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Archive for the ‘Ghost stories’ Category


Sophie Rundle as Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey (from Walsh’s 2015 An Inspector Calls)


Ruth Wilson as Alison Wilson, a fictionalization of the deceit of a male “patriot” of four women and the families he biologically fathered

Dear friends,

Over the past week I’ve been lucky enough to watch the kind of “thriller & suspense or crime and/or detective novel,” which turns on its head the older hero-centered often misogynistic genre into a satisfying dramatization and examination of disquieting destructive values and norms in many societies. One example, I just loved two weeks ago now, was In a Better World.

Billed as a “thriller,” this Danish film, written and directed by Suzanne Bier, tells the story of a sensitive dedicated Swedish physician, Anton, whose wife has left him after he had an affair with another woman, and whose son is the type of boy who is susceptible to cruel bullying in schools. Elias is rescued not by the school authorities (who like those in real life I’ve encountered) refuse to recognize and stop the cruelty but another boy, Christian, angry at his father because his father was unable to save his mother from dying of cancer and was even relieved when she did die after a long period of mutual suffering. It’s an exploration of sadism in adult political life in Africa. It is when such stories are discussed in this way that we realize the formula for carrying along a mass audience is there merely as a vehicle.


Mikael Persbrandt trying to explain to his son why not to respond to bigoted violence with more violence is an act of desperately needed courage

The film struck me because I am just now reading and studying a group of these formulaic books by Winston Graham, which keep to the misogynistic outward plot-design so that the vulnerable woman is seen as the evil person whom the other characters have to root out (Take My Life) or the self-destructive bewildered victim of a crook who used the resistance movement in France for his own profitable exploitation and sexual predatory habits, and whom an essentially good hero (in this version, crippled himself by war) is right to stalk and pressure until she sees that giving herself over to him will bring her protection (Night Without Stars). Both were made into film noir movies. I am looking for a way to discuss them that brings out this hidden backstory. And sometimes I despair when I see how the generic surface is still presented as valid and tedious as the puzzle-unraveling is when speeded up, made terrifyingly violent sells widely.

So I am gratified when I see “all is not lost,” and the books and films which win worthy prizes, a better and/or female audience (not the same thing) are becoming as common. I am not saying anything many people have not observed before me.

In 1997 Marion Frank wrote a good essay called “The Transformation of a Genre — the Feminist Mystery Novel (printed in Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon, Setting Standards of Taste, ed. Susan Faulkner [NY: Edwin Meller Press, 1997]) where she traces not just the feminization of the central hero but a transformation of the values and the kinds of stories such material uses: Frank moves from Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, woman-centered and mildly feminist while upholding the hierarchical and patriarchal establishment to Joan Smith’s genuine feminist, then radical (not just liberal) humanist detective novels (A Masculine Ending to What Men Say).


Joan Smith

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For tonight I want to compare Aisling’s Walsh’s 2015 adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s “classic” everyone-did-it play, An Inspector Calls to the 1954 adaptation, famously starring Alistair Sim, so pitch perfect as the sinister and menacing Inspector Goole (in Priestley’s the name resonates as ghoul) that the 1954 film still has a following, and can be bought as a blu-ray:

and a re-boot has been successful


Pray forgive the conventional frozen promotional shot from the 2015 re-boot

I was reminded of J. B. Priestley early last week when someone on one of my listservs asked if anyone had seen the Walsh TV movie (now streaming on Amazon Prime)? A wonderful humanistic man of letters, novelist, radio host and commentator, playwright, erased by the media after World War Two because he would not give up his membership in the communist party and remained overtly a committed socialist. He was probably actually much better liked than Churchill during the war (Orwell just about says):

But he has been disappeared (like Mike Leigh’s recent movie, Peterloo) lest we have any encouragement for social decency in our media. A few years ago I went to a book history conference where a man gave a paper demonstrating that no communist after the mid-1930s was ever given a prestigious European prize. If you were not a communist openly, but were a socialist and known to be so, your book was suspect from the start. You’d be lucky to be in the short list and don’t expect a movie.

As an 18 year old girl I cherished two novels by him, The Good Companions and Angel Pavement. I sill have the old-fashioned hardbacks in my library which I read nearly half a century ago. At the time I was contemplating returning to college full-time and remember reading a history of English literature by Priestley, which I took out of the library. It stirred and spurred me on; his novels gave me courage and cheer – now I realize how the picaro novel is not one where compassion is the key note, but irony (Sarah Fielding’s David Simple never does find a friend). In later years (when I got to college) I realized Priestley was sneered at, called middle brow, and if I persisted in citing this allegiance of mine I’d be seen as showing I was not part of the knowing cultural world. A little far more candid and non-snobbish talk that day led me to watch Walsh’s rendition on my laptop that night and a kind friend sent me a copy of Helen Edmundson’s adaptation in 1954 and I watched that. I also remembered Walsh was centrally the creator of Maudie, a film about a disabled uneducated man and equally vulnerable woman artist.

So what is made central in the Walsh re-boot:

The conventional barely glimpsed back-story of a dubious unchaste working class girl becomes the central meat of the dish — the reason for having so many identities is she is trying to protect herself again and again, as each time she tries to conform and yet ask for decent usage (wages, respect, courtesy, kindness, a place to stay, companionship) she is used, dropped and sinks lower.

You can find a bit of the storyline in the wikipedia article on the 1954 version. Basically each member of the Birling family was responsible for ostracizing, firing, using and erasing Eva Smith; the worst moment is her humiliation before the smug mother supposedly running a charitable organization.

And in the 1954 film, much closer to Priestley (by Guy Hamilton as director and Edmundson as writer), we do see our heroine Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey but only in swift short takes and the focus of the scenes is not on her. Indeed in some of them she emerges as stereotypically a “tramp” or loose woman. But there is little going outside the room so we rely mostly on words to learn of the outside world. The kinds of arguments made are in cliches about responsibility. I feel that it is less believable these people would be guilty — their interactions are far less lethal, the family structure presented as far more conventionally okay.

Watch the 2015 immediately afterwards, and you see there were many more scenes with Sophie Rundle as central presence, scenes of her alone, scenes of her interacting with others, many giving her real gravitas, intelligence, and depth of feeling. What’s more the family is now made bitterly internecine and due to the inspector’s prompting presence are led to truly enter intimately into and expose their corrosive relationships. I’d call Walsh’s film feminist, Marxist, egalitarian, coming down to a human level in its demands, and really turning the “crime” genre inside out, while the 1954 one is Marxist and sentimental, still respecting the hierarchy and pious family “healing” at the end.


Grim

In 1954 Sims as the inspector vanishes and it really does seem as if he’s a ghost of Christmas whatever come to be therapeutic for this family. In 2015 David Thewlis as the inspector is not a ghost; as in Priestley’s he is lead in by the maid, and then let out. In the film we then see him watch (from afar Sophie) walking by the sea, then writing in her diary, and finally drinking the detergent; she is then seen whisked along a hospital corridor to an emergency room with a tube is put down her mouth and stomach (painful) as they try to save her. At the last he is sitting by her dead body at the end. IN both the family is then phoned and then told a girl has died and an inspector is coming.

The question in the 2015 is who is Goole? he is not ghoul as in 1954. Are we to take him as possibly some relative? some spirit conjured up against the capitalist male hegemonic order — almost magical realism rather than the female gothic.


Promotional shot of Soller and Pirrie as the Birlings still cheerful

I was much moved by the second film and not at all for real by the first. I do find Kyle Soller as great actor, and am drawn to Chloe Pirrie in all the roles I’ve ever seen her in.

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I encourage my readers also to watch, not to miss, Mrs Wilson on PBS, one of the more recent of these modern feminist humane “thrillers” — two hours last night (Sunday, 3/31/19) and another hour next week. There are of course the exegeses which try to stay on the surface, but the content so clearly calls out for the “backstory” to be told since the “thriller’s structure is now the emotional exposure by the women or the man’s grown children step-by-step of the male liar at the center. As Mike Hale of the NYTimes writes:

Alexander Wilson lived an improbable, deceitful, destructive but undeniably intriguing life. An author of popular spy novels and a British secret agent himself in World War II, he married four women from the 1920s through the 50s without bothering to divorce any of them. He managed to keep his four families mostly secret from each other during his lifetime, and his children (and many grandchildren) only got to know one another more than 40 years after he died …

Ruth Wilson of “Luther” and “The Affair” is the granddaughter of Alec’s third wife, Alison, and she plays her victimized, mystified grandmother in “Mrs. Wilson,” of which she’s also an executive producer.

So rather than the historical adventure or romance it might have been in an earlier era, “Mrs. Wilson” is an interrogation of history, a feminist critique of mid-20th-century British society, a mystery and, least satisfyingly, a character study. The strangeness of the story, and Ruth Wilson’s characteristic intensity, pull us along. But Alison and Alec, and their motivations, never seem to come completely into focus. The series feels caught between fiction and real life, as if the writers (Anna Symon and Tim Crook) and the director (Richard Laxton) were unwilling to fully dramatize a history that’s still murky, partly hidden in the files of the British Foreign Office.


Iain Glen

It could be said that perhaps the new feminist turn as gone too far in making the male an utter shit — I’m only 2/3s through though. One of the intriguing aspects is how the program makes mince meat of all this talk of patriotism and how keeping secrets for the gov’t is a noble patriotic occupation. Iain Glen the male lead often plays this sort of on the surface enigmatic male in female gothics — he was this kind of character in a recent re-do of a LeFanu novel, Wyvern Mysteries, which partly imitate the plot-design of Jane Eyre, except now there is real empathy for the mad wife chained in the attic. Keeley Hawes is getting old, alas, and Fiona Shaw even older … but are very good in their parts.


Keeley Hawes as Mary, drawn to be Wilson’s second wife


Fiona Shaw as Coleman (a sort of M)

Ruth Wilson ever since I saw her in Small Island, and then Jane Eyre, and now recently in an HD screening of an Ibsen play (Hedda Gabler, with Kyle Soller as the husband) remains one of my favorite actresses. I have never seen her in a film or a role where I didn’t bond with her.

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How to conclude? Don’t give up. Hang in there. Ripeness is all. Despite the horrors being perpetrated in the US by the heads of the federal gov’t, and sustained by its reactionary minority senate and judges in the public realm, there are still a large percentage of people from whom good can come, and who can make effective socially critical art from what Julian Symons (in Bloody Murder) rightly calls an inferior genre-game, which is still frequently obtuse to its own potentials.


A photo taken yesterday (3/31/19), the height of the flowering tree April bloom by my daughter, Izzy, as she walked along the tidal basin — we had the day before (3/30/19) endured more than 3 hours of driving on highways and DC streets to see and hear the Folger spring concert, an oasis of lovely, moving, fun, intelligently and passionately lovingly performed Elizabethan music and song

Ellen

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Brianna (Sophie Skelton), just after she’s been raped (Season 4, Episode 10)

Friends,

Since writing about the first half of Season 4: from Drums of Autumn: the American colonialist past, a book of fathers & ghosts, I’ve watched the whole of Season 3 (from Voyager) night after night, and found it was much better than I thought, and that paying attention to larger repeating patterns revealed the preoccupations of the serial drama (as opposed to the book), and brought out when the film-makers seemed to be treating challenging themes as a serious debate, and when they were providing action-adventure entertainment with a princess-bride and another violated hero at the center.


Roger Wakefield MacKenzie (Richard Rankin), like Jamie in the first and third season, singled out for harsh punishment

There were a number of online essays treating the season with real respect: one writer argued that our central mature couple, Jamie and Claire Fraser, were rare lovers on TV to talk and to listen to one another, and evolve as they interact; another thought Claire’s relationship with and treatment of Brianna, especially after Brianna has been raped, beautiful, a morally exemplary mother-and-daughter; while questioning some aspects of the treatment of rape over the second half of the season, much was done right. On the other hand, one “serious reflection” earnestly argued that this fourth season was a real disappointment because much that viewers had loved about the previous three was gone, especially the centrality of Jamie and Claire’s relationship; and a last said what had been radically exhilarating about Outlander (as a love story) was the full and frank treatment of love-making without presumably becoming porn, the presentation of female sexuality fulfilled, and now that the decision had been made to stop that, the serial drama had just about lost what made it a joy to watch. Maybe I missed them, but it seemed to me the recaps were much less snarky, with complaints mostly centering on the characterization of Brianna (I felt grated upon by the way all the characters but Mr Bonnet seemed to treat her child-like self-centeredness with a reverent worship, even her biological father Jamie when he questioned her behavior as prompting the rape), the picture-postcard landscape and use of sets.

The over-all patterns were fitted into a framework which made Jamie’s behavior and attitude the framework for all that was happening: the season began with him failing to rescue an old comrade from hanging, and it ended with him being required to find and arrest Murtagh, his beloved godfather, brother-in-arms. Claire was marginalized into a devoted wife, career-doctor when home-making (quite literal) gave her time. She never actively defied or openly challenged Jamie, even when he behaved with senseless violence to someone (Roger) he was not sure was the rapist. To be fair, he and she have come to understand one another and they share a set of humane and family-centered attitudes, and have come to support one another trustfully. That’s why they can talk and hear one another. I love this as well as what love-making we did have.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) giving Claire (Caitriona Balfe) a bath

But patriarchy won out again and again. The Indian woman at the end who is ejected from the tribal group for trying to negotiate over the hostage Roger; Ian’s exultation at becoming a “man” through taking violence near the end of the last episode are two examples that come to mind

The basic conservatism of the books emerged strongly – and sometimes appealingly — in the parallel relationship of Fergus (Cesar Domboy) and Marsali (Lauren Lyle); they cooperate and work together when she helped Fergus rescue Murtagh from prison (right there with her cart at the ready, pat). My very favorite sub-plot was the story of the older couple, Murtagh (Ducan Lacroix) and Jocasta Cameron’s (Maria Doyle Kennedy) coming together as lovers. It is so rare for older people to presented as having erotic needs and joys, as courting and going to be with another, and it was done with great delicacy. Unfortunately there were no promotional shots of Kennedy in her long flowing nightgown and loose hair but she was photographed as gorgeous and thoughtfully intelligent repeatedly, as well as passionate and witty and teasing with Murtagh

I thought also that the scene where Brianna is shown giving birth, and learning in the process how dependent she is on others emotionally effective:

More downside to this conservative romance masquerading as subtextual liberal ideas and behavior: the Native Americans did emerge as half-crazy savages, especially in the way they treated Roger and a preacher who had come to live with them and broke their taboos; the enslaved people were treated by the other characters as if they were equals to the principals and looked in wonderful health, beautifully costumed, and were all devoted service. The idea of sublime noble self-sacrifice came out in one pair of people opting to burn at the stake; Brianna as precious white girl was encouraged in her arrogance; Roger’s nearly complete abjection once he goes through the stones, coming back to the Indians to (in effect) die after he has escaped them was matched by Lord John’s improbable obedient behavior (a grown older man) to Brianna. Mr Bonnet’s mockery (Ed Speleers with his usual pizzazz) comes as a relief. The very worst or pits was the recourse to scenes where violence between men, beating one another up, or harrowing someone’s body or pride is seen as affording a solution to a conflict. And some of wha’s depicted is so unreal or improbable. I wished some fugitive from a Mel Brooks parody might mistake his or her way onto one of these sets.

