Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘general’ Category


Hellman photographed next to her probably beloved typewriter


Jane Fonda in similar posture, as Julia (in the movie of the same name) typing her plays — calling to Hammett — an enjoyable moving film

Friends and readers,

It was in December 2013 that I wrote a blog here on Hellman’s four part memoir: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento (with Julia), Scoundrel Time and Maybe. My husband Jim had died two months earlier, and somehow I found this brave, stalwart, candid self-portrait of a genuinely strong woman, and its plain style strength of mind, integrity of behavior, with portraits of non-conformists (misfits, so-called), her own identification with these, was an appealing consolation. I was so foolish as to find in her portrait of Dashiell Hammett, my Jim, and in their life-long relationship a mirror of mine with Jim.

At the time I vowed to read the plays. Easier said than done. My inexpensive edition (1979 last reprint) has no notes, no annotations, and I found the psychological complexity of the characters and quite what they were doing on stage did not come across: I needed a narrator. I bought the biography by Alice Kessler-Harris, but tired of it as I have again as it is shaped by knee-jerk anti-communism when it comes to dealing with Lillian’s politics and political activity: K-H is perpetually apologizing for Hellman, and not conveying her beliefs. This time though I am teaching Hellman as a woman political writer of the 20th century, and the spur of standing (or sitting) in front of others (zoom on my computer) has pushed me into doing more work than that astute blog I wrote.


From Watch on the Rhine, where unusual for all plays, the dialogue is specifically anti-fascist, with fascism exposed — the noble Paul Lukas is risking his life to fight Hitler, with Bette Davis as the achingly loyal wife to a husband not appreciated


The Little Foxes Davis is the woman in the family who is far more a capitalist exploiter than her bumbling brothers or (to her) weak ill (from living with her) husband

So I read through three of her plays, The Children’s Hour (1934), The Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Autumn Garden (1951), and watched four via DVD or YouTube videor, The Little Foxes (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943, this script mostly by Dashiell Hammett), Another Part of the Forest (1948) The Children’s Hour (1961) — and the superb film adaptation of the inset story of her memoir, Pentimento, Julia (1977). Each of these films is either adapted (which means real changes), or revised to some extent, but they all thoroughly reflect her spirit, are what she wanted on the stage or screen. I read some startling criticism of these, much of it hostile, but some perceptive about her concerns. I also read in a book called Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. The plays held my interest intensely despite creakiness of sets, obsolete attitudes: they are driven by intense passions working themselves out unexpectedly but compulsively.

Then I went back to a intelligent unbiased true analysis of the McCarthy era, setting it in the long history of the US against any kind of socialism in thought or political action by many powerful groups of people: David Caute’s The Great Fear and skim-read that. It is apparent that today Hellman is being erased and forgotten partly as a woman but more because she once was a communist, remained strongly committed to socialism — and offended the Partisan Review and other centrist democratic types who were for the capitalist establishment where they were themselves thriving. They wanted mild reforms no more; they colluded and could not bear that she should show up their lukewarm wishy-washyness; their chummy careerisms. I know from the Conversations she is not the kind of writer who analyses herself so it would not be easy for her to defend herself. Politics she can talk penetratingly; but is careful to say nothing about individuals in conversation and most of the time in her writing. So she is a partly unconscious writer, letting herself go, reticent about autobiographical elements too raw for to confront. I can believe she appreciated Hammett’s help as an empathetic editor.

You can watch the whole of Another part of the Forest unabridged on YouTube for free: I hope it stays linked in here:

So — if you’ve watched the film, or now go back to it, see if you agree with some of my general usual critic-like conclusions. Hellman was a powerful insightful writer who has much to tell us about American culture, human beings, gender relationships, with her characters driven by intense desires for power, love, respect and money (the two go together in her universe), sexual desire, beautiful things; they are often fiercely aggressive, or self-protective against the expected aggressions of others; they do yearn for love; they can have strong ideals and stick to them and work hard to defeat what they see as evil beliefs and ways. They may be dressed anachronistically to us, be surrounded by absurd settings, over-emote in the sentimental way expected in the the 1940s and still in popular movies and theater. Hellman is not a writer for small subtle coteries. She gets them quickly into emotional imbroglios which we (or I) watch or read with fascination — sometimes appalled. Another Part of the Forest woke me up to the continual racism of 1940s movies — it was such another as Gone With the Wind with its recreation of this Southern world still mourning the defeat of the confederacy. Black people are only there as servants, sometimes good strong people (especially older woman) but also presented as childlike, doing only menial tasks. Maybe all the more they are not at all obsolete because they teach us about attitudes held towards Black people as late as the 1940s, though for some of the films you’d have to cut scenes, and for others you could color-blind cast and get an even stronger play.

I’d like to devote the rest of this blog just to The Children’s Hour, as it reveals some of Hellman’s more hidden values & feelings not usually discussed.

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


Shirley MacLaine as Mabel Dobie and Audrey Hepburn as Karan Wright (1961 Children’s Hour, directed by Wm Wyler)

Half-way through reading the play:

I’m often struck by what people don’t talk about in literary (or other art) works. I’ve read half-way through Hellman’s now semi-famous The Children’s Hour, and while I would acknowledge the (in the play) the centrality of “ugly,” unacceptable, “unnatural” (a word used hedged with horror) desires of one female teacher for another (Martha for Karen and probably vice-versa), what’s really striking is until near the end of the second act is everything else — the motivations and behavior of a group of girls in a school ruled over by unmarried women. The school lying bully, Mary Tilford is the a girl who finds it conduces to increase her power over other girls (threats, intimidation, physical hurting, demands they become her obedient instruments) by saying and do anything, the more outrageous the better as long as she backs it up, doubles down on it, and her presence in the school brings out the worst in all around her. One man, single, Dr Joseph Cardin is the only male in the play half way through — it’s all women, very unusual — only unlike Cukor’s The Women, there is no soft affection for these characters at all. Then the lesbianism is never named; it seems to me at this point Lillian Hellman shows deep hostility to all girls’ schools, and sees females as likely to torment one another emotionally; the school itself is disciplining the girls to be obedient and gives them no reason why they should memorize what they are memorizing.

I thought of Martha Vicinus’s book on how independence was gained for the first time by numbers of women in later Victorian period, and how important it was for a girl to be allowed to go away to a school. And yes how appalled I was at her detailing and approval (it seemed) to how some girls took power over other girls through sexual relationships (not always consummated in any way) as this would form networks and mentors later on. Vicinus said such relationships were feared by parents perhaps more than a relationship with a boy, even if not sexual. Nowhere in Vicinus is the reality of mean emotions that such groups form on — this is what Hellman is after and the intimidation structures at the heart of schooling.

Curious that this is Hellman’s first original full length play — she denies writing as a woman in a way but she always is doing this. She does say she never makes a man the center of her works, it is always the female who is her important character. The real powerhouse of this play is Mary Tilford’s rich grandmother (a lot of prestige) who told that the two teachers are “unnatural” in their desires immediately phones the others parents who immediately withdraw their daughters. The girl Mary Tilford is getting back at Karen who tried to divide the nasty clique that had grown up by re-assigning bedrooms. Last thing I recognize aspects of Hellman in this worst character: like Mary, Hellman ran away, had this tight relationship with a powerful maternal grandmother, was a determined strong character ….

Upon finishing the play:

It is outdated because of the persistent even horror invested in the idea that Martha and Karen are sexually entangled and perhaps even had some physical intimacy. The implicit inference to the play is how horrible that two lives — actually 4 if you include beyond Martha and Karen, the suitor Joe, and the cousin to Martha, Mrs Mortar (what a name). In the third act there has been a trial for libel, and we come into the room where once there was a school seeing three desolated people. I was reminded of the close of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The school has been destroyed; Karen and Martha appear to have lost a libel case against Mrs Tilford, who did the phoning to all the parents to tell them they must whisk their daughters away. Tellingly all these women but the super-wealthy Mrs Tilford fear homelessness — so did I until sometime after Jim died and I still did when Trump used to talk of terminating social security and more gov’t jobs (that’s what Izzy has). Until this generation of women who are brought up to work outside the home for remuneration and demand a living wage, have a career, this was a common fear.

However, they are not giving up. Plans are afoot for Joe and Karen to marry and go with Martha to Vienna, but as the act evolves, these fall to pieces as each of the three suspects the other of lying (or telling the truth about lesbian feelings and even acts as the case may be). After protesting undying loyalty to Karen, Joe seems readily persuaded to leave Karen for ever. Mrs Mortar comes in: the nerve, she never showed up at the trial and would have been a help. She is shameless and has nowhere else to go and Karen and Martha are apparently not prepared to throw her on the streets. This happens before Martha confesses to Karen she really loves her horrifies Karen who nonetheless lets slip that she, Karen, may also have sexual desire for Karen. Martha leaves the stage, overwrought. Soon after we hear a shot — Martha has killed herself off stage. I thought of Jocasta hanging herself. Mrs Tilford arrives to apologize, to explain how she has learned that Mary was lying and had bullied another girl, Rosalie into backing her up. There is a hint Mrs Tilford still suspects that Karen and Martha are susceptible to such a dreadful love — nonetheless, they had not behaved that way, and she offers money to Karen who relents to say maybe she’ll take it — she now has nowhere to go. What’s striking though is how lesbianism is never once defended. It is telling somehow that this is Hellman’s first play, the first matter she chose to imagine and bring it before the public. A bad dream out of Vicinus’s book. I mentioned Mary, the thug lying child who spread the rumor, has aspects of Lillian Hellman as a child running away, her aggression too.

I’ll mention a role for a Black woman, Agatha, Mrs Tilford’s cook/maid/housekeeper. Very circumspect, acting on behalf of her employer while trying not to hurt anyone — very moral as all the Black characters are in all Hellman’s plays and prose. The play’s list of characters does not call for a black woman but it seems to me the character as envisaged is how Black people are seen Hellman’s texts.


The male is there central to the exposure of the girl’s lies

The 1961 movie

So now I’ve watched the 1961 movie adaptation with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner — directed by William Wyler, if I’m not mistaken with Hellman working on the script too. Unlike the 1934 movie, which ludicrously eliminated the central element of lesbianism, this one presents it as fully as Hellman apparently dared to in the year she wrote it 1934.

What I wanted to record is my amazement that as late as the 1960s the topic of lesbianism is treated with a sense of appalled horror — in the written play and now this movie, the word is never used. The characters speak of sexual love between women as just something deeply perverse and horrific. Reading about the play, it’s one of her first produced and that is fascinating because at the same time she claimed she wrote “as an exercise.” That is, she was not engaged with the topic; she further absolved herself (so to speak) by saying the story was suggested the Dashiell Hammett who came across it as something that happened in real life and told it to her.

In Kessler-Harris’s book she talks of how the original girl in the story was part of a minority group treated very badly by the majority, and thus had good reason to do what she did to disrupt the school.  The girl herself had been treated with disdainful discrimination. Hellman eliminated all that (what a shame) but wanted to claim her real interest was this girl. It is true reading the play she is exposing the pettiness and cruelty of girls to one another, but I did not realize that Hellman’s changes in the girl’s ethnicity and motives and insisting on this clash between “good and evil” works to ignore in discourse what most of the powerful ending of the play is — the two women admitting to sexual feeling. In fact only one does and she kills herself — in both the play and movie. The girl’s bullying and lies are made much of when they are exposed, and Martha kills herself off stage never to be seen again. I recalled how E.M. Forster said that he could have published Maurice far earlier had he been willing to have punitive ending for his pair of young men. What was not acceptable was the happy ending — and now I know in classrooms the “problem” here for Maurice is readers can dismiss it as unrealistic. But here Karen is erased altogether

In the written play as far as I can tell it is all crushing misery for poor Karen, though she seems likely to take the money the grandmother of the mean girl offers her as compensation. In the movie there is an attempt to present Karen (Hepburn) as rising above all that happened, as somehow escaping this conformist society whose children she was schooling to be conformist. We see her walking proudly away from Karen’s funeral as if she is washing her hands and body of all this foulness. It might be too that with James Garner watching her from the sidelines the movie watcher would say, ha, see they’ll marry. I remember someone interpreting Winston Graham’s Cordelia so as to have the transgressive heroine marrying one of the male family members at the end. No sense that if this is so, it negates the whole novel.

The 1961 movie is still powerful. Since Hellman would not discuss the lesbianism as important and said it was an exercise, and that Dash gave her the story there is no easily getting beyond the barrier she builds to stop questions — unless you are a Hellman scholar and know where to look. It’s not a pleasant movie and to the modern viewer — me — off putting because of the awed sense of taboo everywhere. As late as 1961 you could present middle class people are over-dressed and living in super-elegant houses as if it were 1931.

There have been more recent play productions; as radio plays: in 1971, the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series starring Jill Bennett and Prunella Scales; in 1994, the play was again produced for the radio by the BBC in its Monday Play series, starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margolyes and Margaret Robertson.

The critics:


A beautiful still of Julia and Lillian talking — I am aware that the story of their relationship is highly fictionalized, and take it to be autofiction

I worried I was being a bit hard on Hellman for suggesting she was wiping away lesbianism, showing far more hostility than ambivalence towards women’s sexuality — well last night I read three articles on this play — not a bit of it. One critic, Mary Titus (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature) argued Hellman was murdering lesbianism, that she was exorcising out what she feared she’d be accused of for separating herself from her first husband and living independently. She linked The Children Hour to the story of Julia where it’s apparent a deep loving relationship emerged from Hellman’s and Julia’s childhood — one could call its continuance homoerotic love. Hellman would not have wanted the relationship to be seen that way.

