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Archive for the ‘gothic’ Category


Waterfalls in Cornwall

Friends,

I sometimes use my blogs for thinking out a paper, a class, a book, and that’s what I’m doing here.

How to account for the quality and vision of the once again famous Poldark novels would be the goal of this book.

Lacking the lifeblood of most literary (and other kinds of) biographies, the cooperation of the family members and a rich cache of private letters by Graham, I propose to raise the status and make the quality of the Poldark series taken as a whole understandable by

Part One: Three chapters: a study of the author as we find him in all his published works and what I have been able to reach in libraries and online:

Chapter One: the story of his life as he tells it

Chapter Two:  genre analysis, first the bloody death kind, and then Chapter Three, of historical fiction as inflected by regional romance.

Chapter Four. A gender fault-line is responsible for the distinct distance between these kinds, as well as the region they are set in. Cornish gothic links them. Lately I find his use of the gothic one of the more interesting elements in his historical fiction; it links this group of works to historical fictions by popular and masterly writers (Gabaldon to Mantel) ….

Part Two: Four chapters: we turn to the twelve Poldark novels. Class and status; marriage and sexual politics; economic and social politics and circumstances ….

Part Three: Two chapters:  Graham’s legacy is as much in the historical film adaptations he encouraged as in any of his books. Film noir and costume drama.

A coda will return us to Graham, and how a post-modern approach to all his writing (including scattered non-fiction and short tales) can enable a different perspective, and bring out unexpected pleasures (not susceptible of genre or biographical analysis) in some of his short and repressed fictions (which embarrassed him).

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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Ross (Aidan Turner) Poldark — from Season 1

Once again (for a second time) a BBC serial drama called simply Poldark crossing more than year and adapting the first seven books of the series has had a phenomenal success, and has placed the name of the author of the source of popular money-making film before the public: Winston Graham. I say yet another because arguably at least three times before, film adaptations of other of Graham’s books have startled the public into attention: 1947 a film noir, Take My Life; 1964, a still remembered Hitchcock psychological drama, Marnie; and 1971, an unusual crime suspense story focusing on disability, The Walking Stick. The books have rarely gone out of print (or not at all — especially the first seven); and there are readers who profess to like some of the murder suspense contemporary mysteries.

One problem is there is a seeming uncrossable disconnect between Graham’s contemporary murder fiction (there usually is a murder in these, often of an evil woman) and his sixteen or so historical fictions (all but one set in Cornwall). I found analogous patterns and paradigms across both sets of books, similar character types – like marital and justified rapes of women.

I don’t say some of these suspense are not interesting and a few are good – the question is what lies behind the compulsion for these because many are pulp or so thin that the genre takes over. There is a very genuine interest in an immediate time and place, in technologies, the arts and contemporary issues in the decade each of them are written.

Much of his historical fiction is however truly fine (not all).

If nothing else, the film and radio and TV adaptations show the appeal of his matter to better writers, readers, film-makers and the public at large, not to omit those who seek to make money.


From the Walking Stick (1971): Deborah Dainton (Samantha Eggar) and Leigh Hartley (David Hemmings).

I’ve now read most of Graham’s historical fiction; I have eleven or twelve of the non-Poldarks to go (as I consider I have read quite adequately enough Marnie, Groves of Eagles, and Angel Pearl and Little God), some of the stories in the one book of short stories, Japanese Girl (with some scattered ones sent me by attachment), one history Spanish Armada(s), which I didn’t finish. Sigh.

In the case of rewrites, I have looked at all of them and found them mostly decidedly inferior to the first version (even if here and there are some good improvements, concision, new wit).

There are 4 short tales I’ve read (“Meeting Demelza,” “Christmas at Nampara,” “Vive le Roi,” “At the Chateau Lartrec”) that I liked and remember these for their gothic spirit; “The Japanese Girl” I can remember nothing of; “The Medici Earring” I unfortunately remember (because it’s a mean nasty story worthy O Henry), so I’ve read and remember 5 with a bunch to go – not that many and they are not long

I regard Poldark’s Cornwall as a Poldark book, and a couple of Poldark short tales (above cited).

