Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Film adaptations’ Category

MarkRylanceasCromwell
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall 3)

LittleElizabethCromwell
Natasha Little as Elizabeth Wykys Cromwell, Thomas’s wife, who dies of sleeping sickness early in the series

EleanorTomlinsonasDemelza
Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza rescued from an abject life by Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark (2015 Poldark 1): she is facing down Heidi Reed Elizabeth while Ross turns away

Dear friends and readers,

I acknowledge the unfairness of comparing these two mini-series airing at the same time on the UK BBC and US PBS, about which much fuss is being made. Wolf Hall as written by Peter Straughan (with the acknowledged presence of Hilary Mantel) is a throwback to true quality drama of the 1970s through say 2009 on PBS. It may carry on on BBC TV in Britain as many of their serial dramas do not make it over to the US. Wolf Hall has (relatively) long scenes between characters, longer utterances and dialogue weighty with meaning and wit, its model is ironic drama on the stage and great care has been taken with mise-en-scene, culled juxtaposition, flashbacks, and literal accuracies. The new Poldark as written by Debbie Horsfield follows the recent trend in mini-series to reach a wider audience (apparently 7.0 million no longer makes the cut) with short scenes, only rare excursions into longer developed scenes (but they are there, as in the long sequence at the close of Episode 4 from the time of Ross and Demelza’s love-making, marriage, and first time together through to the end of the Christmas visit); its model is action-adventure TV dramas (Master and Commander and Outlanders as the 1970s kept in mind The Oneddin Line and costume drama from the 1940s Gainsborough swashbuckling school),and cost-saving measures which make for crude and abrupt movements between shots, confused chronology and (without Graham there) irritating anachronisms.

I’ve been reading Jerome de Groot’s Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture — spurred on by some panels at the recent ASECS  and what interests me here is how these two mini-series are presented as historical fiction films, based on history as well as particular novels De Groot writing about the resurgence of history in popular culture. At the same time as academics get ever more sceptical (post-modern) about what we can know of the past, and insist on disillusion and almost disbelief in documentary source, at least “interrogating” them, and self-reflexivity before they will give prizes to anyone; popular culture is devouring historical fiction and it is now respectable, making and going to historical dramas, costume dramas trying to make a comeback (if not based on older great books, based on recent very good ones).

cover

Is there a difference among historical fiction, historic novels (older written in the 18th century, say Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), and films and “real” narrative history. Yes – especially thoroughly researched history which is often thematic as well as narrative and well-documented. But for readers: do you read an older or historic novel differently from the way you read a historical fiction? More is it not so that historical fiction influences the average person’s conception the past and forces into reactionary historical narratives modern concerns.

Do these historical fictions then become part of the fabric of historical knowledge. Yes. In the case of Graham, he is bringing to bear also the strong pro-revolutionary currents of the 1780s and 1790s into discourse – that’s why the books still matter in some ways (also the proto-feminism and some other themes), Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a revision of common understanding of the Tudor era skewed by Bolt’s and the 1960s desire to worship Thomas More. Morrison’s Beloved is now part of our understanding of the effects of slavery – and the horrific reconstruction period for black people down south. I reviewed Heffer’s High Minds – historian writing popular narrative and it is Tory paternalism that is brought before us despite all his research.

Historical fictions, these 20th and 21st century books, the first four Poldarks and Wolf Hall —  on face of it differ considerably from one another and from fictions actually written in the era they are set; yet both are created from imitating these earlier fictions, what is familiar about the earlier literature of the era, and recent other historical fictions and films. There are long traditions in the representation of the Renaissance and the 18th century. Just to begin with the 1960s on (who has not seen Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, with Orson Wells, Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller) they imitate Jacobean drama and what is felt is true of the 16th century classics (Machiavelli, Montaigne, More) we get these Elizabethan/Tudor political types as seething with subtexts, as all of them ever so intelligent, witty, ironic, guarded, making killing remarks that are funny. Similarly not to go back to Kitty (Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland) but just the two Tom Joneses (1960s and 1998), the 18th century is a time of sexual transgression, rebellions and riots, country life, manliness as building a world. The source here are also the 18th century novels, from Clarissa to Austen, and the French soft-corn porn too (who has not seen Stephen Frears’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with the smoldering eyes of John Malkovich), and recently movies centering on traditionally heroic masculine males. (When a person writes a novel set in the 19th century today he imitates novels set in the 19th century and conventions about the 19th century that are found in historical fictions set in the 19th century; so Byatt’s Possession imitates George Eliot as seen through the Brontes.)

Now common sense tells us there were as many witty seething ironic and subtextual people about in say the 18th century as the 16th and just as many dullards, obtuse dense people at the court of Henry VIII as at the philistine court of George III who never made an interesting remark in their lives. Documents easily bear me out that Charles James Fox and Sheridan were far more into wit than Thomas Cromwell or Wolseley. In fact that is part of the power of say Thomas Middleton’s plays (a contemporary of Shakespeare): in Middleton’s famous The Changeling the man who is the evil cente of the play, Deflores (played brilliantly in the 1980s by Bob Hoskins in a BBC production) is not articulate and not very bright; worse yet is the silly heroine (played by a young Elizabeth McGovern in the same production) while the smart people (one played by Hugh Grant before he gave up on serious acting) are done in by Deflores. Deflores can’t and doesn’t want to make smart remarks. They are dangerous.

The great delight for those who delight in this sort of thing of Wolf Hall is the myth that everyone was supersubtle in talk and thought. It gave Hilary Mantel a terrific remit. Her novel (which I acknowledge I did not finish nor even start her Bring Up the Bodies, but which like some watchers I am now intent on rereading to where I left off and now finishing so as to enjoy the film adaptation the more). Her book imitates James Joyce in its self-conscious use of stream of consciousness, fills in with the expected rich furniture and strange doings of the Renaissance as seen in films, other historical fictions, “real” historical narrative, not to omit Shakespearean plays. She has also re-seen the paradigm given us by Bolt and the 1960s so now the ruthless thug politician (Leo McKern) is now true ordinary man, no better (though smarter and with more kindness and braver before the king) than the rest of us. It must be a winner.

The Poldark people have to make do with 1940s novels that mirror the dark times just after World War Two, and to give them credit, they are doing this far more authentically with the central characters than the progressive 1970s mini-series. And as Graham did, they are given voice to the marginalized and powerless, the abject, the lowest of the low, in a wide ranging perspective which includes underlying economic realities. The crime of poaching which leads to the death of one of the characters from epidemic typhus in prison was a disguised war of the propertied against the 99% of the era. Everyone knew it was a victimless crime, punished highly unevenly, the equivalent of Jean Valjean put away in prison for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread in Les Miserables. We see the stranglehold of monopolies as Ross fails to make a go of it smelting and selling copper himself at prices that will keep the mine going and becomes a free trader (smuggler). So we need vast scenes of peoples not tight encounters of individuals.

I’ve written a more detailed comparison of one episode from each (the fourth Poldark, the first Wolf Hall) on my Sylvia blog (scroll down to the concluding three paragraphs) and so won’t go on at length — until that is, I’ve read Mantel’s books and seen all 8 Poldark episodes, but here would like to turn the depiction of the women in the new Poldark and Wolf Hall. For now I want to talk just about heroines of each. According to De Groot and Miriam Burstein the archetypes across historical fiction repeat themselves – whether the character is called Demelza, Anne Boleyn, or some version of Elizabeth. In short the heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity (Katherine of Aragon, Mary Boleyn). Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty and then punishes her hard. Elizabeth seeking a life outside her family and ending up dead; Verity escaping to a kind of solitude of two in Falmouth.

Heroheroine

Scene from Wolf Hall
Hero and heroine scenes from both

For the supposed heroine of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the great and important book on Anne Boleyn is Retha Warnike’s The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn,– she shows the false constructions, where they came from, tries to disentangle this woman from myths, but go look at the popular historical fiction (The Other Boleyn Girl or Mantel’s Wolf Hall – I’ve not yet read Bring up the bodies). In Mantel’s presentation of Anne it’s as if Warnicke never wrote her accurate and moving portrayal of this woman,  caught up in a world of totally male hegemonic world where her family was out to sell first her sister and then herself corrupt coteries, a totally male and we are back with Boleyn as sly, amoral, wrongly ambitious, untrustworthy, deserving almost to be beheaded. I should bring up how in the 18th century Elizabeth Tollett wrote one of these Ovidian narratives deeply sympathetic to Anne, and full of the terror of beheading, but she sentimentalizes her.