Julia is the story of two women in love with one another, especially Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Julia is destroyed — like Marttha. There is a scene in the movie where one of Lillian’s old friends, a male (possibly representing Dorothy Parker’s husband who annoyed Hellman), accuses her and Julia of having lesbian feelings from childhood; she gets up and smashes him across the face and walks out.

Benjamin Kahan (Criticism) takes a different tack and suggested Hellman’s open stance as semi-promiscuous, acting like an aggressive man when it came to initiating relationships, was also a guarded performance against being accused of being a prig, a dike, a man-hater. In the 1930s audiences would regard all girls’ schools as possibly luring a girl into relationships which would get in the way of the important marriage. I do not think this play an insincere disguise — Judith Butler’s idea that behavior is one long performance has a lot to answer for. Hellman punishes the one open lesbian hard.

In a third essay, this one reviewing the history of films meant for a wider public daring to deal with issues of homosexuality and lesbianism, Chon Noriega (Cinema Journal) found that lesbianism was less accepted than male homosexuality, at the same time it was seen (in the play and film from the point of view of aimed-at watcher-response) as showing the dangers of putting girls together in all women environments. I felt there was hostility in Hellman’s original play to the whole idea of an all girl school taught all by women. I would here agree with Vicinus how unfortunate this reaction is — for it was in such schools and environments women were given the first chance they had to train and hope for professional lives outside marriage.

I do know that nowadays with all the talk of Hellman as a great playwright it is very hard to get copies of her plays. Hardly any of her screenplays are in print — only the one she is said to have written with Hammett. And there is such emphasis on how he wrote with her, corrected her stuff. Her prose memoirs are what’s wanted. My edition of her plays is old and has no notes. The one summer Jim and I and Izzy rented a house in Vermont and each evening took a drive to see a great play we saw a production of Autumn Garden. Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer. Unfortunately neither of us remembers much as we were sitting way in the back and it was a long drive.


1977: Lily (Jane Fonda) and Dash (Jason Robards)

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman), Philip (Tobias Menzies) and Anne (Erin Doherty) — Seasons 3-4


Elizabeth (Claire Foy), Philip (Tobias Menzies) Seasons 1-2 (1947-1955)

Not only are seasons 1 & 2 one story, with a couple of overriding themes; seasons 3 & 4 are the same story morphing later in time: the cost of the crown to all who are connected to it in the warping of their characters, destruction of dearest hopes. Most of the characters who have any depth of integrity or individual gifts find they must give up fulfilling an individual identity or desire in order to act out a conventional role that pleases the public; for money and prestige, they trade inner liberty, and several of them happiness. There seems to be no retreat for anyone, and for those who stay, as they age, they grow harder or more silent in order to survive … Even with the absence of virtuoso displays of emotion — except Tobias Menzies once, Josh O’Connor once, and fleeting arresting moments by Helena Bonham Carter, Geraldine Chaplin (as Duchess of Windsor) and even the reigned-in, mostly iron self-controlled Olivia Coleman — there is real depth, as in a novel by Ishiguro or Austen, just beneath the calm surface.

Friends and readers,

It’s been a rather long time (2018) since I wrote a blog on the first two seasons of this well-done effective serial. At the time I suggested that one story shaped both seasons centrally; that of Elizabeth (then Claire Foy) and Philip (Matt Smith), with the side characters exemplifying parallel themes, so now I’m here to say that similarly Seasons 3 ad 4 are one story shaped by the same theme for a younger pair of characters, Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana Spenser (Emma Corrin), with the older Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) and Philip (Tobias Menzies) showing the results of their choices and insisting the next generation make the same sacrifices they did. But season four so complicated by nearness of events in the lives of Charles and Diana, it will take two separate blogs to do both seasons justice.


The young Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) on the phone with Peter Townsend


Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), many years later showing the human cost of her role

The films depict slowly, at length and consistently a development of inexorable embedded emotional burdens each of the major characters finds he or she has to bear as a result of being related to, and supported by (financially especially) the Crown. Most of the characters who have any depth of integrity or individual gifts find they must give up fulfilling an individual identity or desire in order to act out a conventional role that pleases the public. For money and prestige, they trade inner liberty, and several of them happiness. There seems to be no retreat for anyone, and as they age, they grow harder or more silent in order to survive. The individual situations of these privileged people are made to resonate with experiences the ordinary person can identify with, or watch Writ Large. Seasons 1 & 2 Elizabeth and Philip begin with an idealistic love, and after years where she is driven to not keep her promise to Philip to let him fulfill his desires and have a say in his choices equal to hers, and betray others like her sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Elizabeth hardens into a partly self-alienated person. She wants to control others too, like the space and power and ever-so-respected functions she acts out. Seasons 3 & 4, Elizabeth has hardened, Philip has reconciled himself (with occasional strong regrets), and Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter, superb in the part) alternates between bitterness and an avid devouring of what is thrown to her by way of compensation. All are warped. At the third season’s end though we see the cost open up through Margaret’s near suicide and her and Elizabeth’s conversation of what this life has cost them. In the fourth, Margaret is the only one among the older generation to voice any doubt about the infliction of marriage on Charles to a girl he doesn’t know, understand and it seems cannot love

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


The real Elizabeth I, The Crown‘s Elizabeth — at Aberfan (Season 3, Episode 3) where miners lost dozens of their children


Philip in mid-life crisis, both “Bubbikins” and “Moonstruck” (Episodes 4 and 7): he find he must acknowledge who his mother is; he jeers at the institution of a church where men meditate, only to find himself glamorizing the astronauts, dreaming of himself as one, in need of companionship and confession

The first four and seventh episodes swirl around the question of what Elizabeth has become as a person, how much she now thinks it’s her job to remain estranged from usual human emotion, and how far this has become natural to her. It’s a role that does not give Coleman much opportunity for virtuoso emoting. Her best moments are in “Aberfan” (4:3) where she slowly bends, and “The coup” where, the political matter, Mountbatten’s (Charles Dance) attempt to stage a coup is overshadowed for Elizabeth too as she sees what happier warmer person she’d have been if she had been allowed to make horses her life (caring for them, racing them) alongside someone with a similar empathic nature, Porchey (John Hollingwood a rare carryover from Season 2), how happier she would have been. Philip is a tamed man, it seems also sexually, but if you watch the character, he is the same man (or type) as in Seasons 1 & 2 with the difference he is repeatedly given the last word on an issue, his conservative pragmatism honored, his shame over his mother, then thwarted masculinity sympathized with, given room. Tor me the best episode in the season is “Moonstruck”, not so much for his naive glorifying of the astronauts, but the way he comes down from deriding the incoming Dean of Windsor Robin Woods (Tim McMullan) to asking for help, from distrust to deep friendship. As opposed to Season 2 where Elizabeth is presented as understanding the boy Charles better than his father, “”Tywysog Cymru” shows Elizabeth out of sympathy with Charles presented as sensitive, literary, seeking validation when confessing, wanting to assert his truth against hers as a lead in to why. The second finest is the last episode: Margaret’s story glimpsed in “Margaretology,” and again here and there, but brought out emphatically and movingly in “Cri de coeur” where suddenly she is presented as an overt parallel to a hidden Elizabeth, who wonders what she has done with her life as the UK seems to have gone down (she means in prestige and power).

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

I move on to individual episodes and dwell more on those episodes most strong. One must remember a lot is fiction, and sometimes politically what is asserted to have happened didn’t, e.g., Margaret did not persuade Johnson to lend the British enormous amounts of money, did not revel in his vulgarities; Mountbatten did not propose a coup; he was approached by a reactionary cabal of Tories who loathed the success of socialism under Atlee, and the liberal-social consensus of Wilson (Jason Watkins), and he turned them down twice.

Episode 1, “Olding,” Elizabeth moves from instinctive distrust of the new labor PM, Wilson, an inheritance from Churchill; she worries he’s a mole from Moscow, when betrayer turns out to be her much respected art historian, Sir Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), here a vengeful oily cold calculating villain who trades threat for threat with a newly stern Philip at hour’s end (don’t you know all communists must be vile?). Random moments showing the Snowden marriage (Ben Daniels) is none, Margaret in distress, drinking slips into Episode 2, “Margaretology:” with Coleman and Menzies all quiet self-controlled, Carter steals the scenes, but Johnson (a thankless role for Clancy Brown) a caricature, simply a frivolous vulgarian, behaving from silly motives of vanity flattered, with the thwarted artist (Daniels) given hardly any screen time.

Episode 3: “Aberfan.”:


Actual footage from the mining disaster

Brilliant and daring use of voice-over and narration, attributing inner thoughts to the ravaged faces of parents we see. The film-makers (director, script) turned a disaster remembered ever after when the queen showed she could be or was heartless, indifferent, stone cold into an explanation of how she felt deeply but couldn’t get herself to show it — and so rendered the incident deeply moving — they hired well known actors for bit parts of the parents: I spotted Ruth Wilson; Richard Harrington had speaking lines. We saw how everyone else was grieving — or couldn’t help themselves spontaneously — from the PM, to Margaret, to Tony Armstrong-Jones, to Phillip (Menzies managed to steal the show each time he flinched).

This did sideline the real problem: the board had not kept up regulations so that the mine became dangerous — it was pointed out it was under the Tories the situation evolved but this was turned into Mrs Wilson berating Wilson for being “a wimp” and not going after someone else, i.e., the queen as scapegoat. It was therefor hard to film on location: many remember what happened less than 50 years ago, many still suffering and the lack of any true social relief or active compassion from these super-rich Tory types has not been forgotten. Olivia Coleman did show strength in her her fierce lighting into Wilson when he turned up for “going behind her back” (as if they both controlled the newspapers) is memorable but the episode is too much “See the Queen learn a lesson; poor lady can’t get herself to cry.” Let us recall that Hillary Clinton held herself firm, and it was held against her, while were she to have wept she’d have been mocked. Still you won’t forget this episode.  I noticed some holdovers from Season 2, in actors playing Elizabeth’s near entourage; this provides needed felt continuity.


It’s the way the disabled & abused Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) in her nun’s outfit smokes that makes her seem so vulnerable

Episodes 4-6. “Bubbikins:” Philip wants to make himself felt: goes on TV to say Royals are not overpaid, derided, so makes a documentary about how ordinary they are, and it tanks terribly. Jane Lapotaire is profoundly memorable in the way she seems to capture the phases of this unfortunately disabled woman’s life, and so at last Philip learns a lesson against pride and vanity when he accepts her, now living in the palace (against his will) way upstairs, near Princess Anne, but found by reporters what she had to say resonated with the public. “The Coup” went a step too far for me. Not Charles Dance’s magnificent performance as Mountbatten, and Mountbatten had a ancien regime heart, fiercely militaristic (would have recited Kipling with gusto), but the sympathy for the coup, democracy made a veneer that doesn’t matter (see Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall if you think that). All hinged on the queen saying no. This reminded me of On the Waterfront, which justified informers (these are not to be confused with whistleblowers), justified Elia Kazan for naming names at the HUAC hearing in 1950s. The queen’s lesson was lamenting to Porchey (John Hollingworth looking remarkably like Joseph Kloska) and then trying to live this other not permitted unlived life, when she is needed to stop coups. I was touched by her regret,  but disbelieved the coup story as improbable (and see above) — had just seen the powerless Alice. The episode ended with Philip coming in the room, talking of Dickie, and admiring her. She makes a sign she will go to bed with him tonight, and he is all quiet delight. After all the queen’s life is not so bad is what Coleman suddenly radiates …


Porchey and Elizabeth snacking inbetween places, races, horse riding …

“Tywysog Cymru” The investiture of Charles in Wales moving, the episode built very slowly to create genuine feeling of real relationship between the Welsh politician anti-monarchical tutor, Tedi Millward and Charles, so Elizabeth’s hard cold reproaches to Charles for adding his own ideas into the ceremony come as a shock, as cruelty. Psychologically she is herself deeply repressed, (we might see) resentful over that unlived life she grieved for in previous episode. Maybe we are to infer the aim of her her life is not to have a self, as she repeats, do nothing, repel the inner life, something she is determined to inflict on Charles. Olivia Coleman acts the deeply dislikable mother memorably but is such a hard icy-presence that this viewer found Josh O’Connor’s the multi-faceted performance — if his ability to be piteous without incurring disdain (on display here), were more to the fore in season 4, the evenness of the presentation of the pair until 4:8 when we see that Charles will not give Diana a chance — will not pick up that phone — we would not feel that Diana was the only victim sacrificed on the altar (say it) of riches and prestige for the Windsor (German name now lost) family.

Episode 7: “Moonstruck:” At last they gave Tobias Menzies something adequate to his talents: Philip feeling the frustrations of existing in a fish bowl and spending his “job” time as a symbol at occasions that seem silly, and also those worthy. It all begins with his irritation at having to go to church by 9 am and listen to a doddering old fool of a Dean. So the queen hired a new man she thought Philip might like: Robin Woods, but Philip is not going to church any more. This new man asks if he can have the use of one of the unused buildings on the property as a center for spiritual renewing; Philip finds himself asked to go and when he has to sit there listening to these depressed men, he bursts out in cruel excoriation of them, ridiculing them. He tells them they will feel valued and part of the world if they were active. “How about cleaning up this floor!” he nearly shouts and he rushes out. The camera on the face of McMullan as Wood intensely controlled.