I must read very carefully and create a chronology as best I can from his private memoir and oeuvre (including the radio and stage plays, scripts

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Winston Graham in 1945

This where I’m at. I am in the middle of Sleeping Partner just now and it confounds me how Graham could turn to writing this thin mechanical fiction after having achieved Warleggan. It has to be an inner compulsion that makes him write in this male-centered narrowly formulaic misogynistic genre. He returned to this compulsion (money-making was part of his rationale) after the astounding success of the two 1970s BBC seasons of Poldark and a remarkably book like The Angry Tide.

I am carrying on because I like the Poldark books enough, am interested in historical fiction and romance, in the sub-genre of Cornish or regional romance, am interested in film adaptation and it seems to me Winston Graham is an author whose work ought to be taken into account as a whole, made some sense of. I’ve done so much and it’s hard to let go?

I admit one impulse in my first curiosity was when I discovered Winston Graham is never mentioned even in common surveys of good 20th century historical fiction nor suspense/thriller/mystery books. I have yet to come across his name or his books in any of these. He does get a chapter of analysis of the Poldark books in books on Cornwall, and on costume-drama period film serial adaptation. But in these cases it is not that he or his presence is felt to compelling, or anything in his art, but that the texts themselves or videos belong to a social phenomenon of the 20th and 21st century the editor of the volume felt worth while exploring.

Ellen

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Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley) when Walter Hartright (Ben Hardy) first sees her


As read using Buckley in voice over, Marion’s letter to Walter, Laura Fairlie now Hartright (Olivia Vinall) and Mrs Hartright, Walter’s mother (Cathy Belton)


Marian escaping

This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It is also about “the machinery of Law” and the power of those with “long Purses.” So begins the novel. Towards the end we are again told [Walter Hartright] “vindicates” [Marian, Laura, Anne] through all risks and all sacrifices — through the hopeless struggle against Rank and Power, through the long fight with armed deceit and fortified Success, through the waste of my reputation, through the loss of my friends, through the hazard of my life …

Friends and readers,

Over the past few months I’ve watched three adaptations of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone:

1972 (with Robin Ellis and Anna Cropper as especially effective), 1996 (I just loved Keeley Hawes and Gregg Wise), and 2016 (which I found incoherent);

and two of his Woman in White:

1982 (Diana Quick and Ian Richardson extraordinary) and Fiona Seres’s 2018 (unforgettable so many of the performances) while I read with a group of friends on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io Collins’s marvelous novel, The Woman in White.

I’d read about Collins’s use of disability in his novels (No Name, Miss Finch who is blind), and now I added how aspects of Collins’s life, his character as a person, his other craft (visual art) are woven into his novels; see Martha Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, Catherine Peters’ biography, and do read the radical sexual nature of “sensation fiction” in D.A. Miller’s essay in The Novel and the Police, Cage aux Follies: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White.

I had tried to read The Moonstone when I was in my 20s and just couldn’t get on with Gabriel Betteredge as the narrator. I tried Armadale in my 40s, and found the thickly-evented plot defeated me. I first read The Woman in White when I was about 24, I was running a very high fever and sick in bed for three days and read the whole novel steadily, turning the pages intensely as I went. I never forgot the experience, which is why I tried more than once to read Collins again, though found I just couldn’t manage it. After this second experience of The Woman in White, some books about Collins and all these films, I am eager to try The Moonstone again and No Name.

I’ve come up with a few conclusions:

First, that Collins’s two best-known novels are just not adaptable because their fascination and depths comes from the highly complicated ironically juxtaposed subjective and nuanced narratives; but that when you adapt them if you use framing devices that turn forward-moving chronology into continual interchanges of past and present, gothic techniques, and a strong feminist point of view, which is what Fiona Seres in 2018 does that leaves room for creating empathy with mental disabilities, you can make an adequate substitute.

That he is astonishingly contemporary in a lot of his perceptions, viz., how dangerous people kept innocent who have good impulses can be to themselves and to others; how people are continually under surveillance by gov’ts as well as any local groups they belong to, with records kept about them, and become neurotically insecure.

And lastly that at their core is a radical attack on sexuality as usually perceived and controlled, and violations of privacy, security, and any calm.

Together with Tyler Tichelaar, after reading Woman in White (and also a few years ago teaching Bram Stoker’s Dracula), I’m convinced that Collins’s Woman in White was a strong influence on Stoker’s sensational vampire horror tale: Collins’s use of subjective structures, and many of his themes and motifs are taken over. See Tyler’s The Woman in White’s Influence on Dracula.

