Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Downton Abbey’ Category


Vindolanda


John Millais’s loving portrait of a young John Ruskin

Friends and readers,

Though I had heard of Hadrian’s Wall, I had never thought there must have been a world of people inside this wall the Romans were seeking to protect and control. During the two weeks, our group visited a number of sites revealing Roman settlements all around the north west and western parts of today’s Great Britain. They came to extract the minerals in the ground and take it back to Italy to be hammered into thousands of objects. On different days over the two weeks we rode and walked over included the mountain top Hardknott Roman Fort, smaller forts, and finally near and by Scotland the vast excavation site of Vindolanda, and Hadrian’s Wall.

The areas we covered in the two weeks further north have also known incessant violence from continual internecine warfare by groups of maraunders (gangs of tribes and family groups) who came to be called the Borders Reivers: they are recorded from medieval history as living by stealing and killing and we visited and went pass their forts, Peel towers (places of refuge), heavily built castle-like dungeons. Carlisle, the city is found amid what once were these scenes and it has a marvelous museum remembering its history from the Vikings, through the Romans onto feudal and Victorian-Edwardian times: Tullie House and Museum, and there we were treated to the best lecture we heard: on the Reivers and this area in the 15th through early 18th century. Here too we came into contact with earlier Celtic and early Christian worlds at Lindisfarne island.

Throughout we often took the equivalent of or actual old Roman roads newly fixed, once important arteries for transportation.  (We stayed off main highways.)  One of the guides maintained the first language written down in the British Isles which we can find is Latin. Art works, and celebrity souvenirs, guide books support this remembering of history which gives meaning and a long-term identity to Northumberland and Cumbria and their specific localities.

This basic outline of local particular history that we traveled through was varied with visits to family estates thrown open to the public and (if they had one) castles or manor houses. One day we visited another poet’s house, from which he drew and wrote, supported artists and working people’s causes: education for all, better housing, civil rights: John Ruskin’s Brantwood. There were Roman and early gothic churches and vast cathedrals, more museums, more mines still being worked or open to the public for display and sales. Art objects at all these places and guidebooks could help you remember what you saw — as well as use of your cell phone or ipad or fancier camera.

I have summed up what is to come so we can have perspective and move through the  rest of the two weeks more quickly.


Hardnott Pass – the picture is not large enough to show the ribbons of road or their steepness

Friday morning dubbed “a day of high adventure” we drove up a terrifying Hardknott Pass: a zizgag of a narrow path going ever higher but at corners demanding that the bus turn narrowly on its wheels in a new diagonal one way and then that, often at the edge of a steep incline, where the bus was really at risk of toppling over — except for intrepid guide drivers, excellent brakes and super-sturdy mini-buses.


Remains of Roman Fort

Once we got to the top, everyone had to have thick shoes, and we walked around an vast open space to look at the remains of Baths, forts, and living quarters for Roman soldiers and all those living with them (household, women, horses).

Here’s a piece of this place:

You’re right: it’s a stone wall.

We then drove to Muncaster Castle where we were treated very well.


Muncaster Castle

The present owner, married into the Penningtons (a family who go back to Elizabethan Britain) gave a lecture as he took us around the bottom part of the castle now set up for tourists and also groups coming in for occasions (weddings, barmitzvahs, parties) and then showed us where we could walk in the garden. Meant to amuse us, show the whirligig of time has not favored the aristocrats of England, the owner told us the present family lives in the basement. I’ll bet that’s a word that covers a suite of beautiful rooms below, complete with glass windows and window doors.


A sixteenth century bedroom on the top floor

I liked how simply and obviously the rooms were got up to display different functions. Inside the house were many genuinely fine works of art from the 16th through 18th century. There was a rich library of sets of books and rare books, which he said was undergoing digital cataloguing.


The Muncaster library

Then it was time to go to lunch. We ate in the castle in a room from which we could see the gardens. After lunch we could walk about (the grounds reminded me of Bignor Park which I saw during the Charlotte Smith conference) and we did and then at 2 a falconry show (every Tuesday and Friday afternoon). Basically three young adults, and the owner too, with three birds attached to each of the three falconers flew and played around him or her. It felt like more than a show because the birds were made to fly low and fly quite far in the sky. This part reminded me of Longleate where the public was supplied with entertainment (a zoo, a ferry, picnic grounds), only again something more select, unusual was done. I have read one of the Pennington’s diaries, and thought about how hard it was to run this house now as a business.

It was now later Friday afternoon we drove back over Corney Fell, where we made frequent stops, and I began to be aware of how many sheep we were continually seeing:

The scenery was spectacular: I felt like I was in a picture postcard:

Saturday’s big event was our visit to Brantwood house, John Ruskin’s home and we were led to dwell for a few hours on this man’s life, his friends, his work. First we saw a half hour film which emphasized his social and political activities (his schemes adumbrated the national health, public housing, pensions) and then plenty of time to explore his wonderfully appointed large house (a museum as private dwelling) and extensive gardens overlooking a lake.


A detail from John Millais’s portrait of Ruskin with a backdrop of the natural world — it is not sufficiently appreciated how often the Pre-Raphaelites painted the natural world in great careful detail

We were told Ruskin bought Brantwood sight unseen for £1500 (or was it £15,000?)


Brantwood house — 1862; he lived there the rest of his life with a small band of family, friends, servants

In each of the rooms there were albums with writing and pictures commemorating eras in Ruskin’s life, drawings and paintings, many by him, many by friends, often of nature using primitive cameras to become more exact.


Brantwood room: note the Pre-Raphaelite like pictures

We saw the furniture he used, the musical instruments everyone played, his desk.

All round the house were smaller buildings with exhibits (on birds, an ice house, young artists today). It really took a couple of hours to explore. The effect was to reveal how much richer he was than anyone else around him. But he also was much beloved and befriended: I felt all the people living around him were not faking. He really was a deeply kind and decent man who made accurate pictures of nature.

The next phase was lunch on a garden terrace where room was found for a restaurant overlooking the lake:

From there we caught a Victorian looking steam boat and rode across the lake.


The lake we crossed seen from on high …

We looked at the Coniston Falls, said to be the inspiration for his famous poem of daffodils; click here to read Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journal on Ullswater. This time the later afternoon stop was Langdale, where we stopped to take pictures and look out at the valley:

I learned what was meant by a pike (a word Trollope often uses in his descriptions of Cumberland in Can You Forgive Her? and Lady Anna — his sister had a house there when she was married where his mother visited and presumably he too):


Langdale pikes

Sunday was dubbed a free day. The guides had a day off and got some needed rest.  The group was invited to take ourselves to the different ferries crossing different parts of Lake Windermere and going to different towns — we were given maps and tickets to a fery.  I had had enough of company, 6 and more hours a day on the mini-bus, staring at lakes, and it looked like it would rain (it often did) so chickened out. I sat by a warm and pretty (though faked) fire (it looked like wood burning but was a gas fire) in one of the common rooms and read Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques. In the afternoon I took a walk by myself. I discovered I couldn’t get far and how much we did need those mini-buses and shuttles to reach any where near for a town.

The next day, Monday, we all rose early, packed, and with an extra bus for luggage, drove a number of hours to get to our second hotel, a converted 10th century castle, Otterburn in Cumbria, whose picture of which I supplied in my first blog, but here is a publicity shot, meant to allure people to come to the place as a hotel — inside it is much renovated and much of it rooms rebuilt during the later 19th and 20th centuries, though a central block is 13th century and has a large still working fireplace (renovated 18th century) where I would sit in the later afternoon:

It’s worth noting that most of the castle ruins we saw were in Cumbria, further north near the border, most of the ancient small churches, all of the dungeons


A castle ruin we passed by at some point during the following week

Otterburn church near the castle:


Another publicity shot

We had entered the area historically once of high violence and more primitive conditions, about which I’ll be writing next time. I bring out this perspective to distinguish the Lake District from the border country.  In the lake district we were shown trains and how today too a privately run one is kept up to unite small towns. We went to libraries and sites “sacred” to writers, poets, artists. The landscapes were the epitome of beauty.  In the border lands one finds many ugly bleak places, dungeons, towers, mostly ruined or uninhabited castles, castles whose function is utterly changed. Among the rare ones still a family, Alnwick Castle, now known for housing Harry Potter at school on films, one episode in Downton Abbey, and three in the older TV farce, Blackadder. For me the context is still the great 18th century painter, Canaletto whose painting makes it so idyllic, so appealingly picturesque:


Antonio Canaletto, Alnwick Castle, 1747

But it took the real form it did because its origins and its present place, however peaceful today, and just in Northumberland, are in these more northern border places:


Alnwick Castle photographed by a Road Scholar pilgrim from a bus stop

We didn’t go into Alnwick because you did have to make an appointment and to see each part of the castle was separate fee on top of the parking fee. Nota bene, gentle reader.

I will be attending a course on the poetry of Robert Frost in a couple of weeks. Now thinking about how I became an English major, and how my choice to become an English major was clinched when I read Wordsworth and yes the other Romantic poets (also Lamb, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley), and how I’ve ended up where I am, in solitude, going on a holiday to these sites with a group of pilgrim-strangers as friends, I’ll end on Frost’s great poem,

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

But my choice was not so free. I chose the road less traveled by because out of my class origins, my gender, my character I was not able even to conceive of following the one most people chuse (18th century spelling).

Ellen

Read Full Post »

TomhollanerDrthornefirstshot
The first shot of Tom Hollander as Dr Thorne in the film’s first scene with

MarysQuestion
Stephanie Martini as Mary Thorne, where she asks the question [visible in the subtitle] as a prompt for Hollander, Prospero-like to tell us and her not just many chapters of history but what is held back until near the end of the book’s plot-design (ITV Dr Thorne, 2015, scripted Julian Fellowes, director Niall MacCormick)

Friends and readers,

Julian Fellowes has managed to turn the novel Michael Sadleir ended his ground-breaking study of Trollope on (the book that first attracted respectable attention to Trollope — with preferring Dr Thorne to The Way We Live Now) into an embarrassment. A telling travesty. Reviewers veer from lamenting the very existence of this throw-back to picturesqueness as a travesty to earnestly showing how it has eliminated just about everything that counts in the novel. Viv Groskop of The Guardian suggested we take a drug to forget this disgrace. The courteous and judicious Alison Moulds of the Victorian clinic demonstrated the central matter of the tale, medicine and illness, comic and tragic, is left out. As might have been expected, Philip Hensher of the Telegraph demonstrates that the point Fellowes gets across (and by implication, Trollope’s) is that it’s impossible to cross (ontological?) class boundaries.

As it happened when the film aired on British TV, I was teaching the novel to a group of retired adults genuinely engaged by the book. Two British, the rest American. Contrary to Hensher (and like a number of scholarly critics, e.g. James Kincaid), they are persuaded this is an obsessive attack on the mindset that erects uncrossable boundaries and about the hurt (Mary made a taboo person) and damage, indeed death (Sir Roger’s and Sir Louis’s) the behavior enacting this idea incurs. Miss Dunstable’s role is to expose the hypocrisy of the social codes as we watch money and power throw people away, ruin their lives (e.g., Mr Romer, the liberal barrister who tried to help Roger Scatcherd, the railway contractor and banker) into parliament). I had hoped to screen the film until I saw that (worse than Downton Abbey where all deeper issues may be skimmed over, but at least suggested) Fellowes was simply not going to allow any depth to this, among Trollope’s most emotionally direct of all his novels. I admit there was no character they hated more than Lady Arabella and Fellowes fed this by giving full vent to her as the villainess who experiences a mortifying comeuppance (rather like Miss O’Brien and other upper level servants in Downton Abbey). She is in many scenes endlessly repeating her mantra, but then she is presented simply as winning out, having her way in the end. Rebecca Front was given this thankless role as she was given an analogous sycophantic snob in Andrew Davies’s recent War and Peace.