Philip then gets so caught up with watching intensely the moon landing as whole Royal family gathers around the TV.   But they leave after a few hours maybe, while Philip sits there it seems for days. He is identifying, bonding and thinking himself an “airman” himself, their equivalent and to prove it endangers himself and a courtier with him by flying the machine way too high. Then he demands 15 minutes with heroes (he did meet them). We see him writing questions, and when finally (most reluctantly) they come in, he finds his questions cannot be asked — they are young, inarticulate, hardly gave deep thought to what they were doing –too busy. They have silly questions about life in the palace for him.

Then cut to Philip walking away and then close up he is sitting and talking very gravely at this misapprehension he had of them and as he goes on we realize he is facing Wood and his clergymen needing spiritual renewal — Menzies delivers an extraordinary speech baring his soul insofar as such a man could, apologizes to them. Then we see them walking out and Philip looking more cheerful. An intertitle tells us the real Duke formed a close friendship with Wood and in later years this organization became one Philip was very proud of. The queen seen in the distance walking her dogs, looking on. Her face lightens with relief and cheer.

Doesn’t sound like much. Watch it. Or read the speech:

There wasn’t a specific moment, uh, when it started. It’s been more of a gradual thing. A drip, drip, drip of of doubt disaffection, disease, dis discomfort. People around me have noticed my general uh, irritability. Um Now, of course, that’s that’s nothing new. I’m generally a cantankerous sort, but even I would have to admit that there has been more of it lately. Not to mention, uh, an almost jealous fascination with the achievements of these young astronauts. Compulsive over-exercising. An inability to find calm or satisfaction or fulfillment. And when you look at all these symptoms, of course it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that they all suggest I’m slap bang in the middle of a [CHUCKLES] I can’t even say what kind of crisis … [I skip some of the words] … Some of which I can admit to in this room, and some of which I probably shouldn’t. My mother died recently. [CLEARS THROAT.] She she saw that something was amiss … It’s a good word, that. A-Amiss … “How’s your faith?” she asked me. I’m here to admit to you that I’ve lost it. And without it, what is there? The The loneliness and emptiness and anticlimax of going all that way to the moon to find nothing, but haunting desolation ghostly silence gloom. … And so Dean Woods having ridiculed you for what you and these poor, blocked, lost souls [CHUCKLING.] were were trying to achieve here in St. George’s House I now find myself full of respect and admiration and not a small part of desperation as I come to say help. Help me. And to admit [CHUCKLES.] that while those three astronauts deserve all our praise and respect for their undoubted heroism, I was more scared coming here to see you today than I would have been going up in any bloody rocket! [CHUCKLING]

I do think that the conception of the queen this time just doesn’t give Olivia Coleman enough to work with — to show her hidden life they would need really to break with the conventions against over-voice and they would be ridiculed or criticized.


Charles and Camilla falling in love


Anne usually choral figure, presented as Philip’s favorite, here Doherty given love-making scenes, but as ever wry

Episodes 8-10: “Dangling Man:” There was a falling away, here and these with their concentration on Charles and Camilla, Anne and Andrew Parker-Bowles left me bored with its thinness. What depth the episode has is in the aging, frailty, death of Edward VIII, now Duke of Windsor (Derek Jacobi) and as strong an actress as ever, as Mrs Simpson, now Duchess, Geraldine Chaplin, grieving over her dead husband, she’s unforgettable. We believe in the relationship between the dying Duke and young Charles — only with Mountbatten in the second season (the gentle Gregg Wise) had Charles had a loving authority figure before him (with the Welsh tutor it’s respect – the real Charles did learn enough Welsh to read and to try to talk).


Duke and Duchess of Windsor stepping outside their lair: Jacobi and Chaplin captured the two presences swiftly perfectly


Josh O’Connor superb at earnestness (remember him as Larry Durrell in The Durrells with Keely Hawes his generous mother)

Heath now PM.

“Imbroglio:” the criss-crossing of the Parker-Bowles with the Windsors is broken up by queen who (in time-honored manner) sends Charles away and with some help from her parents, pushes Camilla into marriage with Andrew. Heath had been brought in briefly in the previous episode and presented as fatuous; now we turn to the miners’ strike (David Wilmot memorable as Scargill); registering lives with other kinds of hard behaviors..


Margaret and Roddy meet


With her lady-in-waiting, Anne Lady Gleconner watching beach at Mystique island


The circle indicates the press taking this photo … of Margaret and Roddy (Harry Treadaway), he obediently putting cream all over her

“Cri de coeur:” This is perhaps the second best episode of the season and a powerful end. It’s about Margaret’s clinging to Armstrong and how tired of her he is, but how he finds it necessary to possess her at the same time as he is discreetly unfaithful. She cannot bear this and drawn by her Lady-in-Waiting, she finds a replacement, a young man substitute. What so strong about the episode is Margaret is presented as unconsciously obnoxious. She cries out against having to obey the conventions to hold onto her position, without apparently realizing every minute of her existence is pampered privileged, and all her comforts created by an army of obedient people around her. We do feel for her because her aging is so clear and her emotional need. We do wonder as we watch her drunken songs on her island, and her saying her happiness is finally here as she sits next to this child of a man whom she treats condescendingly. We see Elizabeth sympathizes with both Tony and Margaret, and in this episode it’s the Queen mother who acts to demand Margaret come back from the island when the newspapers photographer publishes a splash: her and Roddy’s affair. In Tony’s interview with Elizabeth (she summons him to see what she can do) he produces photos of her when younger; we see fleetingly Claire Foy and Matt Smith in a relaxed moment. The theme of this final episode is probably more about how time has gone by, and how old they’ve become than how everyone all around them kowtows — though this is emphasized too.

Summoned herself, by the Queen Mother, Margaret returns to find Tony waiting for her. Both of them kick the used Roddy out — but he was letting himself be used. The next scene, the queen has bid adieu to the prime minister, and news of Margaret’s attempt to kill herself has broken. A secondary story seen briefly: Wilson replaces Heath, but he cannot stay for he has Alzheimer’s and we see him and Elizabeth bid adieu; they had become friends, he calling her a lefty and himself a royalist. Margaret had asked her how many PMS have there been since she was queen: seven, says Elizabeth. The background story of Labor win, Wilson’s return as PM but what Elizabeth suddenly makes explicit is she’s been there to record England’s decline. Margaret all in pieces in the penultimate scene. Margaret’s act implies she finds nothing in life to satisfy her; but it is Elizabeth who expresses doubt about what her life has been worth, what has she done for her kingdom. Margaret has been terrific at being a sister. And then Margaret tells Elizabeth they must carry on. And it ends on the day of the jubilee.

In a “recap,” Carolyn Hallemann suggests the best scenes of all four seasons are those given over to Margaret’s story. Roddy’s work as her gardener is the equivalent of her lady-in-waiting, there to serve her desires. This last episode has brilliantly suggestive moments conveying the different relationships so quickly; Margaret and her lady-in-waiting, Lady Alice Glenconner (Nancy Carroll), a seemingly casual moment caught by a camera. Margaret says that is their function, to paper over cracks and Elizabeth glad to see Wilson in their weekly meet-ups.(He is her favorite after Churchill.)  This is just an outline; the depth of feeling in this one is perhaps the greatest of all this season, for finally we see at its end that (whether true or not) Elizabeth says she needs Margaret to help her stand it. Not Philip, not her son. Margaret’s role as sister has been performed magnificently.
****************************************************************

Note how we end: private lives must give way, the eye of the monarch on seeming to be there stable as ever, as groundwork for political belief-system (to be cont’d).


Geraldine Chaplin as Duchess of Windsor aka Mrs Simpson embodied the theme of private life ravaged — what happens when you won’t give it up, proud lonely woman near breakdown.

It’s as if the serial had set out to justify the decision of Harry and Meghan to walk away.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Shots of different parts of the long cortege of a village near Arras, May 1940

A fine film very much worth watching just now. Christian Carion’s Come What May more or less uniformly condemned by reviewers is a beautiful intelligent anti-war film centering on an exodus across France, now forgotten, as villages fled the German invasion. The still below is one of the many black-and-white photographs that introduce, are scattered throughout the film, and conclude it. The film itself is in beautiful colors, accompanied by remarkable touching appropriate music by Ennio Morricone. Carion is telling a family story: he was born in this area; his mother had been part of this exodus; it is also crucial French history he feels. The film may be regarded as a coda to A French Village; there the people stayed put; here they went into flight. Our particular group turns round and heads back home. Interpersed is the story of three young men, Scottish (Matthew Rhys), German (August Diehl) and French (Laurent Gerra). A boy (Josioh Marion who stands for the thousands of children separated from parents), another Mayor, a cafe owner. Another bridge is blown up. And we have a goose who is really terrified of the sounds of the airplanes and passing tanks. A Review.

Friends and readers,

You owe this blog to my determination to tell whoever comes here that pace the reviewers of this film who disdained it, this is a very good film. They seem to have pushed it right out of the theaters with their obtuse disdain and distrust (I must call it) of any tender feeling, belief in some kind of responsibility in people, impatience at orchestra music. For all these characteristics, this is a fine film for our time. I urge my readers to watch it (streaming on Amazon prime, as a DVD from Netflix, as a good DVD with three feature to buy) and tell others. I find myself half-wondering if the reason it seems so hard to persuade people to act on their social instincts, to feel for others as themselves, is that a film like this is sneered at. As a result our entertainment is FX type fascist hard violence and Barbie doll strong genital sex; characters must be presented as mean, performative, competitive or we are supposed unable to believe in them.

I watched Come What May as a sort of short companion piece, a coda to A French Village (about which I have written three times, Scroll down and also click on the links).  In A French Village, mayor and people decided to stay put.  In Come What May, they tried to escape the power-hungry cruel Nazi and French collaborative regime. In type Carion liked the film to a western in genre: the landscape is a character with wanderers in its purview.

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

For a third time, last night I was just immersed in Christian Carion’s Come What May (En Mai, Fais ce qu’il plait). The first night I watched I was touched by the story, involved with the actor-characters, just loved the music, the quiet lyricism of the whole treatment, and then was astonished to discover that the reviews hardly covered what happened (like wikipedia can barely be bothered), or outright condemned it! At RogerEbert.com Odie Henderson resented it as “feel good” schmaltz — how this can be when two of the major male characters are killed, with many other unnamed minor ones, when we see a village fleeing in terror of the German’s desire for revenge (for WW1) and then turn around to go back after they’ve been hit hard twice (airplane bombing, tanks) and realize they will only meet more of the same at the coast. Far from one dimensional, the characters are suggestive presences within a larger group.

Another more complained it was not violent enough; people not sufficiently ravaged, not really a war movie at all. This is probably true, as the extraordinary composer who wrote the original score (beautiful, evocative, and uneasy), Ennio Morriconne says (in one of three features on the DVD) he agreed to write the music because the film is not a “movie about war, it is a movie during the war,” not filled with violence, speed, terror, but about the people who are enduring war, their experience, about a journey, flight, hardship, people behaving under pressure.


The first encounter of two of our heroes, the Scottish captain, Percy (Matthew Rhys) and the German communist, Hans (August Diehl) — Percy on his way to Dunkirk


The teacher who adopts Hans’s son, Suzanne (Alice Isaaz) and the Mayor, Paul (Olivier Gourmet) emerge as leaders


Propaganda film-maker (Arriflex)

The second time was when I watched this feature about the music, the orchestra, then the feature The making of Come What May, where we learn how this is a family story for Carrion: he came from Arras, his mother experienced just this exodus when she was 8, and he was hurrying to make the film before she died. Carion said his parents wanted to reach Canada but they never left France at all. His father was a mayor of a village. One of the extras hired was an 80 year old woman who had been four in 1940 and been part of the exodus; he brought along a goose because his mother said his family had had a goose and the goose proved to be expressive, hiding with terror during the sequences of passing planes and tanks:


The goose’s eyes would just peep out

For him the film also realizes a moment of crucial French history, where the gov’t made the wrong choices (capitulation because the people were so exhausted still from the horrors of World War One). Far from “sentimental” (another review found it mawkish), what Carion is showing us incident by incident is bleak history of savage senseless destruction, with storekeepers on the way seeking to charge high prices for water and food, complete indifference in the Germans to whoever they come upon; with aimless throwing of high powered fire weapons, wreaking death. Yes our sensibilities are not allowed the close-up thrill, the super-shock of barbaric exultation. No over-excitement, incessant noise and distraction. One German dies quietly banging his head against his tank, asking the boy to help him die.

Carion’s conscious method is to epitomize history by anecdote (that’s true) so the opening tells through a single incident how at the opening of the war 300,000 Germans fled Germany (communists, Jews, homosexuals) and came to France as the land of liberty; they were rounded up, put in camps and after the “armistice” was signed, sent back to Germany, slaughtered on the way or at the camps when they got there. I then watched with the voice-over commentary where Carion talked of how difficult it was to film this in the northern countryside, to traipse about with a couple of hundred people, animals: horses (exhausted and frightened at the bombs and high startling noises now and again), pigs, cows, and young babies too.


Percy and Hans, with the third hero, the French peasant farmer, Albert (Laurent Gerra) who is simply carelessly shot to death by the film-makers in order to intimidate a group of African soldiers — it seems this kind of scene of camaraderie especially offended the reviewers

The third time, stubbornly (I felt) just the movie itself now that I had enough to appreciate what I was invited slowly to experience. Then I concentrated on the famous actors and was affected by the serendipity of what happened. The film and performances had much quiet humor, as life does. The story proper begins (like A French Village) in May 1940, where a village is more exercised by its wind-mill and water pump than the coming Nazis. We see the important townsman in the local central cafe; the teacher adopts the boy of the German man they have turned over to authorities (Hans).