It’s a powerful and was an influential book, and when I look back on the English courses I took as an undergraduate and graduate student, it seems a form of snobbery (and left-over imposition of F.R. Leavis’s Great Tradition) that doesn’t make The Woman in White a must-read in any course in the 19th century novel — though to the ten standard novels I was assigned in a Victorian novel course I nowadays also would add Gaskell’s North and South and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester (or if I dared, The Beleaguered City) too.

This is a whole lot for one blog so tonight I shall just deal with a few aspects of Collins’s The Woman in White as it appears in John Sutherland’s edition for Oxford World Classics and the strong anti-hierarchical and feminist stances of Fiona Seres’s 2018 Woman In White (with a few words on Ray Jenkins/John Bruce’s 1982 version for comparison).

I mention the editor of my volume because in Sutherland’s notes, appendices and an apparatus of chronology, it is apparent that there are at least three differing versions of The Woman in White: there seems to be a complete manuscript, which was apparently cut by Dickens as well as Collins before any publication. There the version of the novel which first appeared in Dickens’s own All the Year Round; this differs from the volume editions because the places were the chapter divisions or installments fell are different. (The Woman in White appeared right after Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, so the two novels could be linked together in the audience’s minds.) And there is The Woman in White that emerged in the stand alone volumes — made yet more concise, more edited. Sutherland prints many passages cut from the manuscript and tells you where the installments ended and what was the last passage so you can see how often Dickens chose highly melodramatic endings (blunting subtlety).

What fascinates me is the artistry of the novel. The diction seeming so impersonal and yet sensuous, deeply felt, passionate. The uses of suspense and dramatic irony.  In the latter parts of the novel where you have several different minor characters as writers (a housekeeper, a cook, a servant, a doctor, a tombstone) and then return to the now knowing Walter Hartright, first you are not told the truth of what is going on under the machinations you watch, so you are left in suspense, to put together a meaning, plus you cannot tell whether the servant/hired professional is disingenuous or not; then the machinations are suddenly explained so now you watch events, so you are experiencing what’s called dramatic irony: you know truths the characters you are watching don’t know. Since a lot of the events are the same, just retold from different points of view, this psychology is endlessly to be explained at the same time we can see continually the distance from between the way people behave on the surface and are actuated.

The matter presented in these devious ways is deep emotionalism. Humiliating and dangerous secrets, strange illness, other unknown of motives — at the core of the book is the history of a disabled child born illegitimately, Anne Catherick, whose parents abandoned her, whose one loving caretaker, a nurse-housekeeper, Mrs Clements, had no power to protect her from them dumping her in an institution. She has two doppelgangers: the obvious, her half-sister, Laura, who looks like her (they had the same father), and is herself unusually sensitive and vulnerably fragile in her will. Laura’s mother (now dead) had shown an impersonal kindness to Anne because she resembles Laura and Anne was deeply attached to her and now hovers over this woman’s grave. Laura herself has another half-sister, Marian (they had the same mother), who is presented as inherently strong but slowly shattered by the abuses of male power, so that if not by genes, by experience she begins to resemble Anne Catherick. We become deeply worried when Marian becomes so ill, then (possibly) so drugged, and then bewildered and frightened at her loss of self-possession. She is no longer in control of where her body is.

The matter is also on the surface brutal: a coerced marriage of Laura to Perceval Glyde who slowly loses control and the quiet menace turns to violence because of his need for money becomes unbearably pressing, while his secret illegitimacy (that would deprive him of any right to rank or his own property) preys on his mind, and he strikes out everywhere, adding kidnapping, possible murder, imprisoning, hired thugs and (wild comedy here) while trying to secure or destroy the birth records ends up setting himself on fire in a locked church. There is the homosexual obsessively reclusive or screechingly selfish uncle has power to help the girls but adamantly refuses, threatening them, and firing Walter (who would come to their aid) ostensibly for not attending to mounting, cleaning, improving his paintings. This hideous cruelly irrational uncle role is played with such high memorable theatrics by Ian Richardson and Charles Dance as to dominate over Perceval’s Italian friend Fosco who in the book is probably the most memorable presence, scary because so amoral (we feel), cold, manipulative, projecting a will which will stop at nothing, mean to animals who fear him on sight, with a utterly cowed wife.