Trollope’s novel utterly resists treating it as light satiric comedy or “fairy tale romance” (which Fellowes in the feature labels his film and by extension Trollope’s book).

Arabella

Thorne
As Hollander squirms and twists his body to avoid the barrage, the scene becomes a tasteless joke

So why bother write about? Fellowes’s erasure and corrections reveal where the power of the novel lies and where there are cranks for us in Trollope’s attitudes.

In all the Fellowes’s films I’ve seen thus far he abjures all flashbacks, voice-over, soliloquy, montage, filmic epistolarity (where a character writes or reads a letter that is voiced by the actor who is played the character who wrote the letter) or any techniques that demands we go into the vulnerable psychology of any character to the extent of questioning a norm or value asserted. Trollope’s first four chapters are a daring retelling of deep, intermediate general past, and individuals personal histories (which he ironically apologizes for). He then recurs repeatedly throughout the novel to these pasts so that when the character in a social scene reveals his inner psychology, we realize the context which has given rise to this self normally hidden to us in our daily lives the social scenes. I had not realized how the novel is continually working through, back and forth, deeply layered intertwined time until I watched this film adaptation. In most of Trollope’s novels we recognize his gifts for showing the private self unable not to reveal itself in the social scene for those with eyes to see and understand (Trollope’s narrator and occasional preternatually perceptive characters like the Signora Neroni and Miss Dunstable). Here in Trollope’s seventh book he was consciously adding to that by making the character a product of a particular time, relationship, literal and social space.

Since Fellowes resists all deep wide explanation that filmic techniques can offer (including in-depth dialogue), all we have as opening for the film is some dialogue of nasty excluding of Mary from Frank’s coming birthday party by his (in this film) by his stupid dense and clumsy sister, Augusta (Gwyneth Keyworth) egged on by the apparently frigid manipulative Lady Alexandrina de Courcy (Kate O’Flynn). We then launch into Frank’s proposal to Mary to marry him, her “no,” and stay in the superficial linear time of the present, with the party, and Lady De Courcy’s nagging Frank (Harry Richardson, who plays the part of a privileged sheltered and thus idealistic male aristocrat — true to the book) to chase the rich Miss Dunstable (Alison Brie) now an inanely giggling rich American. (I read that the ITV people were told they would get no American funding unless they had an American character in the cast.) As in Downton Abbey Phoebe Nicholls is given the distasteful role of an utterly ineffectual despicable older woman bully. (She is paid well for it.) Fellowes just loves to invent this kind of female monster. But he must tell the important past or the present story makes no sense. How to do it? he is reduced to having Hollander as Thorne in the very first scene he appears, Prospero-like, tell Stephanie Martini as Miranda, just about everything in one go of her sordid Scatcherd family background. Since there is too much to tell, Thorne and Mary get together twice more (after the said party) and again in the second episode after her other uncle, Sir Roger Scatcherd’s death. What’s done for compression leaves the effect of a story turned inside out.

Far from admitting to anything serious in the novel, in the feature released on the DVD, Fellowes says he regards the book as a fairy tale romance. What he has done is chosen the scenes susceptible to being presented as light satiric comedy. I had not realized before what an experimental novel this is in its use of layered past and movement within different times and memories.

Then Fellowes has the problem of the book’s hinge points which he feels he cannot eliminate. Scatcherd must die so that Mary can win the property. In the novel Scatcherd dies from alcoholism and we read a rare protracted death scene in a Trollope novel. The man has drunk himself to death because he has not been accepted by his true peers because of his lack of surface manners, he regrets deeply what has happened to his son who has been similarly ostracized and exploited, but can do nothing about it. The unhappy man his son has become results from cultural realities beyond his reach. Trollope captures perfectly the mood of someone near death, and shows us that real kindness to such a person is to take seriously what they have to say and respond to it — as Dr Thorne does and Sir Roger’s son does not. He is devastated when the powerful remove him from the place in Parliament he has worked hard to win.

LadyScatcherd
Lady Scatcherd (Janine Duvitski) over-hearing her husband talk to Thorne

I’m told that Ian McShane is a great actor; well he’s thrown away here. He is presented as foolish jackass. His alcoholism is made a joke of in order to us to laugh at elections as such. The working and townspeople are of course fools, and McShane directed to play the part archly until he falls into a pigsty. (Fellowes might tell us, have you not been watching how popular Donald Trump is?) In the book’s death scene, the pain of Scatcherd’s isolation is made worse because Thorne himself has invested so much in Mary, he cannot get himself to allow Scatcherd to know or to see her after Scatcherd first offers all his money to her and his son, if Thorne will encourage a marriage with that son. This horrifies Thorne who is as exacerbated by the class structure of the place as anyone. He wants above all that his darling niece-daughter be a lady, live with ladies and gentleman and turn to him. And how does Fellowes treat this matter at the center of the second episode? For a moment I had a hard time believing that Fellowes was allowing Thorne allow Mary to come over and nurse Scatcherd so we could get this emotional bath of sentimentality instead and listen to McShane as Scatcherd say he is consoled for his “misspent existence.”

angelsappears2 (2)

angelsappears2 (1)
“Very well,” says Hollander, and the puzzled angel appears, at which McShane says he thinks he will now cope better with “what is to come … ”

Beyond erasing all the material hung from the present time romance story (including its use of excruciating and satiric letter presences), Fellowes has done a Nahum Tate, a David Garrick! Nahum Tate was the man who rewrote King Lear to give it a happy ending; Garrick-like was the the man who rewrote Romeo and Juliet so as to make the lovers wake up to bid sentimental tearful farewells before they lie down to die. He reverses Trollope’s Dr Thorne’s refusal to allow Sir Roger to see or be seen by his sister Mary’s grown daughter, lest he, Dr Thorne, be dispossessed of what has made his existence meaningful, before he dies, even when Scatcherd threatens to leave all his fortune away from her (without which Mary has only the interest from 800£ in the funds, all Dr Thorne has managed to “amass” from his village doctor practice). Perhaps he thought no one reads Dr Thorne, or if we read it, we don’t remember it. Is there no limit to the man’s contempt for his audience?

Well yes.

Fellowes almost unexpectedly turns Scatcherd’s son, Sir Louis (Edward Franklin), the character pitied by Trollope’s narrator just a little, but most often despised, caricatured, sneered at, presented as a money-hungry creditor (as if he has no right to look into the arrangements Dr Thorne has made to keep Squire Gresham afloat all these years) — into the tragic hero of the film story. A chunk of its second episode and full third of the last was given over to a mortifying plangent rendition of Louis’s pursuit of Mary Thorne, his excruciatingly inept presence at a dinner party and then death (not from delirium tremens) but a suppurating bleeding lung (reminiscent in its stagy-ness of Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham near death for a few seconds in Downton Abbey) because he galloped across the landscape out of anguish at her rejection and fell off his horse and punctured his rib cage with the horse’s saddle. This subtextual slapstick is not in Trollope.

deathasbuffoon
Among the character’s last lines is “she thought me a buffoon,” but Fellowes has not lifted him out of that

Fellowes has highlighted a problem his predecessor film adaptors managed to finesse. What are we to do with Trollope’s shameless stigmatizing of lower class males trying to “ape” gentlemen as ultimately slime to be expelled? In 1983 Alan Plater, scriptwriter of Barchester Chronicles (and thus the linchpin person) cast the part against type by hiring Alan Rickman and then had Rickman play the part with a self-controlled dignity, guarded rage, subtle manipulative ability (though out-maneuvred by Susan Hampshire as the irresistible erotic Signora Neroni). Before that a full 40 years ago (1975) in The Pallisers Simon Raven similarly endowed Trollope’s anti-semitic depiction of a Jewish hypocritical murderer, the Rev Emilius (Anthony Ainley) with a seething intensity of ambition that the amoral Lizzie Eustace (Sarah Badel) was too stupid to flee from. Fellowes, though, wanted to grant the character a full burden of human gravitas earlier, but could not pull out enough depth to invent longer scenes to show this. All we get is his screeching at his mother, Lady Scatcherd, how could you prefer Frank to me? Lady Scatcherd (as in Trollope) is otherwise mostly caricatured but as Lady Scatcherd’s preference for the heir is too much even for Fellowes (and he feared too much for pious viewers) Fellowes made her feeling acceptable by having her much earlier on insist how she loved both equally. To this low is Trollope brought and for those who know the text exposed.

I grant Fellowes much of the dialogue used in the film is in the novel — he chose the surface dialogues. He transfers the powerful epistolary narrative chapter where Augusta is treacherously persuaded to give up a possible happy marriage with the De Courcy solicitor, Mr Gazebee (Nicholas Rowe) on the grounds of his lack of rank into pantomime comic moments of dramatic startle. Her great cousin-friend, advisor has grabbed Gazebee for herself.

Harhar
Augusta is made into an “old maid” buffoon

There are a lot of silences. Another actor-character thrown away is Richard McShane as Squire Gresham; he wanders around looking sheepish by the end behaving as if by not cold-shouldering others he’s doing enough. In the book it is his unexamined snobbery and self-indulgence in the book that wasted the Gresham fortune; the ambivalent and interesting friendship with Thorne and their dialogues are gone. Istead Fellowes has Hollander as Thorne giving Brie as Miss Dunstable sly glances. Yet the man avoids montage so the explanation at the end must be gone through in words character by character.

As a side note the production did not pay for the the use of the houses. We never see anyone going in and out. They were filmed from afar and then we found ourselves in the usual sets. One reminded me of the set from the 2009 Sense and Sensibility for Norland Park.

Ironically the film adaptation vindicates Trollope from being seen as simply material which lends itself for hijacking from the elite. Last year John McCourt asked why the bicentennial celebrations were so muted? He suggested that the kinds of things done were not the sorts of events a larger audience, especially one not equipped with tuxes and gowns could easily join into. As has been said before (John Letts among those saying this), Trollope has partly been hijacked by his elite mainstream fans. I’d maintain that more than his academic readers lean to the left. Plater wrote brilliantly radical 1970s style plays for TV and stage; Simon Raven was radical in his outlook; Andrew Davies is a humane left-leaning liberal; Herbert Herbert’s gem, “Malachi’s Cove” shows just how down-to-earth is Trollope’s appreciation of humanity.

So while I regret very much this opportunity to film another Barsetshire book was botched, it’s salutary to see the material of this Trollope novel resist the kind of treatment Fellowes tries to give it. A friend said to me this film adaptation is something Popplecourt (from The Duke’s Children) might have written. Perhaps that’s too strong, but pace what I’ve heard some fans say, Trollope’s novels are not at all like P. G. Wodehouse.

Farshot
A rare far shot of the bedroom scene: Winterbones taking notes, Scatcherd helped up from his bed by Thorne, Lady Scatcherd leaving …

Ellen

Read Full Post »

holmes

There are, who to my person pay their court:
I cough like Horace, and, though lean, am short,
Ammon’s great son one shoulder had too high,
Such Ovid’s nose …

The Muse but serv’d to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life …
— Pope’s Horatian Epistle to Dr Arthbutnot

Dear friends and readers,

I’m glad to be able to report my review of Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture has now become available on the Victorian Web. I single out Trollope’s depiction of Madeline Neroni’s ways of coping with her disability as unusual and worth thinking about.

PromotionalTypeShot
Susan Hampshire as Madeline having stage-managed this, Alan Rickman as Slope at the center (Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater)

Although published some 6 to 7 years ago, the book has not been superseded. It remains as relevant as it was in 2009; sadly, what is described and analyzed are attitudes of mind and feeling towards those labelled disabled widely prevalent today.

