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A close-up

Friends and readers,

More than week late, because before writing my tribute I wanted to re-watch a few of my favorite films, all of which Alan Rickman worked in centrally; but with two good longish clips and a good trailer, and a whole YouTube movie, I add my voice and this blog to the many many paying tribute to Rickman’s acting career and what we know of his private life. Catherine Shoard’s fine obituary in The Guardian does justice to the variety of roles he played on the stage, in movie-houses, on TV; Michael Quinn tells more of his life and describes his mesmerizing qualities in The Stage.

What can I add? Not much I fear because I never saw him on stage, only read about his startling first performance as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and much later as Hamlet himself. He and Helen Mirren did not receive rave reviews as Romeo and Juliet:

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But as Valmont with Lindsay Duncan as Madame de Merteuil, they made Hampton’s play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses a modern classic.

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Duncan and Rickman in Les Liasons Dangereuses

Years later Rickman played again with Lindsay Duncan, this time in Private Lives.

Nor did I see him in many of his movies and films: he worked for money and fame, as in Die Hard where against Bruce Willis he seems to have played a role equivalent to that Mark Rylance pulled off recently with Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies. The witty European or Britisher against the he-man macho male pro-American ideologies, undermining them a little (the subversion is very slight). Rickman was not above the Sheriff of Nottingham in a successful Robin Hood either.

He often was chosen for or himself chose parts which called for steel, for self-control, abstinence in the self and enforced on others, the punitive and competitive, quiet aggression from the insinuating interviewer Slope in Barchester Chronicles (later cast out):

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to an earnest well-meaning daring politician Eamon de Valero in Michael Collins:

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Part of this thread in his typology led to his reprises as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films.

I saw more of the film adaptations, romances, and in my experience and those I’ve talked to his interpretation of a character in a book deepened, changed readers’ conceptions of the character and even book ever after, charged the presence with melancholy, edginess, menace — self-retreat, keeping back. As a lover he made me swoon, but he was also complicated, the man of sensibility, unsure of himself, disillusioned, all giving and he was convincing as all loyalty

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As Colonel Brandon reading meditative poetry to Marianne in Sense and Sensibility

Now for me (as for Emma Thompson who wrote the screenplay), Colonel Brandon is the hero of Austen’s novel. He and she were good friends: they played the older couple whose marriage is on the edge but just manage out of compassion and understanding to hold together in Love Actually.

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Thompson and Rickman as husband and wife going through ritual of opening presents with one of their children

The last two nights I watched The Winter Guest, Sharman MacDonald’s play turned into a film and directed by Rickman, featuring Emma Thompson and her mother, another actress, Phyllida Law, as mother and daughter, two widows; and Song of Lunch, Christopher Reid’s poem, where he again played with Thompson.

I discerned a kind of repeating theme or thread, not as obviously or directly autobiographical as Woody Allen’s but there in the finest of his films. In these again and again he is a man angry at the world, or isolated from it, and turning on himself so strongly that he estranges himself and others from himself, bitter about what he is doing in the world. This is part of his Slope character; it’s part of the comedy roles. Sometimes he smiles and snarls dangerously as he looks out from within this core. Sometimes he saves others who are suffering similarly as in Truly, Madly Deeply; he enables Juliet Stevenson, as Nina, his widow to let go of him all the while he does not want to let go of her. The poignant image is of him on the other side of a window, a glass cut off from his beloved. The film has several parallel characters, David Ryall as George, a widower; Bill Patterson as Sandy who loses himself in work. Here is the opening segment:

I usually dislike these movies where characters are seen as part of an afterlife, and since reading Lucy Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History that even a majority of people believe in ghosts (!), but this one no. What transcends in the film is not so much that Nina has learned to live on her own, but his simple way of talking:

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Iconically Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991)

He describes his life with Nina thus:

Well, talking was the major component! Uh, uh, we, you played the piano – and I played and we both played a duet — something, I can’t remember … and you danced for about three hours until I fell asleep, but you were fantastic! — and then we had some cornflakes and when we kissed – which was about — eleven o’clock the following day — we were trembling so much we couldn’t take off our clothes.

Here is how he accounts for his motive in coming back to “the earth:”

Jamie: “Thank you for missing me.”
Nina: “I have. I do. I did.”
Jamie: “I know. But the pain, your pain, I couldn’t bear that. There’s a little girl, I see this little girl from time to time, Alice, who’s three, three and a half, and she’s great, everybody loves her, makes a big fuss, but she’s not spoiled, well she wasn’t spoiled, and she was knocked over, and her parents, and her family, the friends from kindergarten — she used to go to this park — and she was telling me, she, they made an area in the park, gave the money for swings and little wooden animals, and there are these plaques on each of them, on the sides of the swing, the bottom of the horse. ‘From Alice’s Mum and Dad. In loving memory of Alice who used to play here.’ And, of course, Alice goes back there all the time. You see parents take their child off the swing and see the sign and then they hold on to their daughter so tightly, clinging on for dear life, the capacity to love, people have, what happens to it?”

In Song of Lunch, he plays an editor who is aging badly, a failure as a poet, who has asked the woman he lost to another better writer (both aging well), to lunch. He cannot even stop his self destructing for the hour, cannot pull back when confronted by her. Watch the movie, listen to the eloquent poetry:

In The Winter Guest Thompson’s character is a female version of someone threatened this way, pulled back by her mother

It’s as if Rickman had this on-going dialogue with himself.

In Richard Curtis’s edition of his screenplay of Love Actually, Rickman answered a series of silly questions. Among his answers: the actress he loved first in the movies was Jeanne Moreau; his “favorite romantic movie of all time,” The Philadelphia Story; his favorite Christmas song, “Merry Christmas” by John Lennon

Alan Rickman died relatively young of cancer, another person cut off by this spreading epidemic. He and his family have chosen not to say what kind of cancer, but it seems to have been one which devoured him quickly: one person who saw him used the word “terrible” of how he looked at the end; and others who knew what was happening and were close suggest his death was a release. A terrible irony to this sad end. How many people have to die, at how many ages, in what short span of time before some empowered active group of people effectively demand true fundamental research?

Ellen

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Harriet: “And all this is Mr Knightley’s?”
Emma: “Of course. There is Donwell Abbey — and all these farms belong to the Donwell Estate, and everyone who lives here is a tenant of Mr Knightley’s or his servant.”
Harriet: “I should never have thought one man could own so much.”
[The birds are twittering over head, and Harriet comes as near as she ever will to making a joke]
Harriet: “The sparrows and the skylarks don’t belong to Mr Knightley, do they?”
Emma: “Perhaps not, but the woodcock and the pheasant certainly do.”
— from Andrew Davies’s screenplay for the 1996 BBC Emma)

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Partridge, Jacobite, schoolmaster, brought before Allworthy as Tom’s father (Jack MacGowran)

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Black George, gamekeeper, defending himself to Allworthy as magistrate (Wilfrid Lawson, 1963 Tom Jones)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve decided to devote this third blog on teaching Fielding’s Tom Jones at the OLLI at AU to a third linked group of topics I find the class and I spent time on: first, how poaching was practiced and regarded, as well as the role of gamekeepers who were there to stop poaching but could and did make a good deal of money off the trade; the criminal justice system. How class and where you lived (country or London) enters into this and (in the novel) religion (I think satirized by Fielding) and stoicism embodied in Thwackum and Square. Second, the immediate political history the novel is embedded in, e.g., the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and conflicts between those somewhat supporting the Hanoverians and those somewhat supporting the Stuarts, contemporary acceptance and castigation of corruption and bribery by all, scorn for superstitions (especially those which upheld the Stuart claim).

