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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category


Bossiney Cove — the central sections of Strangers Meeting takes place in Trembeth Cove, Cornwall

Since coming abroad something of the subterranean disquiet which existed everywhere had affected his imagination and he quite often awoke from dreaming … No Exit, Chapter Two, p 27)
… in the midst of a police raid, a crowd gathers and “an old woman, her head wrapped in a black shaw, drove a derelict donkey-cart across the cobbles and disappeared down an alley … Chapter Six, p 75)

Friends and readers,

This is a coda to my survey of Graham’s pre-Poldark suspense novels: I’ve read two more, and, as I suspected, one can group this man’s novels by chronology rather than genre. Here I relate a group of them to the immediate lead-up to and early phase of World War Two. Beginning in 1939, his books dramatize stories of political murdering where the senselessness, serendipity, and sadistic enjoyment of allowed non-personal (unmotivated) killing becomes the thing the books glimpse or deliberately fully uncover. The protagonist now has to work at keeping him or herself from being murdered as a bye-blow of events. The earlier atmospheric regional books, with their legacies from Agatha Christie, Anne Radcliffe, large country houses or hotels, gothic stories with their autobiographical roots give way to stories which anticipate or resemble Graham Greene or LeCarre: Keys of Chance (1939), No Exit (1940), Night Journey (1941, revised 1966), My Turn Next (1942, reworked as Cameo 1988); later books of this type include Night without Stars (1950), Greek Fire (1957).

The private stories gain in depth of feeling and open melancholy and despair: Ross Poldark (begun 1940, published 1945), The Forgotten Story and Demelza (1946), Take My Life (1947) and thereafter, especially say After the Act (1965). there’s also the kind of book I’d call morally earnest as if he is trying to conjure up some individual morality specific individuals might heroically hold to: I saw this in the first (and maybe only) book he won an award for, The Little Walls (1955). Another turn or transformation comes with Marnie (1960), where ironized alienated and psychologically pathological characters enter his stage, especially true of The Angry Tide (1978 — Mark Adderley), The Walking Stick and Angell, Pearl and Little God (1970). All of this latter group except the historically past ones lend themselves to film noir.

It’s then for me understandable that Graham might be embarrassed by the earlier books and discount them as juvenilia, child-like, perhaps effeminate, giving himself away too and his own inner world, and work to suppress or re-write them, but he was wrong. Again, seeing these as belonging to regional Cornish books rooted in marginalized places helps bring out their thematic and psychological-social themes. The two I read were one of the early type, Strangers Meeting (1939), and one of the World War II type, No Exit (1940). I quite liked both; both are all the stronger for not having been revised or reworked, so there is no distraction.


Original cover for Strangers Meeting

Strangers Meetings is one of thesse revealing or telling pre-World War Two books, just. It has a intricate story-line with lots of intimate details very like the 1930s British murder mysteries or Daphne DuMaurier novels (for the plot go to Profiles One or Discard in the online Winston Graham Reader, and falls into three distinct acts, perhaps the result of its having originally been written as play the year before (Forsaking All Others). As with The Dangerous Pawn (1937), The Giant’s Chair (1938, ruined as Woman in the Mirror, 1975) and The Merciless Ladies (1944, revised 1979), and the first seven Poldark novels, several of the central characters of Strangers Meeting and fleeting characters we get to know less well but are there and count are likable, appealing. We have three couples who come to Cornwall to get away from their ordinary environments; a kindly disabled and ill young man and a factory girl fall in love; a married couple is in effect attacked at their core when the wife’s sister turns up with a amoral corrupt and cold fiance who was the wife’s lover (perhaps even her second husband) years ago and has come to grab the sister’s legacy and blackmail the wife for sex (or money). The atmosphere, the descriptions of the places, the working out of a personally fulfilling ethical outlook by the characters is absorbing, offering a piquant comfort. Piquant because the solution for the married couple is to accidentally kill the fiance (he falls or more probably is pushed off a cliff during an altercation with the husband). The artistic arrangement of the slowly developing relationships and revelations for the reader, the uncovering of the vicious intentions of one character and the anguished past of another, and for me, and how three of the characters (disabled young man, factory girl, husband) emerge as genuinely thoughtful individuals was part of the pleasure of the text.


Jane Wymark as Morwenna escaping (1977 Poldark)


Keven McNally as Drake upon seeing her come to him, finally, suitcase in hand

The value of these books (Dangerous Pawn, Giant’s Chair are two others) is they attempt to present the inward trauma of the isolated person directly — we have mentally retreating and disabled characters; characters whose unconventional conduct their society would reject — sympathized with. One can grasp this when one reads the later revision or re-working which silences or erases these earlier characters, marginalizes them, puts them at a distance. In the Poldarks the one character where this kind of thing is put fully before us is Morwenna (especially Four Swans and Angry Tide); Drake attempts to and finally succeeds in rescuing her; unfortunately after that (their marriage and retreat) she and he are both kept from our view.


Original cover for No Exit

No Exit is a book that anticipates recent crime novels like LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man (2008) and Our Kind of Traitor (2010). Night Journey, which I outlined in my previous blog, is more like Tinker Tailor (1974): a whole world of amoral spies, politicians and just desperate people swirl around the quiet, plain hero who has expertise, insight, some sense of ethics. No Exit is set right around the time of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and the central action takes place the day the Nazis invaded Prague. Our English bridge engineer hero, John Carr, first come to Budapest; he becomes involved when he realizes someone has been murdered in his hotel and has asked him to take a message to someone else. This is the trope of the innocent bystander who takes responsibility and becomes almost against his will a detective, and then a rescuer and finally a co-conspirator with other people become revolutionaries in flight or resistance movements. He moves to Prague where much to his immediate surprise he finds himself in the midst of an invasion, one he becomes aware is happening as he observes the reactions of people all around him to some deeply frightening development say a few streets away.


Nazi Invasion — by the Charles Bridge — Graham’s hero walks by the bridge several times

The word “terror” is appropriate, except that here it’s a matter of people doing the bidding of different Nazi gov’ts and agents of aspiring gov’ts to terrify the vast majority of people by wantonly rounding up and snatching, disappearing (the verb “to disappear” is used in this book), torturing, killing and imprisoning all sorts of people at will. It evokes a justified paranoia. The character discuss how what is happening is suppression of all individual rights by ruthless minority setting up an aggrandizing state backed up by militarization and a “demented” world. A “dictatorship” in “the modern sense” using “concentration camps” as one tool, religious institutions another. It’s the first of Graham’s books to use the method of the Poldark books: thorough extensive research so Graham recreates for the reader effortlessly — you never feel a card index is thrown at you but what the characters are experiencing as several levels of action coming together by different people and forces in closely related places. You walk the streets of Prague with Carr as the hours go by. One man is murdered; with the unexpected help of two women (one a journalist) he is able to flee with three people and we then get this ordeal of escape by train, car, foot as they move through checkpoints and finally an “eerie snow filled silent forest” (rather like the closing scenes of Grand Illusion they come up a cottage with friendly people who harbor them).

This one is also given a detailed plot exposition at Profiles One or Discard. I disagree with the verdict of the writer: for me the unheroic nature of the protagonist makes the book more powerful (think of Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener) and love the Demelza-like heroine and ordinary mother he returns to at the novel’s close. I find the hero resembles Dwight Enys. The point is he is lucky to live where sanity still has a hold.


Richard Morant as Dwight Enys — he was pitch perfect in the part; here he is telling Clive Francis as Francis Poldark he has really come to care for his patients and not grow rich off the poor; Francis is all ironic surprise (1975 Poldark,scripted Paul Wheeler)

I can quite see my way to writing about these corpus of work against a backdrop of political as well as aesthetic developments between 1934 and 2003 (the span of Graham’s career). I’d love to know as much about him as I can and will try for a library, but if I lack private letters, there is much autobiography in all his journalism and two-life writing books. I’ve bought a copy of the 1945 original text of Ross Poldark and have a copy of the 1947 original text of Demelza. I’ll be reading them soon.