I am personally and academically interested in this topic. Just now teaching Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, I hope eventually to write and to publish either here on the Net or conventionally in paper an examination of Gaskell’s treatment of mental as well as physical disability in her fiction. Her perspective is that of the caregiver. There are quite a number of essays on disability in Gaskell’s fiction, e.g., by Martha Stoddard Holmes herself: “Victorian Fictions of Interdependency: Gaskell, Craik, and Yonge,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 1 (2007): 29-42. (“Well at Pen Morpha”). Deborah Fratz has written one out of Ruth, as well as an excellent review of Holmes’s book: “Fictions of Affliction,” Nineteenth Century Gender Studies 3:3 (Winter 2007); “‘A feminine morbidness of conscience’: disability, gender, and the economy of agency in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth.” Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, 127 (2015):4ff.

gaskell
Chris Hammond, illustrator for Mary Barton and Cranford: a scene from Mary Barton where a female character is too weak to stand

***************************

I took extensive notes on Holmes’s book as well as other essays, secondary studies and the novels of the era discussed by Holmes. A sample of some themes in Holmes I was not able to include in my review:

WmLindsayWindusTooLate
William Lindsay Windus (1822-1907), Too Late (a rare depiction of TB in its last stages: Windus was attacked and the picture hurt his career badly)

Preface: Holmes asks, What cultural texts inform the meanings we give disability? what kinds of bodies raise our hackles? Which ones evoke fear, pity, desire, disgust? How does all this end in our limiting the way our bodies are allowed by us to feel? She tells of the tension, awkwardness, and cant she saw in classrooms trying to discuss disabilities. The students could not see themselves as disabled — among those who spoke. It usually ended in everyone expressing compassion, inspiration and then defensiveness and boredom.

Dickens is so typical in his drenching of such a character in melodrama, sentimentality and healing. She instances the movie An Affair to Remember and how it was alluded to in Sleepless in Seattle. Holmes wants to disrupt this connection of melodrama with disability. Apparently a trope of Victorian novels is the disabled woman who cannot marry and becomes a conduit for another woman to marry; tremendous emotional excess surrounds the figure because she cannot marry or should not. How terrible (Victorians thought) to transmit disability. Orphans of the Storm a silent film that harked back to a popular Victorian story. Why was, is it so dangerous to imagine a disabled woman as desiring or a biological mother? In the body of her book she provides extensive detailed analyses of the novels and/or novelists’ work, and of the those people with disabilities who wrote memoirs or about whom biographies were written.

Holmes connects the treatment of disabled people to perceptions of disability as an issue about work: who works and who doesn’t. One problem, what is work anyway? What people then (and today too) look at is who is an “imposter” (thus villainous, not deserving) and who “really” disabled; what is cared about is the relationship of such a person to income and work as “innocent” or “guilty.” Disability is not cared about as such, but only as it impinges on what’s thought important. Mayhew’s London Labor and the London Poor is a major document.

1870 Education Act included a provision that poor law guardians were to send blind, dumb, lame, deformed, idiotic, insane children to charitable institutions to be educated; no money was provided and in fact nothing done. In 1893-4 a provision making it compulsory that blind and deaf children go to school. Not clear if it was enforced (I know what services are available cease in the US when the person finished high school — so 12th grade, around age 18.) Raymond Williams makes short work of nostalgia over Elizabethan treatment of crippled, disabled.
Holmes’s book makes Foucault emerge as not only irrelevant and unreal but doing yet more harm to attitudes – justifying simply putting the disabled on the streets after you close their “prison-asylum”. (In many 18th century historical studies, his evidence is said to be wholly inadequate).

Is disability less speakable today? Holmes seems to think so. The disabled person not recognized as disabled is freer – but at the same time, it’s the person who is “near normal” but needs help that is the person most people resist recognizing – lest it threaten their own self image.

***************************

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_ReynoldsReading
Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson reading

Chris Mounsey’s superb collection of essays: The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century. (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2014).

Disability is used as a perspective to examine culture – as we examine culture from the perspective of class, gender, race, sexuality. All these different groups are made to define themselves negatively against the hegemonic “norm”. The norm defines itself by what it is not. We find that excluded people either acquiesce or they become victims. People look for activities whihc bring about change to improve the excluded person’s experience. He maintains this way of defining the self does not help disabled people create better attitudes towards themselves

He made me remember distinctly — though I know it to be so — that Pope was a crippled person, called a cripple, ill of a central disease in his body frame, disabled, and that Johnson was disabled too. The two men after whom ages have been name: as in The Age of Pope (alternative: Augustan) and The Age of Johnson (alternative: Sensibility). The only novel I can think of which from the 18th century which has a disabled or crippled character is Burney (in Camilla) and it’s she who left the most graphic (unpleasant) pictures of Johnson. Austen only presents disability fleetingly in an encounter in her letters (if the man she makes signs to is that). She also has Mrs Smith. Mounsey discusses Helene Deutsche’s books, Resemblance and Disgrace and Loving Dr Johnson – both are book length studies of a disabled person

He argues we must talk about and think about disability in terms of limitations; how it limits the person and help them cope with these limitations . Accept that these are their limitations. Antidiscrimination laws for both people marginalized importantly helps. Not worry ourselves about hegemonic norms.

He distinguishes this way: Homosexuality is socially constructed, blindness is not. Sexuality is partially socially constructed; so too racism . You want to imagine the lived experience of the disabled person irrespective of abled people. You don’t worry yourself about their lack of intersection with these large acts or events that are said to be normal.

On some histories of disability: Kim Neillsen’s history cannot divest itself of this binary of abled versus disabled people no matter how rich her refusal to fall into generalities and abstractions. David Turner on disability in the 18th century focusing on deformity (probably because that is what was recognized) but still uses class race and gender as tools of analysis. 1999 Elizabeth Bredberg said that accounts of the live experience of disabled people is underrepresented. There is more work published about deaf people than any other disability – we need people with “interpretive competence.” Much of their history has been a fight to use sign language as their means of communication. Now sign language is ephemeral and individual —

William Hay (1695-1755), was small man with a deformed spine, a poet, politician, husband and father, Whig member of parliament. Hay tells of mocking terms for himself: did he take them seriously, Mounsey asks, The ODNB by Taylor does not mention the man was a “born a hunchback dwarf” until penultimate paragraph. We are not told of the marriage beyond it was one showing loyalty to Whig party. Hay wrote treatises on laws for the poor with suggestions for better relief, a long poem, on principles of morality and Christianity, on civil gov’t, left extensive diaries, translation of Martial. Hay published his essay on “Deformity” a year before his death when he said he was never free from casual abuse, and says we cannot treat disabled people as if disability were marginal to their lives. Hay attacked Bacon for saying people with irregular bodies have twisted minds. At one point he scorns a woman who is deeply sick and allows someone to marry her for her money (Lady Mary Belair).Meanwhile the Critical Review called Hay good-natured and ignores barbed Martial epigrams where Hay took Pope as a his model. Why? Hay waited until he was dead and his victims too to publish. Hay wrote about how he waited.

Mounsey was partially sighted when young and is now wholly blind. Blind people have fought for more braille texts ;now Mounsey could read when a child and now he uses audiobooks and text-to-voice mechanisms. He now relies wholly on aural and finds the experience itself very different and equally valid 15 – it took 2 years to learn to do well. He is disabled in reading the way a deaf person mostly is not – he is stressing people are variable and we should all help one another He has a friend who will not accept her blindness; refuses to go places, insists on reading using a kindle with the letters hugely magnified but soon tires 18. This reminds me of many widows who refuse to go out. People need to build a capability to live with an altered capacity – to find alternatives. Yes I agree.

Then come the essays in the volume.

***************************

brbarnaby
Barnaby Rudge and his one friend, a raven (Phiz) — seen as uncanny

A few notes on Janet Lyon’s extraordinarily insightful “On the asylum road in Mew and Woolf:”

I can’t even begin to do justice to this essay. It is a deeply anti-asylum argument. This is just one small note from it, and a recommendation to read it yourself (bibliography included in the review). Lyon includes the startling cruel insults Woolf will hurl at disabled people (such as when she sees a group of downs syndrome people walking down a road they are “idiots” who ought to be “killed”. These remind me on tone and intensity of Austen’s harsh jokes — women in childbed and dead babies. I wondered if Austen’s closeness to disabled people, to the wretched of her society,her own lesbian-spinster or just spinster state formed part of her alienating way of presenting human bodies in her letters. Both acutely sensitive people.

Lyon quotes the great and powerful poems of Charlotte Mew that Penelope Fitzgerald’s late 20th century biography grew out of. Fitzgerald wanted to look and to look away. She identifies vulnerability with disability. Woolf identifies the disabled on the street with the wretchedly poor and miserable there too. With old lone women.

The early history of asylums in the 19th century not only went about to lock up unwanted people but would ferret them out of neighborhoods to fill these places. The strongest thrust of these places and the culture that produced them is to control the person defined as disabled, to keep them apart from everyone else, and then to dismiss them from life. Unlike Holmes and even Chris Mounsey Lyon concentrates on mental disability which is more threatening to the average person — thus the horror, the assertion of something uncanny.

From Charlotte Mew’s “The Changeling”

Sometimes I wouldn’t speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel’s feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat’s black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell’s sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That’s why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn’t do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything …

*****************************

MrBatesdisabled
We all remember the early treatment of Brendan Coyle as the disabled Mr Bates (2010, Downton Abbey)

As a general final note here: There is a problem when one uses novels or films as evidence for serious psychiatric or neurological or sociological problems. We do this so often since it’s become an accepted way of reading novels, as part of cultural studies. But novels are written to sell and to a wide public and obey conventional plot-designs. We should remember that the writer no matter how perceptive, humane, acute, is a product of his or her era, is making up the evidence, and the novel is intended to be read as a novel, the film (with actors playing parts) seen as a film.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

thehouseisnow
Final shot of the series: Highclere Castle depicted as in snow, night falling — it is dark note

lastcharactersseen
Antepenultimate shot: we glimpse Violet, Dowager Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) with Mrs Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) with Tom Branson (Allen Leech) —

Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville): “We never know what’s coming of course, who does?” (his last words)

Friends and readers,

What can one say about 90 minutes of scenes presented as about real human beings where except for the two over-the-top caricatures of Lord Merton’s eldest son and daughter-in-law (Charles Anson returned with his horrible fiancee, now wife, Amelia, an actress whose name I cannot find), everyone is actuated by the kindest concern for everyone else? and they cave so easily: “If reason fails, try force,” says Violet and she and Mrs Crawley snatch Lord Merton (Douglas Reith: “Marvelous!” says he) back. It’s again scene after scene of the usual intense emotionalism, with wry sayings transitioning into complacent on-goingness.

withmasterGeorge

Thomas (Rob James-Collier): “I think I might try to be someone else when I get to my new position … “

Yes Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is tart to Bertie (Henry Haddon-Patton) when they meet again: he hurt her. Lady Pelham (Patricia Hodge grown old) put up a protest against Bertie, her heir and son, marrying “damaged goods” aka Lady Edith Crawley who comes with her daughter, Marigold, born out of wedlock (because Michael Grigson disappeared in the conflagration of Nazi Germany), on the ridiculous grounds they have to keep the “highest moral standards up” since Bertie’s cousin, the man he inherited from may have been homosexual, and didn’t lead a mainstream life; but the unbelievable stilted reasoning soon collapses under the weight of her desire to be central to her son’s on-going life. This desire of all of them (except maybe Mr Carson, see just below) to not be rejected by anyone, not to hurt anyone’s feelings controlled the behavior of all by all.

I was reminded of an essay I tried to read by D.A. Miller where he asked why there were no police in Trollope’s Barchester Towers?