In this blog I go into the early and last parts of the book and essays related on poaching, gamekeepers, the court system (class war, gaming the system); then Jacobitism and the 1745 civil wars as they relate to superstition and ghosts in the middle and last part of novel. I link in the stunning film Culloden by Peter Watkins (an enactment of the 1745 battle done as a modern documentary, complete with interviews of participants); I suggest Culloden should be part of one teaches for Tom Jones. Fielding’s narrator’s comments are hard-hitting subversive scepticism through the metaphor of the world as a theater.

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To begin with we discussed the incidents of Tom’s “innocent” poaching (so it’s presented in the novel as a young boy’s high spirits), Black George’s trade in birds, Mr Allworthy’s wrath at Black George for allowing Tom to lie on his behalf and firing of him after Tom is mercilessly whipped (as a powerless bastard by Thwackum with Square doing nothing) — when it is Mr Allworthy who allows these men full reign over the two boys under their care. As plot-design and for central themes, one of the uses or purposes of Thwackum and Square is to contrast the characters of Blifil and Tom and to show how unfairly Tom is treated again and again – each time Tom does an act of kindness it must be justified and he is blamed and beaten. (No good deed goes unpunished in this book.) Tom protects Black George and is selling horse, bible, all he has to get food to the man and his family, and Blifil snitches. As they are children, so they become adults.

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Sweetly mischievous Tom as boy (Stuart Neal, 1997 Tom Jones)

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Cagey, hard-eyed Blifil as young man (David Warner, 1963 Tom Jones)

I suggested if it looks like a sharp hard hitting satire on a cleric and the way religion works, then it’s a hard-hitting satire; Fielding detests the hypocrisies of religion, the repressions and bigotry; he wrote deeply secular plays, in his arguments he argues from experience and nature. He’s tired of offending and wants people to buy his book. He has Square as the pagan of the book, cannot say he’s atheistic but comes close. He is satirizing the stoic point of view especially: Samuel Johnson also had no use for the stoics; life is too much of a complicated emotional agony. (Allworthy, the narrator says, hired Blifil because a friend/connection who owed something to Thwackum’s family recommended him; Square, the narrator insinuates, has some sexual relationship with Mrs Blifil, so at first assumes she would want the bastard whipped, then when he sees she favors Tom, is jealous so allows whipping to proceed.) Who does Fielding as narrator quote: Epictetus. Claudian was among Fielding’s favorite reading.

We read J. A. Stevenson’s “Black Acts” in his Real History of Tom Jones; I also drew on Albion’s Fatal Tree and Munsche’s Gentlemen and Poachers. It was a subsistence world where huge numbers of people lived on a level not that far from starvation if their income fell at all: their ability to grow food or work for others. When Partridge is driven from the community, he turns vagabond, and must sell himself as best he can. So it was natural to poach, and it could be, and often was ignored, but it was allowed to make examples of powerless people to shore up private property. In the Poldark novels poaching is presented in ways similar to Jean Valjean stealing a piece of bread so as not to starve and being put to hard labor for 20 years. Fielding brings out how the gamekeeper could function like someone put in charge of chicken coop who proceeds to make money off chickens. So George eeks out a precarious living, cruelly wires hares and sells them on “the black market.” It’s worth noting that elsewhere Fielding doesn’t seem particularly exercised on behalf of being kind to animals. Fielding’s identification with the upper class comes out here.

The poaching and gaming laws were egregiously unfair and like many or even most laws in the UK at the time administered unfairly, unevenly; defendants were not allowed to take the stand in their own defense; as the century wore on, it became practice and then custom to hire lawyers to defend people, and in lieu of immediate punishment in the form of “judicial violence” (flogging, hanging, burning people to death in the case of treason), punishments like prison sentences and/or transportation. J. M. Beattie’s Crime and the Courts of England describes a system of private prosecution; individuals initiated cases. Very important was the indictment: before someone could be tried, there was a pre-trial where it was asserted that “true bill” was rendered – sufficient evidence to go to trial. Much that is known about trials comes from these cases and depositions later in the century. Beattie says that “men of all condition” are to be found “going to a great deal of trouble to pursue thieves and bring them to justice, ” and for murder people did bring private prosecutions too. Of course you needed to be a respected man of a middle to upper class family. Partridge is treated egregiously unfairly and linked to Black George as Tom’s surrogate fathers.

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Our first sight of Patridge when accused by his wife (Ron Cook)

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Partridge before Mr Allworthy hearing his sentence

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Partridge driven out, ejected, exiled with the narrator looking on (John Sessions, 1997 Tom Jones

The magistrates and other officers had a custodial function where they brought the case to court and in the case of murder, if body was found. Even murder was still regarded partly as a private offense and if people seem to care more about property than life, and people were executed for what we think trivial offenses, they were not indifferent to murder. In the last part of the novel Blifil is working hard to bring charges against Tom as either a murderer or someone who attempted to murder Mr Fitzgerald, having Dowling suborn people to lie.

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Tom attacked by Fitzgerald (Albert Finney, George A Cooper)

To return to poaching, propertied people wanted the exclusive right to hunt game in England because they wanted to own all the animals on their property. That’s reductive but that’s it. People in a subsistence world, corn prices artificially high; of course they poach. It’s also fun to poach. They are not protecting the animal but their ownership of it, particularly tenacious over pheasants and deer. What could happen was poaching gangs arose – a kind of class war over property rights under the guise of food.

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Black George fleeing the scene where Tom is caught poaching

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Fired

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Biting on a coin to test its value (actor playing George no longer cited in imdb, 1997 Tom Jones)

Now in response to these gangs and also fear of revolution the Black Act was enacted; no combinations of people allowed. It’s like anti-union legislation before the 1930s, because everyone knew this was egregious, the administration of the law was sometimes harsh and sometimes you could be let off. People today might say, who cares about poaching and game laws? We don’t have a problem about such issues any more: but we do have centrally class wars and who controls and owns property; and the conflicts in the 18th century over gaming (smuggling too – which was ubiquitous all over the coasts of the UK until the middle 19th century when armed forces began to be larger and more effective) and the poaching laws express the class war over property at the time in (to the period itself) transparent disguise. Partridge is named after partridges. He is a helpless kind of individual: good heart but likely to be wired if he does not watch out.

Stevenson argues we are to see Black George as site of complex attitudes and feelings (I added Partridge is too). Does Black George steals the 500 when he “finds” and doesn’t return it? He’s certainly ungrateful. He almost keeps the guineas Sophia sends to Tom but he decides this could get back to Tom. Fielding does not work up our indignation over the question, which Stevenson is inclined to do, until he offers the idea that Black George’s poaching, finding and attempts to invest are just another form of business or commerce in the novel. At the end of the whole novel Allworthy himself becomes incensed at George again, but finds that he would have a difficult time prosecuting Black George. And has he not been as guilty towards Tom when he listened to Blifil present Tom’s courting of Sophia as egregiously breaking rank. Partridge interrupts the man on the hill’s history to tell the story of a man hung by a judge who laughed at him after the man tried to argue he did not steal a horse but merely found it; the person who brought the prosecution was ever after haunted by this man’s ghost. Partridge takes the judge’s behavior to be egregiously cruel and the judgement grossly harsh. Black George’s poaching is another form of business in the novel.