Suzanne and Max (Joshio Marion)

After the imposition of rationing and terror tactics from the air, the town decides to leave and we see them packing up. In these transition momemts Morricone’s music is especially effective.

Morricone: “I will make the music for the people to decide to live and find another place to be safe. To fine liberty, to walk with self-possession.”

Prisons are opened up — and Hans escapes. Hans meets in the countryside Percy; they both stumble upon Albert. Carion says he wants to pay tribute to types of people in the way. The English held out. Core scenes are where the men learn to be friends, learn to lean on one another to succeed.


Deserted family home

Carion says he now saw himself as John Ford as he filmed the landscape as another character; the people are resisting sorrow, drinking and dancing companionably the second night, dancing to radios happening. The teacher encourages Max to leave notes on the blackboard in chalk for his father. Max cries, but he write them, cheerful notes to Papa. But as the walk goes on, the atmosphere darkens; we see bodies along the side of the road (some killed), colonies of people shot up. The mayor joins forces with the cafe owner as they become a lead couple. There are a series of scenes at a store, and in a deserted farmhouse. Soldiers frightened, shoot to kill. The pass a village, and the thee young men are now close behind.


The cafe owner, who also drives one of the trucks is Mado (Mathilde Seignier)

Now an attack by the airplanes (computer generated and tough to pull off as really there, making the right sounds too), and as the bombs fall, Max flees. The teacher is forced to leave him behind. Hans comes next and thinks his son among the young children buried. There are scenes of the group passing bridges, and in one case it is blown up behind them — bridges are ever being blown up in war films (wars too). They see from afar or pass by other groups of (it seems) pilgrims. On the road, Percy captured.

In a final set of scenes, the film-maker seems to persuade Percy to play his bagpipes freely for the film; in fact Percy had seen the film-maker murder Albert and when the camera is finished, Percy shoots the film-maker directly so irritated is he by this phonyness — a self-reflexive sequence. Alas Percy then shot to death in turn. In a fantasia sequence, Hans finds his son Max.

You can take it as a dream, but it is meant to be real, for eventually Suzanne catches up and joins Hans and Max. The village has decided to turn back, but she will forge ahead. They are on their way to the north shore, Calais, with an address given them by Percy.

The last image we see is that of the three people, a new family walking into the horizon.

At the opening, throughout and again with the credits there are photographs from the 1940s of this real history exodus or evacuation.


Burdened with children and the aged


Man smoking


Another monumental woman

Don’t miss this film. It enabled me to forget for a while the nightmare circus of an aspiring dictator (Trump) ruining an election, spouting fantastic lies and distortions, fomenting racial killings to justify sending into “democrat cities” brutal police — in an effort to turn all into criminality and lawlessness where he thinks he can thrive on fear and imprisonment. What the people in the film are fleeing is an earlier Hitlerian-Goebbels arrangement (only Trump has Barr, Wolf, Pompeo, McConnell …)

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Mary Beard

The truth is that ‘peeling away the encrusted myth’ of Cleopatra reveals there is very little underneath the ancient fictional surface, and certainly nothing that can be the stuff of a plausible life story — unless it is padded out with half-relevant background … the best we have is a possible ‘signature’ on a document authorising tax concessions and the report that in her final days she muttered again and again ‘I shall not be led in triumph — Mary Beard, “Cleopatra, The Myth,” Confronting the Classics

I don’t remember when I first heard the name, Mary Beard, nor how I came to acquire and read her Confronting the Classics (a short review), but since then I’ve followed her, nowadays on twitter, as well as off. I remember how I was bored silly by the to me inane Epic of Gilgamesh, and couldn’t understand how anyone could substitute this as an assignment in college as from the ancient world instead of Virgil’s profound, beautiful, intelligent Aeneid. And then I read Beard’s defense of Roman or Latin literature not as opposed to but as texts as interesting as these originally Greek ones. Beard was, is, also continually a fresh thinking original feminist. She is still the only writer I read, to talk about women in the ancient world in ways that make them living relevant presences.

Then years later, since my younger daughter, was a lover of Latin, minoring in it in college, and is a reader, I was actually anxious that she should want to read and enjoy Beard’s SPQR.  When I bought it for her for Christmas, was so relieved when I’d see her reading it — with avid interest. Tonight I was reading Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison, and am not surprised to find that she is writing about this woman and her peer, Eugenie Sellers, in ways no one hardly ever writes about admired people: telling the inward petty and crucially important personal politics that shaped their careers. It takes hard research to get to that sort of information. Were they and most of the people she is writing about not dead, Beard would now have as many enemies as the maligned journalist, Julian Assange, for this is how he began.


Don’t be satisfied with the tale of Harrison in Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, for, good as Wade’s book is, she falls for the myth of Harrison as exposed by Beard; there is even more to Harrison’s achievement than is recorded by Wade

Then recently I opened up her Women and Power, two essays. The first is about how the public voice of women is treated: their sound is too high-pitched, so shrill, and not acceptable, their content emotional and when obviously knowledgeable school-mistress-y. She offers example after example of men silencing women, and several were close to my own experience. One happened the other day on Trollope&Peers! a male bully who hardly ever posts, suddenly got on to excoriate me for writing about Australia: how dare you? you are not Australia and show what an ignorant moron you are. No compunction whatsoever. She had the effect of validating my sense of this insult and revealed the pattern beneath it —

There are so many reviews of her books, that while I have needed her, I decided she does not need me or another blog or review to tell people what you are missing out on – for she is witty, idiosyncratic in her choices, personal, and I’m ever learning new information about another place, another figure, another work, or some unexpected insight. I also thought to do justice to her would take a book. All I could do is cite the books and urge you not to miss any. But about a year ago I started to feel compelled to write something when I came across an excoriating attack on one of her TV entertaining documentaries. Women as well as men castigating her for exposing the fallacy that when we look at naked bodies of women in art, we react to them viscerally as bodies, even when they are ever so tastefully done, and given learned names to obscure that they have most often functioned as pin-ups. The idea of the pompous Kenneth Clark unclothed (so to speak) was gratifying.


She allowed a drawing of her naked: this Guardian article brings out the Berger-take of the program

But when I started to watch her Shock of the Nude, I found she was misrepresented: far from dwelling on this (as it is so obvious) the programs were about how a single type of European woman has filled the space of what is reproduced when there are so many types of bodies, not to omit gene pools and ways of depicting bodies. It’s an elaboration on the specific topic from the perspective John Berger developed in his Ways of Seeing. We glimpse the actual motives of the people who made the object, the politics projected at an audience by an establishment “voice.” But to be as frank as she, what the men especially hated most of all is the way she looks. They cannot stand that she refuses to turn herself into as close a version of the Barbie Doll or socially comely academic woman in interview outfit for her shows. Her hair is unstyled (would be the word), her body lumpy, she wears only what make-up the film-makers must put on her to withstand film lighting. Those are her real long and discolored teeth. Of course it’s a pose, and she now has a trademark with her bike, but it’s a pose in another cause for candor as the only humane wisdom: this time what aging and other women actually look like.

Now I’ve just watched (and re-watched — a habit of mine) her early series, Meet the Romans, her contributions to Civilisations, and her [Ultimate?] Rome: Empire without Limit, and feel I ought to say something relevant to this dangerous and destructive era the Republicans, their Trump mascot, and all the wealthy and powerful people increasing a stranglehold of immiseration and downright murder on not only the US but people around the world variously connected to us: the theses of her two Roman series, which she makes convincing is that this ordinary village on this boot-like peninsula in the Mediterranean became a successful society, and extended out to become prosperous, educated, and (dare I say) a comfortable people because they were inclusive.

It was their original idea to make everyone who came within the purview of their power and ever extending land-mass Roman, to welcome into their civilisation all sorts of people, and thus circulate the knowledge, skill, and yes labor and natural products of lands across the globe. Indeed much that the vicious regimes of the world today are doing (except the step-by-step process in the US, and jump elsewhere into terrifying dictatorship) is what what the Romans didn’t do: race hatred especially. I took down my daughter’s book for the first time and found that in SPQR are the theses for these documentaries (read Emily Wilson’s more detailed review). They were flexible when it came to changing laws; they went in for people power. It was a genuinely mixed society because in the province power was given to local elites. Join with Rome, and you too can have this salary, these benefits. Everyone above say the working class level and the enslaved gets a percentage of the take. And the enslaved can buy themselves back.

The book and these series are not about its decline and fall (which it did) but about why it succeeded for so long — besides ruthless fearful military brutality — she does not mince words over the cruelties and harshnesses of this empire. In one episode (Part 3 of Ultimate Rome) we see a frieze of a fierce Roman soldier subduing and about to rape a supplicant woman, an image of Rome triumphing over Britain. One episode of Meet the Romans she seeks out how the average Roman who lived in the city survived & shows them in tiny dark flats in apartment houses, where just about nothing was in the space except room to sleep: all other functions, including drinking water, bathing (defecating), eating had to be done outside this space which was heavily peopled. To her credit, she does bring out what life was like for the average person.

Perhaps the Roman story is still too upbeat. Unlike the books, she does omit women. She doesn’t lie. She warns that stories about the fun adulteresses might have had are masculine bad dreams; stories of fiercely violent Amazons are probably glamorized fantasies based on what the Romans saw in the violent tribalism of Scythian groups. (Anyway who wants to idolize violence?) It was not the brutality of the Romans that made for their ultimate success, just a first step (bad joke alert). In her Pompeii, she takes us into excavated homes of the victims; she tries to realize what a family life might have been. The figures chance immortalized at moments of terror do convey what people are up against in nature (as well as what is often missing in other episodes from one another)


Pompeii people

These programs have our present era very much in mind.


From Ultimate Rome, Episode 3

They are also wondrously enjoyable because they are travelogues to places you, I, or your package tour company is not going to think of going to. I did not feel as if I was looking at fake pictures of landscapes, but genuine filming of out-of-the-way places where Roman buildings, forums, monuments, roads, these circular stadiums (levels upon levels), acqueducts, left over remnants of households are still extant. She films in Northern England, along the Hadrian wall where archeaologists have been very busy, in Algeria, southern Spain, Turkey, western Germany. Even if I had the money and the profound unhealthiness of airplane and modern boat travel had not been exposed, as an ordinary person I could not see what she shows in museums, factories, not to omit Pompeii and Herculaneum. She is invited to go where the rest of us who are not in the profession can’t. You see people in the marketplaces and in Rome today too — in France, in London.


In Bath — where I have been

I admit I sometimes enjoy her straight lectures on YouTube more than I do her documentaries, which are meant for a much wider audience than my taste. Her patter to me can be contentless; if there is a line of argument, sometimes it is obscured by gnomic suggestiveness. She is unwilling to criticize where I think she should. One of her assignments on Civilizations was to showcase (would be the word) religious buildings around the world once Roman (Europe and the middle east as it’s called mostly), but had it been Simon Schama (he is the main presenter) he would have managed to include sharp observations on what religious practices can mesmerize people into accepting. Her books provide more honest scrutiny. She is inclined to be optimistic, altogether too cheery — during this pandemic, she has had BBC shows in her kitchen. That sort of thing …

But she is always intelligent. During the Brexit controversies when there was still time, to put a stop to this lunacy of some segments of the British upper classes and the ignorant deluded nationalist solutions to economic distress in working class people, her TLS columns were ever on point and I wished she was in Parliament. I still do. Probably my favorite book is also still Confronting the Classics.


Filming in Rome

The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the Duchess was going to have a baby.
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all — Elizabeth Bishop
“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”

Ellen

Read Full Post »


A still from Keri (Cats of/in Istanbul) – touching movie as much about the people who care for the cats as the cats themselves – they are waiting for fishing ships from Greece


Charles Burton Barber, Coaxing Is Better than Teasing (1883) — didactic Victorian narrative art

For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit
— Christopher Smart, My Cat Geoffrey

Friends,

I’ve been wanting to write a blog on the literature of cats, about cat stories, cat pictures, cat poetry, so as to suggest that there is a particular quality to stories about cats, poetry about them, even pictures that distinguishes the “kind” from stories about animals in general, other animals, dogs, people, a sort of tone or stance that underlies and unites them all. Well, stories, images and movies not hostile to cats, not produced by crazy people who in history have conducted massacres (see Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre” in a book named after this essay) and persecuted the cat (cats endured a long period of persecution in Europe, starting in the twelfth century and ending only sometime in the nineteenth). I kept putting this off. No longer.


George Morland, The Artist’s Cat Drinking (1792)

The quality is admiration, admiration for their resilience, for their individual and group persistent survival. Stories told of stressed cats, of how against all probability, great odds, seeming counterproductive behavior, and sometimes (to the reader and poor creature enduring it) inflicted torture, they carry on. We marvel at their individuality — since there is a continual repetitive catness about their casually observed postures, stances, relationships with us.

I am moved to make this seemingly unprovable assertion and cite some of the best writing I’ve read by a given author (cat as muse), as well as about the cat, because I just read and then re-read, savoring as I went V. S. Naipaul’s The Strangeness of Grief, posted online December 30th, 2019 and printed January 6th in the New Yorker.