The books are really far more complicated. For me the original frame for Outlander books (seen in the italicized soliloquies, which do carry on and are by Claire even into the fourth book but are hardly there in the films) is that of a woman seeking a personally fulfilling identity and escaping the one her 20th century society had on offer (Claire) and a really truly compelling tragic historical series of events (colonialism in Scotland, Culloden and the clearances). I hoped the Roger and Brianna in the 20th century would be interesting, but after a couple of sequences in the book, which are interesting, even touching, in the film the characters are turned into types which shows no interest or even understanding for real of what might actuate a later 20th century young woman or man: Roger is made into a throw back to mid-century in his attitudes and this becomes a victim-hero of male nightmare. But it still must be an adventure story it seems to me that what happens is Roger becomes part of the heroic individualism in US culture, twisted into a kind of culture of sublime death, with Brianna flailing out senselessly.


Jamie with Ian (John Bell) in the shadows nearby told about the rape of his daughter

It is true that a younger couple often displaces the original pair in popular saga romances, and sudden great jumps in time are common. The killing off of an original set of major characters the reader may have really engaged with. This is seen in the Poldark books: 11 instead of 20 years. One does not have to do this; cycles of books with recurring characters who don’t do this jump in time keep to the same central characters: Trollope’s Pallliser novels is an example here. by staying with the same characters and keeping them central you are driven to delve deep into the human condition over time and subject to chance. Gabaldon does prefer the idyllic: in Drums of Autumn the book a beautiful paradisal moment occurs when Jamie and Claire look for the land they mean to settle in and come across a feast of wild strawberries. I am drawn to this myself.

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Claire comes upon a young George Washington

Some total “jumping the shark” began in the eleventh episode (“If not for hope”) when Roger becomes pure victim, Brianna goes to scold Bonnet (and whacks poor Ian who has offered to marry her), and the “perils of Pauline” action-adventure crowded action took over (though I admit the shots of our friends canoeing down river with the Indians were breath-taking). So for this second and final blog on the fourth season, I’ll detail just episodes 8 (“Wilmington”) 9 (“Birds and Bees”) and 10 (“The Deep Heart’s Core”). In the first Claire meets a young George Washington; and in the second and third Brianna is raped and we experience with her the aftermath of rape is maybe worse.

Season 4, Episode 9: Wilmington

We are now well into parallel stories. For our older couple, they have arrived in Wilmington where a theater is playing a miserable 18th century play (people in oriental outfits and the lines do sound accurate) and all the glittering powerful Brits have come. Jamie and Claire seen with baby (whose name I cannot catch) born to Fergus and Marsali who have also arrived.


Roger and Brianna’s reunion

Cut to Roger on-shore steadily faithfully seeking Briana and lo and behold he hears her voice asking after Cross Creek where she thinks her parents are. Joyous reunion, and into a room where they show they can make love on screen almost as well as Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe. Richard Rankin is shyer than Heughan (not as stiffly acting it as Aidan Turner ….). Now she says she loves him and they go through a Handfast ceremony first.
The secondary story — and I think it is actually secondary although it begins first in the episode — is also now filled with suspense. All has at last been set up. We see a play is about to be performed. Cut to Marsali making food. Fergus to her. How is the bairn?

I was moved by Marsali and Claire’s conversation about motherhood. That is very like a woman’s novel; it took contains part of the theme of this episode and the whole season: Claire says you may want to but you cannot protect your child from life beyond a certain point …

Jamie and Claire go to the theater — naturally they are invited by the governor and cannot say no. Who do they meet but young George and Martha Washington. Claire is just so excited and cannot resisting asking him if he has been ‘chopping down cherry trees?” he looks at her puzzled enough she has to make an excuse.

More important another high ranking man, Ferrante has some terrible wound – an untreated hernia — that Claire notices because he’s in pain. She offers to help but who is she? a woman? a healer? what’s that? Jamie learns that these upper class people have placed a mole with our Murtagh who is planning to rob a coach to take back the taxes he and his man consider stolen from them. Jamie dare not go and help but he somehow — we discover — has sent a message via Fergus. Good ‘ole Fergus at the ready, for on the road just as they are about to rob these people Fergus intervenes, Murtagh calls it off. Fergus tells Murtagh there is a mole among his rebels …..

Meanwhile at the theater Jamie prods the wounded man and suddenly Ferrante can’t take the pain any longer; he would have died but that Claire spoke up and suddenly it’s all hospital theater and she performs a minor procedure with thread, hot water and other stuff she somehow gets and gains the govenor’s admiration. He now knows why Jamie so respect her.

Message arrives: the robbery did not happen, Murtagh and his men not taken. Someone had warned them. Who could it be?

The episode uses juxtaposition so much I just can’t repeat it; suffice to say, Jamie and Claire’s story is back-and-forth with Briana and Roger’s.

Almost immediately after the handfast ceremony and love-making Brianna and Roger get into another quarrel. She becomes all riled up. Basically their rooted disagreements come to the surface — and startlingly they part. I admit I didn’t believe this could happen: it seemed improbable, slightly contrived: a deliberate separation to make for more suspense and anxiety. After going to such trouble to find her, he would not leave her. After she knew him and had said they were man and wife and the love-making that happened, would she just go off? By herself and in this dangerous place? It didn’t make emotional or practical sense. Remember they don’t have cell phones to keep in contact.

Still the dialogue is important: he accuses her of being childlike and I begin to think this is the theme and what makes us nervous about her. So what if he hesitated at telling her about the obituary; nothing he has said shows him to be authoritarian; she is twisting his words when he talks of consulting. Apparently she behaved similarly with her biological father, Frank, refusing to listen to reason. She wants what she wants regardless of anything around her and reality. It is true that common sensically in 1967 her parents are both long dead.

Then think about her behavior for this whole venture: She did not take any clothes with her, barely a map and one peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. Baby comfort food. When she is walking through the highlands and nearly freezing, without food or water soon and is found by Laoghaire we are supposed to have realized why didn’t she prepare? When Claire crossed the first time, she didn’t prepare either but luckily she encountered Jamie …. ‘Nuff said.The second time she came she had a box of clothes, her surgical tools, other stuff.

What emerged quickly in Season episode 1 is Claire is at risk of rape immediately. From not only Black Jack Randall but the troupe around Jamie. Throughout her experience in the 18th century everywhere she is at risk of violence — but she knows this after the first hour, and after she is shown how to use a knife she is wary.

Brianna seems singularly unaware she is in danger – she has been sheltered all her life. She is startled to be taken for a whore and has nothing to counter this — she does not realize she should have her maid with her. A respectable young girl in the 18th century did not go about alone in the streets or into a tavern like this one. The maid did see her go off with Roger and I thought the maid would come to find her and interrupt. But I suppose why should she? she has no idea what her mistress wants and she is supposed to be subject to the mistress.And then when Brianna goes off like that it could be seen as suspiciously wanton by an 18th century person

Mr Bonnet begins to emerge as the season’s villain. He glimpses her when she comes into the tavern; he is gambling and sees him toying with her mother’s ring and pulls out money – which she thinks is a guarantee of respectability. Not so in the 18th century. Respectability is family, and knowledge of your past, all of which give status. Bonnet draws her into another room to make the bargain. Again she seems singularly unaware it is not a good thing to go where no eyes are upon her. But in this case that others know what is happening doesn’t help. It’s like someone in trouble in the streets or on a bus today and no one makes a move. I like to think they would act to prevent rape because it’s high violence, violation and the next step to murder.

Someone even closes the door on them. She is not raped in front of us but in another room. We are in the room just outside and we see no one soul lift a finger to help her. She screams in cries that call for help and we see she realizes no one is coming. That can have the effect of making people take it less seriously.

Then the camera switches to them and in his inimitable witty sardonic charismatic way Ed Speleers gives her ring. To him that she was not a virgin confirms the idea she could be a prostitute. He tells her he is a honest man who keeps his bargains. No he doesn’t– we have seen that before. The hour ends with Briana unsteadily walking away, stunned, hurt, now looking for her maid and room ….

During the whole of last episode and this for the first time I felt Sophie Skelton was up to the part. Hitherto it seemed to me Richard Rankin was so much better than she – he was far more nuanced, more depth. If you look at the stills of her, there is often something stiff or artificial, something self-conscious or self-regarding and it’s still there at moments, but on the whole she came up to the role last time with Menzies as her father and now this.

For 9 and 10, the episode commentary and evaluation continues in the comments.

Ellen

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Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. I live with them daily, after all … Any library is filled with them. I can take a book from dusty shelves, and be haunted by the thoughts of one long dead, still lively as ever in their winding sheet of words … Look back, hold a torch to light the recesses of the dark. Listen to the footsteps that echo behind, when you walk alone. All the time the ghosts flit past and through us, hiding in the future. We look in the mirror and see the shades of other faces looking back through the years; we see the shape of memory, standing solid in an empty doorway. By blood and by choice, we make our ghosts; we haunt ourselves — from The Prologue to Drums of Autumn

Friends,

The serial drama, Outlander, has become something of an addiction with me. I watch it one episode at a time, night after night. This winter I went through Seasons 1 and 2, and am now well into 3. At the same time I kept my weekly appointment with Season 4 each Sunday night at 8 pm, and sometimes we had second date, on another late night, a re-run. I’ve posted on a use of Christmas in Gabaldon’s novel, Drums of Autumn, to which I can now add:

Christmas in Scotland in 1967, Drums of Autumn, Part 6, Chapters 17-18: “Home for the Holidays.” Roger and Brianna go to a Christmas service in a Catholic church — Briana is said to be Catholic — I think Claire might be — as I recall her friendship with Mother Hildegarde in Dragonfly in Amber and her response to the stillborn birth of Faith. Roger is presbyterian by upbringing from his step-father, the Reverend Wakefield. Roger moves out of his adopted father’s house, gives away, puts in libaries and sells many books, and rehearses his memories very touchingingly. There is an erotic sequence between the young lovers at home ….

Nothing spectacular: it’s like Austen, Christmas seems to happen to be there and adds touches as when in the opening of the third season of the series, Roger arrives in Boston Christmas-time and the events of revelation, research, and Claire’s return to the 18th century through the stones occur amid the rituals of a 20th century American Christmas.

My last blog-review of the series was of Voyager as the watery, water-drenched end of Season 3; and I find I hadn’t sufficiently emphasized how central Claire and Brianna’s relationship was to the first half of this third book, nor its overall structuralizing conflicts, with strong women in rivalry. Geillis becomes a weird witch, with Claire her nemesis.


About to build a life together

By contrast, Drums of Autumn and Season 4 are rooted in the land, building on it, hunting, fishing, each person doing their part to contribute to this (to them) new place, and for Claire it’s her medicine book, her surgery and care that’s needed for the invention of a new society. Along with this, what’s enacted this time, by Jamie repeatedly, by Frank across one crucial episode (“Down the Rabbit Hole”), are scenes of good fathers: Jamie and Willie, Jamie and Brianna, Jamie and Ian, Frank and Brianna. A central image-symbol for the book is Jamie and Claire’s log cabin; for the series, this cabin shares the imaginary with River Run, a plantation based on slave labor; a river down which Jamie and Claire and Ian float, and twice meet Stephen Bonnet; the wood and home of the Indians, and Wilmington, the town from which the colonialist order is run.


River Run

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Some notes, recaps and commentary for the first seven of the thirteen episodes:


After Jamie and Claire agree to take Bonnet with them (he’s escaped hanging), she tends to some of his wounds ….

Episode 1, the ironically titled “America the Beautiful:” At first I thought I might be driven to give up when they began on how wonderful the American experiment, outlined the American dream (you can do anything if you’ve the will &c) but pretty quickly this was savagely ironized as explicitly Jamie protests to Claire (despite English accent presented as American in the stories) about slavery and we see the slaves, and we experience violence as a way of life (for once repudiated) so that the idea is what’s a dream for some is a nightmare for others. And corruption rife. Ed Speleers continues his successful career: as the treacherous Mr Bonnet he was memorable, charismatic in his face.


Floating downstream

Amid the hanging of Jamie’s old comrade-in-prison, the refusal of his corpse by a church-controlled graveyard, so melancholy and mockery, as the raft moves downstream, the characters have bad dreams, long flashbacks which are juxtaposed to the present back and forth. These slow down the narrative sometimes until we reach the closing sequence of mayhem where all voice stops and we watch a pantomime of violence and grief distanced from us by stylization in the acting. The effect is to make the episode more inward, and very effective.