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Hogarth’s depiction of a laughing audience

Fielding (who alludes to Hogarth at key points in the book) has his narrator present a picture of the the world as a theater, (Book 7:1, pp. 289-92) in the Penguin, ed Keymer & Wakely) and calls the audience who would castigate George hypocrites, in reality utterly indifferent to, laughing at the scene they pretend to care about:

But as Nature often exhibits some of her best Performances to a very full House; so will the behaviour of her Spectators no less admit the above mentioned Comparison than that of her Actors. In this vast Theatre of Time are seated the Friend and the Critic; here are Claps and Shouts, Hisses and Groans; in short, every Thing which was ever seen or heard at the Theatre-Royal.
Let us examine this in one Example: For Instance, in the Behaviour of the great Audience on that Scene which Nature was pleased to exhibit in the 12th Chapter of the preceding Book, where she introduced Black George running away with the 500£ from his Friend and Benefactor.
    Those who sat in the World’s upper Gallery, treated that Incident, I am well convinced, with their usual Vociferation; and every Term of scurrilous Reproach was most probably vented on that Occasion.
    If we had descended to the next Order of Spectators, we should have found an equal Degree of Abhorrence, tho’ less of Noise and Scurrility; yet here the good Women gave Black George to the Devil, and many of them expected every Minute that the cloven footed Gentleman would fetch his own.
    The Pit, as usual, was no doubt divided: Those who delight in heroic Virtue and perfect Character, objected to the producing such Instances of Villainy, without punishing them very severely for the Sake of Example. Some of the Author’s Friends cry’d ‘Look’e, Gentlemen, the Man is a Villain; but it is Nature for all that.’ And all the young Critics of the Age, the Clerks, Apprentices, &c. called it low, and fell a groaning.
    As for the Boxes, they behaved with their accustomed Politeness. Most of them were attending to something else. Some of those few who regarded the Scene at all, declared he was a bad Kind of Man; while others refused to give their Opinion, ’till they had heard that of the best Judges.
    Now we, who are admitted behind the Scenes of this great Theatre of Nature, (and no Author ought to write any Thing besides Dictionaries and Spelling Books who hath not this Privilege) can censure the Action, without conceiving any absolute Detestation of the Person, whom perhaps Nature may not have designed to act an ill Part in all her Dramas: For in this Instance, Life most exactly resembles the Stage, since it is often the same Person who represents the Villain and the Heroe; and he who engages your admiration today, will probably attract your Contempt To-morrow. As Garrick, whom I regard in Tragedy to be the greatest Genius the World hath ever produced, sometimes condescends to play the Fool; so did Scipio the Great and Laelius the Wise, according to Horace, many Years ago: nay, Cicero reports them to have been ‘incredibly childish.’– These, it is true, played the Fool, like my Friend Garrick, in Jest only; but several eminent Characters have, in numberless Instances of their Lives, played the Fool egregiously in Earnest; so far as to render it a Matter of some Doubt, whether their Wisdom or Folly was predominant; or whether they were better intitled to the Applause or Censure, the Admiration or Contempt, the Love or Hatred of Mankind.
    Those Persons, indeed, who have passed any Time behind the Scenes of this great Theatre, and are thoroughly acquainted not only with the several Disguises which are there put on, but also with the fantastic and capricious Behaviour of the Passions, who are the Managers and Directors of this Theatre, (for as to Reason the Patentee/ he is known to be a very idle Fellow, and seldom to exert himself) may most probably have learned to understand the famous Nil admirari of Horace, or in the English Phrase, To stare at nothing.’
    A single bad act no more constitutes a Villain in Life, than a single bad Part on the Stage. The Passions, like the Managers of a Playhouse, often force Men upon Parts, without consulting their Judgment, and sometimes without any Regard to their Talents. Thus the Man, as well as the Player, may condemn what he himself acts.nay, it is common to see Vice sit as awkwardly on some Men, as the Character of Jago would on the honest Face of Mr. William Mills.
    Upon the whole, then, the Man of Candour and of true Understanding is never hasty to condemn. He can censure an Imperfection, or even a Vice, without Rage against the guilty Party. In a Word, they are the same Folly, the same Childishness, the same Ill-breeding, and the same Ill-nature, which raise all the Clamours and Uproars both in Life and on the Stage. The worst of Men generally have the Words Rogue and Villain most in their Mouths, as the lowest of all Wretches are the aptest to cry out low in the Pit.

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Lady Bellaston as we first see her, enacting a one-on-one orgy in classical painting style

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At the masquerade, linked to the theatre metaphors of the novel (Lindsay Duncan, 1997 Tom Jones)

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I agreed with John Allen Stevenson’s “Stuart Ghosts” that Jacobitism is important in the novel, and we went over the middle part of the book, the road journey and looked at how the readings he offers help us understand the man on the hill, the political heated arguments between Squire Western and his sister (though these also include women’s rights which, stigmatized as she is for her egoism, tyranny over niece, her own mercenary and rank-ridden vanity, and a number of ugly stereotypes associated with spinters, she is a bad defender for). I linked Jacobitism in the novel to Fielding’s dramatizations of superstition, his satire on military men and their lives (though he sympathizes with half-pay officers as well as those unfairly not promoted because they won’t sell their wives). I disagreed on an association of Tom with Bonnie Prince Charlie. Fielding knew what this man was, understood the clan system as part of the rent-tax-subordination system as another tyranny, might have seen Charles Stuart for an egregious ancien regime drone. (I’ll in a separate blog go over the gypsy sequence where some of Fielding’s sympathy for waifs, and for Jacobitite kind of thought versus “common sense” Hanoverism, arguments above tyranny, monarchy, and who was Jennie Cameron connect. I don’t want this blog to be overlong.)

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From Tom’s military career: the amoral fierce Northerton, Tom as terrified ghost, Mrs Walters as frightened naked woman, aka Jenny Jones, Tom’s mother (Albert Finny, Julian Glover, Joyce Redman, 1963 Tom Jones)

I used Peter Watkins’s ironically instructive Culloden, and urge my reader to take the time to watch it. I did my best to convey to the people in my class what Culloden was. If you teach Tom Jones, I recommend showing at least parts of this film. Watkins enacts a simulacrum of what mid-18th century battle was; the slaughter; the narrator will say “this is grapeshot” (bags of nails and deadly projectiles hit through a cannon); this is what it does.” The battle is enacted as if 20th century reporters were on the scene, making a documentary: they interview the actors, a biographer comes forth. The tone is utterly prosaic, everyone speaks as they might have done, the effect is chilling and unforgettable

Culloden 1964 BBC docudrama (written and directed by Peter Watkins)

The rebellion of the Scots under Bonnie Prince Charlie was the third attempt of the Stuarts to disrupt the Anglican and Hanoverian order, and this time when the English put the rebellion down, they behaved ferociously to all the Scots during and after Culloden: a great diaspora occurred. In summer 1685 – Monmouth’s rebellion (which comes up in the story of the Man on the Hill) produced savage reprisals and executions. It was a serious attempt to overthrow the gov’t but like Essex’s rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601 it was swiftly (though not so easily) put down. In the 1690s there was a rebellion in Ireland whose spearhead was James II; in 1715 another headed by James III. Walter Scott has novels about these Scots wars. Indeed the English civil war is now called the war of the Three Kingdoms (England, Scotland, Ireland). These were dynasty wars, ethnic and religious, and they were civil wars, and they were finally suppressed after 1745 by ruthless action on the part of the English in Scotland. Within the Scots world, the clans were themselves subject to harsh master chiefs; there was in effect a civil war in Scotland itself, with the lowland Scots siding with England and some of the clans of lower Scotland fighting with the Highlanders.