Naipaul, a wonderfully poignant ironic writer (deserved his Nobel, and the one Booker) begins with his father’s death but his essay morphs into the calamitous deaths of two cats, one carelessly murdered (the mother), the other torn to bits by desert dogs (its kitten), and then a long history of the life and death of a kitten whom the author adopts, brings up, provides for, is companion, staff, lover and finally protector and life-prolonger of: Augustus. Augustus a cat whose life has been at risk, and near extinguished several times, but saved again and again by a vet.

My simple-minded take-away is that an outdoor cat is in very great danger of loss of life and that modern human life also presents real dangers to a cat it can’t recognize for itself. Also how fragile they are. That they have been such a successful species as a species is because they have evolved to be women’s best lover … Naipaul whose work is characterized by a deep kindness and melancholy.


Henriette Ronner-Knip (1878) — famous for her luxurious cats, this one may have been a real one she owned


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Minette the Kitten (1894)

My favorite, maybe the best book by Doris Lessing is her On Cats, which also opens with cat massacres that occurred periodically in the South Africa of Lessing’s childhood, after which she goes on to be the biographer of a Grey Cat and Black Puss, then Rufus the Survivor, and finally “the old age of el magnifico.” I wrote an appreciative essay on this book (scroll to the bottom to read her magnficent peroration) more than eight years ago: From this essay:

The closing stories are the most moving of all “Rufus the Survivor” is about a cat who has a bad home. He is mistreated. He is shut out during the day; he is too thin; it’s clear he is sometimes hit. He is cowed and has learnt to be a sycophant. It’s a story of how slowly he insinuates himself into Lessing’s home and gradually ever so gradually gets first her to allow him to stay, and then to stay for a while, and hen to live there. How he has to maneuver to get grey and black cat to accept him. How she takes him to the doctor for his ills and how he does not like it ever. Gradually he becomes braver and more confident and leaves the house to make friends. He even probably visits his ex-owner. She worries about this, but it seems the ex-owner does not try to keep Rufus. Rufus learns to show love and allow others to love him.

El Magnifico is a hero’s story. As the cat grows older, he gets cancer, and in order to have more years of life Lessing must amputate one of his legs. He cannot of course understand this. He assumes that she has utterly betrayed him not just in taking him to the Vet, but allowing this terrifically painful thing to be done. Ever after he has the worst troubles going to his litter box just outside the house (in a garden or yard), going up and down stairs, climbing things. But she cannot explain she is giving him more life.


Manning’s Miou

Then there’s Olivia Manning’s Extraordinary Cats: Lessing had tough cats; Manning had vulnerable ones. I wrote an essay on Manning’s book too (scroll all the way down). The central core of Manning’s book is a life history of specific cats she has owned and their personalities, how they interacted with other cats. She is (unexpectedly) more inward than Lessing. There are many fine deeply humane moments — a love of these animals that is deeply empathetic making the reader their valuable lives. Manning also offers real insights into the interrelationships of people and cats.

By now the reader may be saying, ‘This is ridiculous. She writes of cats as though they were humans.’ But are they so very different? The fact is that when an animal, any animal, enters one’s home, it becomes something more than an animal. The change is brought about not merely by human fantasy and human need: the animal itself is drawn out of its animal world and advances to meet our wider understanding.


Desmond Morris’s Cats in Art is the best general philosophical art history I’ve read.

The text is better than my other omnibus volume: Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 years of the Cat in Art has more pictures but her text soon gives out into a catalogue which is sheerly informative and descriptive of a particular image and they are not so well-chosen, do not delight or interest as Morris’s continually do. Morris too critiques and presents attitudes towards the cat and what we can know of the lives of the domestic cat since we have first proof of their existence. Early on they were seen as “working” animals in the sense that they attacked small animals people considered vermin; but they were also early on companions and associated with women. Then the medieval period where horrendous persecution of cats began or was first recorded. It seems to begin with the decline of learning, a deep resentment of nuns using cats as companions, and male fantasies of witches. Especially endangered (and still in danger) are black cats. The cats’ pigment system was another element that led to human cruelty in times or places where people find enjoyment in animal torture. I was roused to indignation on their behalf and getting a fuller picture of what lies behind 18th century and the kind of mass shooting of cats, throwing them from great heights recorded in the 19th century as well as by Doris Lessing. And the pictures unexplained by Bugler fall into place. I hope he traces the growth of decent behavior towards non-human animals across the 19th century. I have found talking to people today they resist the application of the word “persecution” to systematic cruelty towards cats. Throughout his book Morris uses this kind of language for not only cats but all the animals he includes: mostly domesticated, for his topic is human relationships with cats as revealed in pictures.


Paul Gaugin’s Mimi and her cat (1890)

He shows how expensive cats are the ones most painted with super-rich people in the 19th century. He is tracing art movements, and it’s telling that impressionism consciously focuses on moods of cats, their relationship to the world. The post-impressionistic yield surprises: I don’t know a number of these painters loved cats. There is a painting Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets to a gay young man may be addressed) while in prison with his cat Trixie nearby; they have the same expression. Morris describes all the cats carefully — he gives In choosing non-realistic images he is wonderfully intuitive about what speaks to us, giving them equal importance with any human animal, aware they too have a burden of existence too. I wish I could scan in them all — but you must buy and then love and savor this piece of cat literature.


Bunny and Kipper by Beryl Cook

I have too many books to talk of so now must be content now to cite but a few more of the best: by a professional vet: Nicholas Dodman, The Cat Who Cried for Help (the obtuse cruelty of owners is chilling, one removed her cat’s voice-box because the sound of the crying grated on her nerves), about attitudes, emotions, psychology of cats; Jenni Diski begins and ends with her cat, Bundy, What I Don’t Know About Animals

She calls herself “post-domestic. ” A “domestic” life in animal studies means you grew up with working animals around you (cows, chickens, horses). So her first experience of animals includes watching her mother buy, cook and then serve a chicken for the family to eat. She says soon after she felt impelled to save a baby bird from a nest who was not grateful but terrified. The bird couldn’t understand what she was aiming at, could not trust, much less love her. The result was the poor bird hid behind the stove in their small kitchen where it was dangerous, and they had to pull it out by force. By the time they prodded it out, it was badly wounded; Jenny ended up wishing the bird would die immediately. The point was how vulnerable animals are to us in our habitats.


Rosa Brett, The Hayloft (1828-82), pre-Raphaelite artist

Most books about living with animals are by women, but this very good one A Cat is Watching is by Roger A Caras: his idea is to try to enable us to see how a cat sees us; this is an enjoyable and informative book filled with revealing photos of cats at play, eating, sleeping, frightened and many black-and-white drawings and illustrations. A wee bit dull in the writing, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Tribe of the Tiger has much to tell of the inward life of the whole tribe of cats. Different species brought together, cats in different milieus and a myriad of questions and tentative answers. I suggest Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room is a (morally stupid) book which pretends to be sympathetic to cats, and keeping animals as companions (pets) but is a stealth attack on cats as ruining our environment. Don’t be fooled. Rather like Kate Chisholm’s Hunger Games is a ferocious attack on anorexics by someone claiming to have been anorexic, Tucker pretends to be a cat lover while telling us all much that we believe about having a relationship with cats is a delusion. I know how Jane Goodall would reply.

To conclude, or as to cat poetry, don’t miss Stevie Smith’s Cats in Colour or Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats. This poem is from an anthology I bought as a memento from the Charlotte Smith conference (in a shop in Sussex), Cats: A Literary Anthology ed. Carolyn M. Jones (from medieval and Montaigne, to French and recent, to science, to comic chapters in novels)

Cats sleep anywhere
Any table, any chair,
Top of piano,
Window-ledge,
In the middle,
On the edge,
Open drawer,
Empty shoe,
Anybody’s lap will do,
Fitted in a cardboard box,
In the cupboard
With your frocks–
Anywhere.
They don’t care!
Cats sleep anywhere.
— Eleanor Farjeon


Les Aristochats — popular French Cartoon

I collect books about and with images of cats, from Edward Gorey to Kliban cats to Susan Herbert’s quiet parodies of “great art” and famous scenes or photographes. Here’s Gene Kelly cat in Singing in the Rain:

This has ended up a cheerful blog.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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


Dominic West as Jean Valjean on the barricades


Joseph Quinn as Enjolras, the serious revolutionary

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

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


Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar)


Madame Thenardier (Olivia Colman)

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Master crook (Ron Cook)

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


Josh O’Connor as Marius

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


Eponine (Erin Kellyman)


Gavroche (Reece Yates)

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

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


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

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


The death scene

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

ValJean dying with Cosette by his side:

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

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

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


Father Myriel


Sister Simplice

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Enjolras and Marius in front of the other revolutionaries:

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Plantagenet and Lady Glencora Palliser (Philip Latham and Susan Hampshire) on their honeymoon, hotel desk registration …. (1974 Pallisers, scripted Simon Raven)


Burgo Fitzgerald buying some food and drink for a beggar girl, street walker (Hablôt Browne (Phiz), one of the original illustrations for the novel)

A Syllabus

Online at: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2019/02/17/a-spring-syllabus-for-reading-anthony-trollopes-can-you-forgive-her-or-palliser-1/

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Wednesday later morning, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
March 27th to May 8
4210 Roberts Road, Tallwood, Fairfax Va
Dr Ellen Moody


Alice meets important politicians (Caroline Mortimer, Roger Livesey as Duke of St Bungay and Moray Watson as Barrington Erle) at Matching Priory


Aunt Greenow with her suitors (Phiz again) on the sands at Yarmouth

Description of Course

In this course we will begin a journey through Trollope’s famous roman fleuve: the six Palliser novels over several spring/fall terms. The series mirrors and delves many many levels of society and central issues of life in 19th century Europe. It contains a cast of brilliantly conceived recurring characters in a realistic thoroughly imagined landscape. CYFH? initiates central linked themes of coerced marriage, class & parliamentary politics & contains extraordinary psychological portraiture. As we move through the books, we’ll watch segments of the 1970s film adaptation dramatizing this material in original modern ways

Required Text:

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her, ed., introd. Stephen Wall. 1972 rpt. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
There are two (!) relatively inexpensive MP3s of Can You Forgive Her?, one read aloud wonderfully well by Simon Vance (Blackstone audio); and the other read even more brilliantly by Timothy West (Audiobooks). I’m listening to Vance and it would be fine if people wanted to listen to Vance or West (who is my favorite reader of Trollope).

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. Read for first week, Chapters 1-11

Mar 27: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; three approaches: women’s issues; as a great political novelist; the artist in hiding: Trollope and the epistolary situation; read for next week, CYFH?, Chs 12-23; read also Robert Hughes’s “Trollope and Fox-Hunting,” Essays in Literature, 12:1 (1984):75-84

Apr 3: 2nd: The state of law and customs regarding marriage, custody of children, women’s property; political parties and the electorate; for next week read CYFH?, Chapters 24-35; read for next week Chapters 35-46, and George Levine, “Can You Forgive Him? and the myth of realism,” Victorian Studies, 18:1 (1974):5-30

Ap 10: 3rd: film clips; Characters; plot-design; POV, the ironical narrator; men’s worlds; women’s friendships; for next week I’ll cover Mary Poovey’s the financial system (sent as attachment) and bills of exchange; for next week read Chs 36-46; I’ll send URLS to my own essays and blogs on the 1974 film adaptation, The Pallisers.

Apr 17: 4th: CYFH?, Political worlds in the 19th century, coerced marriages and adultery; read for next week Chapters 47-58, and I’ll cover Mill’s On the Subjection of Women; Nancy Henry’s essay: “Rushing into Eternity:” Suicide and Finance in Victorian Fiction,” Victorian Investments, New Perspectives on Finance and Culture (a chapter from this book); I send Sharon Marcus, “Contracting Female Marriage in Can You Forgive Her?, Nineteenth-Century Literature 60:3 (2005):291-395

Apr 24: 5th: CYFH?, Read for next week Chapters 59-70. I will try again to show clips from the 1970s film adaptation.  Alternatives: Dames, Nicholas. “Trollope and the Career: Vocational Trajectories and the Management of Ambition.”  Arlene Rodriguez, “Self-sacrifice as desire: on Eleanor Harding and Alice Vavasour, a masters thesis.  Or an essay on travel and travel stories in Victorian novels.

May 1: 6th: CYFH?, Traveling abroad; Trollope and the Male Career (Nicholas Dames’s essay on the place of career trajectories in Trollope’s novels); The official Trollope takes over; read for next week Chapters 70-80 and Bill Overton, “An Interior View,” Modern Language Notes 71 (1976):489-99; “Self and Society in Trollope,” ELH 45:2 (1978):258-302.

May 8: 7th: CYFH?:  La commedia e finita. Anticipating Phineas Finn (Palliser 2)


George Vavasour and Scruby, his campaign manager (Gary Watson and Gordon Gostelow) looking over a check to cover costs of election


Phineas Finn and Laurence Fitzgibbon (Donal McCann and Neil Stacy), two Irishmen entering Parliament (not insiders, last episode of CYFH?)

The interlocking stories and characters of the Pallisers or as it once was called the Parliamentary novels actually gets its start in the 5th Barsetshire novel. The story of Lady Glencora McClusky and Burgo Fitzgerald’s passionate love, clandestine engagement and its abrupt ending and her & Plantagenet Palliser’s coerced marriage may be found across three chapters in The Small House at Allington: Chapters 23 (“Mr Plantagenet Palliser”), 43 (“Fie, fie!”) and 55 (“Not very fie fie after all”) of The Small House of Allington. You can find them online

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/allington/

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/allington/chapter23.html

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/allington/chapter43.html

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/allington/chapter55.html

It is also dramatized in the first episode of The Pallisers, which covers this early episode from The Small House; it comprises the first 45 minutes of what appears to be a vast YouTube of the whole of the Pallisers (but somewhat abridged). Search on the YouTube site for The Pallisers, Can You Forgive Her, Part 1. I will myself the first or second session of class retell these three chapters.