We are hearing about the terrific performances of Rylance, Damien Lewis, watching Anton Lesser as More. But what of the women of Wolf Hall? Since she left off Amy Dorrit (Bleak House, scripted by Andrew Davies), Claire Foy has taken on ‘evil’ shallow ‘spoilt’ women — she did this kind of role for the 2010 Upstairs Downstairs, the pro-Nazi, Lady Percy, sexually exploiting the chauffeur. Angel face. But Foy is overdoing it, standing there stiffly; and Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn is mawkish (apart from the historical reality Mary was not acceptable at court once she had had a son by Henry who remained illegitimate — has no one read the recent history on these women?). The presentation of these women is not feminist — it’s typical historical fiction across the board. The heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity. Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty but then the structure of the novel and everyone around her punishes her hard for trespass. She was not supposed to rescue Verity to choose her own life. And the actresses can’t do as well. Liz, More’s wife, has depth — but she’s all caution and prudence, won’t even read the Bible, sticks the prayer book as safer but she’s killed off by a dread disease of the era (sleeping or sweating sickness) — so Natasha Little (the great actress of the 1998 Vanity Fair) goes to waste — unless she’s brought back in flashbacks later in the series. By contrast, Eleanor Tomlinson has a complex role to play as did Jill Townsend for Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan in the 1970s. Elizabeth has a real ambition, for society, to rise in life; Caroline Penvenon has agency. The real sin among these women is the same as Anne Boleyn’s: when they are not loyal first and foremost. I admit my bonding thus far from the films is Demelza as played by Tomlinson and Liz Cromwell as play by Natasha Little. The books are different: I deeply enter into Verity’s case, bond with the intelligent Elizabeth but have not gone far enough for a second time into Wolf Hall or its sequel to grasp where I can find some purchase.

What is the definition of manliness in such films or their books? the heroes are Thomas Cromwell who takes More’s old place as the tolerant man of integrity; Ross Poldark who builds a home and world.  It’s curious to see how physicians, Dwight Enys (Poldark), Stephen Maturin (O’Brien’s sea-stories — to me Paul Bettany is perfect) are held in high repute in historical fiction and merchants (Stephen Vaughn of Antwerp, Antonio Bonvisi from Lucca, friends to Cromwell) in Wolf Hall.

For myself I still haven’t enjoyed a costume drama mini-series in the way I am thus far Wolf Hall and also only intermittently the new Poldark since some of Andrew Davies’ film adaptations in the first decade of the 21st century. Bar none (perhaps exceptimg Breaking Bad, better in its depiction of women, probably much more thematically important and relevant), Wolf Hall is absorbing, entertaining most of the time, usually intelligent (though not Anne or Mary Boleyn). Certainly Downton Abbey was problematic even in the first two years. The new Poldark’s closer reading of Graham’s depiction of the sources of Demelza and Ross’s relationship is teaching me why I so bond with these recurring two characters, Wolf Hall is pulling me into strange violent terrors of the 16th century, religious — you can’t mock the way Clive Francis as Francis Poldark or Paul Curran as Jud dared — a world without any individual rights. The savagery reflects our own era.

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 »

Demelzaclimbingup
Demelza (Angharad Rees) climbing up on Ross’s (Robin Ellis’s horse), (1975 Poldark)

Dear friends, readers, and class,

This is a continuation of the lecture I wrote as a blog, Ross Poldark, the first phase, which takes into account my first blog on the book, Ross Poldark, Revenant, and on the 1970s mini-series, An 18th century Cornish Che Guevara figure. I’ve added a few thoughts on the first three episodes of Debbie Horsfield (script-writer and “creator”), Ed Bazalgette (director) and Eliza Meller (producer) of the 2015 Poldark which have not quite covered this first of the 12 novels. The stills are mostly from the 1970s mini-series as all I have for the recent one are a few promotional stills, which typically distort what are the characteristic images in any film.

Last time we emphasized the salient characteristics of Ross, which included the above categories, a sense of his rootedness in costume drama of the 1940s (Stewart Grainger) as well as his historical conditions: he is not the heir to the Poldark estate, Francis Poldark, the son of the oldest son, Charles, is. He thus comes home to a small inheritance of a ruined mine, home, neglected property, the young woman he had loved and thought himself pledged to engaged to that heir. He had been assumed dead, out of the way. To this I’d add he is an ordinary man, somber, serious, whose troubles are those that anyone of the 1940s and again 1970s might identify with today: he wants to integrate himself into his community, make a respectable living, is a responsible man with a depth of intelligence. His desire to do some good is what particularly dates the norms to the 1940s after WW2 and again before the Thatcher era.

Ross Poldark and Demelza may be seen as coming of age novels: our hero returns home from the wars, which he escaped his youthful rebellions to, and now he tries to make himself a life, to marry where he will be comfortable, a woman who provides a household (his choice to marry and Demelza too partly fits in with the first part of Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians where she depicts the male of the 18th century eager to marry a genuine home-maker, to begi his career as a respectable male). I wrote a separate blog on mining (& smuggling) in Cornwall with particular reference to Ross’s thwarted heroic efforts. In the first she grows up: she comes age 11-14 into the first minimally decent stable surroundings and people who treat her in a civilized manner since her mother’s death. In the second she too comes of age, partly by finding where she differs from Ross, who by the end of the first novel has become an unquestioned parent-husband-master, someone who opinion of her is all encompassing, who is her. She is to learn he has feet of clay. Jud and Prudie are in effect her surrogate parents.

vlcsnap-2012-05-07-18h33m26s99
Where Jim Carter (in the background) has helped Ross fend off Demelza’s father and she protests against giving her meagre salary away

We omitted talk of Jim Carter, with Jinny, important presences and characters in Ross Poldark and Demelza. On some deep level Ross identifies with him, feels for him (as Ross does not quite for Mark Daniels). Jim is of the wretched of the earth, has been given little chance to develop his gifts, and has not had the individual esteem to refuse to return to the mine when he, like his father, develops lung sickness; still he does not make enough money as a tributer and poaches to put food on the table his manliness demands. This is not to blame him, but we are to see that he is not a flawless character. Jinny is not really happy with him; he will not listen to her greater prudence. He knows how dangerous poaching is (no matter how unjust the laws); she becomes subject to rape and even death when he steals out. Ross’s anger at himself for not saving Jim but persistent impulse to not behave in the amoral hierarchical ways of he gentry leads to his decision to marry Demelza. He will do the right thing. The community think he is sexually using her carelessly as any aristocratic male would; he proves them wrong. Central to the book is his learning experience at the trial, Book 2, Chapter 4.

Jinny
Jinny and Jim at their wedding listening to her father

Zacky
Zacky Martin

Also the rivalry with Francis. Quite apart from Elizabeth. My research into the period of the Renaissance through early 19th century shows such internecine quarreling and betrayals (Ross almost drowns Francis in their first encouner in the mine when Francis tries to open himself to Ross) occurred regularly between a male heir and especially a cousin, the son of the second son: I found it in Vittoria Colonna’s extended family, and in Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea’s brother, who murdered his male cousin Hazlewood in Northampton, and could not recover a life afterwards. Primogeniture is not a system to foster kindly feelings (as Austen said the system which demands none of a group of sisters “come out” until the oldest is engaged leads to animosity).

Francis
Clive Francis as Francis as we first see him

Charles
Frank Middlemas as Charles

Powerful scenes in Book 2 are the trial (covered in the last lecture) and Ross and Demelza’s plunge into becoming lovers: she desperate to avoid returning to her imprisoning home, he drunk, wretched, overcome with a need for human contact. She does not entrap him; she fears earning his contempt and he almost does react that way when in his mother’s dress he compares her to his mother. Book 2, Chapters 5-7. The careful slow believable and probable build-up; Demelza’s intense awakening and joy afterwards; his acknowledgment that this was not just “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Elizabeth comes more for help with Francis who her own rejection of has driven from her and into drinking, gambling, promiscuity, debt, thinking to play on Ross’s love for her, but finds something has happened between the two and it is too late for her. To its credit the 2015 Poldark followed this trajectory including his decision to marry Demelza out of a liking and respect for her, that she had become part of his life, and the intensity of their congenial sexual encounters.