I offered a potted brief history:

Jacobitism and Jacobites – not to be confused with Jacobins. Jacobins take their name from Jacques: working men, men sans culottes, not wearing elegant fancy breeches and wigs but trousers down to the floor because they worked all day and needed protection . Jacobitism or Jacobites take their name from James II, the brother of Charles II, both of them sons of Charles I who went down in history as having been beheaded by the parliamentarians in 1649 after he lost the civil war and (like Louis XVI) kept fomenting rebellion. I recommended Frank McLynn’s The Jacobites. There’s an international or European wide dimension too, by the later 18th century it moves into the Western hemisphere as the English and British become settler colonlialists, as the Scots themselves travel abroad to exploit and destroy the native peoples there. The religious dimension: Jacobites are Catholics and they attract to them Catholics suffering under the penal laws; Hanoverians are Germans and Walpole’s corrupt bribery system alienates people.
    There is no hard and fast easy formula for saying this sort of person will be for the Hanover family (Germans) and this for the Stuart family. It all begins with Elizabeth I had no son and her heir was James VI of Scotland who became James I. Many Scottish people came down to London with him. He was sufficiently intelligent to practice politics sanely; was brought up Protestant and superintended the first and still classic translation of the Bible: King James bible. His son, Charles I, not so wise; marries a Catholic French princess, takes up his father’s idea of an absolute monarch. Tries not only to rule without parliament, but move the church towards Catholicism. He imposes taxes which were by then Parliament’s perogative. The rallying cry for the war was Ship Money (taxes) and Bishops (high church). Class, ethnicity, religion, personal family politics played a role but generally the new merchant and banking class joined with more egalitarian thinking and formed the Parliamentarian party; they won and beheaded Charles. Oliver Cromwell their army head.
    In the 17th century Scotland was a bad place to be: repression by the English again and again, after the return of Charles II (a Stuart) to England, violent civil conflicts between Scots’ groups, religious fanaticism, poverty. A group of Scots did crown Charles II King of Great Britain; Montrose’s rebellion against Cromwell savagely put down; General Monck no better. Religious fantaticism agai of “God’s covenanted people.” Scott dramatizes some of this history in Old Mortality. Charles is able to take power in England 1660 and he is cunning enough not “to go on his travels again,” and dies in his bed, but his brother, James had become Catholic. He tried the same kind of tricks, more mild as Charles I but liberty had been experienced and the interregnum was a tremendously fertile time for new ideas (communists called Levellers emerged). When he tried self-rule and to override laws against Catholics claiming this was toleration, rebellion emerged – in Scotland too where they were Presbyterians. He has a nervous breakdown, flees, throne said to be empty and he is replaced by his daughter, Mary, and her husband William – a Stadholder from the Netherlands. They die childless, and Anne, brought up Protestant takes over. Poor woman gives birth 15 times, no one survives. She was a Stuart and Protestant.
    Parliament used to picking its kings asks the ruler of Brunswick-Luneburg to come and be king – but with many hedges. Here begins Parliament’s power. Incomparably richer more powerful position. The present Windsors are descendents of these Hanovers even if not directly. As long as James II was alive none of these people were seen as legitimate by Catholics – that is your international dimension. The Catholic countries harbored the Stuarts. Under Louis XIV they set up an alternate king. I worked long and hard on a laer 17th and early 18th century poet, Anne Finch, who was a maid of honor to Mary of Modena, James II’s Spanish catholic wife. Her husband, Heneage, fled with James II, and until the mid 1690s refused to take the oath of allegiance when what happened was everyone in the family had died and he was to be heir. He must be a protestant, they must get positions from court. I know as a reality that in the 1690s through 1710s there was a lot of Jacobite feeling – even among high church anglicans. There are those who argue Samuel Johnson who detested Whigs and was a radical thinking Tory had feeling for the Jacobite cause or nexus. He went to Scotland. Wrote a remarkable travel book about Scots Hebrides. Boswell would be one of the lowland pro-British capitalist Scots.
     Economic interests of the powerful among the English at odds with economic interests of Scots capitalists. Some famous disasters. The Union forced on the Scots. The Hanovers are protestant, they are the creatures to some extent of Parliament, they are supported by thinking which is sceptical about divine right. Locke is their great philosopher. They are supported by merchants, moneyed people, city people – and Mrs Western who fancies herself the sophisticate. These are not good guys: whigs are pro-war; they are ferocious colonialists; they are gangs and coteries of upper class individuals where much money is also made in trade.
    Stuarts are Catholic, they believe in divine right, they are often found among the landowners because the landowners don’t gain much from war; they are far high corn, artificially high bread prices. It fits that Squire Western might be a quiet Jacobite – you didn’t admit it openly. Strong penal laws against Catholics, treason to be a Jacobite.
    There were a number of complex complicated rebellions at this point. The first does not quite fit my paradigm – because it’s too simple – in 1688 Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles II, rebelled on behalf of Protestantism (and himself) against James II. He was savagely put down. Scots came to his aid, more rural people, those disaffected for all sorts of reasons. At the same time there was a rebellion up in Scotland in the 1679-1680s ferociously put down – Walter Scott has novels on this ;a great place to learn this history is his Old Mortality; I recommend the novel for itself too. Scots fighting Scots: Presbyters versus high church. Cavalier versus puritan. A couple of DuMaurier’s novels use this material: King’s General, Jamaica Inn which takes place in the southwest in the 18th to 19th century.
    1715 James III invades and it takes an effort to put it down.
    Final crash in 1745 with Bonny Prince Charly, James III’s son at the head of an army. They never got close to London at all. Watch Watkins’s Culloden. The question that people argue over until today is how much strength had these Jacobites in England? It used to be denied but then the regime that ruled had it in its interest to make everyone think there were few Jacobites. In fact it felt to be a present and real danger, a site where discontent could rally round to the point that after England won they went into Scotland practices ethnic cleansing in all its varieties, started a wide diaspora of the Scots out of the Highlands especially. It was the clan system which had given the Stuarts wha chance they had to return.

Battestin maintains Henry Fielding was unalterably opposed to Jacobitism; Stevenson disagrees. What in the novel supports Battestin’s view? Tom. The narrator at times who links belief in the Jacobite cause with tyranny and superstition (worshipping objects). Outside Fielding in some strident downright statements by Fielding. But wait? The novel is filled with Jacobites – because Fielding wanted to mirror the reality or because he sympathized. Everyone in the novel but Tom seems to believe in ghosts, and Tom turns into one after he is almost killed by Norterton. Sophia is mistaken for Jenny Cameron. Our man on the hill originally rebelled. Mrs Western, Lady Bellaston and the whole London crew are no advertisement for the Hanoverian regime. It’s important if you are trying to understand the vision of this book – trying to understand what it’s about and where Fielding is. Is Tom’s story an analogy for Monmouth and after him Bonny Prince Charlie? Was Fielding seduced or repelled by Charles Stuart’s story and personality?

If we look at one dialogue between the Westerns (Bk 6. Ch 2, pp 246-347), we find that Western associates the Hanoverian regime as filled with bribery and corruption. But not much else – it is true that the way gov’t was run then was wholly patronage and what is that but bribery and corruption?. Mrs Western’s ridiculous vanity makes her want to think she is part of this world.

Another (Bk 6, Ch 14, p 287): Mrs Western associates Hanoverians with liberty of the subject and it was in the 1690s that a bill of rights was passed which the French knew of in 1789 and influenced our own bills of rights (p 287). Tom associates King George with liberty. Bottom of the page he is angry because he suspects the Hanovers are not for keeping the price of bread artificially high: he’d make less money and wars would be cheaper. Hanovers are rats eating his stores. It was the Tories who were strongest for the Black Act – keep people down in the country, but the Hanovers who were strongest against smuggling (free trade going on everywhere)

What we see of the soldiers shows us they know little of what they are fighting about – much like soldiers today perhaps.

Outside of Tom Jones can be found trains of thought and ironies that could show Fielding to be antagonistic at least to present regime. Ronald Paulson offers a nuanced reading of Fielding’s ironic Jacobites Journal. In A Jacobites Journal Fielding writes “what is loyalty in one reign, is treason in another” Turncoat an utter hypocrite, not to be trusted nor trimmers. To be a character named John Trott-Plaid is very plausible –- is Fielding ironic or not exaggerating enough? He published it in 1748; by calling himself a Jacobite he gets readership, by being ironic he is safe from accusation –- plus he is so strident in public about how pro-Hanoverian he is. He shows much of the two side’s propaganda is so much slander. Paulson says that Fielding exposes bogus history and bogus myth (again watch the BBC docudrama). The chronic fabrications that surround Allworthy could be called the equivalent of the Stuarts mythologizing, all piety. Blifil an ultimate Jacobite. He does allude to some Jacobite historians in Tom Jones.

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A boy caught up in the system at Culloden

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The actors playing Charles Stuart — the actual man had had 10 days experience of fighting as a boy from afar; Stuart left the field and did nothing for those he had brought there

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The Hanoverian side

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Far shot of battle

To ask these questions and look into what Culloden was, what Jacobitism, makes the book more interesting, and fits a perspective on it as deeply sceptical, pessimistic, with a cynical understanding of what makes the world tick and how so many wander about. Battestin talks about the people who came to Fielding’s court as a bunch of low life unworthy people – from the height of his tenured privileged environment he castigates these idle disorderly desperate thieves, prostitutes, smugglers, gamblers, domestic violence – but Fielding didn’t. He set up a surveillance office in guise of an employment agency perhaps but he did help people to jobs if they had “characters.”

In Book 16, Chapter 5, when Tom is nearing his nadir, Fielding takes time out to show Jones, the youngest female Miller, Mrs Miller and Partridge watching Hamlet. People did go to the theater a lot; in all ranks that could. It was a popular art form. So off go Jones, the youngest female Miller, Mrs Miller and Partridge.

What’s really strange or wants explanation here is that Fielding goes through the whole play step by step. He really touches upon each of the phases of Hamlet. If you ‘ve read and remember it, it’s uncanny. Even Hamlet with his mother. Critics have expended much ink on this one. On one level obviously it’s making fun of the belief in ghosts we see in Partridge. Partridge is also the naïve audience member who believes the people in front of him are real and gets intensely excited. Don’t knock this as not done anymore: actors have to be careful who they enact, viewers treat repeating characters as real people.

Stevenson sees a political application, and that the political application links up with the other politics of the book – that is that Partridge is a Jacobite Hamlet is a revenge play about a usurper – Claudius is usurping the throne having killed Hamlet’s father. Cause of George is cause of common sense? Great play not about common sense. I wonder if it’s meant to fill out Partridge. Make us like him. Does Fielding really mind superstition? He looks kindly at people’s foibles which do no harm, though belief in ghosts does harm and elsewhere he observes this. If Fielding not so anti-Jacobite, then maybe he feels affection for this man. He loves how Partridge is totally involved with the characters from moment to moment. Partridge is a truer father to Tom than Mr Allworthy.

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1963 Tom clutches Partridge to him and kisses him

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1997 Partridge kisses Jones (Max Beasley is Jones)

(A link to Black George here who carries letters back and forth between Sophia and Tom in London, which letters form an epistolary kind of story.)

We could say the chapter on Hamlet is a tribute to the actors and Garrick as Hamlet, to the theater itself which is part of the skein of metaphor in the book

And the idea we are actors and audience both takes us back to the narrator’s disquisition (quoted at end of section 1 of the blog). Another response of the audience is utter delusion, self-identification, misreading — this coheres with some of what David Hume thought. These people, the audience Fielding knows are his customers, us his readers; he was their/our playwright is now the host of a tavern in which they and we cavort.

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Fielding as narrator (John Sessions, 1997 Tom Jones)

Ellen

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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Garrick arrived at Nampara (2015)

Dear friends and readers,

As you doubtless know if you’ve been reading this blog, the new Poldark mini-series is garnering much attention. Among remarkable items of interest suddenly turning up on-line are five texts by him read aloud sensitively, beautifully by two actors. One reason the Poldark novels have not been acceptable to the establishment is that while Graham is alive to this post-modern aspect of his fiction: how you can’t know the past, memory is failing, the universe itself unknowable, much relative, he does not make it central to his historical fiction and mystery larger structures — he mentions it now and again and there is a strong gothic undertow — well this idea and a gothic feel is central to these:

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In Cornwall

Meeting Demelza: a story written late in life where Graham meets his character at last; she tells what still hurts, we feel his ghostly desire: read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqp4r

Ross and Demelza: one of the most powerful and visionary all chapters in Graham, where shortly after they are married, he takes her to an all night pilchard harvest in a brilliantly lit cove — read by Ewan Bailey, from Ross Poldark

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqfx1

Three stories, all three abridged:

The Cornish Farm: set in the 20th century, a couple come to live and work a Cornish farm, a haunting marital suicide tale read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ynmf3

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Click on the drawing to enlarge it

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Other places

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Claude Monet, Vetheuil Winter

At the Chalet Lartrec: One not set in Cornwall but the Swiss Alps in the 1960s where the narrator seeks shelter from a blizzard (I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Lodging for the Night”); another haunting tale of apparent murder. Read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yngnh

The Old Boys: two now grown up boys meet on the grounds of their school, a meditation on how we re-interpret our past, how what for one is now amusement, for another is deep trauma. Read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ymztf

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If you’ve listened through, you’ll have experienced a shared set of themes, moods, character types and peculiar similarities, down to the man who claims to have strangled his wife resembling Mark Daniels (who in the Poldark books does), the throwing of precious things deep down a well.

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Caeria Israel, a painting inspired by Trollope’s “Malachi’s Cove,” set in Cornwall

These feel dark and the snatches chosen are apolitical. The Poldark novels have a strong element of intermittent sunshine and hope and are political, left-liberal, just now in public media beginning to be talked about for the first time. Read this short essay by Stephen Fielding, a professor of political history at Birmingham:

http://nottspolitics.org/2015/03/11/sexing-up-cornwall-but-theres-more-to-poldark-than-good-looks/

Poldark was actually one of the most radical period dramas of its day, reflecting the influence of the novels written by Winston Graham on which it was based. The first Poldark novel was published in 1945, the year Britain elected a Labour government intent on building a more egalitarian society. Graham’s work was shaped by that context.

His villains are the Warleggans, described in the novel as the “new aristocracy”. These financiers-cum-industrialists are the “the people of the future”, monopoly capitalists in all but name, intent on destroying communities to earn a profit, and able to exploit a legal and political system that reflects their interest. Against them stands Poldark, who, as an impoverished squire, gestured to a more classless past in which squire and tenant shared the same economic interests. As Graham wrote in Ross Poldark (1945): “All men were born in the same way: no privilege existed which was not of man’s own contriving” …

Ross Poldark was, then, one of literature’s classic figures on the fringe, a man of noble birth who identifies with the people rather than with his own class.

I wouldn’t call him Robin Hood, rather a combination of the old romance hero of the Gainsborough films (remember Stewart Grainger in the UK, Errol Flynn in the US) and Che Guevara. Robin Ellis captured this latter aspect of the mood of Graham’s hero in this moment in spades:

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Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark — Drawing by Hope James

Ellen

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A Syllabus for a Class at the Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University

Exploring the Gothic

Day: 8 Tuesday afternoons, 2:15-3:40 pm, Sept 24th to Nov 11th
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road. Fairfax
Instructor: Ellen Moody

Description of Course:

This course explore varieties of gothic and its terrain which conform to recipe format. Take one labyrinthine or partly ruined dwelling, place inside murderous incestuous father or chained mother (preferably in a dungeon), heroes and heroines (as wanderers, nuns), stir in a tempest; have on hand blood, night-birds, and supernatural phenomena, with fore-, and back-stories set in the past. We’ll read short stories, three novellas and sample films. We’ll begin with ghosts and witches, move to vampires, werewolves, and end on socially critical mysteries and stories of the paranormal (e.g., possession). We cover terror, horror, male and female gothic. We’ll also view clips from two films considered the most powerful film gothics ever made and an Oscar winning short.

Schedule:

September 23:   Origin, definition, history of genre, characteristics. I’ll show parts of DVD for The Haunting and The Woman in Black (if possible, otherwise substitute clip from “Afterward” from Shades of Darkness).
September 30:   Stevenson, “Markheim, ” Wharton’s “Afterward” and Mary Reilly
October 7:  Mary Reilly (possible clip) and F. Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life”
October 14:   Stoker, “The Judge’s House,” Conan Doyle, “Adventure of Abbey Grange;” Wharton’s “Kerfol”
October 21:   Vampire Tapestry (first 3 tales), LeFanu’s “Carmilla” and Oliphant’s “The Open Door”
October 28:   Vampire Tapestry (last 2 tales), Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers,” Wharton, “Mr Jones”
November 4 :  Dickens, “Signalman”’; M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”; Bierce, “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge”; A. M. Burrage’s “Smee.”
November 11:  The Haunting of Hill House

Texts:

Martin, Valerie. Mary Reilly. New York: Vintage, 1990. ISBN 978-0-375-72599-9. It’s available as a kindle, and there have been many editions: Doubleday 1990, Washington Square Press, 1994.
Charnas, Suzy McKee. The Vampire Tapestry. Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1980. It’s available as a Kindle and two newer edition: Orb Books, 2008; The Women’s Press, 1992.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. NY: Penguin 2006. ISBN978-0-14-303998-3

Online short stories:

R.L. Stevenson, “Markheim”  
http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Mark.shtml

Edith Wharton, “Afterward”
http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/ewharton/bl-ewhar-afterward.htm

F. Marion Crawford, “For the Blood is the Life” (scroll down)
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605421.txt

Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House”
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10150/10150-h/10150-h.htm

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange”
http://sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/the-adventure-of-the-abbey-grange/

Edith Wharton, “Kerfol”
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24350/24350-h/24350-h.htm

R.L. Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers”
http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/body.htm

Edith Wharton, “Mr Jones”
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200121.txt

Sheridan LeFanu, “Carmilla”
http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/carmilla.htm

Margaret Oliphant, “The Open Door”
http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10052/pg10052.html

Charles Dickens, “The Signalman”
http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/the-signalman.pdf

M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”
https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/mr/more/chapter5.html

A.M. Burrage, “Smee”
http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/smee-by-am-burrage-_-scary-for-kids.pdf

Ambrose Bierce, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/
YouTube for Oscar Winning Short: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuP5kUQro40

For further materials on the gothic, see my website under Ghosts and gothics, vampires and witches and l’ecriture-femme; under Austen Reveries, the category “Gothic.”

Ellen

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We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

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An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.

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Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

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Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

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Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

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Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.

Ellen

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GordeevaGrinkov03blog
Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov: husband & wife, he died suddenly, age 28, of a heart attack during a practice workshop

Dear friends and readers,

I find irony in my reading, finding some shared thought, and now passing part of the night by writing about Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, which like, the apparently naive My Sergei: A Love Story tells of the sudden death of the author’s beloved husband. Some of the intense distress, exasperation and justified anger I have experienced the last two weeks derives from my husband’s death not having happened with the same single night or moment suddenness as Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and Gordeeva’s husband, Sergei. We’ve experienced 3 and 1/2 months of partial truths told us sufficiently to lead our natural desire to clutch at anything to escape malignant esophageal cancer, no matter how horrendous — like an operation to remove someone’s esophagus and re-arrange his digestive tract and other nearby organs which in itself has nothing whatever to do with what causes, spreads, contains, stops the cancer. And equally 3 and 1/2 months of many medical people’s carefully calibrated behavior controlled fundamentally by each person’s desire to protect & advantage his or her career/job while pretending some other motive paramount. From my vantage point today I almost (not quite) feel as I never thought I would before: as the blow was (as one begins to see as one reads) foreseeable, to fall, the four people (husbands & wives) were lucky to have it fall this way.

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Didion, Dunne & their adopted daughter, Quintana (ca. 1970s)

Didion’s considered thesis throughout, and Gordeeva’s natural perspective (just at the outset of her book) is “life changes fast, Life changed in the instant.” This is the refrain of Didion’s book sudden instant transformation of everything upon the death of a beloved partner. As she well knows however (this is in the book) her thesis is thin. She tells of how for a year previously her husband had insights and hinted to her he felt he was at risk of death at any time — and that at least a year before he’d had a bad heart attack and was now living by using an implanted pace-maker. So (like say Causabon in Middlemarch or “young” Jolyon in To Let of the Forstye Saga) she did know he was in danger – or ought to have taken seriously a doctor’s outright warning.

Didion’s book is initially, and every time she recurs to the shock of the scene of Dunne’s sudden keeling over during dinner, powerful. Her book is recursive. She has two further traumatic sudden near deaths incidents to retell. Twice in the book her daughter comes near death: it escaped everyone that a viral infection of a few days before Xmas, because not x-rayed in the hospital the night Quintana came (as it ought to have been) was a serious flu which then (as Dunne said) morphed into an episode of pneumonia that came near killing Quintana too. Quintana later collapses on an airport tarmac as she is being triumphantly coming home; a paralyzing seizure nearly carries Quintana off. It’s one of those real shocks often talked of (“in comparison” to what we usually watch on TV), including the death before your own of your own child.

After the initial power of the husband’s death, there is this falling off as if Didion’s casting about for what to say next and repeats herself, and I feel there is too obvious a sense of this is another occasion for making a book. It picks up roaring as she moves back to her daughter’s two encounters.

Speed of transformation through illness is important, even if common. We do not go about expecting a hammer to come down on our heads. ON one level, my husband Jim seems to have been transformed from recovering slowly from a drastic operation and and then recurrence of cancer diagnosis (liver, “the worst” someone said) inside a week — to man seemingly near death, weak, frail, fatally ill; then I could say it’s been only 3 months since the initial diagnosis, but I know that before that last autumn he had stopped going to the gym gradually and I saw was somehow not himself, not physically well, suddenly looking older. We had no clue to run to the doctor to check with — though he did go for his legs and other things but the problem was not where he was feeling. Engineering term: the point of origin is often not the same as the place of manifestation; one’s bottom body is tired (manifestation) because a cancer is growing in one’s throat (origin, cause).

Her second theme is her magical thinking: once her husband dies, she plays games with her mind. After his death, she asks him for advice and pretends he’s there. She stays away from places which will evoke deep emotional reactions; or if she goes, she plays games in her mind to avoid thinking about that. She can tell us the next morning magical thinking relieved from having to be realistic. Myself I think the term is capable of wider application. Because a hospice person is in the house, you might feel your relative or beloved is safer. He or she isn’t, statistically. We think magically when we rely on rituals. My grandmother tied onions to my feet when I was 3 and came down with a high fever; she was drawing the evil spirits out of the foot. I had a hard time removing the apnea monitor off my younger daughter because I had begun to believe it was saving her. If we do X, Y will surely occur. Make a rain dance, and it will rain. Pray for X, and you may get it (prayers are magical thinking). Human beings attempting to control the natural world.

Yet we do this faced with imminent or present death. But she does not adequately explore kinds of magical thinking (nor the dangers of atavistic behavior they bring), though she shows her wisdom in she defending those people who in need use magical thinking.

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Joan, John, and Quintana at home

Other superficialities: She’s not deep about anything beyond these moments. Beyond no real truth-telling about troubles in her life, she presents hers as a life of utter privilege upper class American (she can commandeer a plane and helicopter to take her daughter across the US from California to NY), all the right schools are gone to by all three people (husband, wife, daughter). In the middle of the book she does not want to talk frankly about her family and its realities so she is without matter since she has no criticism to make of attitudes or the medical establishment either.

It reminds of Carolyn Heilbrun’s autobiographical essay in not being willing really to tell and like Heilbrun Didion presents her life as simply happy; Didion tells more but not enough so there’s nothing gripping. We hear of the dinners she goes to (with famous names dropped). She never questions the values that support her privileges; apparently she lived very conventionally inside a small circle of wealthy family and semi- and famous friends. Hints of darker interpretations here and there of their privileged lives, of antagonisms within her relationship with Dunne, especially from her husband’s remembered words, are left on the surface of the narrative. This problem did not arise in the earlier masterpieces (e.g., Salvador) since she was not personally involved.

Life-writing is demanding in ways many writers won’t submit to. They’re afraid – maybe rightly – of the public.

But then her strengths: her style is as marvelous as I remembered it (in Salvador). She never forgets the literal meaning of her words and so has quiet ironic fun with the language medical personnel use. At Xmas she is told Quintana “may not leave the table.” Of course she must leave the table; what she may not do is be taken off it alive. She makes quiet fun of the stilted euphemistic jargon language, the sticking to a high enough level of generality so nothing is acknowledged. Since contained in her words are a thoughtful critique of this language one can’t fault it, but looking at it tonight from my perspective I’d say she can do this since she did not suffer directly from it beyond the “mere” having useful information withheld, nothing explained. Neither she nor her husband were dependent on the medical community as except afterwards (and then he was dead).

It’s not many people who can write of their intimate thoughts while grieving. In the later parts of the books she talks of how she tried to compensate and cope; she speaks of her memories that were good and she helped me sitting there here in my workroom last night to try to relive happy memories. I mentioned some to my husband much later at night (3 am when we were in the front room) who was sitting across from me in his now usual half-stupor and bewildered, unconscious, hallucinating (from all the drugs he’s given for this and that) and he appeared to understand what I was saying. He smiled and corrected a song I said I liked from the 1970s which came to me at that moment as about us:

Only he attributed it to the The Who.

A Year of Magical Thinking is mostly a superb book, deeply felt in many ways, but what makes it is the feeling that what she tells of the traumatic incidents (three) in the book are literally authentic, true, how it happened and her usual bag tricks of style from her interest in literal and playful words (and names), in ironies, and ability to write windingly graceful involved kinds of sentences that are yet readable.

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I did not know until I finished and looked at some reviews that Didion’s Quintana whose near-death experiences (two of them, frantic emergencies coming “out of the blue”) provide some ballast for her book — she can include the girl’s childhood through memory flashbacks too – her daughter died in a third seemingly bizarre episode before The Year of Magical Thinking was published. She would not change her book, but instead wrote about the daughter’s calamitous fatal experience of pancreatitis in her next book. I can’t help wondering if there are not aspects of her daughter’s situation that led to 2 times getting to the hospital nearly too late (the 3rd, in the book) is more than the result of errors and infections/blood clots caused by hospital people not doing or doing their job, in this case too cautiously.

So Blue Nights is about her loss of the daughter, an adopted only child. I’ve bought a copy for $3.45 despite several vows to buy no more books now that I’m not going to have someone with me to shoulder the burden of so many or read and use them together in a universal of our own making. I’ll get to it after Ekaterina Gordeva’s My Sergei, co- or ghost-written by E.M. Swift.

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Ekaterina was left with a small daughter by Sergei: Daria

Ellen

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GrimshawHauntedHouse
John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93) A lady in a garden by moonlight (1882)

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From BBC film adaptation of M. R. James’s The Ash Tree, 1975

Dear friends and readers,

This Christmas I revived on all three of my list-servs reading and discussion of Christmas ghost stories — or, failing ghosts (the case of Anthony Trollope, too strong a sceptic for this kind of thing), just stories meant for Christmas (we read “Christmas at Thompson Hall”). It is a long custom-sanction’d habit to tell ghost stories at the Winter Solstice, and I’d read some with others a few years ago for a couple of years in a row, and made a gothic section on my website for some of our conversations (see. e.g., Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Lost Ghost”). On two lists people read with me, and on a third a couple of people watched the YouTube presentations I had found.

So, on the evening of this (fulfilling as it happened) Christmas Day I thought I’d re-tell one, offer a brief synopsis and YouTube of another, some links to powerful ones and an explanation from whence this urge to tell ghost stories Winter Solstice derives.

I found myself reading a-new, finding new qualities in Margaret Oliphant’s “Old Lady Mary.” Oliphant’s most powerful fiction is a ghost novella, The Beleaguered City, where, as in “Old Lady Mary,” part of the power of the story comes from the desire of the dead beloved and loving person to reach one another, in response to a shared loss and loneliness.

A Beleaguered City
19th century illustration of Beleaguered City

The story as I first understood it (here’s the online text):

In brief: a very old lady, ‘Old Lady Mary’, who is very rich and alone, takes the daughter of a distant cousin, nearly a child, without anyone else to turn to, into her house. She is all that can be loving and tender and good to the child as she brings her up. She is told that she must make a will out which will leave her money to young Mary, but cannot get herself to do it. She cannot face the reality she will die, has always herself been because of her wealth sheltered. Lady Mary resents advice, and avoids the lawyers by playfulness. She does however write a codicil, leaving everything to the girl, but she hides it away.