The coerced engagement of Lady Glencora McClusky and Plantagenet Palliser realized symbolically in a park walk (Episode 1 of the Pallisers, from chapters in The Small House at Allington):

Suggested supplementary reading & film for Trollope and Can You Forgive Her?

Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Knopf, 1993. Lively and filled to the brim with a sense of Trollope’s life.
Halperin, John. Trollope & Politics: A study of the Pallisers and Others. University of So. California, 1977. Informative invigorating study.
MacDonald, Susan Peck. Anthony Trollope. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Excellent concise study of the man and his novels.
Mill, John Stuart, “The Subjection of Women.” Broadview Press, 2000. Online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645s/
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: So. Illinois UP, 1989. Balanced, and insightful.
Pallisers. Dir. Hugh David, Ronald Wilson. Screenplay by Simon Raven. Perf: Susan Hampshire, Philip Latham, Donal McCann, Barbara Murray, Anna Massey and Donald Pickering (among others). BBC, 1974, DVD. Available in a newly digitalized version.
Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Standford University Press, 1988.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. NY: New Amsterdam, 1975. A pleasure to read.
Terry, R. C. Anthony Trollope: The Artist in Hiding. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. About how artful the novels are.
Wall, Stephen. Trollope: Living with Characters. NY: Holt, 1988.

Three good general books on the era:

A.N. Wilson, The Victorians. Entertaining, a bit dense, lots of little biographies.
Susie Steinbach, Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th century Britain. She may look less entertaining but she writes clearly and reads easily — and about larger issues from an angle that enables the reader to see the larger political struggles in terms of the daily lives, experiences, and attitudes of ordinary Victorians, and thus manages to get at the important difficult terrain of inward mentalities and the actual experience of particular milieus in the Victorian era.
Simon Heffner’s High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. He is a conservative paternalist Tory writer for the Spectator, Telegraph, New Statesman, sometimes the Guardian and his book, fat as it is, gives real insight into what is commonly thought of as politics. A lot about parliament and progressive legislation and how these laws came about. A section on the Great Exhibition.


George and Alice quarrel violently at the fells, Cumberland


Kate Vavasour with broken arm (Miss E Taylor, one of the original illustrations for Trollope’s novel)

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Small still from 1977 Poldark, Episode 8: Hugh Armitage and Demelza Poldark becoming lovers in the marginalized rural landscape by the sea of Cornwall

Friends,

I noticed tonight many hits on my blogs and essays on the Poldark novels, especially those which provided the equivalent episodes of the older 1970s Poldark to the one aired tonight on BBC: from the conclusion of The Four Swans (1977 Episode 8) and the opening of The Angry Tide (1977 Episode 9). So I’ve provided a couple of stills from this material for the opening of this blog


Elizabeth telling Warleggan she will leave him if he does not stop his insane possessive spying on her, and imposing a crazed anxiety and coldness which is ruining her life (1977 Poldark Episode 8)

I regret to say I have no summary or stills from the start of the fourth season. As someone who lives outside the UK, I cannot as yet access the show nor the BBC iplayer: a friend is working on that to see if we can use VPN; another friend is recording the show for me in Ireland and will send the DVDs as he can — it will not be immediately.

But I thought I would return to Winston Graham tonight. I have over these several weeks since April (when I at long last gave over trying to write an academic style paper on Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as “modernist” biographers) read carefully one short story and some six of Graham’s early novels, all belonging to the the popular novel formulaic kind of suspense, mystery, thriller, detective, murder type I wrote about last week, this six first written before the breakthrough (as I’ll call it) of Ross Poldark (1945). In two cases I have only a later revision, and in one both the early novel and later revision:

The House with Stained Glass Windows (Graham’s first published novel), 1934: a barely readable juvenilia: it’s as if someone took the silly Clue game and made a novel out of it, but it has recognizable elements of typical Graham amalgams, especially a sort of mentally disabled neurotic man (very over done in this first attempt)

“The Medici Earring,” 1935, a short story, reprinted 1965 and 1971: All three versions differ; I discover tonight that I have the 1935 version (which appeared in an issue of the Windsor Magazine for that year). I read the last, the 1971 version (which appears in The Japanese Girl, a collection of short stories). I dislike the tone of the 1971 version, that of a mild sarcastic male, the sort of thing popular in smart-alecky detective stories. Especially offensive is the attitude voiced towards the girl in the story: she is delectable. While it could be this is ironic (on the part of the implied author too) since surely we are not to like this man as he stole the earring and has lied to everyone. However, in other of these suspense stories and many many of them by men especially women are treated as objects available for sex. Here the implied author is quite hidden — I assume we are not to like this awful man but I’m not sure the point is moral exposure.

The Dangerous Pawn, 1937: effective in its own right, at moments in the conversations it reminded me of Norman Douglas’s South Wind, better than the 12th Poldark, Bella, evocative descriptions of Scilly Islands, with probably revealing autobiographical elements. Four opening chapters take place in India (with flashbacks to the UK) and Singapore, and Graham critiques the Raj from the point of view of a white subaltern. The hero is in class (like Paul Scott’s Merrick in his Raj Quartet) and when he takes the hit or blame for the neglect of a major dam, he is ejected; he goes to Singapore to try to obtain a similar subaltern British position, but is instead lured to become a wealthy man’s private secretary and sub-manager of a corporation in London. Eventually the novel and its hero finds a true core in Cornwall and the islands just off it — a complicated plot. Many of the elements found in the Poldark novels are in this book in a different amalgam. A secondary hero anticipates the character of Valentine Warleggan fascinatingly because of the same name and personality resemblances, and he is not a character twisted into self-hatred like the Valentine of the Poldark books. Part of the reason it is superior is it is not structured as a murder mystery.

The Giant’s Chair, 1938, unfortunately completely re-hauled into a much poorer Woman in the Mirror, 1975: streamlined modernized, it loses all the charms of the first gothic-like 1930s style, heavily descriptive and mythic haunted Wales book, also heavy with indirect autobiography. I recognize disturbing caricatures of Graham’s own mother and his self as in an older strong woman and a disabled son. I found myself involved with the characters, even liking a couple of them. The older version has as back story a poignant romantic love vignette. The later book has some remarkable lines, it’s more coherent and pointed, but much of the atmosphere of the first, all the beauty of the love story is gone and at the end we are confronted with a sordid melodramatic murder. It is remarkable to me (and significant) that Graham later in life cannot tell what is good in his writing and what is bad. I assume he was embarrassed by the earlier book and/or seduced into imitating what is the going style (so he intuits) that sells.

Night Journey, my copy printed in 1975, a somewhat revised 1966 version of an earlier 1941 book of the same title: it put me in mind of Graham Greene and LeCarre school because the book is an attempt to reveal the amorality of global spying during WW2; I’ve not read the earlier where there might be more specific autobiographical parallels in the characters. In this one the protagonist is pressured into facilitating the killing of someone without any trial, just on supposition. (So it anticipates what is openly done in the US drone killings today). The love interest is completely meretricious (phony). At the opening there is brief entry of a character who seemed to me to anticipate how Ross Poldark might appear to others. Bleak, pessimistic, self-contained.


Ross pressured by Bassett into seeking out to arrest and try (and eventually hang) someone as a scapegoat because he participated in some food riots (1977 Poldark Episode 9)

Merciless Ladies, 1979, a somewhat revised version of an earlier 1944 book: with an interesting pretense that the narrator is considering a biography of the hero, who is kept at a distance, intelligent details about schools of art in the era, court-trial scenes, like Dangerous Pawn it seems hardly a mystery type until near the end when it falls off badly into a scene where the narrator kills one of the two vicious women (the “merciless ladies” of the unfortunate coy title, not atypical of the era), presented as justifiable. It is a rare book of this kind to sympathize with those who participated in the strike of 1926, to criticize fascism, to be anti-war. There is a thrust towards solitude as a way to recover and sustain integrity and strength. Among the more apparently virtuous characters there is a a distaste for the publicity, for public self-selling. I have not read the first version and more may perhaps be learned about the author’s motives or aims or dissatisfaction with the first by comparing the two.

The Forgotten Story, 1945, like Dangerous Pawn, effective in its own right, it combines a realization of Cornwall in 1898 in an anxiety-producing story, with a young boy narrator, and an ominous dense woman who poisons people who get in her way. It contains one of Graham’s numerous semi-rape or at least some kind of sexual assault scenes between a husband and wife where the husband is presented as justified; in this one he apologizes and the depiction of the heroine is done to show us how little opportunity for self-realization, power, independence, liberty a young woman of middling status had in this early era (and perhaps in the 1940s too), which allows the novel’s sexual subplot between the husband and wife to be read against the grain. I became very anxious for two of the characters, really cared what happened to them. Atmosphere and evocation of Cornwall, the sea, the world of ships very good. I wrote a full account of this novel some years ago. I didn’t realize then the extent to which this book conforms to mystery and Cornish subgenres combined.


Drake now a blacksmith and Geoffrey Charles talking (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

These are not all Graham’s early pre-Poldark novels. The 1931 Black Beard (a title which reveals its stance, one might wish ironically but I doubt it) is lost or destroyed; 1935 Into the Fog, The Riddle of John Rowe; 1936 Without Motive; 1939 Keys of Chance; 1942 My Turn Next. None of these are available in the Library of Congress, which is the major research library available to me without traveling. There are two early or pre-Poldark plays, the first not available to me without traveling: 1936 Seven Suspected, the 1938 Forsaking All Others is lost (or destroyed). But I have managed to obtain a copy of Strangers Meeting, 1939, which is said to be a novelization of Forsaking All Others; Strangers Meeting is set in Cornwall. I have now  read it and it is a good book of the type. (I’ll write of it separately).  A last sort of pre-Poldark is No Exit (1940) begun after Graham had started Ross Poldark.  There is a copy of No  Exit in the Library of Congress near me. Graham’s works for print and private papers are located in the complicated situation of different libraries: one is in Cornwall, another Reading; research may be done in the British Library in London. The scripts for the early Poldark series and probably the new ones are in the BBC archives library.

There are three streams of popular material which make up the matter of Graham’s writing: this suspense genre; regional Cornish stories and writing; and historical novels and romance. I make a separate category for stories set in Cornwall as it does seem to me that the Cornish setting leads to a certain kind of text: I’ve seen this happen in other authors who lived or just visited Cornwall; it is true of Anthony Trollope’s remarkably good 19th century story, “Malachi’s Cove,” adapted into an effective BBC movie.

He did write screenplays, and very much interested himself, played an active role where he could in the film adaptations of his books — of which I have counted 9 (if you count all the the 1970s serial dramas as one film adaptation and all serial dramas since 2015 as another). So in 1945 he wrote a script for a film, Take My Life, with Valerie Taylor (this exists in a 1947 DVD), which he rewrote as a novel: I have both a copy of the DVD and a copy of the novel, which I have read but a while back and must reread. Take My Life as a project occurs around the time of Ross Poldark and Demelza.

I’m writing this blog in the same spirit I wrote many of my blogs on film adaptations of Austen, on Woolf and Johnson and other topics over the years — to see where I am and work out a few thoughts in brief blog-essay, which I hope is coherent enough for the reader to gain some knowledge too. Graham does convey throughout characters who involved themselves in businesses and gov’t and he writes about this kind of experience, as well as different areas in the world knowledgeably. So he traveled. There is an assumption of understanding of social life — though he presents it as dysfunctional. The earlier books show himself and his mother; he presents the Demelza type from early on. The more intriguing or less moral female characters (who are not vicious) are yet to come (Elizabeth Chynoweth say or the amoral heroine of Angell, Pearl and Little God, 1970).

I now realize how much of the suspense material is taken over into the Poldarks and how the concerns in the suspense material exist across the Poldark matter. There are to me deeply disquieting misogynisic patterns across the whole oeuvre: a woman is repeatedly killed or assaulted or raped by a man and the act is justified; his famous Marnie belongs to this (1963), and lent itself to a Hitchcock voyeuristic mean-minded nightmare; Graham’s later favorite novel (he said), After the Act (1965) is about the intense regret of a man who has murdered his older wife.  The cheap nature of this book, its thinness and cover sicken me: 1978 The Tumbled House.  I feel ill looking at the packaging of the later Cameo (1988, a thorough reworking of the 1942 My Turn Next), mercifully it’s shortTitles turn me off:  Merciless Ladies (mentioned above); 1998 The Ugly Sister.  Those who write in this genre do not have me and my woman’s taste or feminism in mind. Across all the fiction I will say that Graham’s texts come most alive  and the best of his psychological writing comes out when he is writing of Cornwall and marginalized rural places nearby.

I don’t want this blog to go on for too long so shall stop listing with notes at this point; after 1945 when the Poldark novels start, during the twenty year hiatus between the fourth of the first quartet (Warleggan, 1953) and the first of second trilogy (The Black Moon, 1973), and during the writing of the later quartet and final coda to the Poldarks (Nos 8-12, Stranger from the Sea through Bella), he composed a number of short stories, numerous suspense novels, three more historical novels other than the Poldarks, travel or descriptive regional writing, one of which is partly a memoir and an autobiography, to say nothing of scattered journalism. I have read some of this material but not with notes and care so will make my way through these slowly as well as what of the non-Poldark films once again.