So the last phases of the book. Several inward looking threads:

1) Ross falls in love with Demelza, begins to appreciate her as an individual; he continues to love as this icon of aristocratic elusive beauty, Elizabeth. The love begins in the chapter of the harvest of pilchards, Book 3, Chapter 2; Graham may have written as well but he never wrote better. The greatness of it is it’s a recreation of the Daphnis and Chloe (Longus), Paul et Virginie (later 18th century), Tristan and Isolde archtypes interwoven completely with the detailed dramatization of a harvesting of pilchards by a community deeply in need of these fish to sell and to eat, in the context of a real Cornish cove. She packs a picnic supper. Much of the space is given over to describing the intensely important and ultimately successful catch through the use of the nets, yet our emotions are intensely with the each of our two presences.

‘Ross,’ she said, ‘dear Ross’ ‘I love you, he said, ‘and am your servant. Demelza look at me. If I’ve done wrong in the past, give me leave to make amwends.’ And so he found what he had half despised was not despicable, that what had been for him the satisfaction of an appetite, a pleasant but commonplace adventure in disappointment, owned wayward and elusive depths he had not known before and carried the knowledge of beauty in its heart.

Tellingher
A famous shot from the 1975 series when Ross tells Demelza he will give her his name, marry her

2) The failure of Elizabeth and Francis’s marriage. She prefers her son, Geoffrey Charles, is not finally in love with him, and his failure to cope with the world she can be patient with, but not empathize or help. That they have had no further children is to be taken as a sign of unsatisfactory sex: an 18th belief is still wit hus that satisfying sex brings about orgasm and orgasm pregnancy. It’s a myth used in novels by characters to try to prove a woman claiming rape was compliant (in Richardson’s Clarissa, in Kleist’s Marquise of O) Elizabeth’s resurgent love for Ross comes out of her dissatisfaction. We see Warleggan waiting on the side; he has lent Francis money and bound him that way.

Verity
Norma Streader as Verity: her close relationship with Ross slowly built up

3) The story of Verity — lonely, depressed, without feeling alive for herself (one of the many great chapters of Poldark series, all 12, is Chapter 14, when she returns to her room and faces what is her probable destiny: used but useful in her extended family. So ailing, she comes to stay with Ross and Demelza. Demelza fearing scorn holds off, but Verity wins her over by opening up her own tragedy to Demelza. Their shopping trip is to me a delight: like Ross’s trip to the fair in the first book, it enables Graham to present the 18th century world to us, shopping in the provinces, how people made their clothes. And we have a long trope of female friendship, so rare in male novels (hardly seen in most movies).

4) Graham has said that he did not plan another book, Ross Poldark was stand-alone, but I wonder if by the end of the book Graham knew he would continue: these latter two are the sort of thread that demand fulfillment. Demelza begins pro-active, diplomatically to question Ross to find out about this loss of love and hope Verity had known. Why start such a plot if you don’t mean to continue it into another book. Ross is right to worry about Blamey we are to feel too. A genuine gap between them. They will have male versus female reactions to primal experiences in later books. There is also what is going to happen to Jim Carter? Prudie and Jud kicked out of their jobs? will they continue alienated?

On average there was a three-year gap between Graham’s new books (not the rewritings) but Ross Poldark was 1945 and the very next year, 1946 Demelza. Jeremy Poldark appeared 1950; Warleggan 1953.

5) The last episode: Ross and Demelza are invited to Trenwith and almost torn apart by the pressure of the house and its history, the paintings, the sense of an ancient family Ross belongs to which she is outside of, but Demelza has a realistic success. She is helped to assert herself by Verity’s presence, by drink (she’s not perfect) and by her own native abilities against the spiteful Ruth Teague. Her pregnancy is actually a burden. Her first attempt at social class adjustment and we see in these scenes Francis instinctively kind and Elizabeth not deliberately hurting anyone.

One way to write a historical novel set in a given period is imitate the novels written in that period. Graham is imiating Emma where Austen’s Jane Fairfax plays so exquistely high culture music but Harriet says she prefers Emma’s poorer execution because the “performance” was so great. Also the songs easier. Elizabeth’s harp playing and use of Handel does take those who can enter a higher realm into it: that includes Francis (it is sad how their marriage fails). But Demelza’s folk approach is accessible, sexier and is liked by more. Demelza is getting back but before a sour note enters, Ross taps her shoulder lightly.

2ndseason1

As the novel ends Ross and Demelza achieve communion of spirits walking home in the landscape as Verity has walked by his side with him. Far from this ancient imposing house, with its picture, night and the “old peculiar silence” ceases to make a barrier and “becomes a medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long. Time had overawed them. Now it became their friend”

rossdemelzatalking

For next week: Demelza is not a sequel but a continuation. All the novels are continuation, continuing the story. Each one has a peculiar structure and themes of its own but they do not introduce a new set of characters who are dismissed from the action beyond the one novel. In Demelza Graham widens his purview to include the 18th century wold through a Cornish lends: topics will include medicine, law and justice, smuggling, banking.

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

RossgoingoverpapersEpisode2
Aidan Turner as Ross working at his desk

The new mini-series, a few sketchy thoughts on Episodes 1-3:

I find I’m too attached to the novels after all and have a hard time judging this new one rationally. My worst complaint comes from the new dramaturgy: the scenes are far too short; in the modern way these begin at the end of a scene, are epitomizing, and have a momentary shot which suggest what was to happen and then we switch. The film editing feels crude: we move too abruptly from shot to shot.

Watch any 190s or 1980s mini-series: last night I was watching Barchester Chronicles, a mini-series from two novels by Anthony Trollope; what a striking difference from these new Poldarks; BC resembles the old Poldarks and The Oneddin Line. The three (BC, old Poldarks, and Oneddin) are all literate. Characters are presented with coherent thoughts; they talk to one another and express understandable ideas; debate issues. The scripts were hard-worked on and made sense. The writer does not have the time to develop complicated utterances or she fears the audience will not understand more complicated thoughts when not attached to something immediately personal.

Apparently some Poldark fans (on the facebook page) notice that the chronology from episode to episode is confused. PBS dumbs down by substituting bloody thrillers and situation comedies dressed up as costume drama (Doc Martin, Call the Midwife); the BBC carries on costume dramas of good books, with the alternative solution of having characters grunt at one another, and substituting scenic camera work (technology). It’s not the fault of the actors nor even the scriptwriter – though she appears to know little of the 18th century when it comes to underlying manners and attitudes nor director: the long hand of Mrs Thatcher, budget cuts, and despising of education is at the core of all this.

An overt feminism makes all the male characters order the females around peremptorily. That’s not how it worked. Alas the screenplay writer has not begun to read or understand some aspects of the actual male practical life of the era either, nor the 1790s revolutionary period — which the 1970s writers did. She gets wrong how men were paid; they did not get salaries but worked as tributers, entrepreneurs. The new Francis is made more sentimental and less cynical subversive — which is like the book, Francis’s wit (what are you being saved from? for?) which came from the book is gone, but perhaps the feminism of the producer and writer could not bear to show a man so careless of his wife, so easily promiscuous. Elizabeth in the book and in the 1970s movies was ambitious, cool, wanted to be seen, to go to London and shine in court (she never got the chance); they are sentimentalizing her too. Some of the face-book fans are happy that the portrait is more positive without examining why or how.

VerityBlamey
Ruby Bentall as Verity and John Hollingworth as Blamey — good in these roles

The Verity and Blamey story is fairly told and even all the parts, but it needed to be spaced out much more. It’s like a near final draft that needs more interweaving and raison d’etre somehow. I can see that there is a real attempt at time to film scenes from the book that were not filmed before.

I find I miss badly some of the original incarnations: Clive Francis as Francis, Norma Streader as Verity, Frank Middlemas as Charles. We also in this first episode have more romance than money scenes; the gardens are overdone the landscape does not look like Cornwall; the music is inferior to the original episodes and the paratexts not so aptly chosen; they are not original, not thought out. Turner and Tomlinson are good — his is an attempt at a hard unsentimental conception. the Jack Farthing as George Warleggan has the tones of Ralph Bates; Nicholas, the father is gone, but Pip Torrens as the corrupt ruthless uncle, Cary, repeats the tones, notes and kinds of sayings about profit) the old Nicholas uttered. But a number of the actors are weak (especially Kyle Soller in the role of Francis as narrow, spiteful, not bright); Heidi Reed Elizabeth is presented as in love with Ross — nothing about her complicated desires for status, wealth, social life. They don’t know what to do about some of the characters that are not driven by love primarily so have Ross and Demelza sort of be around one another pointedly. They do not have the guts to show characters immoral and careless the way the first series did. Phil David (superb actor) as Jud is thrown away; his gnomic statements of pessimism personalized so lose their meaning. Lots of the working class characters simply in effect dropped. They don’t want comedy or at least not the kind the first series did — it’s melodramatic. To be fair, the original 1970s series often omitted Graham’s best lines, the darker melancholy sceptical ones. It did include the comedy.