A paraphrase: everyone polices one another and themselves … we are invited to sit around and fret about how to take how a character given hardly any of life’s real alternatives is acting … thus are we drilled into accepting our lot …

MrsHughes
Mrs Hughes-Carson thinking about what she has seen

As usual Fellowes has a knack for surface realism: so we see that aging men sicken and move towards death much earlier than women. The “golden years” of Mrs Hughes-Carson (Phyllis Logan) and Mr Carson (Jim Carter) are going to consist of her selfless pragmatic and sceptical functioning as the friend, wise adviser and nurse of this rigidly martinet reactionary disciplinarian, worshipper of Debret’s as he subsides into Parkinson’s disease. Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) is not near death from pernicious anemia but he does have a serious case of anemia and will need his new second wife, Isobel Crawley, now Lady Merton, to care for and protect him.

dickie-and-isobel

Robert, Earl of Grantham did not die of a hemorrhage from his ulcers in the antepenultimate episode, and now has a new puppy dog to lavish affection on,

withdog

but he still clutches his chest in a worrying way that suggests angina pectoris, so it may be a good thing that (unlike her husband), Cora has found her metier in local politics at last: she is a soothing Lady Bountiful presiding over a remarkably anachronistically organized hospital system there in Yorkshire (it was Yorkshire the series began in?) where all will be taken care of. In their last conversation they acknowledge we cannot know what is to come.

lastadieu

It was well-calibrated not to make this last episode into a tear-jerker.

downton-abbey-elizabeth-mcgovern

A few liberal joke-y notes. It turns out we are to see Spratt (Jeremy Swift) as another gay butler — that’s appears to fuel part of the Dowager’s delight when our resident (thwarted) witch lady’s maid, Dencker (Sue Johnston) carries on her thankless task of attempting to get him fired backfires.

Spratt
Spratt’s stamp album now a cover-up for his notebook writing of his daily column of advice for young ladies love-lorn and wanting to know what to wear

Mr Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is just dew-y all episode long with gratitude to all for their concern for him when he tried to slit his wrists, and with determined sweet love for all. Lady Mary engineers Lady Edith’s marriage with so little ease I cringed to hear Lady Edith’s return to abjection: “you gave me my life back” — could she have done nothing? The actors did remarkably well under this perpetual pressure. I thought some of the lines downright corny and Michelle Dockery had some trouble in her dialogue with her new beloved. Rob James-Collier managed a little better because he was given fewer lines: if he couldn’t be married, he could smile at being included and replace Mr Carter at long last. If there have been any lesbians (say the lady’s maids) over the years, we were not permitted to glimpse this, though now and again we came across individuals who ended up going it alone.

stowellalunarmstrong
Does anyone remember Alun Armstrong as Stowell the butler in Scotland? — Durkheim says elderly men alone are a population most susceptible to suicide

shackleton9
Or how Violet attempted to secure Lord Merton for Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walters)? — but alas she was too old for his taste (I thought I glimpsed her for a split second at the back at Edith’s wedding but perhaps it was Henry’s as she is his family)

***************************

Why break a butterfly on a wheel at this point?

theladysmaidfixesthejuniorcookshair
The scullery maid the first season opened with now has her hair fixed by the housemaid now privileged lady’s maid and companion — Daisy (Sophie McShea) who saved a farm place for Mr Mason by her protests is all set to become Queen there, with Andy her tender-hearted king

Fixingtheroof
Andy Parker (Michael Fox) fixing the house roof

I direct my readers to two of several long-time bloggers on this series who offer the equivalent of Trollope’s ironically titled final chapter of Framley Parsonage: “How they all were married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever After:” Jane Austen’s world appeared to take it all solemnly, though she called it a “sugar spun bow;” Anibundel provided some salt while she went through it bullet-style: I add that even Mr Mason (Paul Copley) grins at Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol), and Edith’s editor catches the bouquet and so we know that soon she and Tom will be getting together. “All have won and all must have husbands after all.” Two children? Lady Mary is pregnant again, now that she’s got a Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) who is working out to be another submissive male, and in this episode is a woman who mends and heals and takes care of all. At first Henry seems depressed over this turn of events, but there is Tom to buck him up, and with effortless ease they start a Daimler business. His only worry is lest Mary be ashamed of him, but not in this episode where she is all calm beneficence:

lookingup (2)

lookingup (1)

There were years where I became intensely involved and bonded with some of the characters, Anna and Bates in the early years (Joanne Froggart and Brendan Coyle),

Inthechurch
In the church watching Lady Edith getting married

more recently Mr Moseley and Miss Baxter (Kevin Doyle and Raquel Cassidy). Servants on occasion educated themselves out of servitude: after all Moseley is not going to be a university professor.

MoseleyBaxter
The punctum (as the piercing feel of the image is called) was there for me

It did happen that children of people outside the family could be brought up in the family nursery: Here it’s enough to see Lady Mary bend down to take off Anna’s shoes to force Anna into her own bed to give birth:

LadymaryremovingAnnasShoes

And when the childbirth agon is over (hardly felt at all, hardly took any time) the new Bates son will be put in the nursery during the day with the Grantham children to be “followed by a young Talbot:” Lady Mary decrees:

Baby

baby2

*****************************

akitchenscene
A typical kitchen scene, preparing food for the groups

In this last episode those still capable of being moved were so by the long years of “slow television” (individual scenes were not overlong but not a few seconds and broken up with interweaving with others as they played out), the images and dialogues repeatedly embedded in dramatised explorations of the neurosis of everyday life not gone into too deeply. In a world today where shallow relationships sustain daily communication in places where at any moment anyone may be ejected with no recourse, there can be no denying that finally the attraction was to this story of a group of people privileged to remain in a fractured-pastoral refuge. Community, safety, kindness is what is longed for after all.

close

So it feels inappropriate to dwell on close-up images of pairs or single individuals at this last: the episode is larded with scenes where the characters support one another and self-reflexively discuss their relationships, the past, and gently lament they like ordinary mortals must move into future time.

Isobel: “What else could we drink to. We’re going forward to the future, not back into the past.”
Violet: “If only we had the choice.”

Dec29th
The house was photographed again and again, three times in snow

This is but a blog, but it is mine own and effective soap operas weave themselves into our lives over time. When Downton Abbey began I was happily married after many years and at first did not watch, my husband did not care for TV in his last years, and I did not want to take over the front room where an old television was stationed. I succumbed to find common ground with Anibundel, caught up, became hooked, and over the years events, images, lines in these various seasons intertwined with what was happening with my life. My husband died as I watched the fourth season of mourning; now the quiet “exultation” at the close of this sixth saddened me, since I have no future I want to go forward into as do these “precious winners all.”

‘The only thing I’m not ready for is a life without you’ — Bertie to Edith

judi-dench-paulina
Judi Dench as Paulina (The Winter’s Tale)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

MissBaxterfindThomas
Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) finds Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) bleeding to death in the servants’ bathroom

Soon over. Not to worry. Not much to get through now.

The best framing of the last two “regular” episodes of Downton Abbey is probably Fellowes’s sneering bad-mouthing of BBC as this leftish outfit who would have hampered his coming hijacking of Trollope material for the elite in the form of an adaptation of Dr Thorne. (Part of a decade trend, explains John McCourt in The Irish Times.) The photo of this self-satisfied boaster (just click) is another where he resembles Hitchcock, maker of signally nasty movies, horrifically violent towards women. He is throwing stones at the BBC to support David Cameron and MPs of that ilk who (following the US gov’t’s attitude towards PBS), are doing all they can to destroy the BBC as we have known it. Bite the hand that fed his career.

There have been many Trollopian motifs in Downton Abbey: In these last two episodes we have in the story of Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) the young grown heirs who do all they can to prevent the older generation from fulfilling their needs for companionate and sexual love (one of many places is in Trollope’s Orley Farm).

bitchypair
Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) struggling against the pious hypocrisy of Lord Merton’s coming daughter-in-law who does not care how miserable she and her husband will make the older couple, just as long as Mrs Crawley takes over Lord Merton’s care as he ages

Fellowes may have gotten the Pelham story from the background to The Warden: a Rev Francis North, Warden of the Hospital of St Cross unexpected became the Earl of Guilford after the death of a bachelor cousin (see latest Oxford ed by Nicholas Shrimpton, Introd. p. xvii).

Afraidofhisinnocence
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) afraid of this man’s (Henry Haddon-Patton) sheltered life (we would not be asked to believe this in Trollope) cannot get herself to tell him on her own that Marigold is her daughter, and liking his sensitivity so cannot say no to the marriage

Yet just to say how smooth it all is to ignore the point. Fellowes wants to carve in cement the idea that this ruling class rides over all, and everyone fits in.

thecarefulmaid
In these two episodes our third heroine, Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart) falls back to where she belongs: the careful diplomatic lady’s maid …

Because that’s the way it is and ought to be. Your loathing is so much useless banging against a wall which he claims won’t come down.

*******************************

To come to these two week’s salient themes and events, I thought again that Anibundel hit an important note when she remarked in her recaps of the last two episodes there’s something “emotionally horrific” about them (7: “But do they live happily ever after?”; 8: “The Truth about Mary”).

ryingtopulloutChalieRogers

So Episode 7 achieves true heartlessness in the exploitation killing off of a character invented suddenly as of rooted importance to our new suitor-hero, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode): what took my breath away was the overt kick Fellowes got out rubbing in the watcher’s nose that once someone, anyone dies, not only does just about everyone in the world carry on just as before (maybe one person affected, in this case the rival car driver in a death-race), but they are as happy, cheerful or occupied as ever. No one gives a shit — for even the grieving other car driver can’t resist asking the ice princess, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to marry him. She of course says no, being heartless herself — her ostensible believable reason that he has no rank nor money; he has forced her into this, it seems. She won’t admit to him the one legitimate reason: she lost her first husband to a car accident. What is she to be perpetually afraid to be widowed this way again. But no, not she, she won’t ask him to give this up.

HenryMary
At the races — he later tells her when it seems it’s money and rank alone that he lacks, that he didn’t think she was that small and she is electrified with nauseated resentment

Episode 8 multiplied this effect: we had a roller-coaster of humiliations and deaths of hope: Lesley Nicol as Mrs Patmore business is going to fail from public mortification; ho ho how funny this is everyone feels:

InspectorMrsPatmore
Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) upon being told her lifetime savings may have gone poof in a squalid incident — the risks to a woman of opening a B&B or boarding house

Kevin Doyle as Mr Moseley is made a fool out of by his students after years spent trying to get the right to stand in front of a classroom.

meanstudents (2)
Writing on the board

meanstudents (1)
Cold and indifferent to him, seemingly disdainful

And Lady Mary finally outdid herself in attempting to destroy Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael’s love affair) with such cavalier bitchiness that for a time she was excoriated by the decent people in the house. Tom Bransom (Allan Leech) rounds on her as a coward bully, for once sneering at “her maid” as her friend (of course she would show a respect sympathy). And her father (Hugh Bonneville) on her snide remark that he and Carson together led to Thomas’s attempt at suicide as even he didn’t expect such a “blow, low even for you:”

Lowblow

and the worm turned:

Patheticbitch3
Summing one another up at last: Lady Mary starting it: “You’re pathetic,” and Lady Edith finally, you’re a bitch … can’t bear to see anyone happy if you’re unhappy …

Fellowes is so true to the characters he does leave a line where Lady Mary almost implies she could go after Pelham now. Though as ever her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) overlooked it by treating it as trivia in her usual complacent way (“you wouldn’t want people to think you’re jealous”); and the Dowager, Violet (Maggie Smith) hurried back from her holiday in France to reassure the audience underneath Mary has a heart, she just pretends not to (as all worldly sensible people do and Fellowes’s high class heroine would).

Violettotherescue
Violet to the rescue

We did have to endure and cannot overlook the talk before and after Mary’s bombshell that Edith must tell Bertie Pelham, now Marquess (Henry Hadden-Patton). Robert had a good moment here to Lady Rosemary Painswick as she carries on insisting they cannot do this to this “other family:”

SamanthaBond
Lord Grantham asks Lady Rosemary (Samantha Bond) when she is planning to leave

We can remember how she tried to drive Edith to have an abortion and when Edith wouldn’t, to give up her child to strangers.