A second point I want to make about Graham here is he seems never to cease revising his work. He didn’t just rewrite and/or revise some of the early books; he may be said to have abridged the original Ross Poldark, he cut down the original Demelza, and made changes in Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan. All his writing life, he was more or less continually tinkering with already printed works, revising this or that sentences or sentences for a new publication. One can disagree on how “private” a man he was. He socialized far more probably than he needed to do to publish, promote and see his books distributed, filmed, and create opportunities and stimulation for himself to write more, but he was not pretending when he presented himself as living long stretches in the solitude of writing and research — and rewriting.

And his texts are beautifully written. The style of conversations and thought are direct, naturalistic, flowing. He loves animals and his favored characters are kind to, fond of, surround themselves with animals. At the close of Strangers Meeting, Peter Crane, our disabled young man, and Sheila, the factory girl from London who will now spend her life in Cornwall rescue a rabbit from a trap, bind its leg and set it free. Sheila is another Demelza-like heroine. This kind of depiction is a symbol or site for expression of vulnerability in the earlier novels and passages in the Poldarks.

It was a small fluffy brown rabbit with a tuft of white tail. It was caught only by one black leg. A nasty wriggling squeamishness grew up inside Sheila, and she wanted to turn and run. Instead she knelt down and looked at the gin.
It was one of those what you press down at one end to open up the other. There was a large spot of blood on the curling front of brakcn underneath it.
The rabbit now stopped screaming and concentrated on giving horrible forward jerks in an attempt to get free. She put a hand on its head, and after a momentary wriggle it lay still with its ears back. She could feel the hard skull under the soft brown fur.
She stroked it a moment, and put her other hand awkwardly round its neck. Then she brought forward her foot and trod upon the far end of the gin. A second later she was standing up with the rabbit wriggling in her arms. It was a most peculiar feeling.
She waited until it went tolerably quiet again, and then lifted to see the damage … Strangers Meeting, Part Three, Chapter Six, pp 307-8)

Graham seems particularly fond of cats, but all animals are treated with sensitivity by his good characters. It’s a mark of Demelza’s intelligence when early on in her relationship with Ross she tells him (in effect) the torturing of roosters for entertainment is deeply perverse, ignores the animals’ true body (they come without the irons) and impulses; very cruel.

Well that’s all for tonight. I’ve had several deeply satisfying days in the Library of Congress working on Winston Graham’s oeuvre and hope to continue and return if I can to this library and others. I’ve a few crime novels to read and have picked out Cornish authors and books Graham cites and clearly knew about as colleagues and aligned works. A work in progress.

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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Aurundia Brown as Joan (she plays the part in the Folger)

Friends,

On Sunday afternoon at the Folger, a full audience watched the four actors who this time comprised the whole of the Bedlam company players perform some 20+ (at least) characters of Shaw’s St Joan. The scenery was minimal; props just what necessity demanded; the costumes worn were of the barest type, ordinary clothes for the most part, mixed with a few garments (robes) or objects recognizable as Elizabethan. The way an actor would turn into a different characters took a minimal of indication: the actor turned round, made a different face, wore garment never worn before &c. When I came home, I took down from my two shelves of Shaw books (my husband read much of Shaw) my volume of his plays to double-check the performed text, and confirmed yes Shaw’s was this long play of many dialogues of plain ordinary language clashing, obsessively repeating the same demands, replies, memories, going over the same set of events. The major presences are three powerful men, those the maid persuades to follow her to find the French king, and fight the battles the way she said, then the men who harass and interrogate and try to control her at the scenes, and then then men who prosecuted, shamed, tortured and executed her. Plus Joan herself.


Photo found on the Net in this article

Probably the recent choice of an African-American actress for the role in several productions is a deliberate reference to the similar vulnerability of African-American ordinary people at the hands of white men in and outside of powerful institutions. The play includes speeches about the church, the state, intermediate bodies (like aristocrats); while the charges thrown at Joan once they are identified are repeatedly about her being a female dressed as a man, taking on male roles. That is what is truly unendurable. They accused her of being a whore and a witch.