EllisasJudge
Ellis delivers a creditable performance as the narrow minded judge

On the other hand, it is also a different form of making movies; movies are made differently and I thought the third episode though also ‘dumbed down” used pictures again and movement beautifully to convey the love affair of Ross and Demelza. They are good actors.

Lovemaking

Instead of actors in a stage being filmed; we have figures in a large screen who are part of the wholistic picture, and much is conveyed through gesture, picture, angle of shot. Still, they don’t use montage cleverly (too much money?) and Horsfield has Aidan Turner charging through the landscape on his horse as if she doesn’t know what to do with the actor — the imitation of Colin Firth half naked in the water by Turner with Demelza as voyeuristic in the grass was embarrassing and broke the suspension of disbelief utterly.

TomlinsonTurnerasDemelzaRoss
Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross

Eleanor Tomlinson’s portrayal reflects our modern mood (she begins in distrust) but it is to my mind closer to the conception Graham had than the previous Demelza — who reflected “sex kitten” moments in the 1960s films (Tom Jones) and was far more 1970s feminist as well as not realistic. It was anachronistic in the extreme for her to tell anyone she did not know who the father of her baby was, much less its real father, Ross. The beaten down, shy, but slowly emerging Demelza in 2015 reflects our own distrusts and sense of darker realities. There are a few scenes (too brief but there) from the book where they shop, he buys her a cloak, she prepares decent food for him, we see them eating and talking together (alas no dialogue).

There is much to like — very very much to be moved by. In the way of modern adaptations the film-makers take a back story and put it as prologue so we have “Ross in America” and then a scene from his parting with Elizabeth, after which here we are in the coach again. I had hoped for the death of Joshua (which opens the book) but not to be. Phil Davis is a great actor, he’s not comic like Paul Curran, but he’s in a way more credible as a presence than Jud. The actor for Jim Carter resembles the earlier actor.

I am warming to Aidan Turner and thought he has some really effective moments. One stays with me. Demelza is leaving, walking off with the dog, as Prudie has told her see what he said, you’ve more trouble than you are worth, and she looks up and there is Turner photographed on the horse against the sky, looking magnificent somehow. Memorable. There’s a different concept for Demelza for Eleanor Tomlinson; she is made more central to Ross’s decision to stay, not a thief, desperate in a more abject way. In the book he never thinks to go;

The politics are the not the progressivism of the 70s but mirror dark and grim British moods of today.

Thus far I am not sure it will become mythic: the first Poldark had something deeply original about it — the music, the different paratexts carefully chosen to capture important moments (closing of Grambler, Smuggling, killing the informer); time will tell whether that these 8 hours have captured a new original spirit equivalent or analogous to the older one. It’s at a disadvantage being second but Andrew Davies in 1995 knocked the 1979 P&P off the map. Maybe they are trying too hard. Since they are communicating pictorially, they need to have more nerve in filming bold sudden moments of magnificence (Ross on his horse coming up to Demelza and taking her back when she runs away). They try for subtle symbolism in the simplified dialogue: when at the close of third episode he tells Elizabeth he is not leaving Cornwall, he says he had lost something, and his way, and now he has found it; that something is symbolized by or is also Demelza on his horse behind him as his wife. His choice of her embodies his values and the way of life he wants to lead.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

winstongrahamgarrick
Winston Graham and Garrick, still a puppy, at Perranporth Beach

A Syllabus

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Ten Monday afternoons, 1 to 2:50 pm, Temple Baptist Church
Dates: Classes start Mar 2nd; last day May 4th.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll read Winston Graham’s first three Poldark novels: Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark. These plus a fourth, Warleggan, were the novels adapted for the first season of televised Poldark (1974-75), and the matter for the coming Poldark mini-series (to be televised in the UK starting March 2015 and on American PBS channels starting in June 2015). They represent the first phase of a 12 novel roman fleuve, a regional romance continuing story, deeply researched and imaginatively realized historical novels moving from the time of the American and then French revolution and reform and politically radical movements in England to just after the end of the Napoleonic era, including the realities of county politics, mining, banking, smuggling (known locally as free trade) and farming in Cornwall. Written 1945-52, the first four mirror issues of the post World-War II world, are proto-feminist, with a deeply appealing group of characters from all classes in a realistic and romantic suspenseful stories. We will read four short essays on historical culture, Cornwall, and sex and politics in the novels, and see two episodes of the 1975-77 mini-series. It is suggested that students read one of Graham’s mysteries before the class begins. I choose The Forgotten Story [alternative title: The Wreck of the Grey Cat] since it is also set in Cornwall (1898), was written around the time of Ross Poldark, and filmed as a BBC mini-series (1983). Graham won many awards (he’s OBE) and praise from the literary establishment for his mysteries, several of which were filmed by Hitchcock (e.g., Marnie); many of his novels were US Book-of-the-Month Club selections.

Required Texts. Students are asked to bring a copy of the novel and/or essays we are discussing for the week to class. An online copy, a pdf and 2 Xeroxes of the (short) essays are provided; any edition of the books will do.

Graham, Winston. Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-87. Illinois: Sourcebook, 2009.
—————. Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-90. Illinois: Sourcebook, 2010.
—————. Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-91. London Panmacmillan, 2008
Moody, Nickianne. “Poldark Country and National Culture,” from Cornwall: The Cultural construction of a Place (a xerox will be provided);
Moody, Ellen. “‘I have the right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in the Poldark Novels,” on-line my website.
Taddeo, Julie. “Rape in the Poldark Narrative,” from Upstairs and Downstairs (a xerox will be provided).
Moseley, Rachel. “‘It’s a Wild Country. Wild … Passionate … Strange': Poldark and the Place-Image of Cornwall,” From Visual Culture in Britain (a xerox will be provided).

PoldarkCountry
Click on map to make larger: the imagined map of Poldark country is placed on top of the real Cornwall

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 2nd: Introduction: Winston Graham, life, career, as a mystery writer, e.g., The Forgotten Story
March 9th: Historical Novels; Ross Poldark: pp 1-115 or Prologue, and Book 1, Chs 1-10
March 16th: Ross Poldark, pp. 116-225 or Book 1, Chs 11-18, and Book 2, Chs 1-7
March 23rd: Ross Poldark, pp 226-314, Book 2, Chs 8, Book 3, Chs 1-11
March 30th: Demelza, Book 1, Chs 1-15; Nickianne Moody’s essay
April 6th: Demelza, Book 2, Chs 1-14; Ellen Moody’s essay
April 13th: Demelza, Book 3, Chs 1-11; an episode from the mini-series.
April 20th: Demelza, Book 4, Chs 1-11; Rachel Moseley’s essay
April 27th: Jeremy Poldark; Book 1, Chs 1-14
May 4th: Jeremy Poldark; Book 2, Chs 1-14; Julie Taddeo’s essay
May 11th: The climax & backstory in Warleggan; another episode from the 1970s mini-series

Suggested reading and Viewing

Graham, Winston. The Forgotten Story. Oxford: Bodley Head, 1964.
—————. Poldark’s Cornwall. Oxford: Bodley Head, 1983.
—————. Warleggan: A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-93. London: Panmacmillan, 2008.
—————. Memoirs of a Private Man. London: Panmacmillan, 2003
Poldark. Two 29 part mini-series, 1975-76, 1977-78. Various directors and writers, produced by Morris Barry and others. Featuring Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees, Jill Townsend, Ralph Bates, Paul Curran, Norma Steader, Richard Morahan

Further on-line materials:

Authorized updated website on Graham, his life, novels, films.
The Poldark novels, and other fiction, non-fiction and films.
Winston Graham: lists of books, essays and other websites.

GodolphinHouseTrenwith
Godolphin House, Cornwall (used as Trenwith, the Poldark family home in 1975-76 BBC Poldark mini-series)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

RobinEllis1975
Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark (1977)

AidanTurner2015
Aiden Turner as Ross Poldark (2015)

Dear friends and readers,

With the re-airing of the 1975-78 Poldark mini-series, the imminent airing of a new one in March on British TV and in June on PBS, and my own coming course on the Poldark novels I’ve begun rereading Graham’s life-writing, travel books and mysteries. That Graham wrote powerful mystery-thrillers often turned into film noir or Hitchcock type movies shows a vein of emotion that also feeds into the Poldark series.