But such talk is in effect a form of blaming Edith for not telling him, and she says she might have tried to “trick” him (he’s another of the blind people of these 7 years who never once thought, Where does Marigold come from?). So Mary had to do it even if she did it so viciously. Tom is still half-used as a chauffeur by both Mary and Edith: so much for his views. Fellowes is so clever at getting the audience to accept this formula of resignation: Edith’s grating showing up at this ice princess’s wedding is accompanied by plangent speech about how someday they would be the only ones with shared memories of the world they had known so must not estrange themselves from one another.

But life you know carries on. Fellowes does what he’s so good at: involves you emotionally in realistically conceived and deeply felt characters’ deep crises and when the shit hits the fan, slips away. Snubbed and ignored, and sideswiped, and nagged to get the hell out of there once too often Thomas slits his wrists. But we are given no scene of him doing it, no over-voice, no aftermath: just what the public was told, a social scene of the upper class Master George showing some concern

nowreading

orange

and then Thomas at the wedding (looking a bit worn but none the worse for the wear) and it seems he is not going to be sacked after all. And suicide if it does not succeed can be hidden.

Here the arch enemy was Carson who once called Thomas disgustingly repugnant; we have later to endure Mrs Hughes’s (Phyllis Logan) calling his behavior to Mrs Patmore too as “curmudgeonly:” this is to trivialize the cold shoulder bully who behaves with repugnant words and active cruelty to real people in favor of upholding an abstract hierarchy of the rich

MrsHughesbetter
Here her forthright face-to-face response is the right one: to tell him he’s wrong and they won’t do as he wishes

************************************
The most unqualified good moments are in the secondary stories where Fellowes seems more comfortable:

picnic
The servants picnicking

Students
Mr Moseley succeeding with his students by telling who he is and about himself, and that learning is for itself, not lying that they can have anything they want as a result of this learning, Daisy (Sophie McShea listening)

And through stills:

Edithlovingherchild (2)
Lady Mary at Matthew’s grave just before she’s about to marry Henry — this can remind us Fellowes never meant to kill Matthew off, but used it, together with the rape of Anna, brilliantly in the fourth season ….

Edithlovingherchild (1)
Edith knowing she has done the right thing to bring up her own child, Marigold — the still closes the episode and so can remind us how often Fellowes has imagined unwed mothers whose raison d’etre becomes their child …

I agree with a friend that the dialogue, the scripts have been much less interesting the last two seasons.

I have read that the “final finale,” the last Christmas episode will not be aired for two weeks. If this is so, it shows a astute appreciation of how soap operas work in our lives. Their slow pace, the turning of their daily worlds punctuating our experience of our own once a week makes us react to them as we do to friends we see regularly. They enter our lives as part of the thread.

thenewdog
The latest family member: Violet’s present to her son, Lord Grantham of a puppy to replace Isis

Ellen

Read Full Post »

offtowork
The best moments are the quiet ones: characters walking and talking, so here are Mr and Mrs Bates off to work (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggart)

Moseleyselilingtickets
Mr Moseley in the village square self-reflexively selling tickets to come see ….

Mr Carson: “Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?”
Answer: No, but most are not part of moribund mini-series.

Friends and remarkably patient readers,

Despite outbreaks physiological and psychological of intense distress, surely you’ve noticed we are on our way to as happily ever after as human beings ever know:

I take out my crystal ball developed out of not-so attentive watching (I would open a book and take bets only that I don’t understand betting):

crystalball

Our princess Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is going to marry the self-indulgent drone Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) and run Downton Abbey efficiently as a cross between a tourist attraction and generous farm rental site; Barrow will become head butler and spend his declining years indulging all Lady Mary’s children; our secondary heroine Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) will marry Bertie Pelham (Henry Haddon-Patton, a double-moniker there) despite Lady Mary’s final spiteful attempt to use her knowledge that Marigold is an illegimate child. Pelham is not a prince in disguise, but he is not the total shit Lady Mary had hoped. Mr and Mrs Bates (the one truly aggressive man in the series and his very long-suffering wife) will have that baby, which will be healthy and retire to their property to become prosperous landlords. Lord Grantham will not die young because Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) is just too soothing and complacent a presence to allow an early death once Violet Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) despite her Methuselah-like great age settles down to supporting Miss Dencker (Sue Johnston)’s matching spite and Spratt’s stamp-collecting habits (Jeremy Swift).

kitchenlife
A single housekeeper, skeletal staff, and “day help” will replace “downstairs”

Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) will show yet more extraordinary patience as she endures married life with that self-indulged prig of the patriarchy, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) who is not capable of going to bed without looking to see if the sheet corners are expertly done nor eat if his dinner is not eternally hot and as exquisitely cooked as if he were a Shah of Saudi Arabia. Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) will marry Mr Mason (Paul Copley), bringing to his tenant farm her dowry of her property. Now married, a highly educated Daisy (Sophie McShea) and Andy (reading and writing too as the best of them, certainly no one knows pig theory better) will come to live with them.

Have I left anyone out? Tom Bransom (Allen Leech)’s fate is as yet obscure. Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) have been granted an intermediary in the person of an astonishingly kind prospective daughter-in-law (what I can’t figure out is how she can marry that vicious son of his?).

While I just know in the longer run Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) will marry Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle) who will become a teacher in a school (he takes a test next to Daisy in Episode 6), there is another bit of a twist and turn down the road as it seems after all she had some feelings for the crook who arranged his theft in such a way as she went to prison. Both such good souls, they will work it out.

How easy some of them have it now? Lady Edith’s interviews of prospective women employees are without tension? No rivalry whatsoever. How is it that this newspaper is so easy to run?

Interviewee (2)

Interviewee (1)
What a gentle time of it they all have

As to Talbot, are there no aggressive males left on the planet? When with Lady Mary, he behaves as if he were in school assembly.

bestbehavior
In Downton Abbey only servants are harshly treated …

So why are we carrying on? in this excruciating slow motion? (For recaps see Anibundel: 5, Who would have thought the old man had so much blood?, 6: Downton Abbey as Antiques Roadshow lacks information). Because the ratings were so high and potential audience and money from advertisers were too tempting.

******************************

On Episode 5: I admit to being a viewer whose emotions have at times been deeply engaged with these characters, so when the hospital debate came a crisis with Violet’s coercing Neville Chamberlain himself to come to luncheon in the hope he will not permit the local hospital to be amalgamated to a county-wide organization and yet another of these tension-filled meals became too much for Lord Grantham — and his ulcers burst. What a comment upon 6 years of these dinners and luncheons, not to omit the occasional strained breakfast. I found myself distractedly distressed, tears running out of my eyes, to see this man coughing up huge goblets of blood.

Ulcerbursting
Lord Grantham’s ulcer bursts — he has clearly had enough (Hugh Bonneville enters fully into the role assigned every time, DA 6, Episode 5)

So the first time I watched, I was started into upset, and my emotions rose strongly; but if a movie has real depth in it and has earned belief, adherence, the second time through should be stronger as you notice more. Alas (almost), the second time through I felt indifference; the contrived nature of the scene once the shock wore off and especially since Fellowes had relied on this melodrama. I read somewhere that the genuine shock on Elizabeth McGovern’s face came from her gown, face and hands being spattered with the false blood from across the room. That was not supposed to happen and you can do only so many takes with such a scene. In the event, they did two takes only. I could see how it neatly ties up with the hospital debate in such a way as the Dowager must lose, but I felt that a sensitive fine actor (Bonneville) who let himself go into the part was exploited by this use of him.

MosleleyBaxter
Mr Moseley helps Miss Baxter put on her coat after she has learned her ex-lover has pled guilty thus sparing her a confession of her complicity on the stand

As to Miss Baxter’s continuing agon, with the ever compassionate sensible Mr Moseley (who can put things into perspective with the joke — do you want me to go back and see if he will plead “not guilty”). What saves this series is not the humor (which is often not funny) but that continually as an undercurrent and some times rising to the surface (in coughed up blood?) are tensions, strains, disappointment, conflicted desires beneath the tranquil surface of life for these privileged lucky characters.

*******************************

Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs HARRY HADDEN-PATON as Bertie Pelham
The people on line are beginning to think somehow one group waiting has been favored over another, and the staff is doing what they can to push out such thinking from their minds.

On Episode 6: One of my favorite PBS shows has long been the Antiques Road Show on PBS as done in Britain; there is an American version, but for me not as much fun as these visits to large country houses and estates. And I have come to expect as a matter of course, that detailed knowledge of the most obscure objects will be forthcoming.

Taken as a gentle satire on the usual display of conjectured (they are careful to say it’s conjectured) information with prices that make the sellers unexpectedly happy, Episode 6 was worth a watch. There was a mild pleasure to be had in seeing how people really don’t know the facts wanted (or bogusly invented). Lady Edith couldn’t say who was in the picture; Cora, Lady Grantham did not know why one set of imitation shields over a fireplace had not been carved with any letters but over there was a bona fide Reynolds.

Doesntknow
She never thought to ask why the shields are not carved — the false importance such tours give to brick-a-bracks, making them numinous because “gazed at” in this ritual way is felt

Robert: “What on Earth can we show them to make it worth their money? Lady Grantham knitting? Lady Mary in the bath?”

The dialogue where a tourist boy stumbles into Lord Grantham’s room to ask why he doesn’t get somewhere much more comfortable to live a bit heavy-handed but not all that improbable — if you think children are not alive to class and how rich people live differently. Mine and I knew by kindergarten.

Granthamandboy
Lord Grantham will soon tell the boy he lives this way because that’s what he is used to

What was registered was Fellowes’s looking askance at those people who come to gawk; and his quiet sneer that to keep such places going you have to let people in who envy a style of life they have misapprehended as exciting but who are really endlessly thinking of whether their egos have been assuaged.

Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs MAGGIE SMITH as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Miss Dencker comes near to be fired for too much loyalty. When Dr Clarkson (David Robb) defected, she accosted him. He writes a letter of complaint to the dowager. So we see whose feelings count. Whose life matters. The Dowager’s response is not gratitude. What? did Dencker think she had a right to be loyal. to have any feelings at all? On the spot, the Dowager will fire her. The way Dencker holds on is to threaten to tell the Dowaer that Spratt hid his crook-nephew, so Spratt must go upstairs and ask for her reinstatement. When Spratt succeeds (so quickly it’s probable the Dowager did not want to sack Dencker), far from promising never to threaten again, Dencker says she will use short blackmail whenever she has to.

ThomasContemplatesuicide
Thomas Barrow contemplates suicide as his utterly selfless teaching of Andrew Parker is sleazily misread (Rob James-Collier and Michael Fox, DA 6, Episode 6

Thomas is beginning to have had it. After all these years of faithful service and self-control on his part, he is still not trusted enough so that if he strikes up a friendship with a footman the first thought all have is he’s buggering him. And he is continually nagged to find a job where he might have something useful to do. Had this been imitative of life either he or Andy would have said he was teaching Andy to read.

***************************

Strolling
Lady Edith and her suitor stroll through St James Park — or is it Kensington Gardens we are to suppose we are entering into (Episode 5)

So what have we gained from Episodes 5 & 6: And they all headed to live happily ever after despite the occasional strong strains

I did remember this poem while watching some of the quietly strained moments amid the engineered systematic indifference of most to most between characters who pass through much splendor and have who at times have something to me:

Musee de Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
— W. H. Auden

MrsCrawleysfaceregisteringfearofsuchamarriage
Mrs Crawley facing Lord Merton’s persistence registers on her prudent face fear of what her marrying Lord Merton might cause them to experience

Ellen

Read Full Post »

out there on the edge of change.

OpeningShots

Andrew
Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) under considerable strain, with Andy Parker (Michael Fox) looking sorry for him

Friends,

In Robin Nelson’s State of Play, a study of “contemporary (post-1990) ‘high-end’ TV drama,” more than once we are told of Tony Garnett’s “famous refusal to make more runs of This Life even after it was a smash hit.” Since Fellowes wants to remain a major player writing costume drama for American TV (the up-coming Dr Thorne will not be his last), he didn’t dare. So we are left with this slow motion good-bye.