In his long preface Shaw let this reader know that he had some complicated reasons for writing the play: to show that both sides of the aisle had much to say for themselves, on the nature of hallucination, on the kind of religious declarations and behavior we’ve seen as fanatic and yet normal and everyday. See wikipedia for an excellent full analysis. It would be interesting to know how much of his dialogue was taken from court records or second history books. Shaw is also concerned to have outlined Marxist thought, and reconcile it from ancient to present time. W\what they were saying about tyranny, elections, delusion, following a powerful guru (why), torture, justice, and Joan’s “voices” were utterances relevant to us today. I found myself astounded that the actors wanted the audience to be open-minded towards the desperate and then triumphant blind officials (most did not recognize their own hypocrises). So therefore the corrupt machiavels were a relief: for example, the Earl of Warwick after the defeat of the English determined to burn the maid at the stake. All this is worked into the speeches and day business. Here is a quick summary of the story line.

And yet the play was absorbing, entertaining, left the watcher with a clear idea of who was speaking, what were the arguments made against facilitating giving women more power (Joan was burned as much for putting on trousers and defying the establishment’s subordination of women) then, what were the specifics of what the Maid claimed, and what was held against her when the Stuart king was brought back. How did they accomplish all that? They were tremendously energetic. They were often comic in approach. Lots of stage business. The actors were careful to let us know who was on stage and throw hints out at where we are in a given book and speak their lines, some of it in French or medieval-sounding Latin. A group of audience members were on the stage with them (and had to submit to have their chairs moved around from act to act, scene to scene once), and they played on the stage and in the audience.


Eric Tucker and Edmund Lewis

They are a touring group (e.g., in New York City), and also do a Hamlet (4 actors doing all parts) so when the play is over at the Folger, it may travel near you. Very like the Sense and Sensibility (also directed by Eric Tucker) that was performed at the Folger last year, the Bedlam St Joan offers the sort of experience you can’t have in a movie-house (or huge theater). The Folger blurb said St Joan is the closest play to Shakespeare in the 20th century: I’m not sure of that but it is a chronicle play like his.

For myself I found it a surprise. Hitherto all the Shaw plays I’ve seen have been realistic witty, what one might call novels of manners turned into polemical plays, e.g., Mrs Warren’s Profession, The Misalliance. Pygmalion, Heartbreak House. As I say, Jim enjoyed reading Shaw’s criticism (and read some aloud to me) and we would go to a Shaw play if ever we were in a place where one was played. I had years ago when a girl seen Androcles and the Lion on TV as a film (so there’s a fable set in a historical period), and had read how or that Major Barbara and Man and Superman have these long speeches, are debates, but never seen (or looked at) these latter two. Now I’d be curious too partly because reading them (as I look at them tonight for the first time) would feel like reading a treatise when they are intended to and can be theater entertainment for an interactive audience. There’s a Blackstone audio.

As Shaw says, it is a wonder why this particular girl and incident has held the imagination of enough people for centuries: The Hollow Crown rendition of Shakespeare Saint Joan in Henry VI begins with showing her courage and illusions sympathetically and then turns to show her a crazed murderous French fanatic, witch-like, but (in the recent film) a figure of pathos too.


Early poster

Ellen

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Illustration from the original 1933 edition

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity — Woolf’s opening sentence, much Austen allusion in this fun book.

What is not biography — is nothing at all — Stanislaw Brzozowski

Dear friends and readers,

We might regard this as an unusual foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61). One of the people class asked me if I would recommend this as a biography. Yes, to start with. Perhaps for Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) too.


