire Mackenzie now Fraser on the surface and when not touched to her depths this apparently intensely kind conventional woman; but how swiftly she switches to fierce witch herself when she realizes this waif is Claire Fraser’s daughter by Jamie Fraser – Steven Cree as Ian Murray, the gentle presence refelt. (What happened to Jenny aka Laura Donnelly – was she not contracted for this year?)

But none of them with the same meaning as Frank – paradoxically or ironically he is now the ghost people who loved him (it seems mainly Briana) long to resurrect or reach. In episode 1, it was that Scotsman by the monument in the central square at dusk looking up at a window he might see Claire from as Frank approaches. What else is this but beating death, going into the past to make it come alive again. And each flashback of a now dead man in the 20th century worked that way until the near end when the emotion becomes chocking as Brianna once again on her own (Ian cannot accompany her any further, like some Virgil guide cannot go further) turns round once more to look at Scotland before going aboard and sees the now clearly the ghost of her father waving her on.

The title is down the rabbit hole so we are prompted to irony, distance, mockery – here we are with Alice in Wonderland. But that’s not how it’s experienced. I found Brianna’s initial trek through the Scottish highlands as worrying as her mother Claire’s through the jungles of Jamaica in the third season. Both she and Roger (who also has no trouble going down that hole – after due adieus with Fiona) are given experiences which make shocking the differences between 18th century world and today. There is no city, no town, no lights, no coach, no phones and she is in danger of dying were she not found. We must not question too closely how the stones land the person near the place they want to be – though not quite there, like some magic bus that got the address slightly wrong. Roger finds that the structures of society he is so used to and depends on are out; he has to go low in status to get the place he wants (crossing to North Carolina) and once aboard ship, no one has any science or medicine to deal with common body needs. What’s more they are ruthless in this era and small pox so feared that people are thrown overboard.

I know people countered my idea that the last episode was like an interlude by saying grounds were laid for further action. If so, they are still in the planting stage. Here the story unfolds, or unravels swiftly in the way of the first & second seasons. Laoghaire locks Brianna in (fairy tale elements here – Rapunzel comes to mind) but there is a sympathetic child who has a wagon and horse (!) to take her to a relative nearby. And Roger crosses the ocean with memorable encounter with Mr Bonnet once again. That tossing of the coin is a brilliant embodiment of the idea of chance ruling all – though clearly it’s all providential if savagely so in this series.

Women did not travel alone in this period and anyway why not a friend as lady’s companion (Briana getting into the swing of things) so she picks up one Elizabeth to spare her rape. Since there’s been talk about the actress playing the role: her held-back stance and plainer looks make her just right: perhaps she is a bit well-fed, for servants in this era were smaller, thinner (they didn’t get a helluva a lot to eat).
This is a rare episode where neither Sam Heughan or Caitriona Balfe appear. I’d say they had that week off except maybe the film-makers don’t make these episode by episode. I doubt they do.

We see in this episode how centrally this is woman’s romance. The figure who acts first or is acted upon first is the female: Brianna. Before it was Claire before the stones. The male follows her: Roger. He is (I am so glad for this) the opposite of a macho male: anything but a violent cruel man. Jamie despite coming from a culture of violence is as moral and exemplary a figure as Ross Poldark (to bring in another romance hero, though a series of books centered on a male, i.e., him). Brianna brings with her her needs, and she is set in a patriarchy: her mentor and normative figure is her father. Claire’s profession is one woman traditionally have been allowed; she collects flowers & herbs (botany); turns to a husband who she bonds fiercely with. Briana’s role is that of daughter in a central mother-daughter paradigm: many women’s books have this as a central focus.

The use of flashbacks, juxtaposition, voice overlaps (if not over-voice) and parallels was so done so It felt intuitive and gave subjective depths as we went. I noticed for the first time too how they use deep-focus so you can see three deepening sections of a single scene (something the human eye can’t do). Wonderful episode.


Deep in conversation from an earlier season

I was moved to write a poem about how the dead are never gone from us, how historical fiction is aligned with the ghost story and our longings to cross some border into the deep past and bring it alive. For me this is to reach Jim and be alive with him once more, to beat death the way Claire does in the third season and now Brianna in this fourth. The question is, how? I see the metaphor of the Wizard of Oz as central as Alice (and used as metaphor in the first season if not the first book) This is the driving actuation of great historical romance writers like Hilary Mantel and Daphne DuMaurier.

Ellen

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