Fellowes is having artistic conscience enough to produce more episodes in the mode of this season’s 2nd: the hour feels like not much is happening, not much excitement, because in life that is how it is. And chosing at random, one of the many meals these character sit down to (they seem to have nothing else to do), I find that no change is registered if you notice four male servants stand at attendance for four diners:

chosenatrandom

and the way the various ladies in the houses we visit eat breakfast mid-morning in bed, command tea, whatever they want.

QuiteatRandom
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary — quite at random

My self-appointed task to finish out what I began is made less arduous because many like myself are doggedly keeping up: bloggers still do recaps whether sarky or perceptive (Anibundel covers episode 3 as “Hughes wedding is it, anyway?“; Episode 4 as The Return of Gwen Dawson).

**************************
So, to begin, for myself I confess to feeling intensely moved by Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes during moments of the wedding she wanted with Mr Carson (Jim Carter).

MrHughes
Look at her face

And the camera switched to Leslie Nichols as Mrs Patmore taking equal emotional gratification from this coming future for her friend:

MrsPatmoreDaisyalongside
And Daisy (Sophie McShea) as ever close by her side

But Mr Mason and Daisy’s (Sophie McShea) satisfaction was marred by the punishment they had again had to take. And how he urged on her she had earned this by her submission to her employers. We also have the snide “Madame Defarge” hurled at her — has Mrs Patmore been reading A Tale of Two Cities? She can’t have seen the movie. The anxiety we were made to feel. Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Lady Grantham may feel enough responsiblity or obligation to her servants and their connections, to push successfully to put Mr Mason (Paul Copley) a farm to work on as a tenant; she may even give up one of her many unworn (unwanted, unneeded) fur coats to Mrs Hughes because Fellowes tells enough truth to show us that servants don’t have super-expensive weddings or dresses, but catch anyone who belongs downstairs upstairs, or in her room without permission, and she is really to sack them, apologies afterward or not.

shockedshocked

humiliationscattering
She is shocked, shocked, to find them in her bedroom; they scatter — that’s Joanne Froggart as Anna running away from wrath off the screen, Mrs Patmore behind our bride Mrs Hughes suddenly made into a schoolchild …

*******************************

Recurring or brought back characters can exert a powerful grip on the engaged emotions of someone who has been watching a soap opera for some years, and Fellowes has been careful to rehire the same actors years later to reassure us these dream figures exist. For me in these two episodes it was the re-appearance of Harriet Walter as Lady Shackleton:

firstshot (2)

firstshot (1)

At the remembered first shot, and when Lady Shackleton not only attempted to reason with Maggie Smith as the retrograde Dowager, Violet, Lady Crawley who had invited her to be an obedient supporter against re-organizing the hospital to make it part of a larger health group (therefore richer, therefore with better services), but referred to her life in just the same way she had the last time we met, I felt a tiny lump in my throat:

Lady Shackleton: “It was sweet of them to let me bring Henry.”
Violet: “Though why couldn’t he stay behind with a tray on his lap? …”
Lady Shackleton: “Don’t be unkind. I never see him. He’s only up here now to look at some horrid racing car.”
Violet: “Does he get on with Philip? – They were friends as boys.”
Lady Shackleton: “I’m afraid he doesn’t like my daughter-in-law.”
Violet: ” — Oh, dear.”
Lady Shackleton: ” — Who does …”

Walters’ voice lingers to give the tremor of unspeakable because however untheatrical nonetheless continual unavoidable heartache …

There were too few such moments for me. When Gwen (Rose Leslie) recurs, I’m again supposed to feel grateful to Lady Sybil (Deborha Findlay Brown) who is presented as almost single-handedly responsible for her great rise in life, but I remember the hard slog, insults (Mrs Hughes told her she had not right to the space she slept in so no right to a typewriter) and the fierce determination it took on her part. What is her reward? To be served upstairs?

Is it for this that she, Lady Edith and Lady Rosemary Painswick (Samantha Bond) are meeting to set up a college to train young women? I grant the good feeling to watch Edith driving Rosemary who broaches the plan to her:

thecollege

Our upstairs heroine’s, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) suitors are so feebly there, emasculated into polite Ken dolls, ready to spend the night editing your paper with you (Bertie Pelham) or take you out to dinner inbeween expensive racing car bouts (Matthew Goode as Henry Tablot), that the pleasure is simply in the glimpsed romantic shot if you can identity with the venue:

bertie-and-edith

**************************
To turn to our perpetual presences and symbolic houses, Anna’s joy at holding on her to pregnancy begins to pall from too much use, especially since part of the point is to show us how Lady Mary has a heart after all. If we were to have to come back six seasons from now (fingers crossed this never happens in some movie-house singleton), we’d have to rely on Brendon Coyle’s undercurrent of realism to object to attributing his state of happy fatherhood to his wife’s boss. And Fellowes gives the scene a misogynistic (on Bates’s part) framing bite: his first impulse is to distrust Anna’s trip to London, suspect her of what?

distrust

I was intrigued, held for a time by how a formerly great house, Dayton Park, where Thomas endures his second interview transformed naturally as it were into a gothic mansion Anne Radcliffe would have recognized:

thomas-interviewgothichouse

And there were other explanatory new images, upsurges of genuine feeling, as when Miss Dencker (Sue Johnston) chummily watches Spratt (Jeremy Swift) work on his stamp collection:

chummyoverstamps

But do we really have to find more servants discovered as thieves and criminals. Spratt is hiding an escaped convict of a relative in the shed; once again Sergeant Willis exerts excruciating pressure on Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) to go to court and re-confess her role in a jewel theft for which she has done enough time.

SergeantWillis (2)

SergeantWillis (1)

Yet as Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) tells her and we know from his presence, her life is far from ruined: he will become a teacher, and she his work-from-home seamstress wife. But that’s not the emphasis of this punitive series of scenes.

Why do we have no characters going off — as most wealthy families had — in form of of younger children to grab land and resources as settler colonials in say South Africa, Australia, New Zealand? No one profiting hugely off India? Grand thievery that would not bring any Sergeant to the door, but we could then see where some of the great wealth that made houses like Downton thrive? But no. This common type is missing, no where to be seen or heard of, and I’ve listened to our substitute, the man from Ireland, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) abjure his weak socialism too many times now, and talk fo how he wants to help and do his bit for everyone else, and haven’t the stomach to treat these matters merelyas fodder for supposedly trivial fun sarcasms. I want to turn to Thackeray:

“Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

Maybe not quite? There is the on-going subgothic of Barrow’s frustrated life: a slow march to a suicide attempt.

seriouslydispleased
Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham seriously displeased with how Thomas exposed Gwen to the company at lunch

Andyseeingitagain
Andy again observing Thomas slinking along

The strength of the series all along (unadmitted-to) has been that at Downton Abbey the men are not all strong and the women not all beautiful.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

I can’t resist putting this trailer on this blog for our coming “last” season of Downton Abbey:

Do we not all see and hear what we are in for? We’ll have the “last” premiere, and then the last second episode, the last time for this and the last time for that, with plangent music and retrospective nostalgia galore. This year we are asked to remember them with intense regret at their going before they even begin.

Oh for the original spirit and team of PBS’s Sesame Street: they’d have done a delicious parody.

It’d be hilarious were not that this absurdity brings tears to my eyes since I have loved these characters, allowed some of them when they appear to become deeply entwined inside my emotional life, pull at it acutely.

Shameless, shameless.

The extra we may look forward to are (I hope and prefer) good-natured video burlesques over this One More Time Through with Full Measure autumn. Or properly-justified and well-merited (I admit) snarky ones.

The September 20th date is for British TV. I suppose Poldark 2 will follow that. Please peruse (click on it!) a handy list of all my blogs on Poldark 1 (and Graham’s Ross Poldark, Demelza and the first eight episodes of the 1975-6 season) here — with another on wigs and hats. No need for nostalgia; the cast has signed on for 5 or 6 more years.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

wolf-hallAntonLesserasMore

Anton Lesser as Thomas More (Peter Straughan defying a fear a wider swathe of viewers will declare a series boring or slow-moving returns to some of the techniques he used in Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy … ) The Washington Post featured a editorial column by Charles Krauthammer inveighing against the distorted portrait of More, showing how seriously these films are taken …

Dear friends and readers,

My concluding blog review of this unusually rich volume of essays on the often neglected and casually dissed costume drama from the BBC, for several decades a leading and influential creator of fine TV drama. The first part covered different ways of dicussing these serial films ; the second the history and evolution of historical films, and this last on the power of these drama’s audiences (especially in the age of fandoms on the Internet with their instant commentary) and how they can influence how a given mini-series might develop and frame how the series is discussed in public media.

***********************

nextmorning
All we are permitted to see in the 1970s is the morning after (Ellis as Ross, Jill Townsend as Elizabeth)

Chapter 16: Julie Anne Taddeo’s “Why don’t you take her?”” Rape in the Poldark Narrative.” I liked this one — it coheres with my point of view on gender politics in the Poldark series (though I differ in how I see Graham’s stance). Where she differs from the approach I would take is she organizes her findings around the fan groups which protest regularly, where misreadings are a result of mainstream cultural values. It offended many viewers of the 1970s mini-series that Ross rapes Elizabeth, and they are given ammunition in this view by the relatively chaste presentation of the 1970s depiction, and by later qualified backtracking in the novels, to be noted in Ross Poldark’s memory — but not sufficient to turn away the reality that Elizabeth manifests intense bitterness towards Ross in The Black Moon and is in The Angry Tide given a very “rough deal” indeed (Graham’s terms for the realities of women’s lives in our culture): she dies of miscarriage she pays a doctor to bring in by causing early parturition, using some herbs known to lead to gangrene. why? the intolerable life she finds herself having to endure when George Warleggan, her aroused jealous husband begins to believe that her second son, he thought his, and born prematurely, is Ross Poldark’s.

Taddeo begins with the enormous popularity of the Poldark mini-series as well as the unacknowledged (by elite groups) extent of Graham’s readership for years of his Poldark and mystery-thrillers-psychologically complex books. Her point will be to show how the fan groups managed to influence how the film-makers changed Graham’s books when they filmed them. The central dilemma of the 12 books is that Ross Poldark loves two women, Elizabeth Chynoweth, aristocratic, upper class, who chooses to marry Ross’s cousin, Francis, partly because she fears marriage to Ross (as a man of renegade risky outcast behavior), and thought he was dead and promised Francis; partly because Francis is the oldest son’s older son, and thus the heir and she hopes can provide her with a high culture social life. Ross takes in a pathetic abject working class (beaten up or abused) young girl, Demelza Carne, to be a servant in his house. Demelza grows up and eventually they have sex (almost inevitably and this carries on) but he marries her quickly — as someone he really likes and feels comfortable with, as a good sex partner. As to defy his class; it is an act of rebellion.  He falls in love with her gradually and deeply. In the 1970s series this altered so that Ross and Demelza have sex for just one night (the film-makers feared the audience would think Demelza unchaste if there were many nights, and that even today would not condone breaking the taboo of marrying far beneath him); Demelza becomes pregnant, even tries to an abortion, but Ross finds out, stops her and “gives” and their child “his name.” When Francis Poldark dies, and Elizabeth finds herself impoverished, alone, insecure, lonely, she marries George Warleggan, even though Ross has made intense efforts to help her (like giving her a lump sum he and Demelza needed badly for his mining business).  Incensed, enraged, he goes to Trenwith and forces himself sexually upon her.  To take her back, to assert his right to own her.  Fans resent bitterly the idea that Ross could have raped anyone. Just the other day I debated this issue off-blog and off-facebook with a long-time ardent reader of Graham’s books and about his life.