From the same edition, the way photographs of Vita Sackville-West dressed in costumes of different ages are scattered throughout Orlando

This and last week I read and discussed it with a class of older adults. We had a very good time with it. We discussed it as a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning through the eyes of her dog (anticipating Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid, about how EBB’s life impinged on, used up and was seen through Wilson, her lady’s maid). Thus it’s about the life experience of a 19th century woman attempting to be a serious writer and feminist and ruled over, contained by men and imprisoning conventions. It is also her ripost to The Barretts of Wimpole Street (as Mantel’s Wolf Hall is hers to Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons).

As the viewpoint is most of the time a cocker spaniel’s and every attempt is to make see and feel the world as a dog might — smell, feel, emotions of loyalty, attachment, sheer joy in bodily exercise. Why not call it an original modern animal study, about the marginalized, beings not thought worthy commemorating — as not sufficiently representing the general experience of men. Remember too the classic Canadian animal story, Beautiful Joe, and at the same time Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, and the great animal studies by women, Goodall, Galdikas, Fosse and Sy Montgomery.

Flush is also Pinka, a dog given Woolf and Leonard by Vita Sackville-West who figures so centrally in Orlando. Pinka became Leonard’s dog and was much loved.

It ought to be listed with the other original modernist biographies discussed by Andre Maurois. It fits his criteria: artful — it has exquisitely alive description all psychologized through the presence of a consciousness attributed to Flush. It is scientific, with documentable proof. Letters the life-blood of this form are its basis: EBB and Browning’s courtship correspondence as it’s come to be called. The autobiography of Miss Mitford is here. A complex presence in complex circumstances. Flush learns to discount hierarchy. He learns just around the solidity and middle class order, luxury beauty of the houses, lie dangerous slums, people waiting to prey on “innocent” men, come from say from the ballet.
Identification: the writer is reliving some secret need or desire. EBB’s illness began in Torquay (and Cornwall meant much to Woolf); she too needed to overthrow her father, both poets. Much fictionalizing: Flush’s dreams, his talk with other dogs, but also utterly convincing as he (dramatic irony) slowly lives through what we know is about to happen. Women poets, it’s been shown, identify with small animals.

And for its beauty of style, which is as lovely as Orlando.

There are five acts, from which I quote to convey something of the experience of the book.

1. Three Mile Cross: Flush’s genealogy, heritage (broadly satiric and amusing), a description of his younger years, of his attachment to Queen Anne. This includes a brilliant sketch of Miss Mitford herself, to whom Flush was much attached

[from his life with Miss Mitford] Since the Mitfords had fallen on evil days–Kerenhappock was the only servant–the chair-covers were made by Miss Mitford herself and of the cheapest material; the most important article of furniture seems to have been a large table; the most important room a large greenhouse–it is unlikely that Flush was surrounded by any of those luxuries, rainproof kennels, cement walks, a maid or boy attached to his person, that would now be accorded a dog of his rank. But he throve; he enjoyed with all the vivacity of his temperament most of the pleasures and some of the licences natural to his youth and sex. Miss Mitford, it is true, was much confined to the cottage. She had to read aloud to her father hour after hour; then to play cribbage; then, when at last he slumbered, to write and write and write at the table in the greenhouse in the attempt to pay their bills and settle their debts. But at last the longed-for moment would come. She thrust her papers aside, clapped a hat on her head, took her umbrella and set off for a walk across the fields with her dogs. Spaniels are by nature sympathetic; Flush, as his story proves, had an even excessive appreciation of human emotions. The sight of his dear mistress snuffing the fresh air at last, letting it ruffle her white hair and redden the natural freshness of her face, while the lines on her huge brow smoothed themselves out, excited him to gambols whose wildness was half sympathy with her own delight. As she strode through the long grass, so he leapt hither and thither, parting its green curtain. The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean-fields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any–a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories–the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind. He heard dark men cry “Span! Span!” He heard whips crack. He raced; he rushed. At last he stopped bewildered; the incantation faded; very slowly, wagging his tail sheepishly, he trotted back across the fields to where Miss Mitford stood shouting “Flush! Flush! Flush!” and waving her umbrella …

How distraught he was when she sold him (she couldn’t afford him) and the door slams in his face.

II: The back bedroom: this intensely limited life. Flush learns to live in close confinement. He gives up much for the love of EBB.

Why, Miss Barrett wondered, did Flush tremble suddenly, and whimper and start and listen? She could hear nothing; she could see nothing; there was nobody in the room with them. She could not guess that Folly, her sister’s little King Charles, had passed the door; or that Catiline, the Cuba bloodhound, had been given a mutton-bone by a footman in the basement. But Flush knew; he heard; he was ravaged by the alternate rages of lust and greed. Then with all her poet’s imagination Miss Barrett could not divine what Wilson’s wet umbrella meant to Flush; what memories it recalled, of forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants; nor did she know, when Mr. Kenyon stumbled over the bell-pull, that Flush heard dark men cursing in the mountains; the cry, “Span! Span!” rang in his ears, and it was in some muffled, ancestral rage that he bit him.

Flush was equally at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever, and robbed it of more than I can speak of here; do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.” But there was no sound in the room, no smell to make Miss Barrett cry. Then again Miss Barrett, still agitating her stick, burst out laughing. She had drawn “a very neat and characteristic portrait of Flush, humorously made rather like myself,” and she had written under it that it “only fails of being an excellent substitute for mine through being more worthy than I can be counted.” What was there to laugh at in the black smudge that she held out for Flush to look at? He could smell nothing; he could hear nothing. There was nobody in the room with them.

III: The Hooded man. The coming of Browning: Woolf imagines Flush imagining Browning. Flush is there, looking on, and participates in EBB’s erotic liberation, it will threaten the status quo, the 8th of July – we can’t know how hurt the dog was, but he is stolen, snatched, kidnapped (Tuesday 1 September), at the book’s end. Both chapters conclude with Flush distraught before human power. Browning did wear lemon-colored gloves (dandyish).

But one night early in January 1845 the postman knocked. Letters fell into the box as usual. Wilson went downstairs to fetch the letters as usual. Everything was as usual–every night the postman knocked, every night Wilson fetched the letters, every night there was a letter for Miss Barrett. But tonight the letter was not the same letter; it was a different letter. Flush saw that, even before the envelope was broken. He knew it from the way that Miss Barrett took it; turned it; looked at the vigorous, jagged writing of her name. He knew it from the indescribable tremor in her fingers, from the impetuosity with which they tore the flap open, from the absorption with which she read. He watched her read. And as she read he heard, as when we are half asleep we hear through the clamour of the street some bell ringing and know that it is addressed to us, alarmingly yet faintly, as if someone far away were trying to rouse us with the warning of fire, or burglary, or some menace against our peace and we start in alarm before we wake–so Flush, as Miss Barrett read the little blotted sheet, heard a bell rousing him from his sleep; warning him of some danger menacing his safety and bidding him sleep no more. Miss Barrett read the letter quickly; she read the letter slowly; she returned it carefully to its envelope. She too slept no more.

Again, a few nights later, there was the same letter on Wilson’s tray. Again it was read quickly, read slowly, read over and over again. Then it was put away carefully, not in the drawer with the voluminous sheets of Miss Mitford’s letters, but by itself. Now Flush paid the full price of long years of accumulated sensibility lying couched on cushions at Miss Barrett’s feet. He could read signs that nobody else could even see. He could tell by the touch of Miss Barrett’s fingers that she was waiting for one thing only–for the postman’s knock, for the letter on the tray. She would be stroking him perhaps with a light, regular movement; suddenly–there was the rap–her fingers constricted; he would be held in a vice while Wilson came upstairs. Then she took the letter and he was loosed and forgotten.

IV: Whitechapel. Now here we have the important kidnapping and the elopement: the London outside that upper middle class: Taylor the head. Flush like a hostage in a concentration camp. Filthy, bad food, no water, others dying around him. Each day added on. He fears for his life.

He lay, not daring even to whimper, hour after hour. Thirst was his worst suffering; but one sip of the thick greenish water that stood in a pail near him disgusted him; he would rather die than drink another. Yet a majestic greyhound was drinking greedily. Whenever the door was kicked open he looked up. Miss Barrett–was it Miss Barrett? Had she come at last? But it was only a hairy ruffian, who kicked them all aside and stumbled to a broken chair upon which he flung himself. Then gradually the darkness thickened. He could scarcely make out what shapes those were, on the floor, on the mattress, on the broken chairs. A stump of candle was stuck on the ledge over the fireplace. A flare burnt in the gutter outside. By its flickering, coarse light Flush could see terrible faces passing outside, leering at the window. Then in they came, until the small crowded room became so crowded that he had to shrink back and lie even closer against the wall. These horrible monsters–some were ragged, others were flaring with paint and feathers–squatted on the floor; hunched themselves over the table. They began to drink; they cursed and struck each other. Out tumbled, from the bags that were dropped on the floor, more dogs–lap dogs, setters, pointers with their collars still on them; and a giant cockatoo that flustered and dashed its way from corner to corner shrieking “Pretty Poll,” “Pretty Poll,” with an accent that would have terrified its mistress, a widow in Maida Vale. Then the women’s bags were opened, and out were tossed on to the table bracelets and rings and brooches such as Flush had seen Miss Barrett wear and Miss Henrietta. The demons pawed and clawed them; cursed and quarrelled over them. The dogs barked. The children shrieked, and the splendid cockatoo–such a bird as Flush had often seen pendant in a Wimpole Street window–shrieked “Pretty Poll! Pretty Poll!” faster and faster until a slipper was thrown at it and it flapped its great yellow-stained dove-grey wings in frenzy. Then the candle toppled over and fell. The room was dark. It grew steadily hotter and hotter; the smell, the heat, were unbearable; Flush’s nose burnt; his coat twitched. And still Miss Barrett did not come.

We see the men and Browning too want her not to pay the kidnapper and argue, it is encouraging black mail. What emerges is they don’t care about the dog, the individual life. We see the courage and pluck it took Charlotte to drive away by herself and retrieve her (by that time) beloved dog.

We are told that Flush never mastered the principles of human society – neither have I — real debate over what this phrase means – is it principle or a life and lives that matter. I’m on the side of live and banks too, and so as EBB and Wilson, the climax of he book and prelude to elopement and Flush’s unsentimental education; what he wants is clean water – but there is now another world out there Flush knows about – a third world.

How slowly the dog moves from attack to attachment towards Browning; he notices the boots set aside; Miss EBB is gone all morning and returns exhausted; then the marriage in London and escape.

V: Italy. This is a long chapter which includes Flush’s re-juvenation, and so thethe birth of Robert whom they called Pen and the return to England and back is so intensely important. -– a new life, the new physical place, the new culture, new weather. Here dogs are different but not differentiated by status and class.

Flush’s new found independence, — they are all liberated now, her sewing heralds the coming of the baby (in life EBB had something like 4 miscarriages. Flush resumes the very happy adult dog life in Italy that he had with Miss Mitford — until he encounters flees. His hair must be shaved.