So, first up among the latter, his Forgotten Story, also set in Cornwall (1898), written just before Ross Poldark, so a historical regional novel as well as mystery.

AngharadRees
Angharad Rees played the role of the heroine of The Forgotten Story (1983, the mini-series apparently wiped out)

I’ve given a thorough account of its relationship to the Poldark novels, Graham’s own repeated treatment of marital rape, and historical fiction; what I did not look into was its relationship to mystery-thrillers as a genre. This probably because until recently I never made any particular effort to view this sub-genre; that changed with watching Prime Suspect, and the recent spate of this genre as matter for film adaptations on PBS as well as my study of the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley (itself a post-text romance as well as mystery, but that belongs on my Austen Reveries blog).

Since I know few people will click onto my previous blog on The Forgotten Story and read it, no matter how many clicks I offer, allow me briefly to discuss The Forgotten Story once again. I hope yet another edition will follow from the success of the coming new Poldark mini-series.

What I’m most impressed by is the opening and closing meditation about the records he used about the actual incident underlying this fiction distort and marginalize and make uncertain precisely what happened — not just deliberately (though that’s part of this) but because not enough real concern is felt for literal truth. The epilogue to another historical novel not Poldarkian, and also set in Cornwall, The Grove of Eagles, shows an unusual display of exasperation at his public: he was attacked for not sticking to literal truth. In fact the attack was a stalking horse for attacking his attack on hierarchy and respect for privilege and rank. As he says at its opening and closing what drew his to the events he chose partly to fictionalize (as above) and dramatize accurately enough with a point of view is that we can’t tell precisely what was the truth. The Poldark novels return to meditations about the nature of historical fiction now and again, though they never become post-modern self-reflexively — another reason he was not “lifted” to the sphere of consideration for prizes like the Booker.

The Forgotten Story is at heart a dark one, the story of a woman who has been murdering her relatives for a long time, gradually poisoning them, a woman it emerges with a twisted psychology of personal anger, spite, revulsion against others who were put off by her ugliness. Graham delves the psychological complexity of all his characters — their pathologies as well as peculiar configurations of socially derived behaviors; he is a proto-feminist in the way he presents his heroine, Patricia Veal, as unable to get a good job and finally returning to live with the (good enough) hero, Tom Harris, because she needs him and taking with her, her cousin, Anthony, the boy at the center of the fiction (though whose consciousness we see most of the action — creating suspense); more controversially, our hero rapes our heroine — it’s slid over and (as in Warleggan) we are led to interpret this rape (if we chose) as one where she gave in and was ever after somehow connected to this man (more than from the sex she had had with him before). We are led on in a kind of terror for her as her world collapses after the death of her father, and then in fear lest she or Anthony slowly die too.

It’s about a certain kind of business too — shipping in the later 1890s, carefully recreated, tavern life in Cornwall and how it functions, but more than that the seascape of Cornwall, its lands and towns — it’s about shipwreck and the dangers of the coast, clearly mirroring Graham’s experience as a coast guard during World War Two. The feel of modernity and the liberal point of view is so unfamiliar to us now we can miss it’s an Edwardian story, Edwardian society, a different group than is usually shown us. I recommend it — melancholy and dark yet with hope because there are a few good enough people (in just the way of his Poldark novels).

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

4560953-high-the-escape-artist
David Tennant as The Escape Artist (much touted, over-rated on PBS this past spring) — see Bloody Murders and Country Houses

Well, the power of Graham’s mystery-thriller and that of some few others I’ve read over the years (Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men left me anxious and tense each time I’d pick it up, and I remember it still), as well as the mystery-detective fiction LeCarre transformed into a serious political genre made me again wonder if this genre had any serious merit. I’d read a fine biography of Dashiell Hammet this summer (by Diana Johnson) as well as his screenplay for Lilian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. My wondering comes from the reality that most of the time I’ve tried to read a detective fiction, I’ve found it boring, myself unable to process the next step in prose, not caring about what happened before the book opened, or offstage. From reading P.D. James’s The Maul and the Pear Tree and this summer Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, I gathered the “fun” I was supposed to be having was to outwit the author and discover the secrets he or she was leaving clues about. The formulaic nature of its competitive puzzle is beyond me as most of the time I can’t get myself to do crossword puzzles nor care which team wins in a game match.

I threw the topic out for discussion on my listservs and tonight Yvette and I discussed some of our favorite Dorothy Sayers’s novels — for these we both love, e.g., Unnatural Death, Strong Poison, Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night. She has recently been rereading Sayers.

On my Women Writers through the Ages listserv @Yahoo, Fran linked in a stimulating essay defending detective and mystery fiction by Raymond Chandler, on Trollope19thCStudies @Yahoo, Tyler suggested the puzzle was the central attraction: the unravelling of the secret plots going on off-stage. Trollope is astute in his mockery of the Wilkie Collins school of detective fiction (The Moonstone with its Sergeant Cuff is sometimes said to be the first detective fiction in English)

The author seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone” (An Autobiography, 1980 Oxford Paperback, p 257).

and Trollope can’t be bothered to see this sort of thing as tremendously significant; doubtless Trollope would laugh at the literal kinds of minute anachronisms found by some readers and viewers, hurled at historical fiction/films to attack them as absurd. Well, this explanation is always there, and often at length at the end of the fiction/film.

I then read P.D. James on why she thought the invented story of Cordelia Gray (not her own) on PBS was so poor: “Cordelia never sees the body; the body murder scene must be detailed centrally, crucial to all detective crime stories is this key scene and it’s best that the detective examine it. That makes the story serious. it’s best that the detective examine the corpse. That makes the story serious.” And Julian Symonds in his excellent concise Bloody Murder on the centrality of crime to the best and recent books in the genre; he says there is sensationalist literature, and some subsets of these feature detection, crime and bloody murder; these he (and Chandler) say are superior to the “Golden Age of Fiction” by women writers (gentlewomen, disdainfully called). (The same kinds of dismissals of women writers of the 1930s in general in comparison to male writers is accounted for by Alison Light as anti-feminism in her Forever England.)

**********************
bletchley-circle
Sophie Rundle as Lucy making herself the bait for the murderer (“Cracking the Killer Code,” Bletchley Circle, season 1)

First the usual defense is that of Chandler who has an enormous chip on his shoulder) and James (in her Talking of Detective Fiction): that there is no difference between sheer entertainment and great art, and one genre no better than another. Then they drop that as it’s obviously not so as the formulaic and thin nature of so much detective fiction, the reality that so much detective or mystery fiction is poor, yet sells widely. No need to drag in the greatness of tragedy as a genre, of dark comedy, film noir and a host of other genres where when it’s well done, its superb. And the sad truth that these mystery-thrillers are preferred to serious realistic fiction by writers like George Eliot to Anthony Powell and William Styron. Their tenacious popularity may be seen on the US PBS channels: now that they’ve lost Mobil (their big funder for decades) they are going all mystery-thriller because they think that this brings in more eyeballs and thus more advertisers — for that’s what their sponsors are.

Then there are two schools of thought. The first argues that at the core of detective and mystery fiction is this explanation, this puzzle, these minute secrets and deductions to be solved. Chandler makes fun of it, but it is always there, however attenuated or done skillfully. In James’s Death comes to Pemberley it’s done at length and boringly at the end of the book — boring to me. Gosford Park cannot avoid it. Winston Graham has his explanations skillfully woven in, but in the end clarification is needed. It seems to me the tendency of those who talk about the puzzle as central is to downgrade the form.

Gosford Park_stephen fry
Stephen Fry as the detective who does not want to find the murderer so plays incompetent (Altman’s parodic Gosford Park)

The second argues the core is the bloody murder at the center; for Symons the mood is sensationalist and a crime central; Chandler is muddled and has both murder and detection at the center, but the best books rise about the puzzle for something more important, a story of say who has state power. For P.D. James that (to quote myself in my summary of A Time to Be Earnest): there must be an absolute convincing delineation of the body, the death, and how this event occurred and how it has affected all the events and people closely and not so closely concerned with the dead person. In Death Comes to Pemberley the return to the crime scene in the film is obsessive; in the book Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, the magistrate watches Dr McFee thoroughly examine how death occurred and listens to all he says and we really get a sense of the mood the man must’ve had just as he died, of the body as containing this previous person frozen. It made me remember gazing on my father’s dead face and seeing the grim endurance he was meeting death with; Jim, my beloved was trembling all over as it occurred. Death in fact is a defining final experience. Its etched on the corpse. In Bernard Benstock’s essay on James in Twentieth Century Novelist he goes on about her clinical approach to death. While the people writing on LeCarre always talk of his political fables and how we see ruined lives, they don’t neglect the deaths. Symons calls his book, Bloody Murder.