Old photo of St Ives as harbor and art colony

From my reading thus far I am becoming persuaded that the approach I must take is through the genres and Cornwall. I wanted to write a biography but that will take travel to libraries so must not count on it as a central nexus and I have learned Graham’s son is far from eager. So despite a real distaste for some of this material — like Anthony Trollope I just can’t get myself to care what happened at 2:15 on Monday at the stile nor do I read to discover what happens next — I’ll have to get to know the typical characteristics of it, and pick out what I can like of it. I have made a list of such novels to go through. Previous old favorites of mine of the mystery-murder type were Umberto Eco’s Il Nome della Rosa and (believe it or not) Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun. For spy stories I’ve read a number of LeCarre, also Graham Greene. I know from teaching, film watching and novels which mix realism with the mystery genre, as well as a few masters that it lends itself to serious social criticism, and since Hammett socially aware books. I have loved Daphne DuMaurier and films set in Cornwall so hope to enjoy exploring that vein. I have no list for more romance fiction or Cornish stories as yet. Historical fiction and romance happily I’ve read a good deal of and love. I have no working title any more (it was Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark matter) as I have seen I shall have to change my perspective to include this suspense material yet write sympathetically.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Tilda Swinton as Eve (The Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013)


Thornton burning down (a 2006 Sandy Welch Jane Eyre, with Ruth Wilson as Jane)

Friends and readers,

Much to my surprise, or I might say re-awakening to the Brontes, when over the last ten weeks I reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, then Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wilfell Hall, and finally Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I found (honestly) I preferred Jane Eyre to the other two. I found I had forgotten and begun to underestimate the originality, radical visions, the (also) sober and somber experiences of these books. They are all gothics (as is the recent quintessential The Only Lovers Left Alive, which I used as the blog gravatar), with the characteristics of female gothic (see my blog after reading Anne Williams’s The Art of Darkness), which brings to the fore the real subjection of women in society then and now.


A too flattering picture of Charlotte by George Richmond

I had forgotten what a masterpiece for sentences startlingly filled with vivid images after vivid images, original thought, sheer passion, alive with an individually convincing presence is Jane Eyre. Never a dull moment as to story. Burning with indignation at large and mean injustices. The unforgettable opening scenes at Gateshead and Lowood.  Later on, the gypsy scene with Rochester. Who ever wrote a better proposal scene, or witty teasing courting scenes. The theme of refusing to allow one’s innate self to be violated or a demand for acknowledgement of having done a wrong (when there has been none) or downright cruel self-berating is no where better. And how about this to add to your touchstones, Matthew Arnold?

I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay (Chapter 19)


Gemma Jones as Mrs Fairfax, Samantha Morton as Jane Eyre


George C Scott as Rochester, Susannah York Jane

Jane Eyre is about the centrality of childhood, the need a girl has for women friends, for a mother; the power of men. I never forget the scene of Jane waking in the morning, her beloved Helen, dead next to her. All the women must win a man. About psychic disturbance: is Bertha a projection of Jane’s intense anger. Jane re-tells her story over and over, each time more in control but obsessive. Rochester is a man of conscience and he does love Jane (and is so emasculated, dependent, even losing a hand) so we rejoice in the ending for her. We hope she does know peace. the Novel has presented a lesson similar to that of Mansfield Park: the validity of endurance of suffering. Jane has won through.

Her heroine does not enjoy teaching: and we can find in her A Teacher’s Monologue her dissatisfaction with what was available to her from life:

Tis not the air I wished to play,
The strain I wished to sing;
My wilful spirit slipped away
And struck another string.
I neither wanted smile nor tear,
Bright joy nor bitter woe,
But just a song that sweet and clear,
Though haply sad, might flow.

A quiet song, to solace me
When sleep refused to come;
A strain to chase despondency
When sorrowful for home.
In vain I try; I cannot sing;
All feels so cold and dead;
No wild distress, no gushing spring
Of tears in anguish shed;

But all the impatient gloom of one
Who waits a distant day,
When, some great task of suffering done,
Repose shall toil repay.
For youth departs, and pleasure flies,
And life consumes away,
And youth’s rejoicing ardour dies
Beneath this drear delay;

And Patience, weary with her yoke,
Is yielding to despair,
And Health’s elastic spring is broke
Beneath the strain of care.
Life will be gone ere I have lived;
Where now is Life’s first prime?
I’ve worked and studied, longed and grieved,
Through all that rosy time.

I re-journeyed through some of the many Jane Eyre movies, and FWIW, among the very best is the 1972 film noir (that’s the genre the genre “classic film adaptation” cum mini-series has been blended into), Jane Eyre, directed by Delbert Mann, starring George C. Scott as Rochester as moving Rochester, a woman who has learned to value humane morality with Susannah York as Jane. Cherry-picking Samantha Morton is the finest sensitive portrayal of Jane, and the 1997 Jane Eyre, directed by Robert Young (starring Ciarhan Hinds as Rochester) captures a modern understanding of Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She craves quiet, and achieves this through self-controlled endurance. And I recommend the latest Jane Eyre, 2011, Mia Wasikowsa as Jane flees Rochester at near the opening of film, and St John Rivers is re-conceived as human.

A woman’s take with the emphasis on Jane’s escape from Rochester and hardships to near starvation, and a domesticity not found elsewhere is in Sandy Welch’s Jane Eyre. Ironically this is not true to the spirit of Jane Eyre until near the end. Jane is restless, she wants challenge, to rise in the world, excitement. This is probably the most feminist passage in all the Bronte’s writing:

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags (Chapter 12)


Ruth Wilson as Jane in flight from Rochester who wants to re-make her as she finds St John Rivers wants to

This reading of Jane Eyre was a culmination of my summer read of the powerful biography of Charlotte by Claire Harman. I learned about a manuscript I didn’t know existed before: a two chapter beginning of a novel called Emma: from wikipedia: “an apparently wealthy young girl, Matilda Fitzgibbon, at an expensive private school. It transpires that her identity is fake, and that her school fees will not be paid. The child is unable to answer any questions as to her true identity.”


Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham


Toby Stephens as Markham reading Helen’s diaries

I had learned a few years ago when I watched Sandy Welch’s great film of Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and again this summer when I reviewed Nick Holland’s In Search of Anne Bronte, what a compelling transgressive truly feminist book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is. As I listened (from a cover-to-cover reading aloud of the novel) to David Case as Gilbert Markham reading aloud Markham’s two parts of the novel, I fell in love with the character. Anne Bronte wants to sweep away those norms for masculinity which encourage self- and society destructive behavior; women must be educated by experience and then they will not marry the worst of men.


Anne Bronte by Charlotte

I should mention I didn’t take upon myself to study these three books just like this, but was following an 8 week course called “The Best of the Brontes” given by a Dr Linda Freeman at the OLLI at AU. She offered an informed perspective on religion in this novel as the core for Helen Graham’s strong self-esteem, feminist stances, and behavior to Arthur Huntingdon, who if he would reform, could transform himself; Helen’s firm belief in her own value enables her to defy Huntington, tell him she wants to leave him with her child, flee him with the child (however illegally) and support herself by her art. For the first I realized there is an attempted rape scene (recalling Richardson’s Clarissa): Huntington gives Helen over to his pals and the one who has pretended to be on Helen’s side overhearing her telling Huntington she wants to leave, offers to elope with her and when she refuses, becomes livid with anger and tries to force her sexually; she pulls out a palate knife (from no-where it seems).

I read an eye-opening essay on the novel’s subjective writerly structure: it’s two sets of letters written by Markham to a friend 20 years after the novel’s main events are over; sandwiched between is Helen’s day-by-day epistolary like journal. Stewart proposes that this brings home how little orality was prized in Victorian fiction; that what we are given is an extra-territorial autobiography/biography and all readers understood this. The Victorian novel enabled them to work out what was happening in their own lives by presenting as impersonal (a manuscript), and long ago what was personal and immediate. I liked Gilbert Markham, and can see how he and Helen could flourish together: how he cares for her boy.

I love Anne Bronte for her longing for her home and love of it in this poem:

Consolation

Though bleak these woods and damp the ground
With fallen leaves so thickly strewn,
And cold the wind that wanders round
With wild and melancholy moan,
There is a friendly roof I know
Might shield me from the wintry blast;
There is a fire whose ruddy glow
Will cheer me for my wanderings past.

And so, though still where’er I roam
Cold stranger glances meet my eye,
Though when my spirit sinks in woe
Unheeded swells the unbidden sigh,

Though solitude endured too long
Bids youthful joys too soon decay,
Makes mirth a stranger to my tongue
And overclouds my noon of day,

When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.

Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.

The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.

Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.


Kay Adshead as Cathy Earnshaw


Ken Hutchison as Heathcliff (Peter Hammond and David Snodin 1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights)

I found I had forgotten Wuthering Heights too: crude as it sometimes is, like Jane Eyre, there is a remarkably complicated vocabulary, deeply expressive of actual human passions, poetic in its apprehension of the natural world all around the characters; like Tenant, the structure of two tellers in the present presenting two levels of story, and these from the distant, medium distant past and then in the last part immediate presents, makes for layers of anger and suffering and degradation out of the perpetual violence, at times gratuitous against helpless creatures. Now Heathcliff is the outcast victim, brought up to be without resources to support himself as a gentleman. “I am Heathcliff” can be taken as more than an enthralled love utterance.  The famous utterances about the person who revels in wildness and the one who loves calm, peace.  There are complicated love issues (do you want boundaries between you and another?), a will, Heathcliff the sadist towards Isabella Linton presented as wanting to be hurt (this is troubling). Only Hareton isn’t twisted beyond redemption by relentless scorn and the young Cathy is left to find peace with him. Almost everyone dies. There is an anti-colonialist theme in that Heathcliff might be the illegitimate son of Mr Earnshaw by an enslaved black woman (this angle recurs in Jane Eyre as Bertha Mason came from Jamaica).


Said to be Emily Bronte by her brother Branwell

Here I wanted to call attention to a great film adaptation that seems to have been forgotten because it lacks celebrity stars: the 1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights, directed by Peter Hammond no less, with marvelous script writer, David Snodin, 5 episodes, the closest film to WH I’ve ever watched, capture the eerie vision at the core of the book, not only a desperate violence at the heart of nature, a ceaseless urge to cruelty, especially when the person has been treated unjustly, viciously, but at the same time a deep suffering and plangent grief that this is so. This feels visionary because it is presented in the book and in this film that in the landscape itself this pattern is set. There is also (no getting away from it) a belief in an omnipresent supernatural afterlife just out of our reach, but manifesting itself in the same pattern of cruelty and grief.

I’m not alone in thinking this: in Valerie Hazette’s Journey through time and Culture: Wuthering Heights: TV and Film, a book which covers all aspects of films (from technology to culture) on this one film singles out this 1977-78 film for 7 pages. What helps make the film important is it also dramatizes the whole book including fully the second half and the relationship of Isabella Linton with Heathcliffe.

Although about an inadequate film, the first, the 1939 famously with Oliver and Oberon (too romantic and only about half the book), George Bluestone’s essay in his Novels into Films is the only place I’ve seen this core aspect of Emily Bronte’s book frankly approached. (I need to read far more of the secondary criticism since the 1990s de-construction movement), where he quotes a line from an essay Emily Bronte wrote at M.Heger’s Pensionat de Demoiselles, in Brussels, in an essay she called “The Butterfly:” Nature is an inexplicable puzzle, life exists on a principle of destruction, every creature must be the relentless instrument of death to others, or himself cease to live.” Is not that an astonishing frightening thing to think or say.

Here is one of Emily’s imagined poems:

Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?

Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

I’ve written a foremother poet blog for both Anne and Charlotte where you can read more of their poetry. I thought it very telling that both Charlotte and Anne’s heroines are painters.

There is so much more to be said. The books are obviously so different from Austen’s who is often coupled with them in discussions of earlier women writers. Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey while quiet, prosaic, realistic, is wholly unlike Austen in tone: she is caustic, bitter, severely critical of her employers and when she escapes relieved to find quiet romance. Barbara Tepa Lupack in her collection, Nineteenth-Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film, includes two excellent essays on the from adapted from Jane Eyre (by Kate Ellis and E.Ann Kaplan) and Wuthering Heights (by Lin Haire-Sargeant) respectively. Linda Freeman suggested we add Jane Campion’s The Piano to our Bronte movies.  (Tara Fitzgerald is heroine in Tenant; the closely similar Holly Hunter the heroine of Piano.)

I disagreed with Linda about Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography and Patrick Bronte: see my review of Lucasta Miller’s hatchet job. She presented a far too positive and normative or normalizing picture of Patrick Bronte. She did rely a great deal on the magisterial book by Juliet Barker. There was little said about Branwell Bronte: that he turns up as Hindley in Wuthering Heights, lies behind some of the scenes of Arthur Huntingdon’s alcoholism and death scene in The Tenant. The biography by Daphne DuMaurier which brings out his gifts as a poet and thwarted painter was cited. I was relieved that he was not berated and made into an easy central punching bag as in the recent wretched movie, To Walk Invisible. There is currently at the Bronte parsonage an attempt to treat Branwell with respect and do justice to his life.