Nota bene. We are told Fosco is enormously fat; the man who finally does him in, the tenderly loyal Italian friend of Walter, Pesca, is said to be a dwarf. But all the film adaptations avoid such “abnormality” and cast for the roles males who non-genteel, tough-looking, Italianate, but nothing out of the ordinary. Collins himself suffered from social ostracism because of his “odd” appearance: some sources say very tall, but with small hands and feet, slight, delicate looking with one part of his skull depressed — from a hard childbirth. Others have him as small with “a protuberance on one side of his head.” At any rate, he looked different enough to be ostracized. He suffered psychosomatic pains and all his life — bad ones. He remained further outside social acceptance when he would not marry either of the two women he got involved with, lived and had children with …. this not marrying was his choice of course, and he did what he could to make a secret of the two families to the point that their existence and present descendants have only been identified recently. All this felt in the books is erased from all films by hiring actors whose appearance is commonplace.

It’s worth noting that in the novel lawyers try to do the right thing. In the 2018 film, Seres invents a third lawyer whose attempts to gather evidence and help at the frantic Marian’s bidding are the central framing device; Mr Gilson has a long narrative, which keeps us at a distance from our beloved characters’ minds; he also recounts the specific amounts of money Laura inherits, and Glyde owes.

This has the effect of breaking the mesmerizing blocks of journals early in the book, calming things down. Why so mesmerizing? The novel is about Marian’s love for Laura, about Laura as utterly in need of supportive love; Laura loves Marian and cannot conceive living apart from her. And it’s Hartright’s love for them both. It’s immersed in homoeroticism — from Walter’s seemingly effeminate sensibility — and lesbian feeling. Marian is attracted to Fosco and he to her. (Collins had two mistresses or wives.) All this keeps breaking through while an attack on the way families treat individuals, parents use children coldly is going on –.

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As to the two movies:


Marian ill (Diana Quick)


Laurs (Jenny Seagrove) in mourning, found by her mother’s grave by Walter Hartright (Daniel Gerroll) (1982)

The 1982 The Woman in White moves much too slowly in its attempt to be realistic and unravel the novel for us; it is too sentimental, too decorous,but it has real strengths when it dramatizes the novel’s more somber episodes and places.

The fourth episode (which dramatizes the latter parts of the novel described above) partly vindicates the methods. It begins around the time when both Marian and Laura have been very sick, Marian is in her bed at the top of the house, and Laura in her room. We see Marian taken away on a stretcher, looking ghastly, and are told that she was taken to London. We see Laura frantic, going wild, the first time in her life without Marian, Fosco apparently gone, and a brutal drunken Glyde. It emerges Marian was not removed from the house, but put in this ancient ruined part of a barn, filled with straw, ancient furniture, rats. Next image the gravestone of Laura. Now the housekeeper returns and is told Marian is after all in the house, shown her; Marian slowly gets better and begins to investigate; she goes to the lawyer, and we are at the scene with which the 2018 Woman in White begins!

The atmosphere all along has been quiet and desperate, now it’s tragic — the 1982 film-makers tried for a serious tragic interpretation of this material and it actually works for this stretch of the book. Marian visits the asylum, discovers Laura, and pays off the nurse to help her rescue Laura. They go to the uncle who refuses to recognize Laura; she is dead! they become rightly leery of Ian Richardson’s gleaming knowledge of their whereabouts. Laura insists on visiting her mother’s grave first, before going into hiding; who is there but Walter (see above). These images repeat the opening of this film adaptation: Anna Catherick crying over Laura’s mother’s gravestone. The scene of crying in Walter’s arms is very moving, Marian in is arms — and he takes them to live in this utter dive in a broken down boarding house in London: they will hide while he investigates. A powerful scene with the grieving Mrs Clements because Anne has indeed died of heart failure. We then visit the still living Mrs Catherick, a mean cold woman who appears to care nothing for her daughter, but pathetically lives for the minimal respectability she has achieved by doing almost nothing all her life so as not to offend anyone.

The 2018 adaptation is one of the best I’ve seen in years. Seres and Carl Tibbetts (the director) show the talent and originality of Andrew Davies, Sandy Welch and the best of the BBC adapters over the decades. She cannot realize the complicated subjective structures, but her framing, use of flashback, montage, shots, light and dark, depth zoom shot, and voice over is more than a filmic replacement: again and again these techniques serve to bring out more strongly the feminist and anti-hierarchical protests of Collins’s novel. She has narrowed its trajectory and used Collins’s use of lawyers (Art Malik a superbly strong presence with his resonant voice) to provide a skein of continual explanation, telling of secrets (of which there are many) and hope — for the lawyers Marian goes to are all she has to depend upon until Walter returns and then he must use their expertise to decide how to proceed effectively to return to Laura her identity (as well as peace of mind) and in this version not settle in with Marian but watch her from afar find liberty to experience life and choose a destiny. I was impressed by the dialogue, acting, interweaving; the effect is of innovativeness in the service or serious themes and entertainment.