Dennysbloodycorpse
Denny’s blood skull (Death comes to Pemberley)

I found The Forgotten Story to be serious because its center was death taken very seriously; it sickened the accomplice and he killed himself fleeing from having to do more murders; Susan Hill’s Various Haunts of Men is about a murderer who stalks victims (women); The Bletchley Circle grabs me because its crimes are those characteristically aimed at women, what is done to them before and during death (rape and humiliating physical torture). I’ll give this to Death Comes to Pemberley James also makes the point the death of Denny is senseless, meaningless, ironic. Cancer stories can’t become real until they begin to admit how unpatterned, senseless and meaningless is the disease’s (we feel) malevolence.

Death counts, it matters a lot, shapes our lives utterly each time one happens close to us, obviously to the person dying, and this brings detective, mystery books right into the tragic vein of art … Not Lear but it can partake.

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

PetherbridgeVane
Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (Sayers’s Strong Poison)

A few last tentative thoughts: Now maybe one of the reasons I’ve not liked mysteries and thrillers and detective stories is I don’t like violence; I usually stay away from films that are violent — Breaking Bad was an exception, but as I think about it each death was presented individually and taken seriously. Still the citing of this brilliant mini-series and Yvette and my talk this evening makes me unsatisfied with this as a full explanation for the core of the genre when serious. What we found we liked in Sayers was the intriguing psychological analysis and examination of people’s social identities as what is the deep explanation for the murder. In another blog I’ll try to deal with Marion Frank’s essay on “The Transformation of a Genre: the Feminist Mystery Genre” (in Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon, ed. Susan Fendler). Are these stories not parables about the relationship of power and justice? Sayers read against the grain exposes her society.

Again and again people have said they read mysteries and detective stories because they are a comforting escape. I was thinking that this comfort came from what I took to be the usual ending of such stories until recently: the detective discovered who did it, tidied up the world, restored order, and delved out justice. Is it inherently a deeply conservative genre; can a genre be inherently part of a political vision. Gothic has been shown to be radical and questioning and at the same time absolutely upholding traditional and establishment values. The Policeman is the Hero in Foyle’s War. Now I’m not sure real justice was meted out most of the time (especially when the murderer was lower class, of a non-white ethnicity and had good reason for having gone mad), and have decided the use of these terms is unthinking, a kind of hum-and-buzz cant the person uses without examination. In a sense all art is a form of escape, its ordering gives us a sense of meaning and comfort, aesthetic satisfaction. The very real connection of mystery-thrillers with the gothic and in film, film noir, shows its coterminus lien on a genre anything but comforting. That Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) could really have murdered Mr Green and his first wife, and Anna, his loving wife (Joanne Froggart) can believe this and still love him devotedly makes them far more interesting than they would otherwise be …

Dreamingofafuturetocome
Dreaming of a future to come, he tells her he will keep her safe (Downton Abbey 5:5)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Cover
Phineas at Bay by John Wirenius, cover design Judith Cummins, after Delfico, “The Hereditary Grand Falconer,” Vanity Fair (1873)

Dear friends and readers, especially Trollopian ones,

Over the month of December and early January, a few of us on Trollope19thCStudies, read and discussed John Wirenius’s Phineas at Bay, following an installment pattern he devised, with him participating and even his editor on board (so to speak). This (to use the modern capacious term) is a post-text represents an important milestone in the Trollope imaginary.

First it is easily arguably the first full completely realized true sequel to Trollope’s books. Accurately defined, a sequel is a novel which continues the story of a group of characters in a book or books after that book or those books have ended: Phineas at Bay does more than fulfill that desire many fans have to experience more of the characters in a favorite or last book by s favorite novelist: Wirenius takes up the storylines and characters of the six Parliamentary or Palliser novels a number of years after The Duke’s Children has concluded (the version we have been reading is now generally known to have been cut by Trollope himself). Phineas at Bay re-configures the original emphases to make a middle-aged Phineas and Marie Finn an idealized hero and heroine, re-imagines and rehabilitates some damned Palliser characters (the Rev. Emilius and Lizzie Eustace), realigns other characters (makes different parallels and contrasts), and adds in characters from other of the author’s novels, in this case those whose emphasis is on “the upper ten thousand,” like The Way We Live Now, Orley Farm (e.g., Mary, Lady Mason), the Barsetshire series (Mr Toogood). That’s common in these collaborative creations (see Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers). In authors who have cult followings and where numerous film adaptations have been made, these remembered experiences become part of the imaginary. Wirenius also evokes specific actors and actresses’s portrayals of Trollope’s characters (Donal McCann, Barbara Murray, Anthony Ainsley, Sarah Badel, Donald Pickering, Moray Watson, Marvin Jarvis [Frank Greystock]) as they appeared in Simon Raven’s 1974-75 Pallisers, their costumes, settings and environments.

It’s more than a specific region of Trollope country (upper class, lots of lawyers). It represents a readership or perspective on that specific region. Phineas at Bay is a highly intertextual literary book, allusive, bookish (I see nothing wrong with that) whose references are just about wholly to books favored by males, mid-20th century to late Edwardian. A central text is R. f. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, as embodied and shaped by Andrew Davies’s 1980-81 16 part mini-series which rehearses an archetypal nostalgic schoolboy to teacher story. One of the most (for me) appealing characters in Phineas at Bay is named Ifor Powlett-Jones, clearly after David Powlett-Jones as memorably portrayed by John Duttine:

youngman

Ifor is a miner in Wales who risks his life to save the lives of fellow miners who have been abusively mistreated by the mine-owner, a ruthless obtuse, sadistic and spiteful industrialist, McScuttle (the book’s one full villain) who accuses the young man of destroying private property and by influence manages to have him thrown in jail for a number of years. We have powerful scenes of a life in prison in this period before Powlett-Jones is rescued (naturally) by Phineas Finn who, with Marie, adopts, has educated by Mr Low (now retired) and makes a sort of nephew-son of the boy, providing him with a career he could not have dreamed of.

Other similar authors, texts alluded to and used significantly are Beerbohm, Mortimer (Rumpole of Bailey), Walter Scott, Tennyson, Wodehouse (a lot), Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Winston Graham’s Poldark series, Thackeray, Dumas’s Three Musketeers, M. R. James (the ghost story writer). Individual lines are plucked from Hugo’s Les Miserables. The inter-related imaginary carved out here is the one Mark Turner (Trollope and the Magazines) first described as central to understanding how Trollope assumed his readership would react. We follow the trajectory — coming of age — of several newly invented young adult male characters, the next generation of the Palliser and Chiltern sons, e.g., Savrola Vavasour, son of George (remember the escapee from Can You Forgive Her?) who met and married Mrs Winifred Hurtle while in the US. Savrola courts Clarissa Finn, despite her Richardsonian name, a fugitive from an innocent girl’s 19th century novel, protected by a series of benevolent parent figures — rather like Lady Rose McClaren in Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is in evidence too with a butler who acts paternal roles towards Clarissa and anticipates Marie, his mistress’s every need, including sleuthing.

MillaisMacleodofDare
Millais’s beautiful illustrations fit this book

The providential pattern of the book could be put down to its being (in effect) a historical novel whose main (but only main) franchise is Trollope except that another skein of allusion shows the deep structure is a creation of its contemporary author. Wirenius said that when he began the book he had the uplifting (if ironically so) final lines of the book in mind. He wanted to get there. Religious music (song exquisitely by Marie), allusions to church fathers, liturgy, the use of Christmas make it not a book more Victorian than our sceptical and secular (and darker) Trollope, but one intended to speak today in the way praised by John Gardiner (once a best-selling novelist who wrote a post-text himself, to Beowulf, Grendel) in his On Moral Fiction. Its politics are benevolent, left-liberal, and some of the best long-running stories of the book are effective dramatic analyses of politicking within parties, between rivals and enemies and friends, scenes in courts (at least two trials) and parliament, at elections, pressure dealing, very Trollopian some of these (including a politicized sermon). Hunting scenes, dinners, parties, weddings figure too. Good people finally mostly win out and we are invited to celebrate the figures within a pleasing faery aesthetic pattern (or carpet as Henry James would put it).

There’s a lot of kindness in the book, to Lady Laura Kennedy and the Duke of Omnium (Plantagenet Palliser that was), happy at last, fittingly. Phineas works hard in this book, is as acute and successfully manipulative as Hercule Poirot, and for the public good, and is rewarded at the book’s close, with Marie resembling the film idealization of Barbara Murray, a European type also memorably embodied by Stephane Audran as Lord Marchmain’s Cara (Brideshead Revisited anyone?), except she is also a nurturing mother (to Clarissa), businesswoman par excellence (off-stage), supportive saloniere, endlessly there for her man and compliant. The problems with this as feminism are transparent — beyond the truth that women behind the scenes working for men enable the male hegemonic order.

LizzieEmilius
Sarah Badel and Anthony Ainsley as Lizzie and Emilius playing with one another

There is at the same time a real tolerance for amoral worldly-vicious types of people, the distruptive, the mean, and those complicit with, obedient to those who do evil, as Barrington Erle (who experience an ultimate ironic hard fall). She seduces, harasses, attempting to ruin (by insisting on an engagement) and takes to court another of the novel’s young adult heroes, the new young Lord Chiltern, John Standish (as hot-tempered and self-destructive as his father once was). Lizzie is willing to marry to spite Chiltern and as a way of triumphing over a society that has despised her. She is allowed to exit the court scot-free. She is not a modern rendition of the Victorian Becky Sharp, but agreat-great-grand-daughter of Eliza Haywood’s 18th century school of fiction, which include versions of slash fiction (sex writhings on the floor, mutual masturbation, no need to particularize further); all the more does Lizzie attract and resume her old relationship with still corrupt (now Mormon) Rev. Emilius who (we recall) in Raven enjoyed hurting women. John Wirenius cited Nietzsche in attempting to say what Emilius stood for. Rather his and Lizzie’s sordid doings (some monetary) are not post-modern nor at all nihilistic because the book and its main characters recognize them as reprehensible. They are framed more like Fielding’s Blifil in Tom Jones, their punishment is to go on being what they are. John Wirenius cited Stephano and Trinculo of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Emilius and especially Lady Eustace are in this fiction not minor easily swatted-away pests on the world’s continuum of vileness. It is interesting to consider for what different reasons Trollope loathed his Emilius and castigated his Lady Eustace; this pair resemble Trollope’s Melmoth, only they are not really admired by anyone we see in the book and are at the same time made less desperate.

There is a lot of fun in the book for the Trollopian too. Quotations. Recurring recreated characters. Lawrence Fitzgibbon remains Phineas’s friend. Quintus Slide has acquired a secretary, as snide as he. The Duke of Omnium has a set of books which include a Trollope (rather like in Raven’s Pallisers when Bryan Pringle as Mr Monk begins to read aloud The American Senator to Phineas while in jail and stops himself rather than read this old-hat interminable author). For the person who reads Galsworthy (another masculinist book of upper class life alluded to) and who knows the 1967 Forsyte Saga well, there are quiet allusions linking Trollope’s characters to Galsworthy’s via particular actors you will enjoy more if you recognize the carry-over.

74pallisers612frank19
Marvin Jarvis is Frank Greystock in Raven’s mini-series, Irene’s darling son in the 1967 Forsyte Saga, and alluded to in Phineas at Bay as part of his role as the leader of the Tory opposition to Phineas

My one personal complaint was there is no woman in the book for me to identify with, no one to bond with, but I have to admit that until recently this often happened to me in Trollope’s fictions. I did bond this year for the first time with Trollope’s Madame Max in Phineas Finn because the emphasis was clearly on the price in loneliness and hollow relationships, veneers she had to keep up in order to live the proud existence she craved, but most of the time except for Alice Vavasour (as conceived in Trollope’s book), and various marginalized women in Trollope’s fiction, or the occasional figure in the short stories (Miss Emily Forrest in “Journey to Panama” comes to mind), without some “downstairs” contingent there is no one there for me. A Miss Garnett, a typist clerk who somehow improbably is welcomed into the Chiltern family, several years older than young Chiltern, as a sobering wife-influence, all complacency just doesn’t hack it. Give me Miss Sarah Bunting any day.

This photograph is (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd and can only be reproduced for editorial purposes directly in connection with Downton Abbey, Carnival Film & Television Ltd or ITV plc. Once made available by ITV plc Picture Desk, this photograph can
Daisy Lewis as Miss Bunting refusing to be coopted

Phineas at Bay is a strongly realized, highly intelligent book with many believable characters, some bite and beauty in its use of allusions and reality-feel in its depictions of places (including mines). It’s very readable and erudite too. I found I needed annotation because several law decisions of specific cases are central to the outcome of the trials and other scenes in the book. John Wirenius’s “Behind the Curtain” (a sort of coda) cites a slew of insightful rich histories of the later 19th into the 20th century. Its political and economic parables are relevant (McScuttle attempts to own the prime minister), and we see the birth of a small labor party. Clearly it is world just begun, meant to be continued and invites others to do likewise.

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

CoburnFrontispieceforPortrait
Coburn’s frontispiece for Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady

The most interesting question for me that this book raises is, What does and will this book tell us about Trollope’s mainstream readership? what they value in Trollope? One reason there has not been a true sequel before is there is so much Trollope and really so varied. He wrote 47 novels, 42 short stories, 5 travel books, his autobiography, essays, criticism. Among these he has written his own sequels in his Barsetshire and Palliser books, Ayala’s Angel is a kind of sequel to The American Senator, he planned to (he said) to write an Australian set of books out of Lady Anna; his Anglo-Irish books carve out a Trollope terrain or another country in western and across Ireland. When I taught a course wholly devoted to Trollope for the first time this past fall, I found I had surprised those in the class who thought they knew Trollope and had read numerous of his books before. This book would’ve fulfilled their expectations much better than my syllabus. Trollope as a European novelist (Nina Balatka), his dark tragic vein, his dwelling centrally on outcast figures, the subversiveness of his short stories, is another Trollope terrain within the country they had been led to half-expect. I regretted not being able to screen for them Henry Herbert’s Malachi’s Cove (from Trollope’s great short story, where Donald Pleasence who played Mr Harding in Barchester Chronicles enacts Malachi).

BC0MrHardingEleanor
As Barchester Towers focuses on a father-daughter relationship (Janet Maw is Eleanor Bold) so does “Malachi’s Cove” (story and film)

First formulations matter. The one book by Jane Austen which soars in readership above all others is her Pride and Prejudice, something like 90% of the sequels have been out of Pride and Prejudice and after that Emma. In 1940 the MGM screwball Pride and Prejudice directed by Robert Leonard, scripted by Jane Murfin and Aldous Huxley (featuring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier) and again in 1979 the BBC Pride and Prejudice directed by Cyril Coke, scripted by Fay Weldon (featuring David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie set the terms of the two types of Austen films made in theaters (simpering unserious comedy) and for TV (familial Oedipal melodrama) for decades thereafter. The famous 1995 Andrew Davies’s Pride and Prejudice (featuring Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle) is a close repeat of the 1979 movie; Amy Heckerling’s Clueless does a screwball on Jane Austen’s Emma. These aural-visualizations bring out into the open discussable socially recognized ways of reading, understanding, framing their eponymous books and its long-dead author.

Among the earliest of Trollope’s books filmed by the BBC was a The Warden in 1951 (totally wiped out). After that The Eustace Diamonds, Last Chronicle of Barset and The Small House at Allington. The Way We Live Now a first version by Raven followed in 1969; so Trollope was Barsetshire-Palliser with The Way We Live Now vying as a signature book 50 years ago. All wiped out and (thus forgotten). The film performing the work of the first two P&Ps is Raven’s 1974 mini-series, somewhat reinforced by Alan Plater’s complacent comic pastoral 1983 Barchester Chronicles, and these together assumed milieu-world-norms that other Trollope film adaptations have had to align themselves with or overcome. Unfortunately Henry Herbert’s 1976 Malachi’s Cove has left hardly a trace in Trollopian public memory, though Andrew Davies’s 2001 The Way We Live Now has made some inroads, his daring 2004 He Knew He Was Right with its strong feminism and weak men out of Trollope has not found favor.

