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Archive for the ‘gothic’ Category

singing
Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitronia Balfe) singing & dancing gaily and wryly

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Murtagh Fraser (Duncan LaCroix) dancing stiffly and awkwardly (from Episode 14, “The Search”)

Claire: May I make a suggestion? Perhaps you could sing a song to jazz up the dance a bit.
Murtagh: Jazz?
Claire: To spice up, enliven. A song?
Murtagh: Yes.
Claire: Something toe-tapping, like

He was a famous trumpet man From out Chicago way He had a boogie style that no one else could play He was the top man at his craft But then his number came up And he was gone with the draft He’s in the army now A-blowing reveille. He’s the boogie woogie bugle boy of Company B

Murtagh: What?
Claire: It’s a bonnie tune.
Murtagh: But you need a Scottish song …
Claire (sometime later):

Here’s to all you lads and lasses That go out this way Be sure to tip her coggie When you take her out to play Lads and lasses toy a kiss The lads never think what they do is amiss Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie For every lad?! wander just to have his lass And when they see her pintle rise They’ll raise a glass And rowe about their wanton een They’ll dance the reels as the troopers go over the lea Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie He giggled, google me He was a banger He sought the prize between my thighs Became a hanger And there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie If you see a strapping redheaded fellow, let me know. There’s a big redheaded lad come through these parts. But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie And no there’s none as muckle as the wanton tune of strathabogie

Dear friends and readers,

In these last three episodes the first season concluded with moving from transitioning to a downright reversal of gender roles. This is taken to a level meant to astonish viewers: where else is a man broken in spirit and raped? The rescuers are all women or women-led. First, the two heroines (Jenny, his sister, Laura Donnelly, one, her breasts filled with milk), and then one, his wife, Claire, alone with her subaltern hero’s brother-mate, now discovered to be rather a replacement father, Murtagh, go on quest for said hero, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). They find him having escaped hanging, thrown into chains in a dungeon, having been humiliated to the point of robbing him of all pride, tortured (his right hand smashed with a hammer), raped, brought to want suicide by one half of the series doppelganger hero-villain, Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies).

He is rescued by the concerted repeated courageous efforts of said wife-heroine, and a band of his mates; then he is nursed, his hand re-structured by her (now we move back to usual gender roles), taken loving care of by all, including brothers, in a monastery. Finally, coaxed out of intense self-hatred, depression, nightmares, but not just recalled rather driven back to life by Claire (again he is the one worked upon) and simply taken into flight across the waters. The three episodes form a kind of climax and denouement trilogy to all that has gone before. Taken to another level.

What many viewers might not know or not realize (or forget) is, like the 12th and 13th episodes (“Lallybroch” and “The Watch”), these three seem to follow the outline of the book’s ending, but in fact depart radically.

In the book the quest, which takes all of Episode 14 (as “The Search”) and then some of 15 (Wentworth Prison), takes 5 paragraphs out of the first of a closing series of long chapters (Part Six, 8 to be precise). While the capture, beating, breaking of spirit and body and rape of Jamie, is there in the book, it takes only about 2/3s of one chapter (35, “Wentworth Prison”) and is not placed as climax. In the mini-series, the actual core scenes of Black Jack and Jamie where Jamie allows Black Jack to make love to him and responds are held off as a flashback (reminding me of Richardson’s Clarissa) until near the end of 16, the last episode (“To Ransom A Man’s Soul”) so they become the climax.

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Murtagh, Father Anselm (Ian Hanmore) and Claire discussing what seems the hopelessness of bringing Jamie out of his intense grief and loss

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Jamie responding, remembering, dreaming moving to the flashback (which I will not put stills from on my blog lest I attract the wrong kind of attention) (from Episode 16, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”)

As in the book’s versions of Episodes 12 & 13 a lingering depiction of a story about a tense return home ending unexpected disaster from treachery, so that the theme is rooted in characterization and as much about what is meant by home, and men’s relationships to women there, in the book’s versions of 14-16 we are given a luxuriating in woman’s romance:

a full emphasis on Claire’s attempts to save Jamie by negotiation, entering two different Scottish households, one the armed castle type run by Sir Fletcher, and the other, another old-fashioned country house farmstead of the McRannochs, where Claire meets the wife as well as husband. In the book, as heroines have done before her, she is successful because she enlists the aid of the non-violent home-y private knowledge of the MacRannochs, including their cattle. The cattle is just about all that is kept in the mini-series: a way to barge into the prison and during the fracas and violence, sluice Jamie out. In the book Claire, Jamie and Murtagh flee to France — across the waters — immediately, and are taken into a French monastery, recalling to his mind the one he fled to (and told Claire of) after his first nearly mortal encounter with Black Jack, which inflicted on him his criminal status and permanently scarred back.

In the mini-series the monastery is in the highlands (and not safe, but hidden enough for a while) and,by contrast, the final scene is on the shore, a goodbye to Scotland for now, and the three principals sail away — rather like many a male-centered sea story.

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Beyond intrigue, comedy and action-adventure, what survives from the book is the agon of Jamie and Claire forced apart by Black Jack on threat of destroying another part of Jamie’s body (Episode 15, “Wentworth Prison”)

In the book after Claire has performed her physical and psychological re-fashioning of Jamie, they find this French monastery unsafe. Reminding me uncannily of Sophie Lee’s Recess now, they flee into a cave where they stay, make intense love, and then crawl out through the earth to reach the sky and build another future than is in the cards for themselves and others.

But there another political level to this drama (as pointed out by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker last year): the torturing of Jamie mirrors our own politics. Gabaldon wrote Outlander in 1995 well before 9/11, before systematic torture was practiced by the Bush administration, allowing it to spread and become acceptable elsewhere. It’s important to emphasize this political source for what we see, not only as demonstrating even women’s historical romances are about history and politics (as certainly historical fiction is), but because a newly elected US president has condoned torture and people he’s appointed condon it too. I believe the scenes are made emphatic and developed intutively as timely: there are two between Black Jack and Jamie, in the first Jack smashes Jame’s hand because it seems Jamie will not bend, not yield, in the second the intensely painful submission scene. It should be remembered that no information is being extracted. There are too many studies for me to cite showing that torture is useless for extracting truthful information; perhaps Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain is most pertinent here: she argues not force itself alone but the fear and infliction on someone of bodily pain lies behind powerful state gov’t’s successes. Here the English.

The mini-series might be said to be a (long-distance) descendant of Walter Scott, historical fiction, with a heap of fashionable post-colonialism; the book is a similar descendant of Ann Radcliffe (combining all three of her famous romances) by way of Daphne DuMaurier’s occasionally kinky eroticism, woman’s historical romance (often part fantasy).

Pace the book about these forms I’m reading just now, Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, the differences between these two genres is considerable. I’ve now gotten myself the British DVD set of the new 2016 Poldarks and the fat books of Complete Scripts, Series 2 by Deborah Horsfield, and will be leaving off writing about the Outlander mini-series for a while, but I’m also struck by how both mini-series (1970s and again now) albeit in very different ways, as they go on become more literally faithful to the books as well as actual 18th century history.

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Surface mining in the new Poldark (seen by the second episode of the 1st season)

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The opening scene at Inverness (1, “Sassenach”)

The World of Poldark by Emma Marriot, a companion volume to the 2016 TV series has many short essays on historical topics; The Making of Outlander by Tara Bennett, a companion volume to this one on-going TV series has almost none: history is only brought up as a detail to explain this facet of a costume or prop or why a particular ritual or song took a certain hybrid form. Winston’s Graham’s original book about Poldark’s Cornwall had much about Cornwall itself (for real), his relationship to it, and his characters to history, actual photos of real places, all set-up as life-writing.

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Cornish perpendicular gothic window, a photo from Graham’s edition of Poldark’s Cornwall

Gabaldon’s equivalent Outlandish Companion has much about Scottish history seen through a prism of fantasy, romance, with astrological tables, ancient Scottish symbols, words, drawings of ruins, playful illustrations, all set-up as a kind of substitute (almost) for reading four of the Outlander books. I began these blogs on Outlander by way of having some comparative and intertextual context for the new Poldark.

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Permutations of a bracelets from Outlandish Companion

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None of this is to stay this Outlander mini-series is not a marvel of good writing (especially the over-voice linking much), interesting human sequences, studies of gender, some post-colonial history, strong structure, effective music and effective scenery (beautiful when wanted), the cinematography breath-taking, the close-ups deeply moving, but to recognize what has happened to it in an adaptation meant to engage male as as well as female viewers. So I’ll conclude with just two elements I was struck by in these last three.

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Coming up to the monastery

The use of the past is not just a pretext. The unfamiliarity of the past is important as when Claire and Murtagh travel across northern Scotland to find Jamie in an era without maps, daily newspapers, telegraph, telephone, TV, internet, lots of published maps (no GPS, no cell-phone). We are comforted by their overcoming the lack of technology, and we delight in how eras can be brought together. So Claire entertains with jazzed up versions of Scottish songs, sounding like a radio program from the 1940s. She tells fortunes of women glad to hear their husbands will die young. She fights one imitator for (in effect) copyright — and he cheats and uses her materials. It’s fun to see Murtagh’s awkward dancing. The visualization and sounds of all this is in fact what the book cannot provide.

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Claire snacking inbetween performances (14, “The Search”)

Love and friendship are matters of affinity, companionship and then physical love are compensatory and crowning expressions of a valuing of one another’s individual qualities, rather than an end in itself. Black Jack is perverse because he wants to devour and punish, inflict pain to feel his power. The good features of any personality are the most solitary ones, the indwelling mind which keeps to its own integrity. So at the end of both book and this first series, we have the deeply gratifying coming together of loving affection between parting men and wedded men and women.

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Claire saying goodbye to Willie who has been the most loyal of all Jamie’s friends

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Fair is the wind for France

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I have not mentioned the music of this series thus far. Let me end on that which begins and haunts most episodes: the theme of the Craig Na Dun stones and women’s dance.

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A header on one of the fan sites for this mini-series

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone …

The song is a re-working of a traditional Scots folk tune: The Skye-Boat Song, with words paraphrased from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Sing me a song of a lady that is gone.” Brian McGreary who composed it describes himself as “a Jacobite fanatic,” he did his thesis on the Jacobites and the music of the era. He used a “live orchestra and live soloists … live bagpipes, the live fiddle, the bodhran, which is the drum that can change pitch, [which we hear] predominantly in the main title … ” It was an attempt to be authentic Scots, using one of the great Scottish writers. It’s sung by Raya Yarborough and is part of the paratext opening for each episode.

There is a music or a theme associated with Frank, Claire’s tenderly loving husband from the 1940s and it’s classical, 20th century, what we associate with Vaughn Williams, English composers drawing on English folk song. There is a theme for Frank and Claire together, and there is a theme for Claire and Jamie together, heard in different permutations, bodhran, Scottish percussion, small string ensemble, a deeper more baritone setting with low strings or a viola da gamba when the focus is on Jamie (from The Making of Outlander, pp 22-27). But no theme for Claire. Ah well. She gets to do the over-voice, the perspective …

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

ethereal

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years (the epigraph to Outlander, the first words heard in the series, spoken by Balfe).

Ellen

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) nursing an abandoned neonate (called a changeling), 1 Outlander 10 (By the Pricking of My Thumb)

Jamie: Been looking all over for ye.
Claire: I met Geillis Duncan on the road.
Jamie. She told me where ye were. It’s dangerous to be out here alone, Sassenach.
Claire: Don’t tell me you believe in fairies and changelings and all that.
Jamie: It’s not about what I believe. These people, they’ve never been more than a day’s walk from the place they were born.
They hear no more of the world than what Father Bain tells them in the kirk on a Sunday. And for the parents of that child, it might comfort them a bit to think it’s the changeling that died. And think of their own child, healthy and well, living forever with the fairies.
Claire: Take me home.

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Claire explaining her small pox vaccination scar before she goes on to tell she is “from the future,” 1 Outlander 11 (The Devil’s Mark)

Claire: I was born on October the 20th in the year 1918. That’s 200 years from now. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?
Jamie: I hear you.
Claire: You think I’m raving mad, don’t you?
Jamie: No. No, I believe ye, Sassenach. So I dinna understand it a bit, not yet. But I trust you. I trust your word, your heart. And I trust there is a truth between us. So whatever you tell me I will believe ye. Can you tell me more?
Claire: I was a combat nurse in the British army.
Claire over-voice: Before we left the church, she [Geillis] said to me, “1968.” I told him everything. The whole story came pouring out of me like a cataract of water over a broken dam.
Jamie: Tell me again about the, uh the stones.
Claire over-voice: I didn’t realize how badly I needed to tell someone, anyone, until that moment.
Claire back to Jamie: The Scots never had a chance.
Claire over-voice: He listened.
Claire to Jamie: Thousands were killed at Culloden.
Claire over-voice: He didn’t understand it all, but he listened.

Friends and readers,

Among the few pleasant and unresolved escape pleasures of this past two (politically potentially disastrous) weeks, I’ve carried on reading Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, Sarah Waters’s The Daphne DuMaurier Companion, an essay by (with me) a favorite woman poet, Anne Stevenson, on Gabaldon, and best of all both watching the series yet more and listening to an unabridged Gabaldon’s Outlander text read aloud by Davina Porter.. It may not seem to the reader or viewer of the mini-series and books the most urgent question is, What genre do this text and film belong to? and yet this question is the one that most intrigues me, for if I could answer it, I would know what to look for as central to what I am reading and watching.

The book seems to me to fall into the historical romance category. It is woman’s erotica; the density, accuracy, and centrality of historical events which are the groundwork of the historical novel are not here. There is no political vision. At the same time we are seduced into a seemingly densely realized historical period, regional setting, tribal identities through an identification worked up between us and Claire, the heroine, and (as we are allowed inside his mind, the POV is often his) or us and Jamie Fraser. The mini-series reaches out through the fantasy of the time-traveling motif, and continual time-shifts and parallel and contrasting characters now and then to offer (as these two episodes do) an ahistorical gothic exploring psychoanalytically innate experiences of female life presented as cultural regional curiosities and how societies have based their continuities on these while savagely punishing (hating) women for their power. Individuals caught up in an individual woman’s fate — be it husband, lover, child, sister, friend, patient — are driven to protect, control, and rely and bond — with the heroines. As part of interludes in the book we are invited to delight in historically particulars of the past presented as sensual, fascinating, delightful, or just strange on the one hand (picturesque) and terrifying on the other, especially the brutal violence accepted it seems by all. I know from reading Wallace’s Digging the Dirt how earlier fossils and skeletons from medieval times often show frightening harsh physical treatments wreaked on bodies (the corpse of Richard III is not unusual in this regard).

The two episodes have complicated plot-designs. In episode 10 Claire and Jamie are each, partly apart from one another, trying to manipulate Black Jack Randall’s Jacobite patron and protector, to write a letter which will exonerate Jamie from a charge of murdering a British officer; this involves Jamie in a dangerous duel with members of other Highland clans. At the same time, Claire finds herself thrown in with Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), another “healer” whose own husband Geillis poisons to death. Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish), brother to the Laird, and she are in love, she is pregnant with his child, and his wife has died. A seemingly unrelated sub-plot turn is Claire’s finding out about rituals used with pre-mature, non-thriving, disabled infants: they are abandoned to die using the asserted illusion that the faeries have taken away the beautiful normal baby to live forever in paradise and left this faery changeling to die in its place.

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The mother watching, one of Claire’s accusers

Now having read the book I am aware that when married to Frank who in Dragonfly in Amber we learn could not sire a child Claire not knowing this longed to have a biological child; barring that, to adopt. Claire’s attempt to nurse the baby back to life give Laoghaire the opportunity to include her in an accusation that Geillis is a witch, and since Jamie has been commanded to accompany Dougal to his ancestral estates (it does not feel as pat as this in the telling, reading or viewing of the mini-series), when appointed witch-hunters come to take Geillis to prison, there is no one to stop them also taking Claire.

Episode 11 is the more quickly told though it is core material, what the previous episode exists to bring us to, and the very gothic historical romance drives towards again and again. Geillis and Claire endure a trial for witchcraft, as each charge is made by another half-hysterical female witness, bribed underling, or woman-hating priest Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson), the gentle-hearted but intelligent lawyer defends them.

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Much shrouded in darkness

However, since the population and jury are throbbingly eager to whip and then “burn the bitch” (reminding me of the crowds salivating around Trump), Ned eventually loses the argument. Another in the nick of time rescue by Jamie, too late to prevent any flogging, and helped along by Geillis providing distraction with her small pox vaccination site:

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and sudden confession (prompted by Ned in a conference before) that she seduced Claire and is herself pregnant with some devil’s child. She is hauled out with her belly heaving (she may not be burnt as we are told pregnancy precludes burning), but with at least a quarter of the over an hour episode is left for Claire to tell Jamie at long last where she has come from, how, who she is. The sequence where Claire attempts to account for her experience to Jamie is riveting, all the more so as most of what she says is off-stage implied (as it would be repetitious for us to be told what we have been experiencing for 11 episodes.) In terms of time in the episode, the telling needs little (as there is simply an indication through montage she has told what we have witnessed for 11 episodes); the emphasis is on Jamie’s reaction: at first shocked, he does believe her makes him an intensely sympathetic male.

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He all nobility and self-sacrifice (as males in certain kinds of women’s romance often are) curses himself for having beaten her when she was just trying to get back to her husband. All magnanimity he leads her to the head stone to travel back; she almost does it in front of us (as we hear the wind rise), but he pulls her back. He then says he “wasna ready.” He will go further off by himself and wait all night. If she does not return to him, he will know she returned to her time-home. We watch as she almost does go to the stone, but now she draws back suddenly. As dawn emerges and we see his fire, we are not sure the POV is her, but it turns out to be. It takes all night for her to decide (but decide she does) her home is no longer England anywhere 1945 but Lallybroch 1743. Her first words are those she used as a nurse after she had taken care of a WW2 man: “On your feet, soldier.”

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Paratext for each episode

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone Say, could that lass be I? Merry of soul she sailed on a day, Over the sea to Skye. Billow and breeze, Islands and seas, Mountains of rain and sun. All that was good, All that was fair, All that was me is gone. Sing me a song of a lass that is gone Say, could that lass be I? Merry of soul, she sailed on a day. Over the sea To Skye

What I stress for this evening are the “fantasias” projected during the thread Geillis appears in. Outlander, the book, opens with a Claire whose tone reminded me of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights: supercilious, half-ready to quietly mock her scholarly husband with his interest in antiquarian archeaology, Claire’s tone is transformed to one of emotional engagement with that very past she didn’t want to hear about. The poetics and dramaturgies of slow juxtaposition and doppelgangers come in to play in the film episodes. The film version drops all this, and makes each venture into the past, each juxtaposition earnest and serious and magical.

Bowden seems to feel the writer’s apprehension of the unknowability of the past is central to all these linked genres, and I’m trying to see if it’s the core here too. In her book Claire is ever sceptical and utterly uninterested in books unless they concern her immediately. She seems to have no ambition beyond the female immanent. So she would have no drive to make her adventure public; she would not want to shame Frank over bringing up Jamie’s daughter. Bowden says the finest historical fictions undermine their own bases: that may be true of the Booker Prize kinds of fictions. I know the unknowability of what is being reported is central to Graham’s The Forgotten Story (a Cornish tale set in 1898) and Graham Swift’s Waterlands (what should be reported as history of all that occurs or is said to?). It is at times in Gabaldon’s novel almost a ghost story where the narrative takes comfort in the stone and flesh and physical reality of the people around her.

Bowden says also the all three types make the historical period and/or setting a character in the book. The historical fiction drives to recreate, the historical romance to exploit, gothic to undermine. I love periods embedded in periods, utterly different takes on what has happened from different narrators. Again and again the historians of recent historical fiction, historical romance, gothic, science fiction confound their types. I want in the reviews and blogs I write and teaching I do to distinguish in order to vindicate historical romance, a woman’s genre (except when of the action-adventure chivalric hero type in Lorna Doone for example), with feminized heroes, and distinguish the types to understand the function they play in people’s lives. Why do I love the Poldark novels so and am so engaged by the realization in films?

Bowden’s idea seems to be we can unlock and understand the power of historical fictions and romance by seeing them as part of a literary and imaginative community continuum. I know there are neolithic stones all over the British Isles. Still standing today are 1,500 castles in Scotland (History Today, 66:11 [Nov 2016], 35. I feel the power of the writing that gets all this down and responds to it is what’s important and we can unlock the power, unpack the sources by acknowledging the drive in these fictions into verisimilitude, probability, enough complex inwardness in the characters and a mystical longing to get back into the past

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Frank (Tobias Menzies) and Claire among the stones

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Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) walking away along the Cornish beach at the conclusin of Poldark‘s first season (1976)

So, the question is, according to Bowden, not whether the Outlander series of books is historical romance, and the Poldark series, historical fictions, but “what kind of world is brought into being here, what thematic topoi,” what (I add) the situation of the speaker? More largely, what our historical situation today and how does it relate to what is presented? how we do feel about history today? Gabaldon’s book is frivolous, the narrator uses a supercilious faux cheerful tone, but she is drawn into erotic historical romance (unsurprisingly) with modern candour and (surprisingly) a post-colonial stance in the history part of her formula.

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From the film adaptation of The English Patient

I’m now set to teach three Booker Prize historical fiction at the OLLI at Mason this fall (J.L. Carr’s Month in the Country, Ondjaatje’s English Patient) and am thinking of “doing” “The World of Daphne Dumaurier” there in the summer (including King’s General). Tonight I was reading in the third Book of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and should reread Rose Tremaine’s Restoration and re-watched the last two episode of Andrew Davies’s 2016 too-thin film adaptation of War and Peace. It’s all about death, the past in the present, and as I listen to Davina Porter reading Outlander aloud and hear Claire rejoicing to feel she is surrounded by hard stones, and the people around her thick flesh-and-blood, I find myself wondering if Outlander and its predecessors are ghost-stories, and Waverley and its progeny politicized history.

Ellen

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Frank (Tobias Menzies) listening to Rev Wakefield (James Fleet) arguing he must give up Claire and go on to Oxford (Both Sides Now)

Wakefield: It’s fashionable in this modern age to dismiss the idea of good and evil, but there is evil, and it finds purchase in good men by giving sin the sweet taste of ecstasy. The Nazis drank from that poisoned cup, thinking all the while they were slaking their thirst with the sweetest wine.
Frank: Are you suggesting that I have been drinking from the same cup?
Wakefield: Evil has but one cup. They drank long and deep. Yours was but a sip.Make it your last. Turn away from the darkness that beckons you, and go back into the light.
Frank; You mean leave Inverness.
Wakefield: Aye. Go back to Oxford. You start your life over.
Frank: And what of Claire?
Wakefield: Let her go, just as she has let you go.
Frank: So you believe that she left with the highlander of her own volition?
Wakefield: Have you ever read Sherlock Holmes, Frank? Marvelous books. One point he makes, when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

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Jamie in a favorite spot since boyhood, over-voice mediation for episode begins (The Reckoning)

But the truth is, I’d forgiven everything she’d done and everything she could do long before that day. For me, that was no choice. That was falling in love … I should have been happy that the MacKenzie clan wasna about to tear itself apart and that I’d repaired my relationship with Colum and Dougal. But I wasn’t. The rift with Claire was an open wound that would not heal. I needed to do something, make a decision, choose a course of action. But what? (a meditation there from the middle and 3/4s of the way through the episode)

Dear friends and readers,

In her book on the Descendents of Waverley, Martha Bowden writes that modern historical fiction fuses romance, fantasy, and embodies history through novelistic elements; it’s an intersection of past with present or realism which enables the reader to experience the past as if we were there. It invites us also to think we could have been actor in the past, bringing the future into existence, and are rooted in the past through our ancestors too.

Amy Elias (Sublime Desire) and Martha Bowden (Descendants of Waverley) reveal a paradigm for the kind of historical romance Outlander draws upon (whether book or film): modern historical fiction and/or romance is written with an awareness of the essential unknowability of the past at the same time as there is this intense desire to go back to the past and experience it intimately. Even in such a plainly realistic and conventional historical fiction, Winston Graham makes this point central to his Forgotten Story (set in Cornwall, 1898), The Grove of Eagles (Cornwall, 1580s) and The Four Swans (Cornwall, 1790s). Post-modern historical fiction does this with its embedded histories in the past, its ironic self-reflexivities. This too is what time-traveling permits. It’s a spiritual questing to reach the irretrievable: “There is a yearning that resembles the yearning for mystical knowledge.”

This desire for some grand experience is centered in an event that erupts unspeakably and re-erupts; it’s a reaction formation against the trauma of history; it is continually deferred, it is awesome, strange, beyond comprehension, with an emphasis on the irretrievable for all involved. Is this not the way Outlander works? At the close of the first season we were on a boat with Jamie (Sam Heughan), Claire and Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) bound for France, for Claire, to try to stop the battle of Culloden as ever taking place:

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As the second season begins (“Through a Glass Darkly”), Claire is sudden groaning with despairing trauma; she has been lifted from the time of Culloden to 1948, and cannot know who won. We have skipped Culloden — and so has she. Her questioning and research into learned tomes cannot reach the names of the individuals who played such a large fole (fictionalized); she agrees to become Frank’s wife once again with the vow not to try to know what happened, to give up her connection to the Scots rebellion:

clairegroaning (Through a Glass Darkly, Season 2, Episode 1)

whathappened (ditto)

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Claire groaning at the center of her return to the stones, circa 1948; demanding frantically of the 20th century man who won Culloden; researching the Reverend Wakefield’s library with Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson) by her side (ditto)

By the end of the second season (Episode 13, “Dragonfly in Amber”), we have still not yet been at the battle; we move to 20 years on, meet Jamie and Claire’s grown daughter who is told but at first disbelieves who her father was, but no Culloden. According to Martha Bowden and Amy Elias and others the mother of all these can be found in the later eighteenth century women’s gothic history/romance by Sophie Lee (The Recess) and of course Ann Radcliffe. I see Daphne DuMaurier’s dark vision as everywhere in Outlander as I see Walter Scott’s invention of a new self-conscious controlled genre.

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I return to Episode 8 and go on to 9 of Season 1 of Outlander in our journey through this mini-series, and these turn out to be an an extraordinary pair of episodes of Outlander, from this Bowden and Elias perspective. Both are (I now see) pivotal to the whole series, which project just this sort of romancing and playing with sublimity. Season 1, Episode 8, Both Sides Now continually moves back-and-forth between 1945 when Frank Randall is persistent in seeking for an explanation from the police and anyone else as to where his wife, Claire (Caitrionia Balfe) has vanished; and 1743 when Claire, after the shock of the violence she finds she must not only endure, but watch “her” side (the British armed forces and some renegade Scots), murder as ruthlessly, tries to reach her own century with where her status as a woman is so immeasurably raised that she can as a matter of course feel safe, something not true in the middle 18th century.

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— Frank by the stones, desolate, following Mrs Graham’s story, calls “Claire!” (opening stills of Both Sides Now, Season 1, episode 1)

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She unnerved, frantic rushes up, presumably hearing his voice, and calls to him, only to be captured by the British, (ditto)

It’s this movement back-and-forth, with history across times becoming one, not so much as a continuum, as the two specific times occurring at the same time, and in both cases the characters cannot know what has happened to them, they cannot explain what will happen, and they try to at the same reach and stave off the eruption of the sublime.

For the mini-series self-conscious fitting into modern historiography in fiction, we have in Both Sides Now a continual paralleling so that the doppelganger is not just Tobias Menzies as Frank and Black Jack Randall. The young woman in 1945 who lures Frank to a dark alley in Inverness where he is set upon by thugs, and nearly murders them is a type of Claire who unknowingly lures redcoats to ambush Claire and Jamie twice in the same episode and is taught to arm herself and murder others attempting to murder her.

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Or (another parallel) as Frank learns of the legends of the stones from Mrs Graham, so Claire distraught is taught to use a hidden dagger to protect herself.

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Mrs Graham telling Frank

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Claire listening to Jamie

The world of Inverness in 1945 grows out of the world of the Highlands in 1743. Both are historical periods, for World War Two fits Scott’s criteria of 60 years since. Both nightmares of death and destruction.

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Jamie telling Claire he must punish her because it’s expected and she will therefore not forget next time that the lives of everyone depend on her conforming — note that in this scene we see them through a gird of bars (The Reckoning)

Season 1, Episode 9, “The Reckoning,” the quiet reversal of gender roles undergirding the romancing of the series is brought out explicitly: so rare as to be nearly unique for at least the last couple of decades, the over-voice and narrator of this episode, thoughtful, inward, self-reproaching, self-exploring is not that of the female, but of the central male of the series: Jamie. As 9th episode opens he is meditating in just the same way Claire did at the opening of Episode 1 (Outlander):

Strange, the things you remember. The people, the places, the moments in time burned into your heart forever while others fade in the mist. I’ve always known I’ve lived a life different from other men. When I was a lad, I saw no path before me. I simply took a step and then another, ever forward, ever onward, rushing toward someplace, I knew not where. And one day I turned around and looked back and saw that each step I’d taken was a choice. To go left, to go right, to go forward, or even not go at all. Every day, every man has a choice between right and wrong, between love and hate, sometimes between life and death. And the sum of those choices becomes your life. The day I realized that is the day I became a man

One cannot over-emphasize how unusual it is to find a man speaking this kind of meditation, providing melancholy retrospective assessments and confiding plans. In the first episode of the second season Jamie is experiencing terrifying nightmares about Black Jack Randall who had whipped, raped, sodomized, almost destroy Jamie’s hand, branded him, broke his spirit in the two concluding episodes of the first season. It’s not a coincidence that this is the (for many women readers) infamous episode where Jamie beats Claire, spanks her hard with whip. What is happening is Gabaldon and her team of film-makers are moving between gender behaviors for both Jamie and Claire

So, at the same time as Jamie is our thoughtful semi-depressed narrator and meditator, as in many of the episodes where Claire narrates, is melancholy, questing and presides (so to speak), it is here Jamie who concocts the plan to rescue Claire, Jamie who tries to “clear the air” with Claire, almost (not quite) with no avail

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He tells her she is at fault for the British capture of her and danger to the men because she disobeyed him

Claire: Christ, Jamie, I went for a walk!
Jamie: I ordered you to stay put.
Claire: I don’t have to do what you tell me to.
Jamie: Aye, you do. You are my wife.
Claire: Oh, your wife. Your wife. Oh, you think I’m your property, don’t you? You think I belong to you, and you can’t stand for someone to have something else that belongs to you.
Jamie: You do belong to me, and you are my wife whether you like it or not.
Claire: Well, I don’t like it! I don’t like it one bit! But that doesn’t matter to you either, does it? As long as I’m there to warm your bed, you don’t care what I think or how I feel. That’s all a wife is to you, something to stick your cock into whenever you feel the urge. Let go of me, you you fucking bastard!
Jamie: You foulmouthed bitch! You’ll no speak to me that way! I went to ye at Fort William armed with an empty pistol and my bare hands. When you screamed … Ye’re tearing my guts out, Claire.
Claire: I’m sorry. Jamie Forgive me.
Jamie: Forgiven.

It is Jamie Frazer (to give him his clan name) who persuades Column to return the gold that Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish) and Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson) have been gathering along with the rents to fund the Scots rebellion. In his Jacobites, Frank McLynn tells us the Mackenzies were a clan who held out against Culloden; that their clan leaders were cautious and remained led by ties to lower Scottish landlords. (It is also true that there were quiet “traitors” to the Hanoverian cause among the British nobility, or people with Jacobite and French and catholic leanings, so the Duke of Sandringham as characterized in the series is within the realm of historical probability.)

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Colum Mackenzie (Gary Lewis) incensed against the gathering of funds for a rebellion by

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Dougal Mackenzie, Ned Gowan, Jamie Frazer

In Both Sides Now, the triangles of Jamie-Claire-Black Jack/Frank where Black Jack desires Jamie, Jamie and Frank desire Claire and she both of them begins to take on the nightmarish pairing of Black Jack and Claire in Jamie’s mind so that when in the 16th episode of the 1st season (“To Ransom a Man’s Soul”) Jamie sees Claire coming to nurse or make love to him, she turns into the lurid violent sadistic Black Jack. When the second season opens, “Through a Glass Darkly,” and Claire has landed in 1748, for her Frank turns into Black Jack. In the last third of the episode, when Frank’s hand turns into Jamie’s and Claire stepping off a plane to come live in Boston as Frank’s faculty wife becomes Claire stepping off a ship on the Normandy coast, Jamie is having nightmares where Claire turns into Black Jack.

As to the adumbration of explicit gender reversals, and romancing, in the penultimate scene of The Reckoning, upon returning to Castle Leoch, Jamie is confronted by Laoghaire with whom he had an understanding. She loves and expected him to marry her, and demands an explanation in the very glade that she seems to know he has loved and spent much time in since a boy.

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Laoghaire Mackenzie (Nell Hudson) accosting Jamie

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Jamie left in his glade-landscape after Laoghaire leaves

She is the aggressor offering her body to him, swearing he and he alone will be her lover, and he must tell a truth that he married Claire not just because Dougal told him to, but because he wanted Claire and now loves and will remain faithful to her. This will bring on her attempt to have Claire branded a witch and burnt. The last scene of the episode ends with Jamie swearing he will forgo tradition and never “chastise” Claire again, her saying yes to having sex with him again, and another of these (to me) alluring love-making scenes during which she threatens to cut his heart out if he does hit her and he demands she nonetheless call him master:

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The strong eroticism of romance

But then they find — uneasily — Laoghaire’s “ill-wish” (a set of hard twigs and branches tied together with thongs) under their bed.

History fused with romancing, at the center a historically sublime (horrifying crucial event of war) whose enactment is ceaselessly deferred.

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Modern photograph of Culloden battlefield

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

A major 19th century woman novelist, travel writer, Woolson depicts the south after the civil war, writes visionary landscape of the great lakes (ice and snow), realistic novels, with (in effect) feminist stance, very enjoyable travel writing. Anne Boyd Rioux has written a fine biography showing what the career of a women of letters in America was like — obstacles many. Woolson moved to Europe. And of course the deep friendship with Henry James. She situates herself among the major women novelists of her generation, knew quite a number of them, translated George Sand, never forgot Jane Eyre. She even liked Anthony Trollope, his autobiography, admired his relentless traveling:

“Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography, yes, I have read it. It gave me such a feeling! Naturally I noticed more especially his way of working. What could he have been made of! What would I not give for the hundredth part of his robust vitality. I never can do anything by lamplight, nothing when I am tired, nothing–it almost seems sometimes–at any time! . . . And here was this great English Trollope hauled out of bed long before daylight every morning for years, writing by lamplight three hours before he began the “regular” work (post office and hunting!) of the day. Well, he was English and therefore had no nerves, fortunate man ….

I have no less than five or six books to recommend (!), or to make this sound less like a task of too many pages, an author you might not have heard of, or only heard of as a rejected mistress of Henry James, now known to have been if not actively homosexual (he probably quietly was), at least as regards heterosexuality celibate: Constance Fenimore Woolson wrote splendid novels, novellas, short stories and travel books in the post-reconstruction era of the US, from her escape sites in Europe, mostly Italy. Over the past couple of months, I’ve read her powerful first novel, Anne (which ought to have a title that gives some sense of its content, e.g, An Internal Exile) in an edition, which included the original touching and expressive illustrations:

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The heroine’s aunt, Miss Lois,

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A striking minor male character ….

a few remarkable short stories and gothic landscape fantasies, in Castle Nowhere, and her depictions of the bitterness of the defeated southerners, immersed in death, near bankruptcy (those who had been wealthy had been so off the bodies and minds of their slaves), and destructive self-thwarting norms, best read as a group in Rayburn S. Moore’s old-fashioned “masterworks of literature series, For the Major and other Stories, though a couple are reprinted in Rioux’s Miss Grief and Other Stories. Anne Boyd Rioux’s Portrait of a Novelist (the title modeled on Gorra’s) also depicts the norms and prejudices that marginalized and erased American women fiction writers of the 19th century (see her Bluestocking Bulletin). Woolson is a major American voice of the second half of the 19th century. Try her.

Unfortunately, Woolson is best known for either having accidentally died or killed herself at age 54 by falling out a window in Venice, probably (it’s thought) because she was rejected as a romantic partner by Henry James (see Ruth Bernard Yeazell, “In what sense did she love him?”, LRB, 36:9, 8 May 2014). Often this event which Rioux presents carefully is treated as a ridiculous joke because Henry James, so upset at what happened, came to help with her effects, and distressed attempted to drown Woolson’s dresses in the Venice lagoon and they all floated up around him. What happened is a combination of life-long depression, and some serious illness in her early fifties (not uncommon before there was an understanding of various human organs) led to a decline, too much medicine, bad pain, and a half-willed suicide. Woolson is a major character in Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, a psycho-biography of Henry James’s creation of the story of Isabel Archer, and not overlooked altogether by Colm Toibin in The Master. That she has at long last arrived may be seen in a volume of critical essays devoted to her:

Reconstruction.

It’s said though that the shared or mutual hidden or inner lives of James and Woolson is portrayed best by Lyndall Gordon in her biography of Henry James.

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I’m going to differ from most accounts by my emphasis and what I recommend to start with: the travel books, say The Benedicts Abroad (a family effort) or better yet, her own Mentone, Cairo, and Corfu, which, like Anne, comes accompanied by lovely appropriate illustrations:

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It’s a perfect summer book; perhaps you can’t afford to go to the Riveria this year; it’s the closest thing as a read I’ve come across to the once wonderfully evocative Miramax movies of lonely sensitive reading people traveling to some dream place, e.g., A Month by the Lake (Venessa Redgrave and Edward Fox in an H.E. Bates’s short story). A group of variously witty, desperate, amused, and knowledgable (about the undersides of history, geology, biography, tourist sites) have awakening adventures together.

Then instead of plunging into a longer novel, read some of her short stories. In the US the fiction writer did not have to produce three-volume tomes for Mudie’s Library, or the Cornhill or other similar venues. You won’t forget “Rodman the Keeper” or For the Major. Rodman is one of Woolson’s many solitary souls, a caretaker for a national cemetery of the union (pro-Northern) dead; like most of the central characters of Woolson’s stories I’ve read, he tries to retreat from society insofar as he can, but is dragged back in by his conscience and need. He comes across an impoverished dying ex-confederate soldier who is not at all reconciled to defeat and nurses this man through his last illness. This is centrally about the devastation of the civil war and the complex hatreds in the aftermath, the beauty of black people’s magnanimity, generosity of feeling, living down south still. Again the illustrations are remarkable:

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For the Major is about intensely repressed lives where the gradually emerging white heroine has misrepresented everything about herself for years. There is insight, some degree of self-acceptance and fulfillment by breaking through taboos but no false redemption. Woolson provides the source of the hatred of the south for the north well into the 20th century and even the 21st. I hadn’t thought about how the conquered might feel in a situation: a woman’s apparently non-political fiction gives us the inner life of the impotent rage then turned against black people who since they represented a large percentage of the population would have had to be given real freedom for the region to thrive; the southern characters refuse to stop pretending they are rich aristocrats. They will not admit to having disabled people in their families. They will not permit women to live independent lives apart from marriage (now more or less out of the question as so many had died. There are flaws: while she does depicts black people with real empathy and dignity, she also portrays them as helplessly loyal to their ex-owners as if they cannot make their own lives.

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The title story of Castle Nowhere reads like a distillation of the opening sequence of Anne. It’s set in a region of Michigan, the islands of the Great Lakes of Michigan, Woolson spent formative years in: like the opening of Anne, it reminded me of Daphnis and Chloe, or Paul et Virginie: an intensely solitary group of people live a quietly ecstatic existence in a dangerously cold, ice, snow and lake place. They succour one another and are deeply fulfilled. Tyler Tichelaar suggests this particular story focuses on a aging male solitary wanderer, but there is also a fairy tale element as the loving heterosexual couple who emerge (as in Anne) end up with a deeply contented life together. It can also recall the 1790s Radcliffe-like gothics, only the “machinery” or furniture is that of the wild landscape and hardships of mid-America. The bleak yet exalted (in Woolson’s curiously postive way of writing gothic) landscape of a spiritual lighthouse existence in St Clair Flats contains the same beauty as Woolf’s novel of creativity and aspiration.

I don’t know if “Miss Grief,” possibly the best-known story by Woolson was first published among her Italian stories; it has been interpreted (like Jupiter Lights, a late novel) as feminist. It is the one story I’ve read that directly concerns her life as a novelist. Like For the Major the narrative voice is that of implied sardonic irony: a fatuous complacent money-making successful male author finds himself besieged by a Miss Crief whose name he hears as Miss Grief. No one will publish her work, but when under intense pressure he begins to read one of her stories, he finds it has passion, strength, sincerity his lacks. Woolson wants us to feel precisely where and when this man is shallow his work is popular. Miss Grief reads aloud precisely the passage from the author’s work that he knows he is most authentic in, and he is riveted by her and her writing. But she will not temper it, will not eliminate half-crazed elements, will not change the plot to be acceptable story so the work can’t be sold. She has a great play but in order to get it performed, she must compromise. (This sounds like her sympathetic account of James’s own theatrical failures.) The story ends melodramatically with her happy death. She has had the fulfillment of his approbation. Some have read the story as about James and Woolson, though it was Edith Wharton who made the huge success, and during her life Woolson made a great deal of money on Anne and was well-known, respected and reviewed (if not favorably by Howells, who, like Hawthorne, seems to have wanted to marginalize women).

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Another illustration for Anne

Of the longer works I read but two but liked them both. Anne was Woolson’s first long novel, and it’s very strong until near the end when it collapses into melodrama. People have written about her books to place them alongside Henry James; it’s more accurate to see them in the context of other women’s books, women’s writing, and visionary landscapes. The book opens on Mackinak Island in the straits of Mackinac where the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan meet, near the top of Lake Huron. the descriptions of ice, snow, waters are visionary. The story is of a highly intelligent young woman living a semi-solitary (again) impoverished life on a frontier who is willing to sacrifice all to the needs of her desperate family; she finds herself deeply congenial with a young man, Rasta.

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The motif of the boy and girl growing up together in a world of snow and lakes repeats itself

Woolson has affinities with the work of Willa Cather: Woolson is even drawn to ethnic French people. As the novel progresses, Anne is forced to leave the island – for money, for schooling, to grow up — and she gains female mentors along the way. In this and the love affair that Anne flees from to avoid transgressive sex recall Jane Eyre. The first is the loving spinster who lives on the island near her family, Miss Lois, quietly in love with Anne’s half-philandering self-indulgent father; she is taken in by a hard mean aunt but finds friendship with an older generous and sophisticated friend, Helen Lorrington; when later in the book she becomes desperate for employment she is hired and kept going by a French teacher, Jean-Armande. Anne is betrayed by her French half-sister, by the educational system which develops the more shallow aspects of Rasta’s character, and finds the upper class mercenary social life of her rich aunt appalling, unlivable in. This anticipates Ellen Glasgow. In fact except that there are powerful depictions of the civil war (which the book’s time frame crosses), Woolson’s book could fit into he (dismissive) chapter on women writers in Alfred Kazin’s book On Native Grounds. She is not interested in socialism, not a political muck-raker; instead she writes l’ecriture-femme about women’s lives. Anne’s continual flights are from the situations women are put in to push them into narrow schooling, marriage, and motherhood. The men in the book are wastrels, weak, and (alas) all of them at some point in love with Anne, but here the psychology of courtship, the rivalries, are astutely depicted. I believed in the characters.

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A depiction of Anne towards the end of the novel

Another worthwhile novel is East Angels. It’s about how woman as a woman spends her life hiding her inner self, and has been likened to Turgenev’s novels. She threw a great deal of ambition and adult emotion from within her artist’s life into the book. Rioux suggests the only way this heroine can “maintain her self worth” is to “maintain her self control.” Male critics, espeically Howells panned it (they didn’t believe in this heroine), but a number of reviewers an readers too felt it showed “her remarkable powers of observation,” great art (see Rioux, pp 174-178, 200-202). East Angels sold much better than James’s work at the time, if not as well as Anne, and is in print as an ebook

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Rioux’s excellent biography is very good from the angle of revealing what life was like for a woman who might aspire to be a serious writer in the US in the 19th century. I have read a few lives of and some fiction by 19th century American women writers, but and until this book my knowledge of what American women specifically were up against was minimal. Rioux cites Kate Field, the woman Trollope loved who lived as a modern woman writer, traveling, lecturing; the life and work of Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe are part of Rioux’s earlier context — as well as finishing schools for upper class girls. The depiction of the way sacrifice was inculcated, the way motherhood and wife-hood was used to leave no room whatsoever for individual development, what was one of the best schools, which Woolson went to, but how it had no goal for the woman to use her knowledge — all bring home to me that it was much more difficult in the US than the UK to become a woman of letters. No wonder Woolson fled to Europe. While she loved the elite and old Spanish cities of the south and Florida, and dutiful as she was to her mother, and finding deep companionship with her father, Woolson could not get herself to publish a large major adult novel until she went to Europe.

Rioux’s depiction of Woolson’s career as a journalist is again a story of a woman up against exclusionary practices and a demand she not have a mind of her own. In her stories what was wanted was pious moralizing and she resisted that. She was pushed into imitating Alcott for her first novel, The Old Stone House, a children’s novel. She translated Sand’s La Mare au Diable but it was not published! Alas. Someone else had translated it. I wish hers had been published too: She is also a strong reader of George Eliot, admires Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She is a little too earl for Edith Wharton. She tries poetry, but discouraged by others’ responses gives it up with the argument novels are as important.

I found a house, at Florence, on the hill
Of Bellosguardo. ‘Tis a tower that keeps
A post of double-observation o’er
The valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city) straight towards Fiesole
and Mount Morello and the setting sun, —
The Vallombrosan mountains to the right, …
No sun could die, nor yet be born,
unseen by dwellers at my villa: morn and eve
Were magnified before us in the pure
Illimitable space and pause of sky
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh — Woolson told friends in letters to understand how she felt about her home in Florence, read this passage( the 200 year old Villa Bichieri is photographed by Rioux in her book)

She had been responsible for her mother from the time of her father’s death, the loss a sympathetic brother-in-law also makes her sister more broke and dependent: she lived where her mother lived, with her, in elite, old (a Florida city founded in mid-16th century) moving “north” in summer (Asheville, North Carolina). But as she would ever be, she felt (and was) isolated and Rioux says of her she was a solitary author writing columns from afar. Depression was common in her family and her brother killed himself eventually because he could not cope with the demands made on him to live a commercially successful life. She had some great good luck: she had an income from investments her family set up for her; she had connections with the powerful and intelligent in the US and then Europe, especially male critics, diplomats (John Hay), and educated critics, literary friendships with men (Edmund Clarence Stedman). When her mother died, she could afford to go to Europe to cultured cities. She never came back. She found herself there — as did Henry James. Her attitude towards Europe reminded me of my own: as an American who has read so much of British literature, you feel you are nostalgically coming home.

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Palazzo Semitecolo, the last of Woolson’s homes, this in Venice

This is not the place to attempt to go into the twists and turns of her life nearby, with and apart from Henry James (but communicating by reading one another and letters); suffice to say Florence was central to her, and that at times they lived in the same house together, writing on different floors, in different apartments. Her deafness has been insufficiently emphasized. It began early and became much much worse. Harriet Martineau, far franker than Woolson, said the worst experiences for deaf people were dinner parties. Her work was widely reviewed. She was known to many people, including Margaret Oliphant (who did not stay in Italy, did not like travel). Woolson’s sister and her niece visited and traveled with her. She wrote sensitively of the cruelties she saw in her own nand other cultures. She lived for a time in Oxford too — and found Cheltanham dull. She chose to be alone to work, to think, because she felt unlike many people, but she experienced despair from loneliness too. She and Alice James recognized one another. She eventually became close to an American family living in Italy: Francis Boott, a highly cultured wealth gentleman, his daughter, Lizzie Duvnack, and her husband, lived near her in Bellosguardo. Lizzie’s death was one of the devastating blows late in life that led to Woolson’s own death. She kept up an extensive correspondence with Boott where she revealed more of herself openly than anywhere else (says Rioux). In her last illness, Woolson was often doubled over with pain (diverticulitis? or gripping gut as they called it in the 18th century).

The last chapter on Woolson’s after life is moving, especially her burial in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. I probably have walked by her grave. Jim and I spent over an hour or so in that cemetery one afternoon in August 1994. It is a haven, a beautiful quiet place, if your corpse is going to be buried and you remembered that way, it’s not a bad place to have your grave stone. If I ever get to go there again (unlikely) I will be sure and stand by her gravestone too.

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A drawing of Woolson by Lizzie Duveneck

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Anthony Trollope as painted by Samuel Lawrence

Dear Friends and readers,

As I’ve written about too often on this blog, a conference on the occasion of Trollope’s 200th birthday was held in Leuven, Belgium from 17-19 September 2015. There was no keynote speech, and only one panel at a time presented papers. It was all held in one place: a large chapel auditorium in the Irish college. If you had the stamina you could hear every paper and get to know the people there, many of whom were among the most knowledgeable people on Trollope anywhere. One result was you could get a sense of overall trends and what was dominant in these people’s thinking. Somewhat to my surprise, I discovered one trend or prevailing attitude of mind towards Trollope’s art was not about his politics, nor was it that he was ironic, satiric (comic); rather those speaking emphasized how artful his texts are, how much autobiographical or life-writing is in them, and that his art is plangent, deeply felt, emotionally earnest, serious. Izzy (my daughter came with me) and I were not able to stay a fourth night so I could not make a record for the panels and papers occurring after 10 in the morning on Saturday, but I have a record of the gist of each paper that was delivered until that time. I offer brief summaries (these omit many details) and begin with Thursday morning.

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Robert Macbeth Walker, A Rainy Day

Panel 1: Ordinary Trollope. Kate Flint chaired and gave the first paper: “Shoddy Trollope.” She suggested that Trollope in his most ordinary moments cared deeply about the workmanship of his stories, of his art, and he wanted to offer the best novel “product” he could, e.g., the clearest style (containing all the meaning he could project). Thus his work contrasted to what was seen as “shoddy” (her paper dwelt on this) by which Victorians meant cheap ill-made goods, raw poor materials, especially about cloth; Carlyle wrote an article condemning all selling of inferior, filthy, dust-laden junk-cloth; Trollope uses the word more neutrally (as do Gaskell and Eliot). Francis O’Gorman took as her topic how critics continue to praise Trollope’s depiction of capitalism in The Way We Live Now when Trollope’s portrayal of the banking business is superficial and misleading. The critics of the Times and Examiner liked the novel but said that Trollope did not know the way the financial world worked from within. By the the time of the novel there were enforced laws demanding minimum disclosure as Parliament tried to control and stamp out fraud. Melmotte in reality could not begin to cheat everyone the way he does. Claire Pettit’s “Inbetween Times” was about Trollope’s interest in psychological chronology; in TWWLN social public time is carefully plotted; a lot of things happen at the same time so Trollope develops a kind of holding pattern where he drops one story and then picks up another, leaving the first to wait. She used terms like fast forward and switch-back (rewind, anyone?) but this kind of thing is found in other older fiction too.

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Walter Greaves, Chelsea Regatta (1871)

Panel 2: Political Trollope. Robert Aguirre suggested that The West Indies and the Spanish Main is a racist atavistic book whose route and business enabled Trollope to do some good: he worked to increase the speed with which letters reached people, their reach, to create long communication networks (these are crucial for empire building). Railway stations made non-places become places. Tax per letter would be replaced by tax per annum; an adhesive postage stamp would be used. In 1858 Trollope went to Suez similarly to forge agreements for mail delivery (to Australia). He was overcoming the “forces” of immobility; answering a genuine hunger in people living at great distances for intimacy. At the same time it’s just such self-communings (He had “realized”) that makes the characters come alive .Helen Small’s “Trollope at the Hustings” was about Trollope’s campaign at Beverley and its results. While Beverley was not far from his home, he knew nothing about the place as a community, which reacted with indignation as he was an outsider coming in. She contrasted politicking to hunting (which she called socially inclusive). Trollope knew he was being used, that he would not win, that Henry Edwards, the wealthy Tory, an entrepreneur was a local favorite, says his political views remained the same over his life, and yet he was bitter at the loss. Ms Small suggested that Mr Bonteen is Trollope’s portrait of a modern politician.

Lauren Goodlad chaired; her paper, “Trollopian Politics” was intended to show that the more we abandon “traditional liberalism,” the more coherent and less reactionary Trollope’s political stances become. There is a bleak political pessimism in TWWLN, Phineas Redux, Prime Minister. Commercial activities make for progress, comfort, and time (historical) alertness. Trollope kept his views on specific issues (e.g., Governor Eyre) to himself and affirms political dialectic. She covered various real politicians in the books (Turnbull, John Stuart Mill, Disraeli) with Monk representing an ideal. In 1874 the radicals were stunned by this loss. Money is altering everything. As to gender, in Barchester Towers, the Stanhopes are exceptional figures, but in this and CYFH? the men are impecunious and weak, and the women strong and rich and sought out by the men for support.

We all adjourned for lunch.

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John Everett Millais, An Excluded Woman (from Irish Melodies)

Panel 3: Psychological/epistemological Trollope. Jenny Bourne Taylor chaired and she introduced the papers by quoting Amanda Anderson’s essay on depth psychology in Trollope, and talked of his interest in how we know what we know. He was one of the founding group of The Fortnightly Review where he worked with G. H. Lewes. Patrick Fassenbecker’s talk was about how Trollope characters slowly learn to shape their fates by teaching themselves to do or think this or that; we witness them overcoming earlier instincts and exerting self-control. Sometimes the characters refuse to accept beliefs that are not supported by evidence (or that are). Bad consequences ensue. The characters have a duty to be honest with themselves, and are aware others can deceive them. So we watch a form of character management. You have to learn not to let your preference for something shape your over-all view. Sophie Gilmartin’s “Trollope on the Face of It” was a discussion of Trollope’s use of language, the surface style which flows, is filled with direct and free indirect speech, narration, description; how he builds subjective sensory images which subjectivities and character’s body actions and feelings and thoughts inhabit and swirl around. The reader pauses when the data of the utterance exceeds what the scene needs, and visualization and poetic apprehension envelop the reader. She felt Trollope hardly considers how painful his scenes can become, though he is aware how he suggests what is beyond the edge of consciousness for his characters. Her examples included Alice Vavasour’s green room, her trip with Kate and George down the Rhine, Marie Melmotte’s painful subterfuges and sudden direct demands.

It was then time for coffee and in the later afternoon so I’ll stop here. Next blog report will include Robert Polhemus’s paper which took Panel 3’s general topic in a different direction and the rest of the day’s panels.

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Susan Herbert, Victorian Cats

Ellen

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The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman

Dear friends and readers,

Are you someone tired of over-produced plays, movies, operas? This opera has one set, a proscenium arched rectangle which serves as backdrop for ships, the port, houses, places for dancing, and ghostly sequences. Are you tired of scenes where you are continually distracted from the characters’ personality, situation, engagement with other characters? This production leaves you to experience for lengths of time the central psychological state of each character alone and as they are in contact with others all aria long, framed by occasional eruptions of the male and female choruses. You are given a chance to savor the characters’ and the music.

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Christiane Libor as Senta

OTOH, if you are tired of symbolism, of 21st century interpretations of older material, this production will not serve as a relief. For me the quiet use of costume, prop, and pictures (set designer Giles Cadle), not to omit the racial composition of the cast to suggest that the Dutchman is not just some Gothic Wanderer, male outcast wandering amid seas, but a cynosure of the black slave of last century and the exploited and destroyed and angry and brooding black man of today made the production more meaningful.

Owens’s performance a few years ago as Alberic the dwarf in a kraken rage intended to evoke black men’s rage was repeated here — only he is not in a rage so much as as profoundly melancholy and in need. The use of red (=blood) ropes to entangle him was part of this. The drawing that Christiane Libor as Senta is so taken by reminded me of so many depictions of black men in the 19th century either as slaves or sharecroppers or stage minstrels:

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With Oscar Wilde (“contradiction is the bugbear of little minds” said he or something like that), I don’t mind contradiction. So somewhat startlingly to me who have endured so many outrageously masculinist (not to use a worse word) Wagnerian operas, as we neared the ending where Christian Libor as Senta dressed in fire-engine red is about to board the ghost ship, to follow her dutchman about for life, out came a row of whorish (from their make-up and centuries of stereotypical wigs, outfits, leering expressions, exposed breasts) frightening-looking women. They reminded me of the women imprisoned forever in Bluebeard’s Castle in the recent HD Met production of of Iolanthe & Bluebeard’s Castle. Instead of being asked to condemn Senta for her sudden withdrawal from the Dutchman, we were asked to identify with her justifiable fear. The words in the surtitles of her change-of-heart aria to Erik, whom she had been engaged to before her father was seduced by the Dutchman’s gold and had deserted, referred to her long knowledge of Erik and how much affection they had known:

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Jay Hunter Morris as Erik dressed as white southern gentleman (might have been a slave-trader from his costume)

I heard someone remark on how Senta’s father (Daland, sung by Peter Volpe) would have seemed to someone in the later 19th century acceptable and understandable, and how we saw him today as absurd, naive, over-bearing, a fool to give his daughter away like this; as with the HD Met opera, this one production attempted to address this shift in values on behalf of a women’s autonomy, and in a similar spirit. Only this heroine was strong and would not become a hag accused endlessly of infidelity. This did not quite work as the feminist interpretation of Iothanthe and Bluebeard’s Castle did not work because neither are true to the opera’s libretto or music.

This opera is about a deep longing for death, for surcease; this is Tennyson’s poetry longing for rest from too many of the world’s demands and imprisonment. The Dutchman longs to die again and again and is death he says. At the close of the opera, dressed all in white, Senta flings herself into the waters to drown. She is so distraught at the Dutchman’s fate she wants to join him in death itself now too. I cannot find any photos of this scene so will refer to the reader to expressionist drawings of this final moment of the opera:

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A couple of people around me agreed the opera was “well-sung.” There was no intermission so no let-off in build-up. A woman nearby declared it “perfect in every way.” No more detail than that. It was directed by Stephen Lawless and there are two different conductors listed. For myself I admit I thought some of phases of the male and female choruses dull (as obvious as Oklahoma in early versions): too much simpering sentiment over women cooking and sewing and admirable manly males.

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A typical choral scene of men

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Women with spinning wheel in front

It required patience somehow for me to sit through some of it.

Nonetheless I felt good I had gone when I read in my playbill that this production was modeled upon or similar to the one done at Glimmerglass in summer 2013. I went because Jim had bought tickets for he and I to see a Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass during the later part of the second week of August 2013. He had bought for a concert as well as Camelot. He also got two lovely rooms for us in a boarding house by a lake. We never went. By that time the cancer had metatasized into his liver for over a week and he could hardly walk from one room into another. He knew by the last week of July he would not make it but did not know why. I can’t replicate what we would have known, nor bring him back to enjoy what he would have been engaged by. But I went partly on his behalf, in his place even if I am now half a person.

I suspect he might not have liked this production that much. When we went to a recital by Owens, he said Owens could not let himself go enough, not allow himself the inherent variety that was in him because of his black identity and memories. Had to remain noble. It was probably the symbolic direction because in Porgy and Bess Owens was remarkably many-sided and brilliant.

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I recommend going if you live nearby or if the production moves to where you live, or if it’s aired, turning on the TV or your computer to watch.

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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In Cornwall

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

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

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

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

Three stories, all three abridged:

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

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

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Click on the drawing to enlarge it

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Other places

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Claude Monet, Vetheuil Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark — Drawing by Hope James

Ellen

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