A self-portrait by Branwell, c 1840

Thus I record how I managed to keep my mind absorbed and myself active, enduring in relative calm and peace in my house and going out to be with people outside over these books for some 8 weeks. And you see me doing this in imagination — holding on — tonight

Ellen

Read Full Post »


John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

In his Autobiography Trollope put himself firmly on record as resisting not just the commercialization of Christmas, but the way a cultural conformity of imposition leads people to pretend to Christmas feeling, resulting in meretricious art: he uses memorably negative images and metaphors to capture his “distaste” over the hypocrisy and artifice of being paid to produce a story filled with “cheer” and other manufactured “good feelings” because the “market” called for it. Since he makes a point over and over that he was never ashamed of writing for money, I assume he didn’t like being hired to pretend to feel what he did not feel, and especially with regard to Christmas where he thought some genuine worthy feelings were being corrupted (hollowed out, destroyed by exploitation):

“While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an uphosterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been Christmas at Thompson Hall], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time,– the picture-makers always required a long interval, — as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.”

Since he felt thus strongly, I have thus far not written any blog on his Christmas stories, individually or as a group. But time wears the spirit down, we compromise and the reality is quite a number of the stories are superb. One can even find (as with Dickens, or Oliphant or other Victorian authors who wrote a number of Christmas stories) a recurring set of themes, and motifs whether the story takes place in the fierce (fiery) heat of Australia (Harry Heathcote), centers on Christmas or just takes place at that time of year regularly or at a climax (“Catherine Carmichael,” “Two Generals”, “The Telegraph Girl”). He was deeply sceptical (not a mystic element in this man’s mind) and you will not find any ghosts or miracles, no revenants seeking revenge or to awaken the better nature of the person visited,no places haunted by some invisible past. He tends strongly not to focus on Christmas itself (the holiday or even its customs, with Mistlebough an exception) but let the time of year or the setting, the expectations built up around the holiday provide the emotional temperature. Then you find stories exploring the nature of charity, forgiveness, reconciliation, compromise, how the holiday functions as a memory device (it marks time), and brings out what is most characteristic in the nature of dominant characters. He wants his story to be a genuinely felt experience too.

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

John Everett Millais, “Christmas at Noningsby” (Orley Farm)

Trollope wrote ten of them in longer and shorter stories, and four comparative chapters inside a remarkable novel, Orley Farm: I picked these out as stories taking place around Christmas time, where Christmas an experience or time-maker figures in the story), and in Orley Farm anthropologically considered. I’ve written (together with others conversational style) analyses, commentaries, summaries of these (linked in).

4 chapters in Orley Farm (Christmas in Harley Street, at Noningsby. at Groby Park, in Great St Helens (Chapters 21-24) (written 1860)
The Widow’s Mite (written 1862)
“The Mistletoe Bough” (written 1861)
“The Widow’s Mite” (written 1862),
Two Generals (written 1863)
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (written 1863)
“Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage” (written 1870)
“Christmas at Thompson Hall” (written 1876)
“The Telegraph Girl” (written 1877),
“Catherine Carmichael; or Three Years Running” (written 1878)
“Not If I Know It” (1882)

My favorite once was “Christmas at Thompson Hall,” because I saw it as a story of comic anguish, not about the reunion home but the experience of intense pressure when obstacles get in the way of getting there, especially if you have lost status in some ways vis-a-vis against the other members of your family over the years. Mary Brown’s husband has lived a supine drone-like existence, they have no children, and they have rarely returned until now when she feels she must because her sister is marrying. We see how her husband has used a supposed weakness of constitution to control her and in this case almost thwarts her getting there in time. She takes this punishment of her out on the staff and also him, but is herself humiliated. Alas, it’s not the husband who ends up over-medicated – which would provide some poetic justice. (But then life doesn’t). In a way were her dithering trips around a vast freezing cold palace of a French hotel not done empathetically, many would not be amused. The story is edgy.

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

But recently I found myself much preferring, enjoying once again, “The Widow’s Mite” for the full sociological and economic context, the character types, and especially Trollope’s revision of the familiar parable. The deeper lesson I glean is that it does not matter if the giver has to give up something, the way to measure how much good you do is how much you gave to the person in need and how much it helped them practically, not you morally (because that is too hard and ambiguous). I concede I may be reading against the grain here.


Newchurch in Pendle, Winter — Lancashire — K. Melling

A summary, in Judy Geater’s words,

“shamelessly pinched from John Sutherland’s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics Early Short Stories. Sutherland explains that the publisher of evangelical magazine “Good Words”, Alexander Strahan, wrote to Trollope asking for a short Christmas/ New Year tale for the January 1863 edition of the magazine, passing on a suggestion from Scottish minister Norman Macleod that the title should be “Out of Work” and that it should deal with the unemployment in northern textile mills caused by the cotton famine as a result of the American Civil War. Trollope agreed but politely objected to the title. ” ‘Out of Work’ would be a very nice name for a story – But it would be needfull with such a name that the chief character should be an operative. I do not think I could manage this. But the line of the story shall be of the same nature – if possible.”

Sutherland writes: “‘The Widow’s Mite,’… was one of Trollope’s strongest efforts to date. He had visited the United States for six months over 1861-2 and his mind was full of the country and its turbulent condition. The story is narrated in Trollope’s increasingly relaxed comic mode, but the mood is hotly topical – angry, almost… the story, while maintaining its easy tone of social comedy, probes the sorest of middle-class sore points – is it ‘charity’ if you don’t feel the donation as loss? ‘How many of us,’ Trollope asks, ‘when we give, give from our own backs, and from out of our own mouths?’ Walk through the streets of London or New York and it is still a topical question.”

We learn about the Lancashire cotton famine, the cost to the workers of supporting the anti-slavery states. Jenny Uglow in her biography of Elizabeth Gaskell writes:

The mills had no American cotton, but the masters were reluctant to change their machinery to suit Indian supplies if there was hope of the Civil War ending. Elizabeth set up ‘Sewing-schools’ to provide part-time work and corresponded eagerly with Florence Nightingale, hoping that some of the laid-off mill-women might train as nurses… ‘The poor old women’ were her special concern: ‘at present they have only the workhouse allowance; barely enough for the cheapest, poorest food – only just enough to keep life in. They have worked hard all their working years – poor old friendless women, and now crave and sicken after a “taste of bacon” or something different to the perpetual oat-meal.’By late summer the Plymouth Grove household had to check themselves from talking about the distress, ‘which was literally haunting us in our sleep, as well as being the first thoughts on waking and the last at night’. Gaskell’s words, in a letter, but this is very much the feeling you get in Trollope’s story, too, where the family are increasingly feeling guilty about every little luxury while others have nothing.


Pissaro, Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes, Winter (1870)

Judy Geater wrote of the story:

“The story is written with a wonderfully light touch, but still gets its powerful message across, probably as effectively as any preacher. At the start, most readers will be likely to laugh at the argument between Charley and Bob, where Bob tries to prove that if everybody gave up their Christmas dinner the savings would be “two millions and a half” – and Charley brings him down to earth by pointing out that the grocer and butcher would be ruined. However, if as readers we continue to scoff at Nora as she decides to make her own personal sacrifice by doing without wedding finery, I think the laughter soon dies on our lips as we realise that there is indeed a real point in her giving up her two mites.

My idea (Ellen here) is it is the feeling that people ought to have a decent dinner on such a day, some warmth, something to feel hopeful about that gives rise to the action of the story. What shall this middle class family do, if anything, to help the Lancashire cottonworkers of the area? Is it in good taste for the family to have an expensive wedding and the bride a luxurious dress when all around them others starve. Trollope seems to think this talk is phony, the characters don’t really mean it — or he has one of his characters (the American alas) assert that.

As the story opens we are told the American civil war has led to the Lancashire cotton workers losing their jobs and as it has gone on for some time they are now beginning literally to go without food, without warmth, without clothes, and some are nearly starving. They have been laid off as there is no cotton to work upon, but as Trollope develops the story there seems to be little resentment against the war against by the people it’s hurting. (It has been suggested they identified with the slaves.) The heroine, Nora, wants to help her uncle, the Reverend Mr Granger, gather money to feed the workers, but she feels she wants to feel she’s done something. It’s not enough to give out of her superfluity; she wants to give up something she will miss. It may seem odd that she finds this difficult to do — but she is middle class, gentry, genteel — and by the end of the story, has not pulled it off, quite. She is about to be married and the question arises, how much money should they spend in this situation. Will they look bad? to themselves, it seems.


An illustration for a 19th century wedding dress

This ‘problem’ is one that seems to speak to some middle class people as important. To those who starve or are homeless, such a question is egocentric: the concern suggests that the middle class is more interested in its own feelings than in giving to those who are in need. Still this is the way the story is often read; when I assigned it to my classes, one girl gave a long talk about how when she was young, someone forced her to give up an expensive doll she liked to a cousin. She was told that wasn’t charity at all as she didn’t even need it. I’m afraid this little girl wasn’t impressed.

The story is done in Trollope’s usual multi-perspective narrative: we look at the characters as products of their class and type and nationality. Their attitudes reflect their situation in life and what cultural group they grew up in. Nora’s cousin, Bob, suggests all the people in England, Scotland, and Ireland should simply not eat a Christmas dinner, take all the money saved, and hand that out. He is only momentarily non-plussed when he is told the problem is the Irish don’t have a Christmas meal to give away: “They never have any in Ireland, Bob.”

Charley, Nora’s other cousin, takes her to task for not spending money on finery, for in her efforts to help the cottonworkers she will leave those who make clothes without work: “Charley condemned [Nora] altogether, pointing out that it was bad policy to feed the cotton spinners at the expense of the milliners.” He is the one who feels the others are pretending to themselves they feel this regret.

The characters argue explicitly over how the wealthy in their community should go about giving to the poor: should they give charity or does this ruin the independent spirit of the workers? In the situation at hand this is an absurdity. It is said by the Newt Gingrich of the piece, Frederick Frew, Nora’s bethrothed and an American, who we are told “trusts to syllogisms which are often false, instead of to the experience of his life and daily workings of his mind.” Trollope tells us explicitly and through the use of heavy irony that our American Fred is wrong when he scorns charity givers as degrading the poor, that his analogy of “how dogs let other dogs starve and therefore we but follow nature if we do likewise to other people” is wrong, and that his idea “the widow would have done better to have invested her small capital in some useful trade,” is a hilarious bit of anachronistic and here obtuse American capitalism. Trollope was not a Tory in his own time; he ran on the Liberal ticket. Alas, this kind of thinking is running rampant in the US again today — at least among the powerful in Fox and other corporate news media.

Back to the story. How does Nora solve her problem? (Note it’s her problem; the angle is taken focuses on Nora and not the starving people.) Well, what she tries to do is to give the money she was going to use to make herself expensive finery to wear on her wedding day to her uncle for the use of the cotton-mill workers. She is about to be married and decides she will have a plain wedding, and she refuses to allow her American (and Unionist) husband-to-be to pay for the finery which he could do. I would liken Nora to the person with one pair of very fancy boots walking in the snow who sees someone with nothing on his feet. She gives up her boots up so she can feel the snow, although she has a small pair of ordinary shoes in her bag and is close to home where there’s another pair of boots waiting for her.

What Nora discovers is she doesn’t miss her very fancy boots at all, and — and this is what is interesting about the story — she doesn’t get the uplift she had longed for. She thought it would make her feel good to walk through the snow shoeless ( to keep up my metaphor) or with inadequate shoes, but it somehow doesn’t. This is the subtlest level of the story. Trollope suggests such a feeling is fleeting at best because luxurious goods are not what make us happy.

There’s an anti-materialism at the heart of this story and perhaps this is what makes it an idealistic or Christmas story — and it’s why I like it. This anti-materialism is figured forth for us in the closing scene of the wedding — Nora does have a very plain one. Nora finds that she didn’t need the finery. More: its absence is not only unimportant but actually adds to the beauty of the moment. The narrator underlines this moral lest we not pick it up:

“For myself [Trollope speaking as narrator within the story] I think they all looked more comfortable on that cold winter morning without the finery which would have been customary than they could have done without it. It had seemed to them all beforehand that a marriage without veils and wreaths, without white gloves nd new gay dresses, would be but a triste affair; but the idea passed away altogether when the occasion came. [The immediate family heads for church with the bridegroom with them, but said bridegroom], Frederick F Frew had met with a rebuff in the hall of the Parsonage, in being forbidden to take his own bride under his own arm; but when the time for action came, he bore no malice, but went through the work manfully. On the whole, it was a pleasant wedding, homely, affectionate, full of much loving greeeting… this, at any rate, was certain, that the wedding clothes were not missed. When they all went down to their breakfast in the Parsonage dining-room, that little matter had come to be clean forgotten.”

We might read the story as against turning something privately meaningful into an occasional for conspicuous consumption. (Gentle reader, can you tell how I dislike large expensive weddings? — I know of relationships which broke up over the wedding; others where years later the people are still paying for it as well as a divorce.)

In this moment Nora does feel the uplift she longed for. Her uplift is in her actual preference for the simple and for plain emotion, not in having deprived herself of some luxury. Nonetheless, we are left with some decent thought about the parable which Trollope also consciously emphasizes. Through the parable, he asks, Why was it necessary for Nora to “feel” deprived in order to feel her charity was charity? It seems to me that Trollope’s text shows us this parable projects a very selfish kind of charity, one which is egoistic: Nora’s feelings about her charity giving were were more important than the results of the charitable act: feeding hungry people, providing them with warmth and clothes.


A woman fallen on hard times bringing her baby home in a snow-filled landscape

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »