Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlon) obeying Dickens and bringing to Ellen Ternan her jewelry (Invisible Woman, script Abi Morgan, directed, produced Ralph Fiennes)
Again, from The Invisible Woman (adapted from Claire Tomalin’s book on Ellen Ternan) — we see (among others, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), her sister
Dear friends and readers,
This blog is a product of a few books on or from the Victorian into Edwardian age I’ve just read (Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, James’s The Other House), or am reading (Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, Constance Lytton’s suffragette memoir, Prisons and Prisoners, Trollope’s unabridged The Duke’s Children, and Gaskell’s Wives & Daughters); a movie I watched three times (Fiennes’s Invisible Woman) and one I’m in the midst of re-watching (the 1970s mini-series about the suffragettes, Shoulder to Shoulder). I’m thinking about these because of what’s to come: I’ll be teaching Gaskell’s North and South at the OLLI at Mason and Trollope’s first three Barsetshire novels at the OLLI at AU this coming spring. A Victorian Winter into Spring. What stands out or interests me, what unites these texts and films for me is the depiction of characters disabled in some fundamental way, and in three of them the registering of intense hostility to sexuality and/or social non-conformity and rebellion (the James novel, the real life the movie projects, and the literal destruction of Lytton’s life).
To begin with the most disappointing and the most stirring:
Jenny Wren (Katy Murphy) presented with real humanity in Sandy Welch’s film of Our Mutual Friend
I’ve been disappointed in Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, not because of anything lacking in her treatment, but to discover how little sympathy, understanding, or genuine depiction of disability there is in 19th century texts. In Fictions of Affliction I’ve discovered that what’s cared about in 19th to early 20th century stories is not disabled people as such, but whether and how they can work if they are men, and if they will marry and pass on their disability to others if they are women. People who have disabilities that are not visible, borderline, not recognizable right away are most disturbing to people; where it’s visible, there is deep suspicion they are twisted and angry or over-sexed because frustrated; or faking and exploiting weak or vulnerable people. From examples, it appears the male novelists are worst (Bulwer-Lytton, Collins), with a few women showing disabled people to be simply people (Dinah Craik, Charlotte Yonge). Dickens has pity but only for those readily labelled as crippled, and he uses them to project abjection and distress. From my own knowledge I know that Gaskell has a continuum where we see disability as part of the norm; unexpectedly (or perhaps demoralizingly) Trollope’s Signora Neroni emerges as one of the less insidious portraits. I had hoped for some general increase of enlightened subtlety.
The most moving and sympathetic over these issues is Fiennes’s cinema film, the Shoulder to Shoulder mini-series, and Lytton’s memoir. In the case of the commercial film, Morgan adapted or wrote the script out of Tomalin’s book, Fiennes directed and starred as Dickens with Felicity Jones as Ellen Ternan, Kristin Scott Thomas as her mother, and Joanna Scanlon as Catherine. What was the problem is the film-makers were unwilling to show Dickens to have been the shit he was in this situation — they cannot get themselves to. On the other hand, they show how the characters achieved a sort of fulfillment they cannot erase.
Over-solemn, over worshipful of Dickens: he was presented as this tenderly affectionate kind man, ever so reluctant to put Catherine aside but of course turned off by her fat, her sullenness, and her lack of understanding of his work. And he is this great genius who mustn’t be disturbed at his desk. The scene of him at the desk reminded me of the Dickens’ house I saw in Bloomsbury a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps they filmed there? or modeled the room on that?
Felicity Jones as Ellen asserts several times she knows joy with Dickens but there is not much evidence of this mostly: she is suffering and strained. It’s a framed story so we see her in widow’s weeds years later, now married to Wharton Robinson. Their actual life together is not dramatized; we see it from afar, in soft focus in lovely meadows and forests, all blurry, with appropriate music. Someone told me there is some evidence that Ellen Ternan came to “loathe” her relationship with CD, having told someone that, near the end of her life. Her motives for saying so aren’t exactly clear, but it is true that her son is said to have killed himself later in life and her relationship with Dickens was a factor.
You have to know the story and about Dickens is another problem: it’s left fuzzy that she is pretending to be much younger than she is so has just erased that part of her life while (confusingly) is going about in these sombre clothes in worship of Dickens still. They put on a play twice: in the past history and present The Frozen Deep. I’ve never read it, but have heard two papers on it and it seems to be an highly autobiographical play at heart filled with anguish. But the ordinary audience member and even people who think they’ve read a lot of Dickens, might not get these allusions to “the buried life” that we are to feel Dickens was suffering under married to Catherine.
How easy Dickens gets off. The film eliminates all he did to Catherine to get rid of her; we only see the parts where he rents houses for Ellen, the last away in the country where she must live alone, out of sight. We do see him bullying Porn while playing ball (so the film-makers are aware of what Dickens inflicted on his sons in Australia). But everyone acts in ways that are very chary of the central couple’s feelings, especially Dickens. I was hard put to figure out how he communicated he wanted her to come live with him; it was Kristin Scott Thomas who announces this to her daughter. Her one bad moment from other people is when we see her on stage where it’s implied she was a miserable actress.
The plot climaxes in the train wreck which is realized quite well — especially the photographed moments of the two on a train, she reading and he writing. It reminded me of Victorian paintings. We do see he pregnancy and aftermath of the childbirth which brings still born baby, but these are just incidents in a chain of what comes next. The film ends with Felicity-Ellen all mainstreamed mother, caring for her children, honored and treated with remarkable tenderness by her husband. Are we to feel she is now getting over it and need no longer wander about the beach dressed in black?
The movie questions nothing, breaks no new ground except perhaps to tell this story however obscurely to a public who might not know it and yet how tenderly all is done; we are made to feel for all the characters. there is much use of soft focus, we see characters repeatedly trying to be kind to one another. Tomalin in her biographies is often careful not to offend but she did strongly bring out how the conventions and mores of the era must’ve stifled and twisted the relationship of Dickens and Ternan. Nayder’s deep compassion for Catherine is caught in Scanlon’s performance.
Lady Constance Lytton (F. Hollyer, 1899, note the crutch)
Shoulder to Shoulder and Constance Lytton who one can argue was (like Dickens) marching to a different drummer than those of her society: What a wonderful thing it would be to “do” this suffragette memoir with a new woman novel at one of the OLLIs. No male would register. It’d be fine.
Written by Ken Taylor (who brought us Jewel in the Crown, the 1983 Mansfield Park and other BBC masterpieces), and created a team of three women, this 1970s 6 part (75 minutes each) mini-series came into its own by the third episode. As perceptive, accurate and thoughtful as the first two episodes are (Emmeline Pankhurst), I have to admit I found it tame at first and far too upbeat for Annie Kennedy (Georgia Brown): we would not today present people so much in harmony and the servants as so deferent. All the sentiments were true and the arguments that matter are there: we are shown that unless you disrupt — and in this case as women it had to be violently — you are ignored. The fourth episode about how the two Pankhursts (Christabel with her mother) forced the Pethick-Lawrences out of the WPSU. The P-Ls gave all, their fortune, their respectability, and they were ejected. We are not told in the series what were the issues, only that a seemingly seething ruthless Chistabel insisted on it. It did leave room for thinking about issues of what should be publicized and I fear the pace and insistence on high action in the film now in theaters (Suffragette) will preclude.
It was in the third episode it came into its own. I did not know that Constance Lytton in effect died of the forced feeding she endured in prison. I had read that she dressed herself and took on a common name in order to be treated like a regular woman:without that ironically she was getting no where. But when she did her real heart condition made the treatment fatal. We are in this episode shown the force feeding to some extent: it’s horrible and terrifying and painful and clearly done with spite by the people acting. Judy Parfitt when young was much chubbier! I didn’t recognize her for a moment. She is another good, warm-hearted character (so are they all in this suffragette group) so that’s not the type she eventually did either. But she came into her own – a great actress. I can see that by losing weight off her face the strong lines and nose came out firmly but the hitherhto protected sheltered Lytton she made her role, and the whole trajectory of increasing understanding, radicalism and finally redressing herself. She is often presented a kind of crank. Not here. I know force feeding is inflicted on anorexics: it just makes them worse; the language used by the people forcing, imposing is the same condemnatory talk on women alcoholics, just as castigating in effect. Not eating is the symptom that kills, but it’s the surface symptom. I’ve begun the memoir which is also about prisons, who goes to prison and why what is done to people in prison is done.
Michelle Dockery as the governess in Sandy Welch’s film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw
Then there’s James’s stunning novel of hatred, The Other House — I felt he hated his heroine, Rose, he was intensely hostile to his hero, Tony: her for her persistence in pressuring Tony in effect to be with her, marry her; Tony for how everyone admires and likes Tony’s brand of complacent easy heterosexuality:
I’ve read for years how James has this underlying sinister tone and how people have these dreadful insidious motives and impulses towards one another. I agreed easily or readily — as part of the underlying meaning of a book which on the surface can present pretty people (The Golden Bowl) or plausibly decent people who are monsters (Dr Slope in Washington Square, Osborne in Portrait of a Lady) or desperate bitter predators (in Wings of the Dover) or apparently virtuous people who devour and destroy others in order to maintain their own non-conformist gratifications (Maggie and her father in The Golden Bowl).
But in a way I didn’t take it seriously as it was not on the surface. David Case is the first person I’ve listened to who brings out the sinister feel of the fiction for real, and The Other House is a dreadful tale that fascinates because of the horror of a foreseen murder of a young child, Effie Bream. As I think about it strangely most of the characters are in fact over-decent, very nice: Tony the central husband male and father of Effie; Paul, a super-kindly stupid heir, probably the closet homosexual of the piece; his mother, Mrs Beever who means very well, Jean Martle whom Mrs Beever wants to marry her son Paul as (truly) sweetness and gentleness and all loving kindness. But Julia, Tony’s wife, Rose Armiger’s best friend, who we never meet, but dies upstairs from illness after the birth of Effie demands her husband never marry again as long as her baby is alive lest she have as dreadfully awful a stepmother as she this woman endured.
Her best friend, Rose Amiger is the book’s monster. On the surface utterly plausible well meaning guest, she wants to marry Tony herself, is apparently intensely enamoured of him. She acts hatefully Dennis Vidal, her suitor who keeps coming back to ask her to marry him after years in India growing rich (presumably on exploiting the natives ruthlessly). She loathes Jean Martle and Jean Martle knows this and is afraid of her. It’s obvious to this read Amriger is about to murder the baby so that Tony can marry Martle. She’s like some snake. She refused Vidal when Julia, her friend died because she hoped Tony would marry her — was she planning to kill the child then but that she saw Tony did not want to remarry or love her.
I don’t know that I’ve begun to convey the feel of ugly seething emotions that the surface talk which is the usual so-and-so is just beautiful or magnificent as well as the story of manipulation: Mrs Beever trying to pressure her son to marry Jean. Paul is the closet homosexual of the piece and Jean knows he is relieved when Jean refuses to marry him.
My sense of revulsion reminds me of how I have felt listening to Austen’s Lady Susan read aloud. It’s as if for once a raw hatred is allowed to show. James himself somewhere in him hates these people. He hates their manipulating marriage arrangements. He hates the way the doctor behaves to order others about. He shows them all as dependent upon keeping up surface lies and repressing themselves and one another. Each time he describes the little girl about to be murdered it somehow turns her into this repugnant over-dressed little human animal.
I can see why some readers might dislike James very much — beyond the difficulties of the language in the later books. Well those who see how he indites humanity at its core.
I finished this novel where dreadful things openly occur sometime on Saturday night driving back from Pennsylvania. I had bought myself a reading copy, having discovered that the New York Review of Books published it, with an introduction by Louis Begley. He defends it, and to be sure, what is openly put before us, is one interpretation of what we suspect goes on in other of the novels. Having seen this single woman dependent on others, in love with this Top Male from afar, murder a child and be permitted to get away with it, I began to think to myself, well maybe the governess in Turn of the Screw did murder the boy, or meant to, out of desire for the employer or frustrated sexual desire. I’d always seen the possibility the governess is to blame as misogynistic as James said the ghosts were really there and they persecute everyone. They too driven by sexual desire, frustations. In other of James’s novels, children are destroyed and no one notices. The saving thing is we don’t know for sure — if you want to keep up your respect for humanity’s morality. The child’s name is Effie and I wondered if this is an allusion to the famous French novel.
What leaves me shuddering is the intensity of the monstrous emotions driving Rose – they are presented as all really distorted — did she love her friend, Julia, after all? did she hang around to marry Julia’s husband if Julia should die? She agreed to marry Dennis Vidal who went away to make a fortune as one of these (presumably) ruthless colonialists in India — as a front. Her punishment is to have to go back with him; on condition she does, she is let off by the doctor and everyone else. Begley likens Rose to Charlotte Stant who I’m inclined to see as a victim, a sacrifice to cover up a father-daughter incest love. Also Kate Croy who reminds me of Lady Mabel Grex. I feel sympathetic.
Begley suggests that the fact the novel was written just after Woolson’s suicide is important. It’s about twisted sexual desire. Is Rose in some sense a stand-in for the devouring (as James might have seen this) Constance? That’s the implication of Begley’s introduction. This was also originally a play. I’d thought the reason James’s plays failed was they were too romantic, not stage-worthy, or too melodramatic; maybe they were just too unpleasant, too horrifying in their open content as you do have to let most audiences have concrete senses of what happened. The novel has thrown a whole new light on James’s work for me. Since on Trollope19thcstudies we are planning to read one of Woolson’s novels this coming spring and did talk a lot of Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel using The Portrait of a Lady to explore James’s traveling abroad.
I’ll be carrying on this Victorian trajectory. As yet I’ve found nothing to un-dismay me about the depiction of disabled people in the 19th century. I will read on in Holmes’s book for a while and dip into a vast Disability Studies, ed. Lennard Davis volume I bought at the last MLA Jim and I went to (which will now be the last I’ll ever go to) to see if I can find better individuals and when attitudes towards disabled people improved in the 20th. This sure makes Winston Graham’s depiction of disabled and autistic characters in his fiction look good. It is disappointing though and when I’ve written the review I’ve promised I’ll be relieved.
When I finish Shoulder to Shoulder and see the new film Suffragette and have gone on with Lytton, I’ll report back on that. So there’s something to be going on with.
And of course more teaching, which I have to begin to prepare for. Making Barsetshire at the OLLI at AU this coming spring will be a repeat of what I did at Mason last spring, but I’ve a new subject and central figure in Gaskell’s North and South. This is the outgrowth of a year and one half of reading Gaskell on WWTTA.
Gaskell wrote introspective domestic fiction, strange melodramatic gothics, political historical fiction,an influential passionate and great biography of Charlotte Bronte, and novels of social protest, including disability, emigration and prostitution, set across the landscape of Victorian industrial cities. Born to Unitarians, she became a clergyman’s wife, wrote fiction from her earliest years, published in magazines, and lived for many years in Manchester. Her tale of his city, North and South, centers on a strike that occurred (also written about by Dickens in Hard Times and Marx in the newspapers), on religious controversies, military injustice, the psychic pain of displacement, regional and class conflicts in romance. We will read her book against this wide context and see how it also fits into other contemporary Victorian women’s writing (e.g., Bronte’s Shirley, George Eliot and Harriet Martineau’s writing). She is an intriguing exciting novelist; and this novel will give us a chance also to discuss Sandy Welch’s 2004 film adaptation for the BBC, North and South.
Margaret Hale (Daniel Denby-Ashe) and Mr Thornton (Richard Armitage) meeting in Manchester in Sandy Welch’s film adaptation of North and South
I look forward to immersing myself in Gaskell once more. I hope my retired students will love it too. I see that three of the texts I’ve been riveted by were filmed by Sandy Welch (!). An affinity.
I am glad to be undeceived yet more about Dickens — though wonder why he continually has disabled characters in his books since he has such little patience with weak or vulnerable people (like his sons, how he bullied his wife); Holmes fails to explain this.
Barnaby and his one friend, Grip, the Raven
Dickens is also very cruel to Barnaby’s mother who is endlessly punished and has to endure absurd advice and suspicion from the “hero” of the novel, Gabriel: forsooth, he is willing to turn on her lest she have had some kind of man outside marriage.
I am now not eager to read any more of James’s novellas — I feel about the The Other House the way I have about Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I never went near Wharton’s bitter raw book again, though I am glad to glimpse what might be the hidden reason Henry James instinctively kept from his readers behind a wall of opaque sentences.