Mr Nash (Art Malik), a central presence added to the lawyers in the novel


Ruth Sheen (as the grieving Mrs Clements): the one person in the novel to have known and cared for Anne Catherick

2nd and 3rd episode: playing games of suspense: for example, bringing in Art Malik as the lawyer taking all down at punctuated moments, ever so skillfully dropping supposed information, writing it down as by-the-bye such as “the demise of Laura Lady Glyde at the beginning of the third hour.” A development of neurotic hysteria is felt along the nerves and carried on through the best actors. This is as strongly a feminist serial drama as I’ve seen in a long time. In the book Marian remains seeming invulnerable — not here. She is as subject to male law, authority ownership as Laura and every other female we see and this is made explicit. At the same time I love her mannish costumes, there are her beautiful scarves and skirts. Laura is something left over from Snakepit. The actors playing Glyde and Fosco re-inforced (by implication) how they use sex as a weapon they can enforce to repress and hurt and bewilder “their” women.


Laura deeply traumatized by the abuse she suffered in the asylum


Frederick Fairlie (Charles Dance), the uncle, threatening Laura and Marian, who has brought Laura to Limmeridge

4th episode: What most haunted me was that the scenes of imprisonment, cruel treatment (water thrown on Laura, solitary confinement, manacles in a strait jacket) were precisely those of 55 Steps. And yet the physical settings were not anachronistic. I thought of Rosina Bulwer-Lytton put away by her husband and dismissed as an hysteric at times after she was released and had a hard time living life of her own by writing. Marian too is bullied and drugged and imprisoned. She escapes by climbing to the top of a roof and sliding down. Again Art Malik as lawyer there at crucial moments; the maids and housekeepers are brought forward as helping Marian and Laura make their case.

Marian is not permitted to sleuth with Walter: she must stay to protect Laura; but this gives the opportunity to have a scene of her defying Fosco, and I’m glad the ending differed from the book’s.

Probably nobody needed me to say all this, but if you don’t know Collins’s novels you are missing out. I did love the description in the book and use of landscape, cityscape, light and dark in the films. I could have gone on about the Moonstone film adaptations, but I want to wait until I’ve read the book.


Walter (Ben Hardy) approaches the church where the birth records of Anne Catherick and Perceval Glyde are to found


Anne Catherick’s grave — the 1991 BBC Clarissa also uses an image of her gravestone near the end of the series

Ellen

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The whole cast, gathered Agatha-Christie, locked into the green room while eerie versions of themselves get on with the play ….

Dear friends and readers,

Upfront and plain. let’s all who live in DC and come to the Folger library say aloud together, “It’s been a remarkable year at the Folger!” They began with a marvelous rendition of Davenant’s Macbeth, went onto a dramatic and thoughtfully presented political parable (and understandable) King John;  moved to a buoyant, intelligent Nell Gwyn, then about a month ago an entertaining Love’s Labor’s Lost (so essentially two very difficult to produce Shakespeare plays), not to omit brilliant HD screenings, last summer about this time, another film appropriation, a fantasy modernization of Midsummer’s Night Dream by Casey Wilder Mott (scroll down), available at Amazon Prime:

https://www.amazon.com/Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Rachael-Leigh/dp/B07GXSDZJ2/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=midsummer+night%27s+dream&qid=1561351268&s=instant-video&sr=1-3

Last July too a movie by Ian McKellen (“acting, writing, living from the heart”) about his career, worth-it-to-get-to concerts, especially the one at Cherry Blossom time .

And now this: Ghost Light, dark comic appropriation of Macbeth as an unnerving but oddly kindly-natured ghost story. The two directors and scriptwriters thanked the Folger representative on stage for having them.