So fans of the mini-series argue over this triangle, wanting to absolve Ross and turning to hating Elizabeth. Taddeo shows that Graham is seriously interested in the question of rape, presents women as subject to men; in the second mini-series (out of Books 6-8), we have a young woman, Eliizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna, forced into marriage and Graham dramatizes her experience of married life as continued sadistic marital rape — happily her husband dies, and she remarries a brother of Demelza, but she never recovers from her two years of such experiences.

Anotherrapescene
A scene related to the one focused on above: another rape scene written by a man, and this time we are encouraged to see coerced sex as aggresive seduction (Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, forced down by a Turkish friend of one of her suitors, Downton Abbey, the first season, 2010)

Chapter 16: Andrea Schmidt dilates on “Imaginative power” of the fan fiction and postings on the Net about Downton Abbey. She demonstrates how these fans — often disdained — expose the absurdities and perversities of Fellowes. He hires a “historian” as a reinforcement of his claim that he refuses to develop his characters in more sophisticated adult ways and deal openly with complex politics because is he keeps to “historical accuracy” no anachronisms in his characters. “Historical accuracy” is his mantra (like the US uses “national security”) behind which he wants to control the depiction of the characters to suit his defense of this super-rich order of people. At the same time he can write dialogue and invent presences with the power of suggestivity. He is usually real enough, and registers the depths and amorality of people sufficiently to open up suggestions we can play with — such as my argument last year that Mr Bates murdered his first wife and Mr Green through the clever ruse of accident.

Schmidt suggests that Downton Abbey fan fiction develops his characters from hints and behaviors Fellowes refuses to make clear or explicit — he cannot sue them as they are making no money and are not acknowledged as legitimate or serious by those in charge of literature and art. These fan fictions and postings and blogs too expose the nasty undercurrents of his portrayals, his fatuity. They complicate his stories in more “interesting, self-aware and sensitive areas” that he (in effect) refuses to. One I noticed is a fan fiction that postulates a love affair between Miss Obrien and “arguably the most underdeveloped character in the series, Cora, Lady Grantham.” A pair of lesbians. In another “poor Edith” is given a sarcastic and funny voice and describes the passive-aggressive relationship of Matthew (his sycophancy and making up to her) and Lady Mary (her cold indifference and potentially needling tongue) one New Year’s Day. They allow Robert (Lord Grantham to have his affair with Jane (the widowed housemaid?).

***********************

MissTowlerLookingattheWindow
From Mr Selfridge: the opening episode, Miss Agnes Towler gazing yearningly at the dress in the department store window

Chapter 17: Andrea Wright’s “This Wonderful Commercial Machine” defends and analyses “Gender, Class, and the Pleasures of Spectacle in The Paradise and Mr Selfridge compared to the 1970s House of Elliot. The 1970s is incomparably more genuinely feminist in outlook — for a start, the owners are women. These costume dramas have lots of “good girl messages” I’d call them — stay home, be obedient, don’t rock the values that sustain you supposedly and you’ll be safe and maybe unhappy critics who complain about the spectacle and shopping should realize that’s the point of these series; women go there for pleasure. The older program had 2 ambitious women now we have ambitious men.

HouseofElliotScene

Like The Bletchley Circle, The 1970s House of Elliot featured women in charge, dealing, negotating

Wright finds that conservative ideologies have taken over; we espape the present. In The Paradise something less authentic is taking over – modern retail is characterized by cavernous hypermarkets that lack all individiduality. The Paradise maintains its French origin in feel and tone. She carefully goes over the décor of the two series and what is projected – -an opportunity to revel. Respectability and reputation are central to women of all classes. Agnes the desperate girl of Mr Selfridge is matched with Denise of Paradise, a prey to men, clerks on display like the goods, women as a consumable pleasure. Wright compares the kinds and fates of the female characrers in the two series. They fail to offer progressive roles for women and reiterate rigid class structures. A French business women Clemence is a threat sexually as she seeks to win through sexual enticement; she is cast as a dangerous other. Normalcy restored. Agnes has little opportunity, she gets paternistilc support, a sexual education rather than emancipation. We have also another Miss Bunting, desperate over debt, who steals is not pardoned and kills herself.

CALL THE MIDWIFE S2
The upbeat 1940s Cherry Ames/Sue Barton feel to the series can be seen in this kind of stylized cheerful promotional shot — connected to the above still, women going to work

Chapter 18: Louise Fitzgerald’s “Taking a pregnant pause: Interrogating the feminist potential of Call the Midwife.” It’s the story of a newly qualified midwife who arrives in Post WW2 London to take a position alongside other novice midwives and Anglican order of nuns – Jenny Lee, a middle class woman who once loved classical music. The midwife can be seen as a feminist figure because she has been cloaked in misogynies – female strength not liked, a scapegoat. Birth and reproductive rights continue to be a central feminist subject; the show breaks this aesthetic taboo. Abortion becomes a flash point in the series – a story of a backstreet abortion at a time abortion not legal; Nora Harding almost dies – we witness her screaming. Neither woman (a story of Trixie who is first seen painting her nails with blood red varnish) is judged by her community, but both women are in effect punished and abortion and sexual assault are seen as the result of sexual desire. After success of first season Heidi Thomas (the writer who is a centrally important person in costume dramas, especially British) began to try for feminist content. Midwives are a much more visible presence in the UK; US media did not like its bleak ideologies and socialist Health care system. It is feminocentric and about women – none of women defined by relationship to a man – it suggests a communitarian spirit and that domestic history is valuable history.

alljoys
Another promotional still which does show the ambiance of at least the first season

The main concern of the series is the relationship of poverty and social welfare even if topics – domestic violence, abortion, rape, birth, prostitution are feminist issues – there are so very few programs with women at the center is one reason for its success. Channel 4’s reality TV show One Born Every Minute has a high prioritization of birth stories – central in popular culture today and does reinforce “fact’ of women’s biological difference from men – Call the Midwife is a ghettoizing of what it means to be feminist because midwifery childbirth and motherhood seen as female space. No new points of identification. There is a nostalgia in the way class identity and hierarchies are used (reinforced too). It is white – one nun makes an “unintentional racist” remarks does not provoke disquiet that working class women’s behavior does. A story about a black child is told without referring to the child’s race; the story about the man as a father and man. Call the Midwife does not offer new paradigms for identification nor systematically challenge sstems of oppression and inequity. The larger problem in feminist of racism is here.

*************************

As general constant across the three parts of the book and different subgenres of costume drama and mini-series is the gender fault-line: there are men’s films and women’s films from the point of view of the characters and stories and from the point of view of how the screenplay writer, director and producer treat this content. And even if they are apparently feminist, written by women, feminocentric, sympathetic to women, they do not escape the hegemonic male dominance of our culture.

Chapter 20: Elke Weissmann’s “Transnational Complexity and the Critique of Masculinity in Ripper Street.

Ripper Street
Promotional: Matthew Macfayden to the fore, the women ghostly

Elke Weissmann writes on a mini-series Ripper Street (2010-) produced by BBC and BBC America. She feels the mini-series “emphasizes the problem that is constituted by traditional patriarchal masculinities.” This drama exposes while it attempts to critique the results of these behaviors and especially a nostalgic view of them. It offers an intense emotional engagement with its characters — part of serial drama. A central character played by Matthew Macfayden is at first presented as a traumatized and admirable male; he’s a versatile actor and apparently unlike Walter White in Breaking Bad where (according to Weissmann) we see a good man gradually corrupted, Reid was corrupt to start out with. A large theme is the problem of policing: who is to police such a society when the police are part of the problem. Along the way she describes similar min-series which she aligns or contrasts with this one: none of them have I ever seen; Dixon of Dock Street (British 1955-76), Wire (HBO – -I know this one is much admired), Hill Street Blues (I know it was popular.

BBC America
It’s telling how easy it is to find stills on the Net of profoundly wounded women with supposedly protective standing over them (from Ripper Street)

She thinks Deadwood the best of these, but it too makes an exaggerated use of violence, which is shown to be “deeply troubling”. Ripper Street manifests deep unhappiness and does allow for other concepts of masculinity. Violence is shown by the storylines to be a “key element of traditional, hegemonic masculinities,” is traumatizing and central to the problems men face too.

I’ve probably seen so little of this type of thing because I avoid high raw and continuing violence that I know is typical of a lot of filsm — Breaking Bad was an unusual program for me to watch

***********************

footman-and-duke
Rob James-Cellier as Thomas Barrow, a homosexual footman who attempts to blackmail Charlie Cox, the Duke of Crowborough but finds the Duke has far more power than he (Downton Abbey, 2010, the first season)

I’ve omitted Chapter 12, Giselle Bastin’s treatment of the two Upstairs/Downstairs series and keep Chapter 19: Lucy Brown’s “Homosexual Lives: Representation and Reinterpretation in Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey to a minimum. As I remarked in the second of these blogs, I watched the two seasons of the 2012 Upstairs Downstairs and want to deal with the changes from the older to the new series separately, but here I would like to record the central insight of this essay. Lucy Brown shows that paradoxically the depiction of a gay footman in the 1970s, Alfred Harris, much more hostilely than that of Thomas Barrow, which actually ends on Harris’ execution as a spy is in a way far more truthful to the suffering and reality of life of homosexual men until the mid-1970s (Stonewall anyone?) than the sentimental way that Thomas is on the one hand sympathized with when it comes to his love relationships but otherwise stigmatized as a spiteful angry desperately snobbish man (in cohoots with that witch, Miss Obrien).

A single collection of essays has to leave some topics out. I was glad to see the emphasis in two of the essays on the importance and central function and dominance of the screenplay writer in the way the BBC does its actual film-making, but wished that there had been more about the business side of things. For example, a British friend told me:

it no longer produces drama itself. It commissions it from private companies — many of them (originally at least) comprising people who used to work at the Beeb. This new system has been in place for about twenty years, and certainly applies to Wolf Hall. Commissioning seems to work both ways — the idea may come from the Beeb, or the independent companies may pitch to them.

There are reasons to dislike this way of going about things, but it has resulted in many cases in higher production values — contrasting Wolf Hall with the 1970s Wives of Henry VIII shows the difference. It has also led to dumbing down, but Wolf Hall is not guilty of that.

Some the aspects of these dramas beyond dumbing down (short scenes, much less dialogue, itself much less complicated and thoughtful) which the essayists in the last part attribute to the power of audiences could be the effect of profit-making companies who want values that uphold their company and executives to be enacted.

I am a lover of historical fiction, biography, narrative history, historic fiction (older fiction) and think all these literary forms directly connected to, give rise to serial costume drama. I will be writing soon about Peter Weir’s Master and Commander (adapted from an amalgam of several of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, directed and written by Peter Weir, featuring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany).

galapagosislands
Bettany as Stephen Maturin on the Galapagos islands, writing up his notes)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

cover

Dear friends and readers,

Way back in December 2014 I announced the publication of this volume, edited by James Leggott and Julie Ann Taddeo, in which my own essay on “Epistolarity and Masculinity in Davies’s Trollope Adaptations” appeared. I’ve now read the whole of the volume and had a chance to view some of the films I knew nothing about before reading it. In the Foreword, Jerome De Groot makes a strong argument for regarding costume drama as a central export of British TV, and when done as film adaptations of great books, truly fine movies; at the same time he brings up why and how they are dissed continually. I thought a review of its sections and individual essays would be of interest to those who love these mini-series as I do. Since the volume is quite rich (see the Table of Contents), I’ve divided this blog in three parts following the divisions of the collection. This review is of the essays in Part One: Approaches to Costume Drama.

shouldertoshoulder
From Shoulder to Shoulder, a young Sian Phillips played Emmeline Pankhurst

Clare Monk’s “Pageantry and Populism: Democratization and Dissent: The Forgotten 190s,” is on the power, the liberal outlook, and variety of themes and art of the mini-series and costume dramas of the 1970s. She opens with an excellent demonstration (convincing) that the costume drama of the 1970s has been ignored, partly because it had a number of centrally influential highly liberal mini-series, only one of which has appeared on DVD, Days of Hope (it’s upbeat at last). Shoulder to Shoulder a significant contribution to the history of suffragettes and how they were treated is not wiped out but obstacles are still put in the way of re-digitalizing. Monk demonstrates the richness of the 1990s and a type of structure, pattern, cinematography, historiography is a development of the 1970s and lasted until 2003-4 when (alas) Mobil Exxon withdrew its support. She does not say but Eaton tells you that was when the bottom fell out of PBS. She also shows (I’ve know this for years as does anyone with some access to British TV) that only a small number of British mini-series came over to the US, the type that Downton Abbey comes out of.