Wirenius’s Phineas at Bay is an analogous first step to Raven’s mini-series in the textual arena. We have a reconstituted world of Trollopian fiction. How will it affect Trollope’s novels as understood by a wider readership? Reinforcement? Raven was a pessimistic atheist, strong cynic, sceptical; Wirenius turns back to Trollope and softens what is there. Modern film adaptations often make what is back-story of a 19th century book and make it front present story. Wirenius chose instead to make a new group of young mostly male upwardly mobile winning-out protagonists. There is said to be a new graphic novel in the works of Trollope’s John Caldigate, a post-text called Dispossession which takes the low-life desperate working class characters and the unchaste Mrs Smith and makes them the central characters of the story.

6.jpg

If the above news is not a hoax, what kinds of interactions will be negotiated between different perspectives? If a woman should write a post-text, which story and characters in Trollope would she appropriate? What books would be alluded to, what 19th to mid-20th century intertextualities? Will anyone develop out the Anglo-Irish fiction so different from the Palliser world? and reverse front stories to become back-stories, and of course bring out the implied sexualities. What will future Trollope fan fiction be like? Will it help to extend Trollope’s readership beyond the usual 15 books read? Or not.

ElizabethShippenGreen
Illustration by Elizabeth Shippen Green — a late 19th century American illustrator

We wrote many postings on Trollope19thCStudies during the reading of this book and I couldn’t in the space of a blog include the details of many of all, nor John Wirenius’s various explanations; those who might like to read them after the book have only to join the Yahoo listserv to read them; that is, if Yahoo does not shut the groups down or make the archives inaccessible by debasing the software yet some more.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

The Movie

The old picture plays
Lights across the screen.
Overhead the beam
From the thoughtful booth
Flickers in a kind
Of code that only
The screen can read out.

Lights like memories
Flicker on the screen
of your deep gazing.
My eyes and my hand
are like some part of
The Surrounding dark.

— John Hollander.

RoughTor
Rough Tor, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Hugging
Closing scene of Poldark, 1st series, Episode 1 (Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza Poldark walking off on the beach together after a riot at and the burning down of Trenwith, the Poldark home)

Dear friends and readers,

We should be returning to this series of novels and film adaptations this coming spring because I sent in a proposal for this coming spring 2015 to OLLI at American University and it seems to have been liked, and is now accepted; I was hoping that the new film adaptation of the books would be aired this spring, and have now discovered it will be on BBC starting in March 3, 2015, with the older 1970s series replayed on WETA UK starting on January 17, 2015, each Saturday night at 10 pm, with a rerun on Sundays.

In this course we’ll read Winston Graham’s first three Poldark novels: Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark. These plus a fourth, Warleggan, were the novels adapted for the first season of televised Poldark (1974-75), and the matter for the coming Poldark mini-series (to be aired in 2015). They represent the first phase of a 12 novel roman fleuve, a regional romance continuing story, deeply researched and imaginatively realized historical novels moving from the time of the French revolution and reform and politically radical movements in England to the end of the Napoleonic era, including the realities of county politics, mining, banking, smuggling (known locally as free trade) and farming in Cornwall. Written 1945-52, the first four mirror issues of the post World-War II world, are proto-feminist, with a deeply appealing group of characters from all classes in suspenseful plot-designs. We will also study the older film adaptation against these novels, and if possible, discuss the new one. It is suggested that students read a novella mystery, Winston Graham’s The Forgotten Story, before the class begins. Graham won awards and praise from the literary establishment for his mysteries, several of which were filmed by Hitchcock (e.g., Marnie); many of his novels were US Book-of-the-Month Club selections. The Forgotten Story was written in tandem with Ross Poldark and became a BBC mini-series in 1984.

The first seven novels of the 12 have never fallen out of print since each was first published (beginning 1945), and there will be a republication (or reprinting) of the most recent editions of first four once again, with the new actors on the covers. For individual discussions of all 12, go to my website (linked in above), or the category, Poldark, Ellen and Jim have a blog, two; or this handy list bringing all Graham’s writing together and discussing it briefly. I would do all four, but this is considered too much reading in 10 weeks. Heigh ho. If the course is liked, I could go on to “do” novels 4, 5 and 6 in another semester (Warleggan, The Black Moon, The Four Swans), with Black Moon and Four Swans mirroring the conflicts of the 1960s-70s era (e.g., the story of continued marital rape would not have been written in the 1940s, early 50s), or skip Warleggan or ask the students to read the book before the course starts (the trouble is it’s too long) because I would prefer to do the second set of novels, 1970s (Black Moon, Four Swans, and The Angry Tide) as the trilogy it is.

VerityBlameyDancing
Norma Steader and Jonathan Newth as Verity Poldark and Captain Blamey dancing at an assembly ball (Poldark, 1st series, Episode 3)

Whether the 8 part British new version starting in March will come to the US is hard to tell. I think they will try because of the success last time. There are many signs in this new series of greater literal adherence to the storyline of the books (called “faithfulness) so there should be an accompanying historical accuracy.

I hope the series succeeds for they could go on to film the next three books for next year and then they’d have the last 5 for a third (which includes a novel as powerful as the best of the first 7), The Twisted Sword, partly set on the battlefield of Waterloo).

I now know of a person who wants to do a biography of Graham, who put on the net a Winston Graham reader, and he has told me who is the obstacle and what to further work; and can report there have been two academic style essays published on the Poldark novels, one on humor and the other on rape: “‘Why don’t you take her?’ Rape in the Poldark narrative” by Julie Taddeo. And I did the politics in a conference: “‘I have the right to choose my own life!': Liberty in the Poldark Novels.”

PoldarkEllisSeason2
I’m partial to this promotional black-and-white photograph of Robin Ellis as the revenant renegade Ross Poldark (used for advertisement of the 2nd season or series)

In the great houses in the Poldark novels what is shown is they are center of political power — something usually left out nowdays. It's found everywhere in Trollope. In Trollope and Graham the purpose of the great house, and all your experiences in it are shaped by its political function, who’s there and the political reason you have been invited, and the film adaptation keeps to this:

House
One of the great houses of the fifth, sixth and seventh books (written in the 1970s). The above a country house (which emerges as political linchpin in Season 2)

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

On loving the books all over again.

Demelzafishing
Demelza, albeit pregnant, providing for the family as best she can by fishing (while Ross is allowing smuggling to go further over near the cove and cliff (Season 1)

As I prepare for the course, the tone, the attitude of mind, the characters, the explicit and implied axioms underlying Ross Poldark have made me feel better and revived good memories. I enjoy the attitudes of mind in Ross, bond with Demelza, Francis and Verity Poldark. I can understand Elizabeth. I enjoy this kind of depiction of the 18th century: it’ll allow me to talk of the 18th century “from below” (smuggling), of reform and radical politics. Of sexuality as seen in this novel. Of landscape. How historical fiction is powerful when written well. Of how it reflects post WW2 England and its worlds — one of the reasons it was so popular in the US too. I am enjoying even more Demelza with its depiction of the 18th century working and agricultural classes and early capitalism and the provincial theater and dancing.

Central to the charm of Ross and Demelza Poldark’s relationship in the first two novels for me is they walk away from the world to one another (for me an emblem of Jim and I); indeed the first season ended on them walking on the beach together after the community has been ravaged by riot, violence due to injustice.

Beyond Demelza, I’m also very found of Graham’s Elizabeth and Verity and for the brief time I was on the Graham fan website I chose the pseudonym Elizabeth Chynoweth — I felt for her, she made bad mistakes in her choices of husband, but she preferred her children to men, and I felt for her.

ElizabethValentinesMother
This was my chosen gravatar: Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) upon realizing what has been happening to Morwenna in marriage

Verity for her plainness, direct honesty, kindliness, lack of concern, her dignity, when at first she feels she must give Blamey up her dignity, her resolution, her turning to her room and enduring it; how she can dismiss hierarchy when human value can trump this. I haven’t read the last 5 novels enough to be able to name a heroine I have bonded with in the same way, but while not identifying closely (as she is kept at a distance), the most compelling single figure of the second season for me is Morwenna Chynoweth (Jane Wymark), coerced into marriage (and in effect raped nightly by her husband), shattered by such experiences.

MorwennaPat2Episode4Season2
Here she is on the beach with Drake (a young Kevin McNally) who rescues her at last

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 216 other followers