A dual story: a group of actors come to the Berkshires to perform Macbeth, and their disregard of “the curse” (several use the name Macbeth outside the play) brings down on them the wrath of the ghosts in the play — real witches and real ghosts begin to emerge, the first as woman come to be hired help, a girl hitchhikers, the second as unnerving visions coming out of the real lives of the actors, who are presented as sort of 2nd or 3rd rate, or at the end of not so great a career, the beginning of another.

It’s in the cross currents of magic and anguish that the power of the film lies, plus (like so many of these parodies of Shakespeare) a subset of actors play the play in the last half hour and it is done very well too, directed by John Stimpson who also wrote the script with Geoffrey Taylor. Thomas Riley Macbeth, Shannon Sossamon, Macbeth and his lady, but also a actor desperate about his career, and an alcoholic older actress married to a once matinee idol (no longer).


Macbeth and his Lady

There’s an ambivalent gay couple, an incessantly kissing couple — there are many nervous jokes about sex — a despairing director and cavalier producer

Of interest: like Roma and other movies much admired, even getting awards, e.g., A Very English Scandal, and last year’s HD Screening by Casey Wilder Motte, the fantasy adaptation of MDN (see above), Ghost Light is opening as a streaming experience from Amazon Prime and other venues on-line. I asked them about this and the two directors were frank about how much it costs to have a movie run, and how rare the movie makes such a hit as to reap profits. A more delicate intelligent taste usually doesn’t help wide distribution; Ladybird was a rare case where the gradual opening did that. And here it is:

https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Light-Cary-Elwes/dp/B07RMCB5H5/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3PP9FO5FU3V72&keywords=ghost+light&qid=1561310115&s=instant-video&sprefix=ghost+light%2Caps%2C118&sr=1-1

via a tiny URL:

https://tinyurl.com/y5z5qz98

It has gone round the country in venues like the Folger, and has been apparently much liked. The audience I was in at the Folger was delighted, and asked intelligent questions, pointed out parallels in other ghost-like occurrences in Shakespeare. These two reviews, perhaps bit snobbish as the reviews were for Nell Gwynn, are less enthusiastic: Movie Nation; the City Paper is brief


One of the real life actress witches; she is replaced by another being something far more “awesomeness” in her looks, lit up uncannily.

Very contemporary exhibits in the great hall too — and I know research and the equivalent of post-graduate courses for scholars if you want to do the work and can produce the exacting credentials.

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

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


A too flattering picture of Charlotte by George Richmond

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

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


Gemma Jones as Mrs Fairfax, Samantha Morton as Jane Eyre


George C Scott as Rochester, Susannah York Jane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham


Toby Stephens as Markham reading Helen’s diaries

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


Anne Bronte by Charlotte

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

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

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

Consolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kay Adshead as Cathy Earnshaw


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

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


Said to be Emily Bronte by her brother Branwell

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

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

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

Here is one of Emily’s imagined poems:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A self-portrait by Branwell, c 1840

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

Ellen

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The first modern biographer, Lytton Strachey and his subject, Queen Victoria when young

Friends,

I’ve been thinking about biography all my life; that’s because I’ve been reading biography all my life. To prove to you how odd I am the first books meant for older readers (meaning post-childhood) I remember taking out of the adult library on Sutphin Boulevard (in the southeast Bronx), at the time (in my child’s memory) a huge irregular building with many back-stairways; I say my first introduction to adult reading (which I chose, not forced on me) were two fat tomes, bound in brown, of two Renaissance queens, Margaret de Navarre and her aunt, Jeanne d’Albret. Why I chose those or how I found them I’ve no clue. Since my teen years I’ve been aware that I have a favorite kind: literary biography. I’m convinced that as with ghost stories, certain kinds of gothics (female), and epistolary novels, women write the finest versions of this genre, though men who can write an equivalent of l’ecriture-femme can produce gems too. I even love biographies of biographers: like Caroline Moorehead on Iris Origo (of Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44).

The last few months I’ve been especially alert to the form as I have not given up my new life’s goal to write a literary biography of Winston Graham (of the Poldark matter and Cornwall) and turned an offer to include a paper by me on the subject of Johnson and Woolf as paired modernists into a study of their biographical art.

And two weeks ago I chanced upon the equivalent of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography. Maurois makes an attempt to understand his chosen genre’s prevalent characteristics in the modern kind too. Modern biography, he says, is a conscious work of partly imaginative (that is to say, fictional) art, a courageous search for truth in which the biographer realizes highly complex personalities; the most fruiful subjects are of people who have struggled, endured failure, but achieved something. I’m going to look at biography from the different aspects Maurois identified.

First, biography as a work of art: its concern for truth requires documents, but to express a personality requires art. How to do this?

You must choose an angle on the life: he calls this your true subject, and you find the hidden unity of that life through this angle of vision. Johnson may have said the most obscure seemingly reactive, passive life may teach us something important but the truth is you need something to present beyond daily non-events, and it’s best to have an individual who plays some part, no matter how seemingly varied, on some aspects of the world’s stage in a more or less unified performance. Doing the same kinds of things over and over for the same deeply held motives. At the same time all moral preoccupation in the work of art kills the work of art, so the angle should not be moralistic.

Surprisingly perhaps, he finds the chronological method avoids dryness. All of us are artifically made (not just women); that day a great novelist was not born, a baby was. We are not unchangeable. Yet as we change slowly, most of the time imperceptibly, a good biography traces the spiritual and emotional development of someone as history impinges on him or her. You must make us see and feel the person physically. Boswell’s strength is his ceaseless gusto for every particular and entertaining simple style, but while he (I think) presents a distorted emphasis, he has understood enough authentically of his enormous cache of detail, with person who was fecund, varied, interesting so reading the book, we feel the more of this the better. The diary of the brilliant mind, a sketch in words of the person by a close perceptive friend or family member, is invaluable here. Boswell has Johnson’s letters and he (in effect) kept a diary for Johnson every time he met him and was able to find others who had written down or remembered what Johnson said too. There is this obstacle: how much truth do people write in diaries? how representative is what you write down of your life? How much do they understand of themselves. In Johnson’s case he lacked a secular non-judgemental framework. In many other cases, is the product of a writer posing to himself or anticipated others.

Biography considered as a science.

The thoughtful among the public often regard the chief character of a novel as a mirror of the author (no matter how disordered) — especially in non-formulaic fiction. So there is evidence the biographer can use. Also lyric poetry and psychologically revealing plays. A group of characters surrounding and commenting on this center provide a considerable expository base. Of more demonstrable equal value are memoirs of contemporaries who knew the subject — even if the writer is dim (as Margaret Oliphant said of Jane Austen’s nephew in his invaluable Memoir of My Aunt Jane). Letters are the lifeblood of a biography from this standpoint but there people are performing too. No person is understandable apart from her historical time. You must study the era, the geography and way of life where the subject lived, its history. So biography becomes the story of an evolution of a soul against a background of history, with help from contemporaries who knew him or her. That’s as close to objectivity as you’re going to get (thinks Maurois)

Biography as a mean of expression. The biographer chooses a subject which gives her the opportunity to express what is in her very keenly. Beneath the objective surface there should lie that vivid emotion, which gives a book an intensity a burning passion.

Biography will not come alive if you write it coldly or distantly. The biographer is seeking an opportunity for displaying some aspect of him or herself. This is all indirect: by quite an indirect means and through the medium of characters very far removed in circumstances from the biographer, the biographer attains to self-expression. Yet in novels and fictionalized (skeptic, modern) biography, the writers’ characters do not have to have been real or lived as people, just very believable in context. We should ask, whatever the indirect means, what were the secret springs in the biographer which are at the bottom of this desire to write someone’s biography? For Maurois writing of Shelley it was a deliverance for himself to write the life of Shelley. (For me what compels me are an attitude of mind I identify with in the first half of Graham’s Memoir, find acted out in a core group of characters in Graham’s first seven Poldark books, and the escape from my contemporary world is an intense relief.) In sum, biography is an expression of character when the author has chosen his subject in order to respond to a secret need in his own nature. Then it’s autobiography disguised as biography.

The appealing tone (Maurois suggests) derives from how the biographer regards his or her hero or heroine as greater than him or herself — or more important for some reason. Johnson finds it of riveting importance to show that the supremely gifted person can end up having done nothing most people would admire or value and in tragic misery when dying. Woolf is looking at a man as an artist of great integrity, who will not compromise his art, and was (she thinks) crucially influential anyway. The modern biographer recognizes he or she can never uncover the whole of their character’s innermost springs confront the mysteries of real people; Maurois thinks the biographer finds his or her way through a one alive persov by dwelling on one aspect of that person and sometimes fleeting, a limited and yet suggestive expansive aspect. Guilt at running the risk of spoiling the reputation, the considered presence of how the person is remembered, worry at offending and attack doesn’t stop the biographer from writing the life up as accuately as allowed in print. I don’t know quite what Maurois meant when he wrote something to the effect the biographer thinks he can refashion a thought then in the image of our own today.


Anthony Trollope, artful albumen print photo by Julia Margaret Cameron (1864)

He turns to autobiography as a sub-species of life-writing. Do you know the truth about yourself; your invisible center? Several causes make autobiography to some extent false and inaccurate. In a nutshell, we forget.

It’s here he first quotes Anthony Trollope’s utterance as a key: Trollope doubts truthtful autobiography is possible. Who would tell the meannesses he or she had done or thought. Trollope tells us he remembers so much from his boyhood — what produced that violent impression has the power to continue to make us tremble, himself to burn with passionate humiliation. He controls that seismic power. It’s a truism if we live through war we remember more as children. We don’t forget the shock at what we have seen.

To make up for blank space before say ages 7 to 9, most autobiographies of childhood are to some extent fabrications because what we have to fill in is what we remember and that is partly from what our parents told us. The confused feelings and associations of such our first crucial years are lost in obscurity and the unremembered past — yet here is this complex individual (Trollope) emerging around this shock. Johnson (and others) urge people to preserve written testimony before what happened is lost –- a fairly detailed record alone can bring ourselves before us, and the diary is its basis. Trollope relies on these memories burning into his mind still.

What else do we forget? The subject forgets her dreams, yet much of our hours are spent in forms of dreams. The biographer and autobiographer omit or forget in order to make a work of art – so much of life has to left out. “The cult of the hero is as old as mankind,” but we must struggle against it (says Maurois). At any rate we (helplessly sometimes) censor the disagreeable too. People feel a deep sense of shame at petty and other humiliations they have endured (Trollope is able to tell of these), at their bodies, very few can tell truth about sexual life: immediately too one response from many readers may be unacknowledged voyeurism. How painful to think that what you are writing is fodder for someone’s silent ridicule or disdain.

We also rationalize after the fact and finds reasons for what often occurred by chance. Maurois feels (and like Mrs Proudie, I agree with him), that there is no system to life, no pattern for real, no meaning, and we act out of private personal needs and to other people nearest us. The order we experience is from our need to sleep, to eat, to defecate; the institutions society says we must go to; our need to earn a living or share one from someone somehow. We also want to protect those around us. The underlying design here too must be the development of mind, that is your pattern, and that Trollope succeeds in: a portrait of how this novelist came to be and the nature of his novelistic art, a book which is a diptych.

Maurois may have seem to have left out much but he is speaking of modern biography:


A modern biography …


EBB’s life from the point of view of her dog, of her maid, Elizabeth Wilson (said to be Margaret Forster’s finest book, except I’d say for her biographies of the females in her working class family.)

Maurois does not talk of early biography (the way Forster does not talk of the earliest pre-novels before the later 17th century in Europe), not before Johnson and Boswell by which time biography had become in individual instances a portrait of an individual life, and then through these two men’s books (and the fiction of the era) consciously texts aimed at developing the sympathetic imagination of the reader who then can enter in (Rambler 60 and Idler 84),

Maurois mentions but does not regard as “true biography,” commemorative, pious, family, the zealous many volume documentary, which at its best aimed only at a consciously semi-censored “truth to life,” and is found in Gaskell, Oliphant, Froude’s Carlyle where (according to Virginia Woolf in Flush) a dog is said to have jumped out of a window or off the roof in response to the killing nature of the Carlyles’ marriage.

Maurois is contemporary with Woolf’s essay on modern or “The New Biography,” where she says what the new biography does is convey personality deeply, and she includes the semi-fictional sketches of Some People by Harold Nicholson as modern biographies. Later she changed her mind in “The Art of the Biography,” and conceded the foundation of biography must be fact, evidence and its means verisimilitude. And her last biography is her Roger Fry:

Facts are the problem, she says. By the time she gets to the end of either essay she’s made a case that the central use of facts can limit the biography. The existence of documents (facts) for Queen Victoria can make writing her biography so much more satisfying and near to great art. But how powerful and intense Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, that Strachey got in the “stranger bodies’ of the Elizabethans through strange (unconventional sexuality) imagining.

And at the close Maurois admits the genre has so many limitations and obstacles one might say it is impossible to pull off except you admit it’s fiction ,,,,

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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