The second essay by Thomas Bragg, “History’s Drama: Narrative Space in ‘Golden Age’ British TV Drama, also examines the 1970s, as a seminal period of costume drama: the sixties began it, and it was serious because of the simultaneous presence of the play of the week (Wednesday nights) and the reality that the people on the London stage were the same people on the TV in these plays. They began to cross over to the mini-series in the 1980s when British film having collapsed in the movie-houses (due to Hollywood’s popularity) moves into TV (e.g., My Beautiful Laundrette), writers and all.) Bragg’s thesis is not so admiring of the 70s, is a corrective. The 1970s have been credited with going-out-of-doors and several of the famous mini-series are repeatedly said to be photographed on location, out of doors, most famously Poldark. Bragg demonstrates that while the film-makers did indeed go on location and film some sequences there, these are few and far between. The central space remained the studio and built versions of rooms. At the same time though the uses of camera work changed: in the 1967 Forsyte Saga, a filmed stage play, the camera becomes a narrator, moving in and out of spaces; the rooms themselves are highly appointed visual versions of the era (made to seem accurate by specifically elaborate props). A strong use of mirrors, windows, and angles made the viewer aware there was an outside which was redolent of wide open spaces. Bragg argues this is the equivalent of how historical fiction works or had worked since Scott; the important scene within a confined area, carefully described objects and houses from the era, with occasional forays out to descriptive landscapes. This is interesting: how does one give the effect of a past time in a written fiction.

Fristfamilygroup
A scene of the family group in the 1967 Forsyte Sage (early on, Episode 1)

Bragg suggests this way of filming changed again in the 1990s when TV film-makers no longer had to rely on older film techniques to film out of doors but could take their computer equipment, moving cameras, one tied to the waist of the cinematographers. Then he makes the point that in Downton Abbey, the one standing heir to all these older dramas, focuses on the outside. The way the characters are filmed, walking, talking, interacting the effect is that of a group of people say in a courtyard (as in Poldark when Ross when to market they filmed in a courtyard in Ealing Studios) — but the great emphasis is the house, the lands, the dominating wealth. Where in the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs do we see the grand houses, the outsides, the gardens? we don’t. Some film-makers wanted to give the impression of landscape more than others; I’ve been thinking about the 1972 BBC Emma: this would be one much less concerned to make it seems as if the story is filmed in a landscape but I can see how the disposition, way of filming, where arrangement of scenes is that of the 1970s Poldark, and Upstairs Downstairs.

James Leggott’s “‘It’s not clever, it’s not funny, and it’s not period!’: Costume Comedy and British TV” makes this an unusual volume. Leggott is a BBC person; he teaches film and TV at Northumbria University and is chief editor (he started it) of the Journal of Popular TV. It’s on a topic I’m not qualified to evaluate: a kind of BBC and (in a way) elite costume drama that rarely comes over to the US: Blackadder was a rare cross-over and it appeared later at night on PBS; I watched maybe one or two. Jim used to like them when he was watching TV. He’d laugh and laugh.

Blackadder
A remembered moment from Blackadder

Blackadder belongs to a sub-genre of hour-long and mini-series which make fun of serious costume drama; He mentions Upstairs Downstairs Abbey and Lark Pies to Cranchesterford (a mocking title). These types include Monty Python’s Holy Grail, on the one side, and Benny Hill on the other: low humor pretending not to recognize its own salaciousness, boy’s stuff. The Carry On movies come out of this: Carry on Cleo for example (mocking the Cleopatra movie). Leggott covers sitcoms: Brass, Dad’s Army, and others which are anti-war, anti-hierarchy. For those of us who didn’t see the full panoply of the 1970s costume drama we won’t recognize what’s rejected and made fun of. Leggott shows these deconstruct and expose the fallacies and harm; they are often attacked — as “not clever, not funny and anachronistic.” So what? Well, as he proceeds he shows that some viewers begin to believe the history they see in these programs; they really do and instead of getting the parody or critique the original shows ideas are reinforced. And some come out of a reactionary point of view very strongly. Apparently you can find British people who believe in the medieval period they see in these or the 18th century mock-ups. Not so much the Victorian.

Marc Napolitano’s “It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion: British Costume Drama, Dickens and Serialization,” attempts to show that the costume serial drama embraces many of the attributes of soap opera by looking at the techniques of serialization. Napolitano says the incessant reiteration of Dickens’s name as what early films were like because Dickens is so cinematic was an attempt to gain respectability; yes Dickens published in installments but his installments were words. What was influential was not so much the vaunted pictorialism of his texts but their open segmented narratives. Napolitano says Dickens’s novels are open-ended; and what we have in costume dramas from Upstairs Downstairs on is an open-ended story that can keep going. In fact, the continuity and themes are grounded in character and setting not story. They use a limited number of sets while an overarching story narrative which ties the season together. By contrast there are older film adaptations of specific books that no longer how long do have an ending because the books have an ending: Forsyte Saga and Pallisers. By chosing this open-ended structure, the writers and film-makers can respond to audiences and experiment. He’s really describing and defineing a television novel: that we have television novels nowadays. He writes in detail about The Foryste Saga, and Duchess of Duke Street. He mentions in a note Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan had a general idea where he was going but at any point at the end of a season he could have pulled the curtain down; and he did pay attention to audience response and grew far more daring as he goes along. It’s the daring experiment that makes for the innovation. They dare not do that anywhere near as much on PBS, and we in the US get only a limited range of what goes on on British TV.

BleakHouse2004SergeantGeorgeSirLeicester
A lesser known moving moment towards the end of Davies’s Bleak House: Sergeant George (Hugo Speers) caring for Sir Leicester (Timothy West)

Benjamin Poore develops Napolitano’s essay further — “Never-ending Stories: the paradise and the Period Drama series.” Beyond an analysis of structure he pointed to features we see after 2005 or so. The lead writer who becomes an executive producer and is the linchpin was in place by the mid-1980s. An emphasis on the workplace which makes the workplace a substitute for family (and not said in the essay remains pro-establishment utterly); source texts which are relatively unknown (like Zola’s novel, Gaskell’s short stories — My Lady Ludlow is narrated by a crippled servant in the book); production practices: the fully built complicated set and precinct (the house or department store and land or streets around it); a “warm bath” atmosphere — everyone kindly, communitarian — the new reassurance factor is strikingly different from the 1970s. He discusses Davies’s Bleak House as a half-way between the older forms and this newer one — alas it did not get enough audience and so now the BBC and ITV people want a “springboard’ rather than a classic book. Poore discusses pragmatic practicalities and how decisions are made based on commercial considerations and audience numbers.

Quieter
One of the quieter and feminine of the many epistolary scenes in The Way We Live Now, Georgiana Longestaffe (Anne-Marie Duff) writing to her Jewish lover while she is in the London house of the Melmottes

Mine comes next — “Epistolarity and masculinity in Andrew Davies’s Trollope films. Here rather than summarize or evaluate my own essay, and in order not to interfere with copyright (so I won’t put my essay on the Net), I offer Taddeo and Leggott’s summary of my paper in the volume’s introduction:

Perhaps the most subversive writer to examine, Ellen Moody argues, is Andrew Davies whose two BBC adaptations of Anthony Trollope’s novels, He Knew He Was Right (2004) and The Way We Live Now (2001), offer a liberal feminist interpretation of Victorian domesticity and masculinity. Moody closely analyzes Davies’s televisual techniques of filmic epistolary sequences, montage, flashbacks, and voice-over, critiquing and shedding light on the relationship between the original source texts and their adaptations. Davies not only undercuts the conservatism of these novels while exploiting conservative tendencies in heritage films, but also freely adapts Trollope’s male characters’ psychological experience as they cope with the demands the characters make upon themselves while they attempt to enact sexual ideals of manliness and achieve financial and social success.

UncleArthur
In Small Island, the mentally distressed Uncle Arthur (Karl Johnson) coming upon the Jamaican British solider, Gilbert (David Oyelowo)

The section concludes with Karen Beth Strovas and Scott M. Strovas on “music in the British Serialized Drama,” the first half of whose title is “What are we going to do with Uncle Arthur?” It’s more than an allusion to a music hall song and dance Sarah the servant does in the 1970s Upstairs/downstairs,” but is a trope: in Small Island, there is an aging working class man called Arthur, and the joke his while others around him regard him as a simpleton or treat him like one (as in the older programs; Mr Weston in the 1972 Emma is made into a sort of semi-salacious genial simpleton), Arthur is rather cunning, and more sophisticated in his tolerance and observation than any one gives him credit for. There are few essays on music in film of any usefulness — so few have the technical knowledge and those who do can’t write to make themselves understood and anyway write on classical music and history (musicologists). This pair of people manage to describe pieces of music with concrete words that yet eschew technical language. New terms have evolved: source music for music that the characters in the film are making, and underscore music for the music we hear but the characters do not. The thesis is that music is so important to all film, and even in the 1970s ones where it seems it was not used to provoke emotional response the way it is today. The mini-series used the 1970s Upstairs/Downstairs, the 2003 Forsyte Saga and again Downton Abbey. (Before people cry out against this obsession with DA, the people doing it make their materials available for study. The composers for DA have published material that is usable — the way Fellowes’ scripts and 2 of his companion books are scenarios and of real use.) These three mini-series can be used to analyse others — so here again we have a rare instance of the editors and write managing to produce an essay that those outside costume drama might find useful and general.

The Strovas show that what developed is a use of music beyond the opening and close themes. All three have theme music that begins and ends the show each hour, and is brought back in particular different ways to make emotional and thematic points. In the 1970s music was a tool to define and intensity the class conflicts of upstairs and downstairs — and conflicts were much much stronger, it was a polarization. Eventually upstairs took over when the hero became the son and heir, James as a tragic figure, but not so before that. What happened was a development whereby source material states explicitly some of the themes or underscore but in key scenes the two interact so as to musically enact emotions and thoughts and what’s happened. It is much more developed in Downton Abbey because they are more conscious of what they are doing and have more money than U/D did. DA uses music more psychologically and very effective it is — much more lush, but not drooling because of pace. Those who have watched the 2003 Forsyte Saga will know that operatic music is used a lot; the book and film take advantage of Irene being a piano teacher, musical and the wealth of the family leads to soirees and going to opera. The Strovas analyses the first encounter, sex and rapes scene to show our source and underscore music is used as a counterpoint. Sarah in U/D loves music hall and we see contrasts of her singing and dancing downstairs as the upstairs ones sit composedly. A scene at the close of the 2nd season of DA has Mary and Matthew playing the gramophone with a haunting love song at the time and an underscore that stops and starts as well as allusions to a show that flopped. The 4th season of DA used music a lot: Dame Nellie Melba came and sang Puccini; the black Jazz singer of course sang his songs and there was dancing. In both Forsyte Saga and Downton Abbey when a woman is raped, all music ceases where she is.

Paratexts
Poldark 1975-76: one of four sets of paratexts that opened and closed the mini-series, each having images epitomizing the actions of the four episoces and accompanied by the same memorable alluring music

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »