Archive for the ‘gothic’ Category



Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

The heroine’s aunt, Miss Lois,

A striking minor male character ….

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

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


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



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


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

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



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


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

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


Another illustration for Anne

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

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

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

A depiction of Anne towards the end of the novel

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A drawing of Woolson by Lizzie Duveneck

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Anthony Trollope as painted by Samuel Lawrence

Dear Friends and readers,

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

Robert Macbeth Walker, A Rainy Day

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

Walter Greaves, Chelsea Regatta (1871)

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

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

We all adjourned for lunch.

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

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

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

VictorianCats (Small)

Susan Herbert, Victorian Cats


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The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman

Dear friends and readers,

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

Christiane Libor as Senta

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

A typical choral scene of men

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Women with spinning wheel in front

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

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

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


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


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

Dear friends and readers,

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


In Cornwall

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


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


Three stories, all three abridged:

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


Click on the drawing to enlarge it

Other places

Claude Monet, Vetheuil Winter

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


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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark — Drawing by Hope James


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Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois (1951 Kazan/Williams Streetcar Named Desire)

Dear friends and readers,

Another announcement of a publication. (Rest assured very soon this will stop and I will return to our regularly scheduled programming mostly about films and books.) I’m happy to say my review of Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films and the Benefits of Censorship is now published on-line in Cercles: Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone

Better Left Unsaid, reviewed by Ellen Moody

Those who read this blog more than occasionally may recognize a few of the films I’ve written blog reviews of: Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Street, Cukor’s Philadelphia Story and Gaslight, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve been enjoying myself mightily watching (and re-watching) a selection of the films covered by this book and also reading for the first time (Thackeray’s Catherine: A Story) and rereading (Bronte’s Villette) a selection of its Victorian novels, not to omit material on actresses and other people centrally involved in film-making.

The book is significant because aspects of its thesis, its assumptions may be found in many recent and older publications. Perhaps among the more interesting of the secondary books I read was the collection by Kucich and Sadoff called Victorian Afterlife (about historical fiction too), and some of the individual screenplays and books on these films; also James Chandler’s The Archeaology of Sympathy comparing 18th century sentimental novels with (among other film-makers) Capra.

I would not have thought comparable Austen’s Mansfield Park with Cukor’s Gaslight:

Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist readying herself virtuously for bed (1944 Cukor/John Van Druten Gaslight).

I also liked following trails away from the main movies and books under consideration; one of these I’ve seen before included a commentary on the famous scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront where in the make-believe cab seat we and Charlie Malloy (Steiger) are made to feel Charlie’s terrible betrayal of Terry Malloy (Brando)

(Kazan/Schulberg, 1954 On the Waterfront)

I wish I had made more time to develop separate blogs on these books and films but do urge my readers to read and to watch or re-watch these books & films.

See some Christmas commentary coming out of It’s a Wonderful Life this year – Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey pleading with the inexorable banker to give him more time (it’s the banker who has been able to steal the money George had been saving to pay his debt).


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Jonny Lee Miller as the creature desperately trying to bring an exhausted Bernard Cumberbatch as Frankenstein back to life on the ice

Dear friends and readers,

Yes, I’ve just returned from watching the version of Nick Dear and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein where Miller is the creature and Cumberbatch Frankenstein. The moviehouse had the version where Cumberbatch is the creature and Miller Frankenstein on Monday night. I didn’t know. Next year if my local HD theater repeats this duo, I’ll be sure and see Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Dr Frankenstein.

Not that I was at all disappointed: I have known since watching Miller in an episode of Prime Suspect (and in the difficult roles of Edmund Bertram in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 MP and Mr Knightley in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma) what a versatile, effective, deeply feeling compelling actor he is. In this intelligent adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel (and the novel is kept in mind throughout), the creature is far more central to the action and consciousness of the play than his creator. We see his birth from his point of view,

Jonny Lee Miller as the monster being born

how he moves bewilder through a landscape of powerful machines and cruel people, to happening on the French family escaped from injustice and the kindness of the blind old scholar, De Lacey (Karl Johnson gets some comedy out of this role) to him, in succouring him, teaching him,


so (except for Frankenstein’s horrified rejection of his creature and abandonment of him) it is a long time before before Cumberbatch returns to the stage. And Frankenstein is the far less astonishing presence, even if central to the emotional action-reaction at play’s center

Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein pushing away from him what he has done

I’d just like to see how different would be the feel and meaning in the reversal; according to Michael Billington of The Guardian, considerable.

What Dear and Boyle did was pare down the novel to its doppelganger, and in their characters, their talk, their relationship all the themes of Mary Shelley are drawn out. Some of the matter is lost: the depiction of larger social injustice is not there and so the instinctive fears and savagery of human beings to one another is not outweighed; much of Frankenstein’s life and relationships: the depiction of education (critiqued), how Frankenstein began to try to recreate life partly in reaction to his mother’s death; his arrogance and lack of responsible behavior to others, the intense distrust of science. Frankenstein is someone not social (of course a no no), going off on his own. The emphasis of this twist is so 21st century. The role of Elizabeth is made to enact socialableness (a new word), responsibility, an attempt at kindness towards the creature, and that natural ways trump egoistic artifice. Naomi Harris is effective in the hard role in both versions (a side note, she played the black heroine to Cumberbatch’s white anti-hero in Small Island). ElizabethCreature

I suppose what is so compelling is the dialogue between the two, what’s said, but one is exhilarated even in a movie version by the staging, the use of machinery, the pivotal stage, the symbolic way each phase of the story is presented — matching the fantasy aspects of the story (for it is fantasy). I’ve been to the National Theater in London (with Jim) and seen a number of these creative productions: Aeschylus trilogy comes to mind, Henry IV part 2 (Michael Gambon as Falstaff), and at home on Bravo, the Yorkshire Mystery Plays. The material from Shelley is gothic, but the conventions here eschew anything like film noir or horror/slash movies. it’s really an intimate one-on-one play (not so different in this from say the Fly episode of Breaking Bad where we get a similar intense interaction for an hour between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Mr White and Jesse respectively, with bodies entangled eventually too).

One of the best reviews is that of Paul Taylor of the Independent, only he is wrong to say the play ends so differently from the novel. Yes at the close of Shelley’s novel it seems the creature immolates himself on a pyre on a slab of ice, while Frankenstein expires in Walton’s ship but it seems to me this dying is not what is important: it is the the pursuit and the insight (emphasized by Shelley in her text) that the two creatures to live on are forever intertwined in their hatred and (due to Frankenstein) thwarted love.

He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on

I haven’t any shots of Frankenstein pulling his sled after the creature (nor of Andrea Padurariu as the Female Creature Frankenstein is drawn to himself, but destroys), but I do of the creature’s desperation when he thinks Frankenstein may have died, and his loving attempt to bring Frankenstein back to life so they can up and move on again (see still at top). In this one the director had Michelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam in mind:


Ice is central to the gothic and among the additions to Shelley’s vision, is that of body snatchers: the uses of corpses, poor people’s remains is brought out in comic pragmaticism when in Scotland Dr Frankenstein pays two Scots peasants to bring him materials. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher.

Perhaps Dear congratulated himself too much on having given the creature back his voice, for Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 production of Frankenstein (screenplay Steph Lady, and Frank Darabout, producer Francis Ford Coppola) with Robert De Niro as the monster and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth and a bride-monster of Frankenstein, had an equally articulate poignant presence for the monster. Dear and Boyle learned from Branagh and De Niro.

It was a production and is now a film which shows how transcendent and variable the gothic can be. The New York Times critic made fun of it — a paradoxical measure of its transcendence (the monster is alive and peeved!) It’s very effective in this film production – – where they do intersperse some stills from the 1931 Whale Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff), but for once I will concede that I was aware how much more charged it must be to have been in the theater. I don’t often feel this in the HD operas which are directed for film; this is a play taking advantage of all the techniques and stagings possible nowadays of a theater in the round and live stage.

It’s worth while to listen to Dear’s description of a many year project and the book as providing a contemporary creation myth:


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Anna Gunn about to fall to her knees on the ground as Skyler crying after her baby is taken from her by Walt

if you cut them [man’s laws] down … d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then … Yes I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake — Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons

But see this pinned up photo of Andrea (Emily Rios), among the world’s targets: who cares what happens to her: anyone may and does shoot her in the head

Dear friends and readers,

I finished what I’m calling a first viewing of the extraordinary 42 hour Breaking Bad to the bitter end last night. Even to try to take it in would require several viewings. Each of the last shots of the principles epitomizes some final statement about what each has become and how they related to the story’s themes and action. In the last feature as well as a parody, “Alternate Ending,” Vince Gilligan offered his view of the two men’s last moments.

The series’ last shot of Bryan Cranston as Walter White

White, he suggests, is “spiritually broken, his hopes for revenge pipe dreams; he’s too sick,” the last episode “an elegy, a bit of a goodbye — he goes out on his own terms, the cancer does not kill him, he is killed saving Jesse, there’s almost a perverse feeling of victory to it for me, at least.” Walt’s life up to the time he began to cook meths was a long mortification, failure as most in his society saw it, mocked by the bully brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) in a video replayed briefly made during Holly’s baby shower. He tells Skyler he did it “for me. I liked it. And I was good at it. I was alive.” Look at that look of bliss on the man’s face as Walt enters the darkness from which we all come, for him the release of oblivion. His life as Walter White ended when he was told he had terminal inoperable cancer; now the love he depended upon is gone from his family, he has done for them what he could monetarily, and he now dies on his own terms, blithe to go.

I’m not as persuaded by Gilligan’s view of Jesse. He’d “like to think Jesse escapes,” that there is “some hope of a life ahead.” Look at that face whose every nerve is suffused with moral pain and despair:

Last shot of Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

Jesse crashes in a junk car at full throttle through an iron fence from the last lair of murderous crooks with which he and Mr White have had to deal and Walt destroyed. Realistically, he’s nowhere to hide: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has vanished (“it’s over”) and with him his mechanisms for creating new identities for his clients. Jesse will end up seeking out his two feeble friends, Skinny Pete and Badger, and die on the streets if not jailed: he has been called “the moral compass” of the series;” it’s more true to say he has bneen its bleak victim, the one beat up continually, targeted again and again for killing, enslaved with chains, at the close yes knowing he made a killing choice to join Walter White and Jesse is no killer. Each time he shot or killed someone it was after an intense effort to force himself: only the strangulation of Todd (well deserved after Todd coolly shoots Andrea in the head) came naturally.


The alternate ending has Cranston as Hal, a comic emasculated character with Lois, his formidable wife (Jane Kaczmarek, from a once TV popular series, the two of them starred in, 2006 Malcolm in the Middle) waking in the night, trembling from the “scariest” dream you can imagine: told he had cancer (!), he took to cooking meths, making bombs, killing people (!), alongside a “lost waif, a man child who looked like he was always wearing his older brother’s clothes and he would always say things like “b…” [he stops embarrassed and worried his wife won’t approve], the b word he would use the b word a lot he would say (shouting) “yo B word” and “yah science b word …” In “Felina” we see Jesse when young lovingly carpentering a wooden box, his drawings of himself as a boy hero were recognized by Jane (Krysten Ritter), one of his two loves, as the work of a comically self-deprecating artist. Despised and rejected, with no Mr White to save him, Jesse zooms into the darkness too.

In this dream Hal tells Lois, as his actual wife (much TV self-reflexivity here) that he, Hal, was married to this “tall beautiful blonde woman” — Lois the wife semi-jeers, incredulous of course. When Skyler is last seen she is continually smoking, chain-smoking. She sits and smokes. She is terrorized twice in this season, both through her baby. After a terrific scene after Walt has produced another set of lies to account for his absence and where Hank could be, she sees a fancy knife in a knife set on the table we have seen many times. She grabs it and lunges at him, screaming, “leave us alone, just leave us alone.” Walt defends himself and they fall to the fall, rolling, tussling; he manages to wrench the knife back but not before she has slashed his hand. Horrified, Walt junior becomes hysterical as he watches this.

Flynnhorrified (2)

Flynnhorrified (1)

To this they have descended. Well he gets back; before she can rise and adjust herself, he has taken the baby in its carrier, run to his car and is driving off. She rushes out after them frantic, asking for her baby back, and falls on her knees to the ground as he drives away. A stunning moment. She begins at long last to cry. Walt does care for Holly and leaves her with the firemen, where we presume Skyler can pick her up safe and sound.

Again another moment in this last season, late at night, she hears a sound from the baby’s room and finds herself by the crib with three men who surround it. They are masked and the dangerous Todd is one of them. They say she has been talking to the police and if she tells about who Lydia is or anything she knows they will return — implication and kill this baby. She mouths obedience.

Last shot of Anna Gunn as the show’s princess Skyler White seeing how bad Walt looks

Anna Gunn interprets her character inadequately throughout. She says Skyler is a shell, nothing in her. But for her life is not pointless as yet: she has her children, but like Jesse, they make her intensely vulnerable to those who want to get at Walt or any of his associates. Unlike Jesse, once her court case is done, if she does not go to prison (and a plea bargain seems probable), she must (like Saul) move, and if not get a new identity, keep out of harm’s way. Her beauty is of no help for what she cares about — though perhaps it attracted Walter White in the first place, made him dump Gretchen Schwartz. The characters in the series invite these kinds of speculations: we learn enough about them suggestively over the slow-moving 6 year series. I imagine she will eventually stop the heavy smoking — though she will never be the complacent woman she once was. She will remember a world of terror that she joined in on (to the extent of telling Walt to have Jesse killed when Walt balks at this), that still exists but which she now wants no part of.

The very last shot of the series: the men with big guns in the scientific lab (as Fortinbras has the last word in Hamlet)

There is a bleak inference to be garnered at this end: at each and every turn of their career, the two men came up against people who had become inured to murder by dint of murdering other people lest they be murdered or found out, bullied into confessions, and then tortured by penal servitude for decades to come. Each set of murderers were worse than the ones before: from Krazy-8 (seemingly sane) to Tuco Salamanca (who commits acts of wild crazed violence), replaced by the frighteningly homocidal Gus Esposito and his ruthless hitman, Mike Ermantraut, replaced in this last season by the vicious Nazi crew run by Jack Welker (Michael Bowen), with perhaps the scariest pair of them all, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia Rodart-Quayle (Laura Fraser). Hank tells Walt he is a dead man ten minutes ago when Walt is still so foolish as to try to bargain with Jack for Hank’s life based on reasoning:

Near last shot of Dean Norris as Hank: to Walt “you were the smartest guy I ever knew, but you are too stupid to know it was over ten minutes ago.”

The mini-series presents law as providing a modicum of safety for those who do not break it: those administering (inflicting?) and obeying it do not fear one another and however personally awful, mean, demeaning of others, have a vested interest in not breaking it. So some control is exerted over people, some order set up (however morally cruel or wrong) whose rules most of the time can be depended upon — at least by white middle class people.

Marie (Betsy Brandt) left alone, widowed in her impeccable kitchen — having learned nothing, her lips tight as she spews out unfocused anger

At least you know where you are with the DEA, the medical establishment, the schools, family rituals. There are levels of barbarity such people most of the time do not stoop to. Not everyone is inside this net — those on drugs, alcoholics, non-whites, the poor, women who are driven to prostitution, for whom there is no pity, no understanding. The show does not include GLBT people who presumably are not inside the Net if they reveal themselves.

Walt’s last view of Walter Junior (RJMitte) who he has tried to provide money for funneled through the Schwartzes

I would not want to be a disabled person, a child, someone who does not conform in the surface way the well-rewarded Schwartzes have.

A bad dream? Says Mr White to Hank (who soon after ends up buried in sand), if you do not know what this has been about (“who I am”), tread lightly:

Treadlightly (2)

Treadlightly (1)

The remark is not to limited to Heisenberg as Hyde but the whole complex of life we’ve experienced.

Have I mentioned how effective are the inconsequential shots of the series: as Walter White is taken away to hide in the granite state, a stray dog crosses the road

Final shot of Oxymandias (13:6)


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