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Episode 2: “Do No Harm:” The film-makers have had the astonishing courage to make central, the heinous practice of lynching black men by white men. Lynching central to US life until the 1950s. They did not distract us with several stories at once but kept their eyes on this one happening. So not just slavery and its accompanying justification, racism, but the hideous unjust violence that sustained it – including whipping as a matter of course — is put before us. Claire is again center, with some voice-over, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as the blind Jocasta Mackenzie, somehow monumental as a successful plantation owner of long standing. The young black women who are enslaved are also individualized and as memorable. I was even more moved the second time because I watched it during the day (a rerun) and got more out of what was said. This season is beautifully photographed but this had the effect of keeping us at a distance from the captured African people working in the fields …


Jamie and Claire greeted by Jocasta, Ulysses and Phoebe

The unexpectedness of the story line kept me on tenterhooks. After the conclusion of the pantomime third exit, where Jamie and Claire have been robbed by an ungrateful ruthless but debonair Mr Bonnet (Ed Speleers), they turn to Jamie’s relatives. Lucky man has all these rich relatives scattered around the world. But when they come to Aunt Jocasta, they discover her dependence on slavery in house and fields, no matter how much she wants to turn the management of River Run over to Jamie and Claire, both balk but Claire more. Faery gold as Aunt Jocasta wantsto turn her property over to Jamie; wants to make him heir but before this goes further, a young black man, now named Rufus, whipped by some overseer has responded by cutting the guy’s ear off, and the mob (I don’t want to use the word community which is such an honorific), has strung him up on a hook thrust deep into his belly. This was taking the law into their own hands and Jamie manages to wrest the body back and we watch Claire and young Ian operate on him and him come back to life. He could have lived.


Jamie, Claire and Jocasta face the angry mob of white men determined to torture an enslaved black man to death: Claire has enabled him to die a peaceful death

But there are laws 1) again freeing slaves without pay 100 pounds bond for each 2) signing documents to the effect they will hurt no one and if they do, you get killed 3) that such an act of rebellion must be responded to by execution. A mob comes and Claire finds she must feed Rufus arsenic to save him from torture — the sleeping death is the kindest thing that might be done. Then the body is handed over. One can see that Claire and Jamie will not be able to stop at this plantation but go have to go west — where of course they will encounter Native American and the hideous casual violence, described by Jill Lepore in her King Philip’s war.

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Episode 3: “False Bride: Basically Jamie and Claire refuse to take on Jocasta’s plantation if it means owning and driving people as slaves. But there is an odd subtext here: the way the house servants are presented show them as well dressed, well fed, and happy enough: it’s almost a justification of slavery where Claire comes out as unreasonably austere in not agreeing to go with the system. After all, are not unfortunate injustices rife everywhere: that’s Jocasta’s stance and there is little to counter act it – the only cruelty we see is the one which murders Rufus..


Jocasta left alone

They go west and immediately as a couple Jamie and Claire do have a believable momentary trauma: Ian goes off with Mr Myers (why I’m not sure but they go on ahead) and the donkey bolts and Claire rides after it.. No surprise when she gets lost and then another tempest. Much juxtaposition of scenes so tension created until we get back. Then Claire has a dream of a nightmare ghost, an Indian or Native American whose head is broke open, and then she finds a skull with fillings not possible until two centuries later. Is there another person who crossed those stones now in distress trying to get into contact with her.

But Jamie finds her, all is well again and after some serious conversation, he agrees to stay there in this relatively place and try to make a home. We wonder if it’s too far from where other whites are and the Indians will attack — they have been mentioned as “more civil” in this part of the world but the reassurance itself sows doubts.


Roger and Brianna dancing at the Scots festival in 1967

Parallel is Roger and Brianna’s story. Here the film differs from the book. In the book after initial awkwardness: Roger at first and continues to stand for all Briana dreads about her parents and biological father) they become lovers – he is a wonderful folk singer and plays ancient instruments in the Scots festival. In the book it’s Boston, here North Carolina – I suppose to make more contrast and parallel. I am told that there are three separate encounters in the book where the young couple gets to know one another. Here is it just pressed into one time and maybe that accounts for the inconsistencies.

In the film Roger turns out to be way “behind the times:” he wanted Brianna to marry him, and he won’t countenance just fucking — to him, it’s all or nothing. But as she says she’s not ready, she has her schooling, her career, she’s not sure. An impasse. Is his song about a false functioning as a warning of what’s come. Often songs sung in a film have some resonance. False bride. In the song the man is betrayed by the girl who married someone else. Now we can say this refers to the initial Jamie and Claire story where she is (forced we remember) to marry Jamie and thus betray Frank – and when she returns to Frank she cannot love him any more for real.

There are strawberries in the song; but where in the book (the conclusion of the sequence) Claire and Jamie eat strawberries idyllically in a paradisal set-piece is omitted.

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Episode 4: “Common Ground:” This was a very well-meaning story and the tone throughout was appealing especially in moments where Jamie and Claire and Ian were working on their new home together: the theme is pro-settler colonialism with Jamie and Claire & Ian identified as very well-meaning refugees (in effect) from Scotland where life has become hard if not impossible for them – dangerous and poverty stricken.

One spectacular incident involving Jamie is of over-the-top St George and the Dragon archetype. (I don’t mind these, and they can have a sort of pizzazz if you have the nerve to do it — as in the first season when in Both Sides now Evil Black Jack Randall is about to carve holes in Claire’s body and rape her high in a castle dungeon and suddenly from the window, there is our hero gun in hand, I’ll thank you to keep your hands off my wife — or words to this effect). So a fearful creature, at first they think an Indian and then a bear attacks them and Jamie to the rescue. Turns the bear is not a bear but a murderous man who had put claws on his hands to claw people to death. Where he got these or why he thinks he is a bear this way we are not told. He does real damage to the trader with whom Claire and Jamie and Ian have made friends and Claire now to the rescue with her medical box and tools and knowhow.


Claire and Adawehi

This incident enables our friends to make friends with the local Indians. A story is told that this man was someone who beat and raped a woman and so was ejected from the Indian community (I was glad to see such upright humane attitudes, albeit perhaps anachronistic?). So all are grateful to our hero for killing the insane man with his wild claws and bear outfit and this gives Jamie a chance to make his gestures of friendship, which are reciprocated. A film has a problem here of translating what in a verbal text is easy to conjure up by a reader’s imagination; made concrete by concrete means it is susceptible of rejection as impossible or absurd. A sub-arch is about this ghost of an Indian who Claire thinks is another person who crossed those stones. The title is well-put: they are all living on common ground. Europeans and Native Americans.


Roger on the phone

The parallel thread is of Claire and her friend, African American, in college in Boston receiving a phone call from Roger who has come across a document showing that Jamie and Claire became settlers in North Carolina and called her to tell her. We learn that Roger’s Scottish housekeeper, Fiona (granddaughter of Mrs Graham now deceased, — in season 1 & 2 important) knows all about the stones and what happened to Claire. We learn she knows because the story line requires that she show Roger a document which suggests that 12 years after Claire and Jamie came to North Carolina they died. She says she heard all the conversation in the house (go back to the 2nd and 3rd seasons) This naturally distresses Roger because even if in realism Jamie and Claire have been dead now 200 years, it will upset Briana to think of her mother as not able to come back through the stones. Roger thinks he must phone again but now discovers that Brianna left for Scotland two weeks ago (!) to be with or join or find her mother.

These scenes are touching — they are now our young lovers.

We are (I suggest) supposed to remember there is a contradiction in the documents or concrete relics. At the grave yard in Scotland in the 20th century, Claire came across a tombstone showing that Jamie died in Scotland with a sub-header of “beloved husband of Claire” (or word to this effect). 17—the two last digits were wiped out. So did he die in Scotland? When? Is the young housekeeper’s document wrong or the document they died in North Carolina wrong. Stay tuned.

There were some very good moments between Claire and Jamie too.

The title is well-put: they are all living on common ground. Europeans and Native Americans; nevertheless, there is a kind of strangeness to this series this time in all these attempts to realize the book’s vision of America and the past now versus the present and keep them distinct. I wish they didn’t call her a healer so often (it just jars) — the word physician was common in this era among white Europeans. The Europeans would have called her a doctor. Much progress had been made by the later-18th century as her box shows – in the book there are interesting insertions in italics by the doctor who owned the box and his experiences as a physician. Claire reads them in Drums of Autumn itself, an instance of epistolarity, & very well done.

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Murtagh

Episode 5: “Savages” has clarity in the way the storyline is designed. The developments: Jamie re-meets Murtagh, now a blacksmith, suitably enough “aged” by make-up. A few sentences explain a long period of indentured servitude, ending luckily (faery gold again) for him in inheriting a smithy. At first Murtagh seems unwilling to leave his place to come live closely with Jamie and Claire once again because he is politically involved with a group of people protesting (among other things) taxes, but by the end of the hour he has turned up at Fraser’s Ridge. In the book I believe there is a Dunton who performs the role that Murtagh is about to take.

The other is that Brianna appears to have had a message that Claire and Jamie are in “terrible danger,” and she must travel back in time to help/warn them. Two sets of brief scenes with Roger Wakefield and a shot of her at the stones and then vanished. Is this another false one? These are neatly brought in not far from the opening of the hour and conclude at the conclusion.

In 18th century America, Claire helps a German girl to give birth to a baby, which baby catches the measles as well as the mother and dies. The grandfather blames the Indians (this is the term used in the series) who had passed by his land and drank some water. They left a blessing, which he thinks was a curse. He seeks a violent revenge on them and murders the good old woman who functions as their “healer;” in retaliation the Indian kill him and his wife and burn down their house. We are to mourn for her death.

The idea is Handy Dandy, who are the savages …. this includes the British gov’t wrenching taxes from the colonists, the original arrests and transportation of people in servitude, the German family, the Native Americans — everyone but our friends.


Remembering the Boogie Woogie song (from “The Search” Season 1, Episode 14)

The elements of fantasy seem to me to be coming out strongly or somehow more jarringly in this fourth season — Murtagh is still so hearty and strong – what works in a book is harder to put across in the visual concrete realism of a movie – which for the audience at large it even depends upon. Brianna almost at will crosses the stones. This put me in mind of The Wizard of Oz, which if I’m not mistaken Gabaldon alludes to in her first book, and the lines did turn up in the first season’s episodes. Claire as Dorothy longing to go home – sans Toto. Soon people will be traveling back and forth (joke alert).

I see no sign of the story of the young girl who was impregnated by a vicious man who was one of the prison guards at Ardsmuir. She either kills herself or tries to have an abortion and dies in the attempt. She is helped by an enslaved friend who is then hunted down according to the savage laws of this land’s people. Jamie, Claire and Ian find this girl and take her to live with the Indians. I hope it’s not cut as it certainly fits the theme of savages. .Handy dandy, who is the savage here – not “our friends” or the victims they come across now and again of this monstrous European colonialist order.

And I do enjoy the letters in the book: Ian’s conveying Jenny’s was especially very pleasant, filled with good feeling. It’s too bad they can’t or don’t try to convey that.

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Jamie and Lord John meet again, in front of the cabin

Episode 6: “Blood of my blood:” I enjoyed most of last night’s episode, but did cringe at some. The story for the hour is Lord John brings Willy to North Carolina, with a variety of reasons why, omitting at first only that he longs himself to see Jamie: Willy should see his father, he, Lord John just happened to be in the area (Virginia is not in the area of North Carolina Jamie points out), is there to reconnoitre the area &c&c

Early on there is an interesting series of inexorable political clashes between Murtagh now called Mr Fitzgibbons: Murtagh is a “regulator” (I’m not sure what that is) and he has been in political meetings with people in the area outraged at the taxes; Lord John commends the Governor’s mansion, “a true monument to elegance.” That elegance is off the back of the colonists and anyone else the British can demand payment from. Jamie tries to stifle this because he is determined not to get on the wrong side of the law again. Murtagh leaves.

There is a scene of chess-playing between Jamie and Lord John: some could come away again feeling a strong homoerotic relationship (without the sex longing on Jamie’s part). Lord John is a rival because Jamie had been willing to confide in him. It’s here that Claire’s jealousy is understandable, though the two relationships are so very different: I feel Jamie and Claire are classically heterosexual in their social and sexual behavior (especially in the areas of dependence and independence).

The most moving moments are between Jamie and young Willie who wants to be called Master William and speaks in a plumy English accent. Lord John introduces them as if they have never met and the boy says nothing, but when he left alone outside with Jamie he immediately asks him if he also has the name Mackenzie and it emerges the boy remembers a lot. What throws them together in the wilderness alone is Lord John comes down with measles — remember the last episode of a family died of measles. It was a virulent deadly disease — still is very dangerous. But no vaccination possible for 18th century people. Conveniently Jamie had it and survived, so Claire is left to nurse Lord John back to health.

Since Caitriona Balfe has rightly been nominated for a Golden Globe, let me say how admirably Sam Heughan acts his part of unacknowledged father and how touching the scenes.Indeed he is excellent throughout the series: The boy is difficult and used to his way and goes outside the boundaries to Indian land and the two are confronted by the Indians. They say they must have blood and in the desperation of the moment, Jamie says the boy is his son and he will bleed for him; Willie then speaks up that it was he who crossed the borders and the Indian leader just nicks him. The “cat is not out of the bag” as when the Indians have gone it’s clear the boy thinks Jamie lied. The boy is very attached to his father and longs to return to him more than once.

Lord John’s wife, Isabel has died — I suppose this erasure of an inconvenient character comes from the book. Back in the cabin Lord John reveals this and while some of the interaction is understandable, I cringe over the submissive lines given Lord John, his abjection before Claire. In some of her jealousy and envy of hi, I felt her unfair; she excuses herself that she and Jamie have been deprived of 10 years. That’s not his fault. When Lord John brings forward the boy as an excuse for his visit, she suddenly tells him she and Jamie have a daughter. That is what she is envious of: the child. Hers lives in Boston. Lord John cannot know Boston in 1967.

At the close I was as usual touched by the love-making and concluding scene. I know it’s improbable that they could have such a comfortable place alone in a wood, and that the log cabin could be so pretty. But this is a fantasy romance material.

The episode seemed like a quiet interlude. Except for the clash between Lord John and Mr Fitzgibbon aka Murtagh, these events will not lead to anything — indeed much of this season has been quiet or highly dramatic moments not linked forward to an on-going story, The story that is ongoing is the development of Briana’s determination to cross the stones back to her mother.

With Fiona and Roger, and Murtagh, when Brianna crosses back there will be 6 characters who know the story of Claire’s crossing, 3 and eventually 4 (for Roger crosses back) in the 18th century. I wonder if Lord John is ever told?

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Outlander Season 4 Episode 7: Down the Rabbit Hole

I watched 2 times this week and then half of it again. I am at the same time slowly re-watching Season 1 and am up to the 15th episode (which I find hard to go through, it is far too cruel and the voyeurism to me is suspect). Anyway I was riveted by this one, just loved it, and crucial for me to its affects and effect was the re-appearance of Tobias Menzies as as a loving, tired, suffering father and yes betrayed husband. The scenes between him as Frank Randall and Briana Randall (the name she gives made me for the first time think maybe the actress, Sophie Skelton has the depths necessary for the character to keep the series viscerally felt. The second actor whose talent is slightly uncanny is Edward Speleers; there he is again (last seen a couple of episodes ago): as the fiercely violent, altogether oblivious to humanity or any reasoning loyalty, Mr Bonnet, Proteus himself in how he flashes from type to type, he’s electrifyingly charismatic. Terrifying because he is all gaiety and courtesy as he does horrific deeds. He reminds me of some of the characters of the first season lost in the second. Several other characters re-appeared – or recurred – for the first time this season. Nell Hudson as Laoghaire Mackenzie now Fraser on the surface and when not touched to her depths this apparently intensely kind conventional woman; but how swiftly she switches to fierce witch herself when she realizes this waif is Claire Fraser’s daughter by Jamie Fraser – Steven Cree as Ian Murray, the gentle presence refelt. (What happened to Jenny aka Laura Donnelly – was she not contracted for this year?)

But none of them with the same meaning as Frank – paradoxically or ironically he is now the ghost people who loved him (it seems mainly Briana) long to resurrect or reach. In episode 1, it was that Scotsman by the monument in the central square at dusk looking up at a window he might see Claire from as Frank approaches. What else is this but beating death, going into the past to make it come alive again. And each flashback of a now dead man in the 20th century worked that way until the near end when the emotion becomes chocking as Brianna once again on her own (Ian cannot accompany her any further, like some Virgil guide cannot go further) turns round once more to look at Scotland before going aboard and sees the now clearly the ghost of her father waving her on.

The title is down the rabbit hole so we are prompted to irony, distance, mockery – here we are with Alice in Wonderland. But that’s not how it’s experienced. I found Brianna’s initial trek through the Scottish highlands as worrying as her mother Claire’s through the jungles of Jamaica in the third season. Both she and Roger (who also has no trouble going down that hole – after due adieus with Fiona) are given experiences which make shocking the differences between 18th century world and today. There is no city, no town, no lights, no coach, no phones and she is in danger of dying were she not found. We must not question too closely how the stones land the person near the place they want to be – though not quite there, like some magic bus that got the address slightly wrong. Roger finds that the structures of society he is so used to and depends on are out; he has to go low in status to get the place he wants (crossing to North Carolina) and once aboard ship, no one has any science or medicine to deal with common body needs. What’s more they are ruthless in this era and small pox so feared that people are thrown overboard.

I know people countered my idea that the last episode was like an interlude by saying grounds were laid for further action. If so, they are still in the planting stage. Here the story unfolds, or unravels swiftly in the way of the first & second seasons. Laoghaire locks Brianna in (fairy tale elements here – Rapunzel comes to mind) but there is a sympathetic child who has a wagon and horse (!) to take her to a relative nearby. And Roger crosses the ocean with memorable encounter with Mr Bonnet once again. That tossing of the coin is a brilliant embodiment of the idea of chance ruling all – though clearly it’s all providential if savagely so in this series.

Women did not travel alone in this period and anyway why not a friend as lady’s companion (Briana getting into the swing of things) so she picks up one Elizabeth to spare her rape. Since there’s been talk about the actress playing the role: her held-back stance and plainer looks make her just right: perhaps she is a bit well-fed, for servants in this era were smaller, thinner (they didn’t get a helluva a lot to eat).
This is a rare episode where neither Sam Heughan or Caitriona Balfe appear. I’d say they had that week off except maybe the film-makers don’t make these episode by episode. I doubt they do.

We see in this episode how centrally this is woman’s romance. The figure who acts first or is acted upon first is the female: Brianna. Before it was Claire before the stones. The male follows her: Roger. He is (I am so glad for this) the opposite of a macho male: anything but a violent cruel man. Jamie despite coming from a culture of violence is as moral and exemplary a figure as Ross Poldark (to bring in another romance hero, though a series of books centered on a male, i.e., him). Brianna brings with her her needs, and she is set in a patriarchy: her mentor and normative figure is her father. Claire’s profession is one woman traditionally have been allowed; she collects flowers & herbs (botany); turns to a husband who she bonds fiercely with. Briana’s role is that of daughter in a central mother-daughter paradigm: many women’s books have this as a central focus.

The use of flashbacks, juxtaposition, voice overlaps (if not over-voice) and parallels was so done so It felt intuitive and gave subjective depths as we went. I noticed for the first time too how they use deep-focus so you can see three deepening sections of a single scene (something the human eye can’t do). Wonderful episode.


Deep in conversation from an earlier season

I was moved to write a poem about how the dead are never gone from us, how historical fiction is aligned with the ghost story and our longings to cross some border into the deep past and bring it alive. For me this is to reach Jim and be alive with him once more, to beat death the way Claire does in the third season and now Brianna in this fourth. The question is, how? I see the metaphor of the Wizard of Oz as central as Alice (and used as metaphor in the first season if not the first book) This is the driving actuation of great historical romance writers like Hilary Mantel and Daphne DuMaurier.

Ellen

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Christmas at Noningsby

Friends and readers,

As is our wont for too many years than I like to count, Christmas week on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io (we have now resided on five different platforms) we took time out to read a few Christmas or ghost stories and watch a few Christmas or New Year’s movies. I realize I’ve hardly blogged about this, but from our discussion I thought I’d ask the question I posed in my previous blog on two Christmas movies of the 21st century, Is there any general difference between the Christmas story that emerged with the first commercialization of Christmas — in the 19th century, around the time of Dickens’s most famous tale, A Christmas Carol (but not caused by this story), and the type that has dominated the second half of the 20th century and is just dying now.

The simple answer is, Yes. The Victorians were much more into ghosts. Not that we don’t have ghost stories: we do. But I’d say we want our ghosts to be redemptive, to bring hope, cheer, and uplift while the Victorians tended to want generally to mirror as aspects of their society all the year round as seen through the lens of a Christmas ritual. And often as not darkly gothic. We are changing and our new traditional stories are beginning to be less insistent on faery joy and benevolence (It’s a Wonderful Life, engineered by an angel) and more inclined to accept the temporary rescue (as in this year’s Mary Poppins Returns or Love, Actually). I am in the position of having too much material to demonstrate this (from all the years I’ve saved what people wrote over different weeks’ choices, but thought this year’s stories were as able as any to register this. Two by Anton Chekhov, “Frost,” and “A Christmas Time,” and one by Margaret Oliphant, “A Christmas Story,” which I’ll follow up as a kind of coda, Trollope’s depiction of six very different experiences of Christmas in the same year and juxtaposed chapters in Orley Farm.


17th century Dutch: scene on the ice

Chekhov’s “Frost” shows us people attempting to have this joyous time on a vast frozen pond, and what happens is among the upper classes, one man complain how this is false and, far from a cheerful time for all, the winter imposes cold and misery for many, for the poor much deprivation and hard work in the bitter cold. Along comes a man whose appearance and story bears this idea out. The problem (I’d say) is that the complaining has destroyed what cheer there is, and other characters reiterate this idea. But somehow they cannot forget. There is that suffering man.


John Atkinson Grimshaw, Silence (late 19th century, English, probably Yorkshire in winter)

Cheknov’s “A Christmas Time” tells of two very old people who have not heard from their grown daughter for a long time, so long the wife goes to a person who can read and write. He asks her what she wants him to say, and Chekhov says she cannot get herself to say the (I’d call them) vulnerable open longing emotions she has or what has happened for real. She is too inhibited to speak the truth. So the notary produces the usual boilerplate rot of his upper class niche, which flatters him and would say nothing to this daughter. The letter arrives and we learn that there were letters written to the old couple but never delivered. The foolish poor people, the daughter especially trusted to others to deliver them. (Like the southerners who gave their ballots to people coming to the door; I wonder if in the modern case the people were intimidating and that’s not said in public) At any rate when the two grown children read the letters one cries with joy and remembrance. So the letters do serve as a minimum communication. But the pair do nothing about going to the aging couple so they cannot know if they have reached their daughter.

Bleak stories, indeed, but not unusual. And to show this I think I’ll follow up with a few blogs on previous year’s readings. For now have a look at a M.R. James Christmas tale.


John Millais, Christmas (ghost) story-telling

Our last short story for this round, Oliphant’s “Christmas Story:” Oliphant has a man who wants go somewhere Christmas and misses his train. He takes an old-fashioned coach and finds himself by an old broken down landscape where all is desolate and thence to an inn which fits this area. Bare. a dearth of objects. The food offered is bad, and an old gentleman comes and offers to take our narrator to his manor – all the while talking against modern ways. They get there through an uncanny landscape, and the old man tells our narrator that the sullen son he meets is going to replace the old man. According to the family will, each generation must make the oldest son the heir. The family has trouble having sons. A story is told where when the family attempted to get round this harsh treatment, to give the house to a daughter, and they almost lost the house. Our narrator is horrified to think what this means is the son will kill the father somehow or the father kill himself. He tries to stop this, but is somehow ejected from the house, and must return to the inn, deeply disquieted. Next day he goes back indignant determined to overcome the indifference of all around him to what is done in this family each generation but it is too late. And then he wakes up … Was it all a nightmare?

How to take this? The details and experience may leave people reacting very different ways to this gothic — without ghosts so it’s not reprinted in the ghost stories but my hunch is it is a story of the “unseen.” My reading: it’s about Oliphant herself. As Trollope’s Fixed Period is about his fear of death, his aging and misery, his sense the young would like him to die, with the awful Mrs Neverbend a version of Trollope’s wife, Oliphant’s is even more painfully about her. Her sons want to replace her — a number of her novels are metaphors for her painful relationships with her disappointing sons and her neglect of her sweet niece (“Lady Mary’s Story”).

My good friend, Fran, had another take very close to Victorian broad themes:

I found it an intriguing one, despite the unfortunately clichéd, ‘it may have been only a dream’ ending.

As you say, it was probably informed by her own distressing and disappointing experiences with the ne’er-do-well males in her family, who took and took, but didn’t respect,but it seems to go further than that and be an oblique critique of patriarchy, patrilineal inheritance rights and inheritance laws in general. She does it by taking the privileging of male inheritance ad (macabre and possibly murderous) absurdum. It isn’t that the family has difficulty having sons: due to the losses of a wastrel forebear, the family has made a conscious decision to have only one child, a son, in each generation in order to maintain patrilineal succession and prevent their land being cut up even further by multiple heirs or falling to another family if a female should succeed and marry. That son automatically accedes to the title upon marriage whilst the father dies, whether by his own hand or that of his son, remains unclear as you’ve already pointed out – a kind of precursor to the Highlander’s ‘there can be only one’ maxim:) The narrator stumbles upon the present incumbent of the title on the day this will come about and is shocked by his equanimity at the prospect of his loutish son succeeding him in this way. The only thing that seems to bother the father is that his son has insisted on marrying outside the preferred narrow gene pool and into a particularly fecund family, thus presumably increasing the danger of multiple heirs.

Women are of absolutely no importance in this family beyond the obligatory production of a male heir. The lady of the manor is a completely silent, passive and presumably accepting cypher who quite literally blends in with the furniture and her husband is positively gleeful when he recounts that the one time a female child was born first and in danger of inheriting both she and her mother met with an early demise – manner again unspecified – whilst the second wife performed her duty and produced the required son to continue the male line.

This stands in ironic and suggestive contrast to the legendary figure of Godiva referenced at the beginning of the tale, who took action and stood up against her despotic husband and caused harmful laws to be rescinded for the good of the people. The male who disrespected her, the first Peeping Tom, was summarily punished by a higher power. Wishful thinking perhaps…..


Mr Furnival greeting Lady Mason, to the right side sitting Mrs Furnival, to the left Lady Mason’s son, Lucius

And finally Christmas in Trollope’s Orley Farm (mostly contained in 21-24) as simply truthful. The truth is few people can be happy upon command. Some who are already cheerful in life can easily enter into the spirit of a festival; for others it is a form a work which brings its rewards; for still others, the social requirement just makes life harder to bear. We see all these types in the 6 Christmases Trollope shows us. But of course Trollope doesn’t present Christmas in all his books or because Christmas come every year; he presents it here because it fits into his exploration of law, custom, and now ritual in this particular novel.

There are six Christmases. The four obvious ones are: Harley Street, Noningsby, Groby Park, and Great St. Helens.

Christmas at Harley Street. The scene of the aon and accused mother, Lady Mason, late at night matches the scene of Mr and Mrs Furnival. Less is dramatized in the first but we are to understand Lady Mason feels a bitter agony at her son. He is driving his absolute right to a property too far and a court case will be the result. He, she feels, rightly is cruel. Trollope wants us to understand that Lucius cannot bear that his opponents do not answer all insults: his pride is his undoing. But we are shown that pride is necessary to win in the world. All the characters have it, but only the wiser use it with discretion. I feel we are to see Mr Furnival is cruel and mean, cold. We’ve been told enough to know he has women. He never comes home to supper one night in the year and is even out on this Christmas celebration. To those not in groups Christmas is a cruel time because (as Trollope shows) people without friends or celebration who have hearts are made to suffer and feel bitterly ashamed. But Mrs Furnivals handles Mr Furnival badly. Had she been skillful, he still would gone out, never be home. She cannot humble herself and admit to herself or him she speaks out of deep loneliness.

Trollope does “paint” the scenes of Christmas at Noningsby remarkably finely — he has wonderful description and psychological powers. And while showing us the enjoyment he does justice to all the pettty, cross and unsatisfied emotions of the various lovers and children and adults too. Unlike Dickens Trollope shows a variety of how people get through this day, does justice to all. This sequence of chapters is famous as well as the illustration of blind man’s bluff. Ironically appropriate _– the way to get through life is to bluff the blind men.

Christmas at Great St Helens’ shows Mr Moulder bullying everyone into appearing to be cheerful, and somehow they get through sll the insisted upon rituals with heavy food, much drink, and obedience.

But to this we should add Christmas at the cottage of the Greens, the Mason’s tenants in Groby Park, and Christmas at the Cleeves. What unites the Greens’ and Cleeves’s Christmas is they are simply an adorned moment in which all attempt to show good fellowship. Mr and Mrs Green come home from the long ordeal of ugly pretense and parody of hospitality that has been the Groby Park Christmas (everyone an utter miser), and Trollope writes: “‘And now, my dear, we’ll have a bit of bread and cheese and a glass of beer'” (1985 Oxford Classics ed. DSkilton, p. 237).

Christmas at the Cleeves also has a good moment:

“[Lady Mason] made an effort to be serene, and the effort was successful — as such efforts usually are. On the morning of Christmas-day they duly attended church, and Lady Mason was seen by all Hamworth sitting in the Cleeves’ pew. in no way could the baronet’s friendhship have been shown more plainly…”

In the evening Sir Peregrine proposes the toast. They drink to the health of the absent young men, he retires and Lady Mason is able to relieve her heart in conversation with Mrs Orme (p. 247). We may assume they drank something far more expensive than beer.

These 2 Christmases are overlooked because they only get a couple of paragraphs each and are very quiet. They also lack children. Children are what makes Christmas for some so happy, especially when they still believe in the pretty lie of Santa. Children are drunk on life of course. Finally these two seem to me the most modern of all the Christmases we see. Not everyone is near a divorce on Christmas day. But many people nowadays are cut off from large family groups — or single –and spend their day alone, quietly, or with one or two adult friends.

The 6 Christmases are presented in this novel this way too because they fit into what Halperin has identified as something Trollope dislikes wherever he sees it, and is a strong part of his animus towards political life: they avoid the ceremonies of falsifying rituals. I would say that this presentation of the ritual of Christmas as enacted in six places connects to the novel’s exploration of law and custom and what I’ll call the brutal politics of every day life: shall one bully? as Moulder does, or retreat into self-abnegation or controlled repeat or veneer ritual like Lady Mason?

In this connection what Trollope shows us is ritual at home doesn’t hide reality; rather it heightens it. In each of the Christmases we find everyone behaving in ways that epitomize the reality of their lives and natures at this point. The difference is the need to join in the ritual at the same time makes what is true about them more obvious; it turns life into a theater. Thus each of the six moments again reveals to us aspects of each character writ large, and carries the book’s stories and themes along strongly.

And there is a fun illustration by Millais for Christmas at Noningsby (which I used as the frontispiece to this blog) to which I add a picturesque one of companionship between Judge Staveley and his daughter later that spring.

Finishing this old year, let us hope, my friends, we may yet have a peaceful and stable one to come, be well and know and give kindness.

Ellen

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Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth in the present Folger production

Friends and readers,

I much enjoyed, indeed was drawn to attend minutely to the Folger Shakespeare William Davenant’s 1673 version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth this afternoon. I was in the lucky (or for the sake of simply accepting Davenant unlucky) position of having just watched a 1979 film (scroll down) of the mesmerizing Trevor Nunn Macbeth featuring Ian McKellan and Judi Dench. Izzy told me when at Sweet Briar’s some years ago now she was on a tech team producing Shakespeare’s Macbeth, had watched it 8 times, to say nothing of remembering our having seen a naked Macbeth (actors stark naked with no props) done here at the Washington Shakespeare theater (at the time in Arlington). We both also remembered an HD screening of a Eurotrash Verdi Macbeth done at the HD Atlas in DC. So unlike just about all the people around us, we were very familiar with Shakespeare’s play.

In brief, and to be candid, Izzy said she found Davenant “tedious”, except in those scenes where he came closest to Shakespeare, where Shakespeare’s original memorable speeches were done so eloquently by our players, and she didn’t think “the comedy funny at all.” The jokes were “irritating,” and “brought Shakespeare down.” That’s what she said.


Rachel Montgomery, Emily Noel and Ethan Watermeyer as semi-comic haunted witches

I admit that after looking forward to dancing and singing witches, I found the extravagant numbers extraneous, tiresome and one supposed lustful love song by one of the witches (Emily Noel) inexplicable. My incessant remembering and comparing led me only to realize that Davenant worried his audience wouldn’t understand Shakespeare so constantly added in little explanations (“here is is a letter informing me …. ” says Lady Macbeth), and big explanations: for the first time I understand why Malcolm tells Macduff he is evil — to test him on the supposition Macduff would prefer a deeply corrupt man in charge to a good one (maybe I was alert to this since the advent of Trump’s regime). Davenant changed the words clunkily (brief becomes small candle), ruined some speeches by understanding them literally, and was determined to make things more moral and pro-Royal (so we had speeches on behalf of royalty, and no porter). When I relaxed though, far from finding the revision “contemptible” (as a literary critic from the 1920s, Hazelton Spencer does in a blow-by-blow comparison), I was fascinated to see how easily Macbeth and his Lady were turned into a bickering couple, how near farce Shakespeare’s Macbeth is. Our lead couple were funny in more than a nervous way. (Just now on the London stage, Othello is being done as wild farce with Mark Rylance stealing the show as mischievously amused Iago.)

Further, as in many movie adaptations, I found good things in some of the changes. I like how Davenant increases the role and presence of Macduff (Chris Genebach) and his Lady (Karen Peakes) so they appear in scenes from the beginning and throughout the play:


Karen and Owen Peakes as Lady Macduff and her son (he also plays Fleance)

I thought her speeches eloquent: she is given one anti-war soliloquy (which reminded me the English civil war was just over), and I felt more emotionally engaged by them as a couple, though making his reasons for his desertion of her so explicit (so as to make them both safer? so as to form a party against Macbeth &c) had the effect of making me blame him more. Maybe Davenant was giving all his actress-singers more lines. I also thought some of Davenant’s lines expressing horror, and poetic haunting effective. (I downloaded the ECCO text of Davenant tonight and skimmed through.) I got a great kick out of Norris exculpating herself absurdly. The play was set in a Marat/Sade mad Bedlam prison but the point seemed to be to avoid having too accurate Restoration outfits (which might be off-putting), though other elements (the candle chandeliers, the make-up, wigs), and a kind of artificial stylization in the acting was I thought meant to remind us we were watching an 18th century play. For Shakespeare lovers (if you know Shakespeare’s play and keep an open mind), this is worth going to see.


Chris Genebach as Macduff and Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth

The Folger consort was there too — high on the balcony playing Restoration music by John Eccles, among others. I recognized Purcell. So from a theatrical standpoint, Davenant’s play becomes highly effective again and again.

And it’s not just a period piece, a close reading lesson. I wondered how Davenant would add poetic justice to Shakespeare’s play. The famous 18th century adaptations make sure we have a happy ending or poetic justice (Nahum Tate’s Lear Edgar and Cornelia marry and Lear lives) or are concerned lest we catch too much despair and apprehension of meaninglessness or nihilism from Shakespeare, or feel the cruelty of life (so Juliet wakes up for a while). Trevor Nunn worked to get rid of this upbeat optimism. Rafael Sebastian (superb performance) as Malcolm played the character as probably base, strangely inward, actuated by the witches.


Rafael Sebastian as Malcolm and John Floyd as Donalbain

They wanted to make it eerie, and as in so many productions nowadays, bring out contemporary analogies to our present bloody POTUS, so indifferent to who is killed, he lies about how many (a few dead is fine). Here is the child Fleance helpless against the evil instruments (the hired murderers) of tyrant:

The concluding scene had the three commanding the stage. There was an attempt at the gruesome and zombies: after Louis Butelli as Duncan (got up to resemble Charles II) is killed, his body is seemingly tortured and he lurches about the stage as a living corpse — Lady Macbeth is haunted by Duncan in Davenant’s play (there is much parallelism).


Witches gloating over the king’s body about to get up again

Perhaps best of all, while I regretted the loss of favorite lines (especially on how one cannot minister to a mind diseased, all the speeches about murdering sleep; they cannot sleep are gone), a great deal of Shakespeare survives just about intact. Thus Ian Merill Peakes delivers the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech with full resonance at the same moment as the character does in Shakespeare after being told of Lady Macbeth’s death. Norris had full scope as a murderous and then mad Lady — true she does not come up to what Judi Dench enacted, but has anyone?

I’ve been reading Voltaire’s comments on Shakespeare in his Letters on England (Lettres Philosophiques) where he praises Shakespeare (“strong and fertile genius, full of naturalness and sublimity”) and finds the problem with his success is other English playwrights copy him and fail to pull off his “inimitable” combination of “monstrous farce” and deep craziness with daringly humanly real scenes — human stupidity, buffoonery, undecorous behavior wildly on display. Shakespeare’s “outrageousness” has just infected the English stage. Spot on. This adaptation is like Voltaire’s translations of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, meaningful in a French context, filled with Voltaire’s thoughts, but continually weaker than the original. The production’s director, Richard Richmond, in his notes is still right to congratulate himself on bringing together “academic scholarship, performance expertise, and creative design” (Tony Cisek, Mariah Anzaldo Hale). Pepys’s admiration for the productions of the play that he saw is quoted in the program notes:

a most excellent play in all respects, but especially in divertisement, though it be a deep tragedy, which is a strange perfection in a tragedy, it being most proper here, and suitable” (1667).

Well, yes.

Ellen Moody

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Puck in Motte’s filmic MND — presiding over wood, beach, mountain, his fingers seen typing away on his computer throughout ….

Friends,

I saw the Zellner Brothers’ pernicious film, Damsel, about two weeks ago now in my film club, and had debated ever since if I should write about it. I hoped it would go away, not be shown anywhere or hardly at all, not make any profit so the brothers would go out of business. No such thing. Today while watching Won’t You be My Neighbor?, I saw Damsel advertised as coming to a chain of theaters in my area. It is a film filled with acts of senseless violence, most of the characters exhibit a mindless obduracy, despise any openly vulnerable, tender, sensitive, and want to kill wantonly the one character who seeks friendship and love; one might offer the idea the Zellner brothers meant to parody the norms of the Trump regime and his non-super wealthy voting base, but the incongruities are inconsistent. If a Native American sounds like a Mel Brooks character upending the nonsense (he asks, “What is wrong with you people?”), he also steals everything he can from those he encounters and sneaks off in the night. The heroine is last seen rowing away into a misty lake with a miniature pony, determined to live on herself, in scornful need of no one. Most of the bulk of humanity are presented as moronic peasants who are first seen hanging a useless chubby man in a barrel (classical allusion to preferring begging to being a corrupt lord)


Mark Pattison at the ready (does not need anyone but himself, his gun, and the helpless animal)

One of the central male characters, Samuel (Mark Pattison) is someone out of the scenarios of our mass massacres by white men. Samuel is a white actor and he insists Parson Henry (David Zellner, one of the two people who made this film) a preacher come with him to marry him to Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) a girl whom he says has been kidnapped. He is ferocious with his gun. When they finally find her, and Anton (Gabe Casdorph) a young man is seen leaving the hut they live in, this young man shoots him dead. Then we see a gun come out of the door of the house and begin to shoot. It is Penelope. She comes out and immediately it is evident she loathes Samuel, a stalker — for that is what he is. She was in love Anton, whom he has murdered. She tries to and succeeds in murdering Samuel while he is pissing in an outhouse. She then under point of gun, puts material for a bomb around Parson Henry’s neck and at gun point forces him to walk ahead of her. She blows up buildings. She is insane, the young man stalking her was insane — as the young white man who murdered those nine black people in a church was insane. The preacher is laughed at by the film since he does not want to murder anyone and is constantly being threatened with death. Everyone carries a loaded gun in this film.

Other characters: the other Rufus who seems related to Anton (David Zellner) shows off that he is ignorant, ill-dressed, and violent. The movie opens with another nameless preacher and another anonymous young white man waiting for a coach that never comes. Public transportation is non-existent in this desert. Finally the preacher walks off leaving the passive young man waiting.

But it’s not a parody of today’s America because it is immersed in and endorses the violent characters intensely. Not a moment of kindness except by Preacher Nathan and he is sneered at because he needs people: “that’s your problem, ” says Penelope. In the end Nathan returns to the village idiots and stays with them. They drink whiskey and spend their time drunk — they have none or don’t drink water they tell Samuel.


Mia Wasikowska as Penelope (at Cinema art theater)

I had thought going to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? would simply be a trip into Laura, Izzy and my shared experiences together in front of a TV, nostalgic, possibly sentimental, making tear up, but it was a serious deconstruction of the profoundly humane and socially good ideas actuating Fred Rogers to make 4 decades of children’s programs that reached out to them candidly.  Mr Roger’s Neighborhood experienced through children’s art (like puppets) children’s apprehension of the world and built their self-esteem, consoled, uplifted, solaced and taught them about the realities they find themselves in.  By tracing Rogers’ career from his leaving the religious ministry to replace the slapstick, obtuse ridiculing, and ceaseless violence in one form or other with his programming really taking kids into account, the viewer travels through how we moved from a seemingly optimistic era and pro-social behavior (enacted, put into law, supported), to the present time, represented in Rogers’ fairy tale land by the arrogance, indifference, and willfull disregard to human needs. The King puppet wants to be a dictator. I remember Daniel as a surrogate for Rogers; the grief of Henrietta Pussycat making Laura grieve too. Rogers’ neighborly world connects the mirrors in the fairyland and good words well understood. Nothing to hide, nothing ventured nothing gained.

Would you believe groups of Trump bigots rant about Rogers as a socialist, and hold up placards saying they hate him. Rogers had on his show a long-time black TV actor, Susan and her husband, our black exemplary parents, Maria the touching young Puerto Rican girl who grew old with the part. A group of these people who loathe him came to his funeral with signs saying how he was a “faggot,” and how they hate him. Trump types have long accused him of wanting children to feel they are entitled to things without working for them. They say all children should be taught they must earn respect. Love does not seem to come into this. He is called gay because to them he is unmanly. Rogers does say how he dislikes TV, especially popular children’s TV, which is frenetic, filled with clowns, and pours thick messes over children, shows cartoon characters in intensely violent acts. I remember the first time Laura saw the Road Runner; she was terrified the character had died when he fell off a roof. We didn’t have TV for the first five years of Laura’s life as out TV had died and we didn’t buy a new one for a few years. American cartoons are the first place Americans are inured to cruel violence. Rogers went into TV to replace such pernicious fodder.


Charity Wakefield a wonderful Peter Quince to Fran Kranz as Bottom (see just below also)

The two films seemed to be so worlds apart, yet covering all possibilities of landscapes, houses people, until I saw Casey Wilder Mott’s fantastical film world, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s text of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Damsel left out imagination, beauty, and Mr Rogers was so concerned to reach children that his imaginative world of puppets is not dreamy but an analogue of our real world. Shakespeare takes us to a world elsewhere. Mott rearranged scenes, cut and rearranged film sequences and the actors were taught (as the BBC ones were for Hollow Crown) to speak Shakespeare trippingly off the tongue, to transform their anguish and comedy for more accurate, elegant language that nonetheless is spoken as naturalistic in TV films of Shakespeare like the recent Lear or The Hollow Crown. The worlds of the play were replicated in a couple of high-powered movie executives (Theseus, a recognizable serious actor, and Hippolyta, long willowy black model), 25 year old white children of super-rich parents (the lovers), hard-working clueless actors, the last two falling into a magical holiday time. Oberon is an older black actor, Titania an Asian actress. Among new patterns: this turns out to be written by Puck wonderfully acted by Avon Jogia as sprite.

Go see Damsel if you enjoy cruelty, jeering at vulnerability, but if not, don’t support this travesty of toxic masculinity. Trump’s world, his impulses heroized or mocked (depending on how you see this). Alas not a museum piece but a “western.” Don’t give them any more money: the Koch Brothers and their ilk is supplying enough; the new Supreme Court is determined to give intolerance power because that’s free speech. Your right to liberty gives you the right to exclude, reject in the public sphere now.


Fred Rogers answering a little girl’s answer (the same as above)

Open up to what people truly are with Fred Rogers. Watch Rogers’ face go to stone and his eyes show pained rage when he consider the mockery of his show on Saturday Night Live where they invented a plot where an actor looking like him is put into a wrestling match with one of his characters to reveal how he is in fact a hypocrite and turns to nasty spiteful violence when he is losing. He is remembering how he was bullied as a boy. You’ll learn about the history of the show (they did make the mistake of trying to film the challenger and caught it exploding), Rogers’ attempt at a show for adults (it didn’t work, too hard-hearted by our thirties we might say).

Achieve forgetfulness of the world of Trump and 30% we are told of Americans supporting him in Wilder’s choice of eloquent passages from Shakespeare turned into text messages, the voice of Puck, the quarrels of the lovers. The wood, the beach. The play within the play finds the actress and actors dressed like the stars from Star Trek (Thisbe looks like Princess Leia, while Pyramus looks like Hans Solo).


Shakespeare’s lovers on the beach

Summer movies are implicitly jeux d’esprit. Not this year. A fat man with a remarkably stupid smile or stupid stubborn pig expression, incapable of making sense for a spoken or speech paragraph (he can only tweet) is becoming a disguised dictator, opening detention camps and prisons around the US, putting children in their squalid conditions (and is not impeached for anything he does which undermines the constitution), and who will he come for next, and do what to the detainees? Mr Rogers didn’t succeed it seems — a cartoon show of him is all that is left on PBS. Are the Zellners right about humanity in their depiction of everyman’s village in their western?


Scofield in the trumped-up trial (A Man for all Seasons, Robert Bolt)

“Our natural business lies in escaping said Bolt’s Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons in 1960; shall we all escape to the wood? One problem with that is the characters achieve comfort by making fugitive visits to the obscenely rich palladium mansion of Theseus.

Ellen

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Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect series)

I, too, dislike it — Marianne Moore

Friends,

I’ve embarked on a reading journey through an area mostly unfamiliar to me, and Polonius-like, can come up with only the clumsiest of labels: the mystery, detective, suspense, gothic, spy thriller, crime, murder novel. Most of the time even with the most generally admired, about half-way through I grow tired of the formulas, and either give the story up altogether, or skim-read to the end. That’s what happened yesterday when I read for the first time Dashell Hammett’s much-bepraised The Maltese Falcon. Or I get to the end, and think what a good book this has been, until three minutes thought assails me, and I see it for the claptrap anti-feminist thing it is and become seriously annoyed. That’s what happened the other day when I finished Winston Graham’s Merciless Ladies.

I admit I can be hooked by a film serial; especially late-at-night, with a female hero, be drawn intensely in by its mix of ingredients blended into my more favored fare: that’s what happened with the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. I can like the “Golden Age-1930s mold” even with a wholesome male at the center and a sermon at close: my favorite time for watching James Norton in Grantchester was 1 in the morning.


Typical cheap paperback cover illustration for the era …, now published by the New York Review of Books as a worthy book, became a remarkable 1950s movie by Nicholas Ray

But I’m no more fooled than Raymond Chandler in his debunking “The Simple Art of Murder,” or Julian Symons in his truly brilliant and entertaining Bloody Murder: “it is an inferior thing, but a thing with its own particular and unique merits. Nobody condemns Restoration comedy outright because it lacks the profoundity of Jacobean drama” (20), as with most film noir and ghost fiction.

I’ve embarked on this because I’ve embarked on a book on Winston Graham, his Poldark novels and Cornwall (working title). I don’t intend to read every work he ever wrote, or study every film made from said work (some in each kind are dreadful). To understand the man and his genuinely creative books, one cannot ignore 30 odd volumes of suspense set in our contemporary era, a few of which have been much admired, with one famous title (even had an opera made of it last year, i.e., Marnie, and some time ago a very good play by Sean O’Connor). One chapter I’ve told myself.

I’ve been reading these desultorily, out of order for a few years now, depending on what I thought I could stand: The Forgotten Story, written the same year as Ross Poldark, historical Cornish, deeply reflective of the trauma of WW2, Angharad Rees starred in the now wiped out serial; The Walking Stick, with its fine movie with David Hemmings; The Little Walls, won prestigious prize; Angell, Pearl and Little God, despite its godawful title, said to have been considered for a movie with Brando in a leading role. Graham has a number of novels with (to me) unappetizing titles, many first published with embarrassing covers.


I like this 1960s Bodley Head cover illustration of Demelza used on all four of the Bodley Head publications of the first four Poldark books

But now it will be my project, give me some kind of goal for a biographical book of my own, one I think I can do for real, and which is called out for — there is no book on this man whose work is so well known, liked, has made a great deal of money for so many. And I’ve corresponded with his son who for now has no objection. All the reading and love I’ve put into my study of biography and continual reading of literary ones (now there is a genre or book type that when done right I don’t tire of but read on however slowly to the end) — could just emerge in one of my own.

So I’ve begun steadily working through Graham’s early ones in the order they were written, and when revised, cut down, rewritten (several were) even comparing the two texts. And I’ve found myself engaged, e.g., The Giant’s Chair, 1938, became Woman in the Mirror, 1975. Alas (for Graham’s mature judgement of his own work), the earlier version is much better. I’ve heard this said of the first 12% longer version of Ross Poldark. The Giant’s Chair set in 1920s Cornwall, with attention paid to geology, geography, local feel, has an idiosyncratic charm, a traumatized secondary hero, disabled son, unjust death (not by murder), with believable heroine who has Radcliffian adventures, lesbian sexuality, becomes a weak hard-boiled thin bloody murder read, albeit with some stronger lines and passages — and more coherent clarity.

Tomorrow if I can get through the byzantine “security” procedures of the Library of Congress (whose real effect is to curb research, lest the cowardly congress be at risk as they place their iron heels on 90% of us), I shall read the relatively rare 1937 The Dangerous Pawn. It fetches $2000+ on the open market.


Jeremy Brett — the 1980s Sherlock Holmes

For tonight I thought I’d introduce one aspect of this fantastically successful genre, which the reader may not know or not mind being reminded about. (Beyond how necessary it is to find delight and solace in its central detective figure0. How flexible it is all the while keeping its recognizable furniture. It can accommodate so many kinds of stories & materials because one can tell anything to Sherlock. Two weeks ago I watched a remarkable modern-type BBC film adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s real novel of quality, The Woman in White (1860), arguably one of the pattern forms. I remember reading it in two days when I lay sick with flu — 1973 that was, we lived at the top of Manhattan with our dog, Llyr. The Italian Fosco was the origin invention that gave rise to the book of Marion Halcombe, the spinster who I defy anyone not to like. About the subjugation of women. The lady gone mad is not in the attic but wanders from her asylum across moors.

I had thought a genre I am familiar with, have long loved in the dyptich, historical romance, historical fiction, was very far from suspense novels. I was wrong. As in Graham’s oeuvre, characteristics, motifs, character types slide across one another co-terminously. It is not that uncommon to alternate between them. Police procedures can combine with women’s subjective novels, which historical romances are a version of in disguise. The great Breaking Bad belongs to this genre.

And today LeCarre is one of those who have made of them philosophical politically engaged books. I suppose the road was opened for this first by Hammett (1931, The Glass Key is not far off his rewrite-collaboration with Lilian Hellman from stage to film, Watch on the Rhine, 1941). I remember first reading LeCarre’s early, A Small Town in Germany (1968) which I thought was a fable about integrity very like Trollope’s The Warden (a similar retiring male at the center).

Trollope by the way knows the drill. In his parodic dark The Eustace Diamonds he has the de rigueur fuss about key, locked room, weapon (depends for working on some mechanical device), not to omit the importance of the exit/entrance and mappable space. By reverse logic, it stands to reason Trollope had no feel or urge to write historical fiction. He didn’t care what happened at “exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning” fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone.


A Nancy Drew introspective cover, as Umberto Eco says at the opening of Il nome della rosa,

Naturalmente, un manoscritto

I have almost written myself into admiring this stuff. As I write myself into wakefulness and a feeling of cheer. Now if only I could find real pleasure in reading it. It can be fun to read about it on the train and watch it obsessively at 1 in the morning.

Ellen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Newchurch in Pendle, Winter — Lancashire — K. Melling

A summary, in Judy Geater’s words,

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

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

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

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


Pissaro, Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes, Winter (1870)

Judy Geater wrote of the story:

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

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

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


An illustration for a 19th century wedding dress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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John Prebble, Culloden

Friends,

I sometimes think that nothing I write anymore comes from an singular me, but it’s all somehow coming out of shared experiences, sometimes with one or two people, sometimes a larger group, maybe as much as 20, itself a group part of a larger group, sometimes here in cyberspace and sometimes in real physical space. That’s probably a pardonable exaggeration as even now or still the initial experience of the text or movie by me whether chosen as a result of relationship, or project, or lingering effects of an experience is the motivation or inspiration to carry on sincerely. And I don’t carry on without real engagement.

So a friend told a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies@yahoogroups.com, aka Trollope and his Contemporaries at Yahoo of a book of brief essays she read, Light into Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler, one of which by Mary Gaitskill is a meditation on the two selves of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“I don’t know you any more”). Reading this made me realize that yes Tolstoy (and after him also) Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright (in their 2012 move) help make sense of Anna’s experience by attending to her idea she is now following a deeper truer self than the one who married Karenin and obeyed her society conventions. I bought the book (easy thing to do since the Internet), and discovered that what Fassler asked his contributors to do initially was write about a text that inspired him or her to write about something passionately, or to work on some project of writing for years.


St. Peter’s in Rome from a bridge across the Tiber River, copyright Vittorio F. DiMeglio

Well that was easy for me to answer. When I read a group of French translations by a mid-20th century scholar, Suzanne Therault of Vittoria Colonna’s mostly sonnets to her husband (mostly after his death, some 600 poems), I was so moved and agitated I couldn’t sit in my seat and had to get up and walk about to calm down; I determined to teach myself to read Italian so I could study and translate these sonnets. I spent at least 15 years of my life on this, and while a few have been published individually, and they have been used by graduate students doing theses on Colonna and read aloud at festivals, the way to read them is on my website. This led to my discovery of her contemporary Veronica Gambara, who I related personally to much better, whose letters I enjoyed, and whose 90 odd poems (she wrote far more than is usually attributed to her) I also translated and then wrote a short life of Gambara, Under the Sign of Dido, and a first chapter of a biography of Colonna, The Dark Voyage.

But my friend took the assignment (so to speak) differently, as asking the writers what passage or work meant a great deal to them as readers and people (and so writers, though more indirectly), or what kinds of texts he or she was deeply drawn to. As I read on into Light the Dark, I found many of the writers there took the task this way. for myself I agree with her that passages of compelling deeply-felt talk between two characters thoroughly realized pull me in, domestic interiors, indeed long chapters on ways of home life between daily intimately connected characters, I cannot do without realism, without being led to believe in what I am reading as occurring really in front of me or what I immersed in order to care; long reverie-like description that’s philosophical and aesthetic and personal, and to come down to more concrete, literary biographies, books by women which fall into the type called l’ecriture-femme, ghost stories (about loss and grief and attempts at restoration, presences in our lives).

All this to say I know that last year’s list of books and movies (read for the first time and re-read) conformed to this set of criteria and so did many of this (watched for the first time, or re-watched and re-watched). It was strongly biography, women’s memoirs and fictions, travel books. I didn’t do what my friend, Diane Reynolds, did this year and divide by genre or her experience of them (best letter and essay collections; best fiction and biography; and best rereads), but only set out a list. My excuse for mostly doing this again is it’s hard enough to remember what was most meaningful inside the year; but I will talk more of a few because this year I found my most meaningful books, which of course I must want to recommend, are histories, books often by men, literary criticism (and then after that) my usual diet of brilliant literary biography, memoirs, letters, novels by women. My movies also differed and I expect that was the result of joining Netflix streaming, Amazon prime streaming and taking a course in “classic films” (it turned out all by men, and about men centrally all the time). They are books that led to other books, and books that are ultimately political, post-colonial, anti-war. Some I am still moving through.

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

John Prebble, Culloden; The Highland Clearances.
Alongside these John Lister-Kaye’s spiritual nature writing, Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: this one alone as it’s such crucial reading for today I’ll send along a summary:

Zinn is simply telling all the history left out of most history books, and what’s vital about it is it explains and is analogous to what happens today. As I read the chapter on how slavery was instituted and how a whole people were subdued (worked to death, exploited to the nth degree, cowed utterly) I felt I was reading a series of events parallel to those we see today. What’s striking is that Arpaio’s behavior is not some subtler version of what was done to keep slavery central to the system, but is closely that of what was done in a daily way to black people.

It’s far more explanatory of daily experience than the ideals we are taught motivated any of the founders. In “persons of a mean and vile condition” we see the wealthy of the era take over vast amounts of land and wealth; their fear of middling whites combining with poor whites, blacks, Indians not through his thesis, but through the actual deeds, acts, and rhetoric — which uncannily echoes that of today’s renewed attempt to make a small group of whites superwealthy with what might be called fringe people supporting them. I was struck by the way power was quickly monopolized; Zinn quotes a lot of people and describes many acts and wars and rebellion; he has a lot of statistics. Poor houses are forms of prison; mechanisms of control the way outright prisons are today. The stories of how middling whites rose to be prosperous turn out to be rare. Colonial society was not democratic at all, not egalitarian and in the next chapter when he goes on to discuss the formation of this new gov’t under a constitution the oligarchy that was set up makes sense.

I don’t know if I’m depressed so much as appalled — it seems there was a period in the 20th century where real progress was made for the 80% and now this is fiercely being destroyed. The election of Obama terrified these white rulers — they must stop the country going further into progressivism and becoming multiracial, cultural and tolerant. Probably, Tyler, I never believed the US gov’t had any different aims from any other. Especially as a woman I have thought (hoped) that we were “modern” contemporary with socially enlightened ideas because of our meritocracy but I see that if a huge number of people are on the side of genuine progress for all, liberty for women, it’s a weak reed and they can be turned readily to losing out as each family is so individual and each person thinks in utterly immediate terms when it comes to living their lives. I didn’t think we could go backwards inside the US and we are and have for a few decades now — oddly the Trump triumph makes this all so much more public.

Tyranny is tyranny

I carry on however slowly. This chapter gives the full — or real — background of the US revolution. Zinn tells us what I’ve read only in a few places, though he has a group of books to cite: that the actual numbers of people who fought against the British in the US army were small, that it was a time of rebellion, not against the British per se, but by the average person (often indentured servant) and lower people and artisans against unfair conditions of all sorts. Zinn describes and names the people who led the revolution: all upper middle, all seeking to free themselves of control from the British and to (successfully) set up power structures for themselves. Land hungry farmers, in Philadelphia a full-scale attack by artisans, tradesmen and laborers found themselves stymied by laws set up and rebelled, mechanics demanding real democracy, people angry at the destruction of individual lives from impressment, in North Caroline (once again, showing southerners not naturally reactionary), white farmers organized against wealthy and corrupt officials. The conflict was bitter with insurrections, “small” massacres; people organized to prevent the collection of taxes. The point of these founding fathers was to try to organize all this against a perceived enemy: blacks weren’t it then, but the British, and to invent a rhetoric appropriate for the discourse of the time. Indians were a perpetual easy target as they were fighting back themselves. Not as bad as our own time, tax rolls in one study show that 5% of Boston’s taxpayers owned 49% of the wealth. Paine’s pamphlet appealed to the a cross section of people; he himself came from the lower orders but as time went on he was not for action from these lower orders and himself became patronized by wealthy colonists — for a time. Locke one of the bases of the constitution spoke for property.

how it explains how it is and has been so easily possible for a small group of wealthy people to take the reins of US gov’t and military might and direct it to profit themselves ruthlessly and punish and oppress 90% of others so that they submit to small wages, debt no educational opportunity. I had thought, assumed, he would not be a feminist but no chapter 6 is one of the best feminist accounts of how women are still coopted today. His description of how women are manipulated into accepting the position of cherished object to be used as he wills is closely reminiscent to the idealized relationship of Claire and Jamie in Outlander. Uncannily like.

When I’ve finished the chapters on the 19th century (many), I’ll report back again.

Nicholas Dodman (Dr) Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats (the pathos and cruelty of how human beings misunderstand and abuse cats when they have them as pets!).
Saunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation


Taylor’s Beasts of Burden (part of animal liberation course)

All five have altered my thinking and behavior and even eating habits.

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte (magnificent)
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Bronte (touching and persuasive)
Francis Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life (uplifting)
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (deep psychological portrait supporting philosophical aesthetics)
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the 20th century Surreal Movement (importantly dismaying)
Josephine Ross, The Winter Queen (on Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald and Essays on Biography


Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights — you do not read it for the cover

Literary criticism and book history:

Martha Bowden, The Descendants of Waverley
Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship and Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Bowden altered my thinking on historical fiction and romance. Clarke made me understand and read more empathetically women writers of the 19th century; Todd taught me about the fiction industry in the last part of the 20th century. I realize why women artists went into a deep counter-productive era and produced so little of worth in the years from the 1930s from Chadwick


Susan Sontag (Photograph 199 Lynn Gilbert) — I took it as an occasion to read other of her essays

Novels and poetry for the first time:

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Patricia Fargnoli, Hallowed
Caryl Philips, Cambridge
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Daphne DuMaurier, The King’s General
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber


Caitriona Balfe, opening over-voice for series (“people disappear all the time”) in the autumnal Inverness, gazing into a glass

I cannot speak too highly of Tolstoy, Fargnoli and Sontag. The Volcano Lover is the outstanding novel I read this year. I admired Cambridge for its deep insights into racism, slavery, empire. Diane’s citation of “spectral texts” help explain (not wholly) how irresistible I’m finding these Outlander texts thus far, despite their pernicious valuing of violence, essential frivolity (superficial on war): it’s the bringing back of the ghostly deeply loved presence, the past come to life, and 1950s style feminocentric dream over-voice over and over that rivets me.

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage
Paul Scott, Staying On
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I seemed to be reading them for the first time. Holmes has yet to fail me.

As to movies, five of the Anna Karenina films (of which more and Tolstoy anon), The Handmaid’s Tale (very hard to watch and alas truer than people will admit) and (as a result of Culloden, going to Scottish highlands) the spectacularly well-made Outlander (into its third season); The Crown (I admit it), several films I saw as a result of my summer film club; Kedi (documentary on the cats of Istanbul); and now a few extraordinary films from a course in the history and aesthetics of film, so see I had better post separately on movies.


The second season started today and I look forward to what Emily Nussbaum has to say: Claire Foy has become another favorite actress for me

Ellen

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Virginia Woolf, photo by Barbara Strachey (1938)

Friends and readers,

The second part of Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf takes us through the first years of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s rocky adjustment, her career as a teacher, writer, publisher (with Leonard Woolf, and a lot of help from John Lehman); what was very valuable about Hogarth Press texts; Virginia’s love-affair friendships (from Vita Sackville-West to Ethel Smyth (composer, pianist); her achievements in novel art (The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, The Waves); and then, under the onslaught of bombs and terror at what a Nazi state were at a distance and would close-up inflict on her, Leonard, their friends, her feeling of the fragility of her calm about to erupt, she killed herself. No more imposed regimes, no more wretched distress of worrying, no imposed medical regimes which prevented her from writing, her great solace and strength it seems. What is remarkable is how much she accomplished, how much she produced, how she lived as best she could with integrity.

The Hogarth Press

Virginia and Leonard bought, learned to use, and then built a worthy business in the Hogarth Press. They did quarrel sometimes, but mostly they had the same ideals for their press, and they published a remarkable group of books (Forster, TS Eliot, also Vita Sackville-West whose novels sold well). While how this was an absorbing occupation for her to use to remain calm and convalesce when she needed to, obviously it was her way of getting into print too. Lee point out they sold a minuscule number of copies of The Voyage Out the first two years. That they published their friends is par for the course. Until I read Lee’s disapproval (she’s like some tenured person saying your article doesn’t count because it didn’t appear in these journals and so why did you publish there?), I never imagined anyone could criticize this venture. But just not acceptable. Lee says this is after all a vanity press. “Her reputation has been affected by this “in her life-time” and “after it” — says the academic biographer.

Virginia and her circle were attacked virulently by critics on many grounds: Wyndham Lewis was a bully macho male, and what he was doing was simply squashing by sneering and deriding l’ecriture-femme: you can see that in the language he choose. And then like Henry James deriding (to name three on my mind from the other listserv still going) Alcott, Woolson and Oliphant, Constance Fennimore Woolson, Wyndham is listened to — and has been influential: she is neurotic, too feminine, elitist (the pot calling the kettle black there). Virginia became upset because she recognized this hegemonic point of view could and would kill readership, and yet she finds the novel itself a deeply problematic genre which gets in her way. Stael in her one analysis of fiction as such says that the demands of the audience stop her from writing what she wants in her novel: Woolf goes more deeply; it’s the structures and stories that are demanded.

One of publications that emerged just from the existence of the press: The Hogarth Letters: I don’t know how long this book has been on one of my shelves. Introduced by Hermione Lee, it consists of its contemporary introduction by E.M. Forster and then about 11 or 12 “letters:” essays really addressed to an imagined or real interlocutor in which the writer explores some topic of concern, large and small, political and not, social, cultural. They read to me like an oasis of sanity, the “language of rational humanism, deployed on behalf of intellectual tolerance, in opposition to forms of tyranny and reaction” (to quote Lee). Some are snobbish and condescending (advocating a suburban housewife put down her knitting and teaching her to appreciate Poussin) but others have beauty, liberal thought, ideals that are fine and good. Some do sniff out an ominous haunting future not so far off. They were published between 1931 and 33 when the world order (such as it was) was breaking down. It was very much a Lehmann project to begin with and then Virginia joined in.


E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, 1920 (he was one of Hogarth Press’s authors, the Woolf’s friend

Woolf’s objected to the novel form as such. We talk and critics write about how Woolf overturned novel conventions with the implication that she was not anti-novel in doing this, only stretching the form. Now it is difficult to define novels in any way that limits the form beyond a very long fictional story in prose. But that in itself demands a certain coherence for the story, and the definition ignores expectations even for fantasy books. In the quotations from Woolf about the novel and those Lee has discussed throughout it seems to me in effect Woolf regarded much of the novel conventions as getting in the way of saying deep worthwhile things, especially the novel’s (even in fantasy) concentration on individuals interacting with others in social situations to bring about some resolution. There are novels where the resolution or conclusion can be private and inward; there are forms of the novel which allow the breakdown of chronological coherence and probability, especially the epistolary and journal forms and what’s called magic realism. Women have broken away from probability because that often depends on what is, and what is is what’s allowed and woman want to show we can live another way, have other options. But if you look at what Woolf writes, once she tries to leave conventional novels, she’s not writing to propose other social solutions or individuals finding themselves or tragically failing to.

She prefers the essay, life-writing and prose poems.

From “The Docks of London,”in the London Scene: book of sketches. They are all at most 5-7 pages or so; since Lee tells us how Woolf’s reputation and the way we know much of her work comes from posthumous publication of the non-fiction as staggered/staged in time and packed by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. The one that differs is The Essays of Virginia Woolf, set up relentlessly by year (not theme, or subject or perspective as the varied others), with dates, only it leaves off the mid 1920s. They seem different laid out this way instead of say The common Reader. Some of the slender volumes were overseen by Virginia or Lehmann. This is book history.
The London scene is different. It is first published in 1975, limited agreement by another press and Hogarth coming in a little later in the year, editors Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law. These are bright and this first one at least seemingly cheerful excursions – -the sort of thing one sees in a mazagine. I say seeming because the undercurrent is a lighter melancholy than the Waves. Time is here and all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)
What strikes me as I’m reading The Waves, and remember The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women.
Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatigible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager replaces this with these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed. I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books.
Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – she imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults –Cask after cask .Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first wide police effort.
The phrase use produces beauty as a bye-product could sum up all jane Austen on the picturesque …
Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things andanimals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say
And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf

But money and popularity come with telling stories, especially outward social stories – and these two things bring respect.

Monk’s House (where they chose to live) is seen by Lee as a “retreat, a monastery, a monk’s house, and, in that sense, a monastic abode reinforced by separate bedrooms … before buying Monk’s House, Woolf had purchased a small windmill turned into a house that she was afterwards able to sell at a small profit. Interestingly too, it was acceptable in 1919 to buy a house without indoor plumbing, a bath, hot water. This coincides with the practices of Americans buying summer homes in the US in this period” (Diane Reynolds). How Leonard loved to garden.

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I took detours


Just released from copyright, new editions with introductions, notes, new pictures are coming out

The Voyage Out

It appears to be focused on a young woman growing up: she is 24 but she is kept as innocent of the world as a 13 year old. She has no close friend nor many friends; belongs only with family which consists of father and aunts. Being on a ship isolates her further. I can see Woolf building up characters for other novels: we have Mr and Mrs Dalloway using their prestige, influence, connections to board the ship at Lisbon. It is very much a novel and a successful one: the social comedy is apt, it makes me smile, and creates the usual conflicts and insights of novels …. this one so comforting right now because it is redolent of a world of decency and intelligence. Our narrator knows this group of people is dependent on vast cruelty to the colonialized peoples of the world. This comes out from the narrator’s comments because this is a boat, a ship which globe-trots for the British, carries natural resources to Britain to be used in factories. The Dalloways can come on “by special arrangement” because he’s this pampered privileged MP — they too are “visiting” parts of the empire or have been.

To the Lighthouse as a sort of ghost story.

In To The Lighthouse house, your mother does not have to give up her house,. is that novel oppositions ail …. “profoundly autobiographical” and a form of therapy for VW, a way to cope with the past. Lee quotes Vanessa noting that in Mrs. Ramsey, VW “raised” the mother “from the dead.” It was, wrote Vanessa, ” a portrait of mother more like her than anything I could ever have conceived possible. … You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do.” Vanessa also praised Mr. Ramsey as a clear portrait of their father. Lee shows us here the generous, giving side of Vanessa: she calls her sister’s book “a great work of art.”

Behind the Ramsey family, says Lee, is imperialism, particularly Indian imperialism, which she calls “the history of the Stephen family,” another nod to how this family profited from India. But Lee says no more.
More cryptic are the statements about Woolf’s concept for the book, which Lee quotes but doesn’t explain. What, for example, does Woolf mean by Mrs. Ramsay “feels the glow of sensation–and how they are made up of all different things–(what she has just done) and wishes for some bell to strike and say this is it. It does strike. She guards her moment.” Is this Mrs. Ramsay/Julia Stephens or Virginia Woolf? What does she mean by “fluid translucence” and “central transparency?”

On one level it’s an ode to Mrs Ramsay, to mother. The lead-in to the central section is Mr and Mrs Ramsay in bed, he reading The Antiquary to reassure himself his kind of writing and his hegemony with Scott not superseded, but the emphasis is on the death of Steenie – a very moving chapter indeed, many one of the most in Scott, and the sonnet by Shakespeare that Mrs Ramsay quotes is also haunted, as with your shadows I did play – the lover is absent, has gone, and you are left darkling and deeply at a loss. Mr Ramsay apparently doesn’t approve of his wife’s pessimism and it is true that the style Stephens wrote in (as many of his era) is this rotound graceful sure one and no one would go near saying suicide is a good option or anything truly overturning explicitly.
 
There is something overturning in To the Lighthouse —  not just the feminism about the men as tyrants and fools. There is a luxuriating in death as release at last. And we catalogue the dead (for Mr Ramsay goes too) – there’s a futility in all human beings do is one part of the feel.

The Waves

It took listening to the text read brilliantly allowed (by Frances Jeater): I became hooked into it. Lee says The Waves is six monologues but I think it’s there. They are all a projection of Woolf and in that overt feel this is a more candid novel than most for in all novels most of the characters are on some level as projection of the novelist put together by literary decorums and conventions. It may still be read as her deepest thoughts when “out of her” social mind and into her deep self – rather like Proust only puts this self into long sinuous sentences.

What then paradoxically grips me is identification. She still captures a sense of what it is to be child, adolescent and especially (thus far) have new experiences you’ve never had before. How we grow middle-aged, old, and watch others die (you wouldn’t carry on if I’m in world of semi-stranger neighbors. You were in this cocoon of subjectivity with a nuclear family (at most siblings and one or two servants beyond the father, mother, aunt say, grandmother). I have never forgotten my amazement (the right word) when I first went to kindergarten. There was a small girl my size called Maryann crying as if her heart would break. She couldn’t bear it seemed to leave her mother. I couldn’t get over that, I was so startled by this it has stayed with me all these years – well Woolf would not have been surprised. She here records intense distress on the part of the boy in boys’ school and the girls with their governess. Not going home. How unbelievable, how terrible. How different Woolfs’ home life was from mine. I was cheerful and glad to go. But I’ve cousins who came from a home like mine who tell me they cried.
But I did look askance or in this alienated way at teachers. Woolf captures how children look so coolly at these new beings in charge of them.

The impersonal narrator keeps returning to time across a day, dawn, morning, mid-morning, noon, early afternoon … At each point the natural world returns to record where we are. A larger clock situates through what they saw their stories over the years. Three die before the book closes.

Between the Acts .

With the bombing of her and Leonard’s two houses, the Woolfs are driven to live wholly in the country and Monk’s House. Now she can no longer put barriers between herself and the local people. Written at the end of her life, a time of despair over the war) her experimental historical novel, Between the Acts. The bombing had driven her and Leonard into the country and Woolf tells of a self-reflexive pageant set in three eras, put on by local people. History is conceived as fragments of historical experience recorded in books, scattered relics, local memories and graves within a continuum of time. One detail: she writes about Coleridge in a spirit where she re-engages with her ambivalence over her savage violent bullying and yet ever so civilized father. It’s 21st century like that it should be a group of people putting on a pageant. Themselves all lost, bewildered, often unhappy. Highly original self-reflexive historical novel. Orlando had been her historical romance (time-traveling lesbian classic that it is).

We also see the great troubles she is having with Pargiters trying for a combination of political milieu and family narrative tale (based on her own), rather Tolstoyan. Part of the reason VW killed herself was how she felt she would not stay sane and be a burden; she wouldn’t stay sane because she would not be able to cope — she hates (as I would) the reaction of fellow semi-Nazi citizens around her.

I have read The Years which is almost my favorite, but not this time round.

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Roger Frye, a self-portrait

Her biography of Roger Fry

Vanessa liked Woolf’s Roger Fry – Fry was her ex-lover, her artistic mentor, she was much moved and became affectionate towards Virginia for a time. Virginia gave a lecture in Brighton to 200 women, among them Elizabeth Robins, Octavia Wilberforce. Leonard said Angelica should be let to live her own life (Garnett had been Duncan’s Angelica’s father’s lover). It was pretty widely reviewed: Fry was seen as important and he was a kind of symbol of high culture. It was hypocritical of those who hit at him for his background because most of the writers of reviews in England at the same time came from that background, maybe not quite so literary or art-y. Or they personally chose not to become so.

At first silence greeted Roger Fry and then a bitter debate: some praised, EMForster said it was a defence of civilization; Herbert Read (an arch conservative, a fact Lee doesn’t mention) attacked as elitist super-sensitivity – has elitism come to be synonymous with civilized educated behavior? She responded telling of Frye’s social commitment, that her books reach a wider circle than his, and offered to debate “between air raids.”

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Kati Horna: Retreat with Wounded Soldier

The war:

One could hear the drone of the German planes flying over the channel to drop their bombs, the bombs dropping, the people killed, everything destroyed. As they lay flat on the ground they hear guns overhead

Kent harder hit than Sussex; then Hitler switches to nightly raids on London. I have read some of these moving depictions of the destruction of London – by Elizabeth Bowen in Heat of the Day remains with me – shocked, ragged, rapid, raw – people in shelters killed. Horrifying messes. Mecklenberg smashed – uninhabitable. Leonard: “well really possessions are such a nuisance, perhaps it will be a good thing to start clear again: (the joke that tries for perspective …)

Bomb drops near Vanessa and Duncan’s workshop so Virginia; there were fierce quarrels.


Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant (during the war years)

Where she had written so much, where they had sat so many nights, given so many parties. Loss of possessions they worked so hard to get. 24 volumes of her diaries were salvaged! – but huge destruction of masses of papers and her and other houses – -and deaths. They end up moving what was left to Monks House – grimy, hopelessly jumbled heaps. They acquire a new kitten – from kitten she says “I can’t make a warm hollow for myself”

She did have an English identity, in the culture of that city, Churchill on “our majestic city” Woolf reduced to “a crushed match box”. In the country they began to know many people; watched the ways all sorts of people reacted to the bombing, killing ,and Germans. Leonard and Virginia speak horribly about disabled people but they try to help them. She had the hardest time with local gentry. Bomb explodes on river bank: beautiful looks, deeply destructive literally of countryside.

Walks, writes family memories, and black sardonic story (The Legacy): dark side of her own marriage; husband wrapped up, absorbed in his work, she regrets not having had children; and now that Hogarth Press is gone, she can’t get it published. Another story about suicide, “The Symbol”

Stuck for paper, she uses local library, cheap notebook for diary and she begins to plan for third common reader, Reading at Random, not focused on author or text but cultural. What it meant to be a writer “thwarted by our society:interruptions: conditions.” First chapter begins with “Anon.” Communal pre-audience world. Was to include Goldsmith (very much constrained by literary marketplace), Sevigne (not), Henry James. She writes two more essays: Ellen Terry, Hester Thrale Piozzi. She has to write in same room as Leonard and can’t take it. She accidentally (ha) nearly drowns.

I wonder could they get liquor? Meaning wine, beer, or alcohol, Lee doesn’t cite these as rationed. Sigh. She doesn’t think of it. One article on-line says liquor was not rationed and another it was rationed, that industrial alcohol needed for war effort; whiskey production stopped. What you might get was very expensive and you had to know the grocer, be favored. Pubs carried on (limited how many drinks you might have?). You could make alcohol but then you had to get grain.

Bitterly cold; using bikes, cut off from friends. Painfully thin, it makes you afraid to see her. The war was not being won; invasion thought imminent. She can’t write – ironically she complains of a lack of public, no printer. She goes to London to see ruined city. She writes about sexual shame and sexual abuse in her childhood to Ethel. She argues with Desmond she can speak for workers; some visits but she cannot trust the people to be endurable

She is disgusted by the conversations of women. (All tarts says Virginia: US about to have a whore as First Lady and Trump threatens to sue anyone who says so in public; the inauguration coming up: ought to be deeply shameful spectacle, but is it? An actual whore with the Rockettes in front of them.) She finished Pointz Hall as Between the Acts – surely Leonard now sees. Olivia Wilberforce visits her and she says she’s desperately depressed, Village will not permit her to do fire-watching as Leonard does. Haunted by memories of father. They go to London and lunch with John Lehman and he sees how tense she is

Another attempt at suicide called an accident on Tuesday ,the 18th, her letter dated “Tuesday” Leonard sees her coming and begins to worry yet more. But it seems to me does not recognize this as a second suicide attempt – a signal to him to help her. But he cannot let himself see what is in front of him. It’s probably too much for him. What was he enduring? A jewish man, deeply liberal, his life’s work in politics for nothing.

Lee goes on about how Virginia’s suicide not an act of fear. She is a schmuck here. Yes I agree her suicide not an act of fear – why should people worry that suicide be seen as an act of fear? If some see it so automatically, they are fools. So she overstates and says the act was rational. No it was not. And it was not deliberate in the sense that she could not throw off the depression but wanted to.

Vanessa comes and writes her a letter which is in effect bullying. She must not get sick again. It’s the letter of someone imposing herself on Woolf, yes she thanks Virginia for “saving her,” but it is a she and Leonard know better than Virginia. She needed this like a hole in her head.

She is told by Lehman he has advertised her book (The Years) and its publication cannot be reversed. So now she’s between a rock and a hard place: do not get sick but endure the publication of this book. She did visit a villager, she got letters of praise from Forster on Jacob’s room and Lehman on Between the acts. Leonard tries to tell her she needs a rest cure, tells Octavia how worried he is. Told by them rest not work the only cure. Right.

Leonard can’t be with her every minute and she drowns herself on Friday March 28th. River running fast and high, she puts a large stone in her pocket and lets herself drown.

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Aftermath:

Close friends told; by April 1 the body had not been found. The Times carried article on 3 April, begins to be reported, River Ouse dragged. Tributes begin. Leonard received over 200 letters, replied to each, to himself. Body found 18 April. Distasteful music; he came alone to her cremation; he hated the pretentious casket. He used quote from Waves; Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!

Leonard carries on business of papers one has to cope with 753. He says he is better off coping alone. The year of 1943 as described in this book and VW’s almost understandable (now to me) suicide. Not quite: as I don’t quite get why Carrington couldn’t live on who had such friends, such worlds to belong to; so why Woolf couldn’t manage with Leonard there. What if she hadn’t had him. I get that. I did read somewhere (maybe this book) that in 1943 Mark Gertler killed himself. He was Jewish.

Leonard was rightly irritated when his choice of “Cavatina” for Virginia’s cremation was replaced by “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo. I remember how I had to be alert to every reference to Jim’s actual death: he went to his rest the video had on it at the end; I protested angrily each time. How dare they? And Leonard had no one there with him so no need to worry (for those who do) others will be offended. I am not sure one should make a wild joke about one’s death so when it was said the other day Carrie Fisher chose for her urn a pill box for Prozac I can see the mockery of pretension, and Leonard had only pretentious choices. He did make a plain tablet to put above where he buried the urn.

Some jackass wrote a letter printed by the Times excoriating anyone who kills themselves; we “all take our part nobly in this fight against the devil.” For once Leonard doesn’t heed his own advice and answers the jerk, trying to explain. Carrington better off not having anyone to take her as a symbol.


From their middle years together

For the next 28 years Leonard kept up a campaign to keep Virginia Woolf in the public eye as important, respected, he would bring out the vast amount of unpublished material (not novels you see) at carefully timed intervals. He husbanded the material, edited it (so cut sections of A Writer’s Diary), he controlled the way the texts were presented for better or worse.

From Moments of Being: Woolf repeatedly recurs to the real problems of writing a biography. In a way her real thrust totally undermines the social construction point of view (I use a different term but it was the Foucault argument we got into last fall — that far back): what she wants is to get into a biography the deep self, moments of being innate in use through what we remember. One problem here is to do this you’d have a million word first chapter. I particularly liked her worries about moments of “non-being,” left out by Lee. These are the hours we are alive that we do not remember, that if asked about we cannot account for the next day, when we are not fully there somehow or even much. For myself these occur especially at night ,and blogging is a way of overcoming “non-being,” so the next morning if I try to remember how I spent the night, there’s the blog showing that I did exist, and what I thought and how I lived my life that night. Readers might concentrate on the particular content in the two blogs not supposed to be about me, with other subjects, and even the Sylvia blog does not stress how I’m overcoming non-existence.

Diarist feel they get to exist by recording their intimate lives. With some important exception for women especially of recording sex lives (one’s homosexuality for example for a man), and maybe something they are determined to keep hidden (yet often let out — Toibin says diarists want to be “found out”), in fact they don’t worry about privacy for real except that until the Net when people can blog daily and without an editor, often diarists were much freer by deciding not to publish. This is risky as so often around you are relatives who don’t in the least sympathize with or understand you, especially those who regard writing as something that must be monitored lest it endanger their or a friend’s reputation in whatever way.

Lee says it was first in the 1960s she became an icon, a myth, a literary heroine, texts for feminists. She went on living and changing after her death.

Lee pulls away from the death itself. She is a woman who herself does not care for unpleasantness any more than true non-conformity in social life. But she has gone after Woolf like one would a ghost and re-created or found and presented her fully.

Ellen

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