She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.

This begins the story which then takes us through the young girl’s fear, loss, humiliations at the hands of the family who takes over Lady Mary, her guardian’s house — they don’t mean to hurt her, but they put her in her place. She is now their servant. At the very end of the story we are told it was finally found, but that is in a coda and is not important.

The story is told from the point of view of Old Lady Mary after she has died — when she is a ghost, trying to make contact and reparation, retrieval is too late. Her presence is felt but the living act towards her frivolously, foolishly. Ghosts make them uncomfortable. The story is aimed at Dickens’s Christmas Carol, by then an iconic story where all can be undone, retrieved, redeemed. Not so, says Oliphant. Less seriously, she has some fun gently mocking the way ghosts are treated in stories.

The curious effect is to make us believe in Lady Mary as a ghost; to take her seriously. This is no silly story for people who want titillation or reassurance.

These are certainly besides the point to Lady Mary who is desperate to make contact with the young Mary. But, she supposes that she wants more than emotional catharsis, forgiveness, and release. She wants to help her. (Think Tiny Tim.) She wants more than to compensate; she wants to retrieve, to make up for past mistakes, and finds she cannot make genuine contact. She
has convinced herself her attempts her unselfish because there’s the codicil to be found and then the young Mary will own the house where she is now a servant. But ghosts are laughed at or make people nervous. Their paraphernalia is absurd.

The climax of the story is in a obscure but precisely described vision of the young girl. From all her troubles and the disquiet and upset brought on by Lady Mary’s efforts, the young Mary grows ill, and, as in a dream, for a split second sees Lady Mary who feels she is seen. In that moment the girl holds out her hand and Lady Mary feels she has been forgiven. After all she discovers she needs no nothing more. That’s it. We get a sense the young Mary and the old Lady Mary were face to face. But we are not sure. It might just be in the ghost’s mind. Young Mary never fully explains what she feels because people would laugh, and she’s not sure what she saw though she did from the beginning forgive & never hated her ex-guardian. She was taught by the old lady not to expect much.

The last enigmatic line of the story: ‘Everything is included in pardon and love’.

Re-reading: I was more than ever persuaded Oliphant had Dickens’s one benign and perhaps other Christmas season texts in mind where all is made up for in a gush of end-of-story forgive and forgetfulness (modern term “Healing”). But I felt this time that Old Lady Mary however stumblingly and ambiguously did retrieve the situation and felt she reached the young girl she now realized she had loved so.

She does not get to reach out to young Mary directly, cannot have the satisfaction for sure which she is reaching out for soon after the tale opens. In life she could have made sure young Mary understood she was sorry for how she had behaved in life, what she had done in death, but still we are told the old woman managed to reach someone and point to where the will was and the will is found. The understanding and forgiveness are left ambiguous. We do not know for sure that the girl got the money she so desperately needed, but enough is put before us to assume so. How life-like.

I realized how much it’s a heroine’s text. Much of the story is spent in Lady Mary as a ghost’s mind and that is very unusual. I want to stress that. I dare say almost all ghost stories, we are not permitted to get close to the ghost. They are kept at a distance. Again, they are mostly scary, malevolent, Kafka-esque figures. The intensely benign aim of ghost Lady Mary’s efforts is as rare as Dickens, but with Dickens we do not enter the ghost’s consciousness. And show the ghost failing to reach.

Her story in this way shows belief in an afterlife and ghosts around us. The ambiguous wispy signals of seances you see are ghosts trying to reach us and unable to as God has made it too late. I think we may take it that this is how Oliphant understood the absurdity of what happens at seances. My outstanding favorite line from Downton Abbey is the Scots housekeeper’s retort to the lady’s maid’s conventional appeal,

“Don’t you believe in spirits?”
“I do not believe they play boardgames.”

By contrast, Oliphant has it, it’s that God will not let the dead reach us. She was a firm believer in the afterlife. I should stress that. These are not the kinds of ghost stories where the story is strictly speaking a metaphor. In Oliphant’s case her husband, both sons, nephew and a niece all pre-deceased her. To believe they carried on elsewhere was apparently one way she could endure her raw grief and continual sense of desperate loss.

I found it a much more moving story than I did the first time round.

ladymary

Michelle Dockery could play the part of young Mary very well. Now known for her part as Lady Mary Grantham in Downton Abbey, she was much better as the unnamed governess in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Turn of the Screw)

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BBC film adaptation of “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale” by M.R. James

It should be said most ghost stories are instances of female gothic, many have been written by women, and they are often ways of presenting the real vampirage over women by men and societies in general. This was a speciality of Edith Wharton whose “Kerfol” I reread last week. The writer need not be a woman, and the vulnerable figure can be a man (as they just about all are in M.R. James’s stories (“The Stalls”). But the one I read from 3 I chose by M.R. James all set in the 18th century was such a story, and gentle reader here it is online and as a YouTube

The film features a very young Edward Petherbridge, and with his and other actors’ help, the BBC group has brought out the terror and power and high violence of an MRJames story usually there, but in muted subjective form. The film version brings out the terror and horror. It’s the story of an 18th century squire-aristocrat who has returned to his estate and country house is haunted by the ghosts of women beaten, tortured and then hung as witches and that this is who the ghosts are that destroy him by their hideous tales only emerges slowly.

What I like particularly about the whole of this early series from the BBC is instead of the usual prettied up 18thcentury (say of faithful Austen films) we see the raw realities of rural life. It’s not a story for the weak stomached if you can get it up to full screen.

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coverfromwomensghoststoriesblog
From the cover of an anthology of ghost stories by women written at the turn of the 19th into 20th century: Restless Spirits

Gentle reader, it’s not hard to find potted explanations of the origin of ghost stories as matter for Christmas. But it’s often-half-hearted. How did this habit emerge?

I’ve a different explanation than most I’ve seen. This festival comes at the end of each year. Says John Donne: “‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s …” It’s natural to look back, to remember, indeed that’s one of the functions of this ritual time. And in many years of our lives, we lose people. Before the 20th century death was ubiquitous for young and old. This year my mother died. I was first drawn to ghost stories after my fathere died, irretrievably gone, and I could not make up wrongs that had happened. Psychologically I would feel his presence in my mind lurking.

This year I found myself remembering more cheerfully a good friend I met here on the Internet, who joined in various reads, who discussed, and who I was lucky enough on one fine night to spend an evening in Brooklyn with at a party with two of her close friends, Linda Ribas. She died in summer, too young to have left us. She read some of these stories with us on WWTTA, Henry James on Trollope19thCStudies, an 18th century novel by a woman on EighteenthCenturyWorlds. She especially loved pictures, John Atkinson Grimshaw a favorite, and landscapes, and I’ve included one by Grimshaw, and another favorite of hers by Nell Blaine. We miss her on WWTTA

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Nell Blaine (1926-96), Winter Trees from Studio

So ghost stories come from this kind of remembering, not that in my case at any rate I think we are going to reach anyone after death. Death is annihilation. But we can remember them. And then the ghost is picked up and becomes a vehicle for entertainment, instruction, artful absorption, a suspension of disbelief.

I often assigned ghost stories when I taught the gothic and found students were fascinated by this sub-genre (mode) of a subgenre (short fiction for magazines) — for ghost stories are very artful configurations.

Ellen

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