Flush had lain upon human knees and heard men’s voices. His flesh was veined with human passions; he knew all grades of jealousy, anger and despair. Now in summer he was scourged by fleas. [7] With a cruel irony the sun that ripened the grapes brought also the fleas. “. . . Savonarola’s martyrdom here in Florence,” wrote Mrs. Browning, “is scarcely worse than Flush’s in the summer.” Fleas leapt to life in every corner of the Florentine houses; they skipped and hopped out of every cranny of the old stone; out of every fold of old tapestry; out of every cloak, hat and blanket. They nested in Flush’s fur. They bit their way into the thickest of his coat. He scratched and tore. His health suffered; he became morose, thin and feverish. Miss Mitford was appealed to. What remedy was there, Mrs. Browning wrote anxiously, for fleas? Miss Mitford, still sitting in her greenhouse at Three Mile Cross, still writing tragedies, put down her pen and looked up her old prescriptions–what Mayflower had taken, what Rosebud. But the fleas of Reading die at a pinch. The fleas of Florence are red and virile. To them Miss Mitford’s powders might well have been snuff. In despair Mr. and Mrs. Browning went down on their knees beside a pail of water and did their best to exorcise the pest with soap and scrubbing-brush. It was in vain. At last one day Mr. Browning, taking Flush for a walk, noticed that people pointed; he heard one man lay a finger to his nose and whisper “La rogna” (mange). As by this time “Robert is as fond of Flush as I am,” to take his walk of an afternoon with a friend and to hear him thus stigmatised was intolerable. Robert, his wife wrote, “wouldn’t bear it any longer.” Only one remedy remained, but it was a remedy that was almost as drastic as the disease itself. However democratic Flush had become and careless of the signs of rank, he still remained what Philip Sidney had called him, a gentleman by birth. He carried his pedigree on his back. His coat meant to him what a gold watch inscribed with the family arms means to an impoverished squire whose broad acres have shrunk to that single circle. It was the coat that Mr. Browning now proposed to sacrifice. He called Flush to him and, “taking a pair of scissors, clipped him all over into the likeness of a lion.”

As Robert Browning snipped, as the insignia of a cocker spaniel fell to the floor, as the travesty of quite a different animal rose round his neck, Flush felt himself emasculated, diminished, ashamed. What am I now? he thought, gazing into the glass. And the glass replied with the brutal sincerity of glasses, “You are nothing.” He was nobody. Certainly he was no longer a cocker spaniel. But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch. It was as if the potent spirits of truth and laughter were whispering in them. To be nothing–is that not, after all, the most satisfactory state in the whole world?

Note the last sentiment. We are hearing Woolf.

At book’s close there is the joke Nero jumped out of the window because he couldn’t take those angry silences between Carlyle and Jane. In later years Woolf writes of this Jane and her relationship with Geraldine (Jewsbury) brilliantly.

VI: The end: Coda: Flush’s old age – Flush rightly suspects as frauds the new spiritual mediums Elizabeth enjoys. His care for her is too concerned, too for real care. Here we pick up on how Robert Browning and EBB had their strains. Flush’s aging, tiring, and then disappearance from the record. He predeceased her. The book ends with EBB’s poem to him. Alas, over-written:

You see this dog. It was but yesterday
I mused, forgetful of his presence here,
Till thought on thought drew downward tear on tear;
When from the pillow, where wet-cheeked I lay,
A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way
Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear
Large eyes astonished mine,—a drooping ear
Did flap me on either cheek, to dry the spray!
I started first, as some Arcadian
Amazed by goatly god in twilight grove:
But as my bearded vision closelier ran
My tears off, I knew Flush, and rose above
Surprise and sadness; thanking the true Pan,
Who, by low creatures, leads to heights of love.

Flush was buried beneath Casa Guidi; EBB’s remains are in the Protestant cemetery in Florence, and Browning’s in Westminster Abbey. Why is Flush’s life not set next to Maurois’s of Shelley, Scott’s of Zelide, Zweig of Mary Queen of Scots (just as deeply dreamed). Because “who is interested in a dog?” said another class member.

Woolf’s delightful annotations and notes follow: Wilson’s life caught here. Lily (fell in love with a guardsman who did not stay true to her. But marry she must so she chose a man-servant in the Browning’s house. No document about what happened to him. In later years she takes care of one of Browning’s ancient poet friends; very later as widow living with Pen. The safest thing was to be loyal. Why are there no servants’ lives in the ODNB?

So I propose to add Virginia Woolf’s brilliant tour-de-force of a modernist biography, Flush: A Biography to the canon. 1842-1858? I liken it to Anthony Trollope’s wrongly neglected When the Mastiffs went to Iceland, a political social and ethnographic study disguised a jeux d’esprit travel book.

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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Sophie Marceau as Anna, typical odd angle, very close up shot (1997 written, directed, produced by Bernard Rose)


Jacqueline Bisset as as a passive Anna submitting to Christopher Reeve as a conventional cad Vronsky (1985, script James Goldman, directed by Simon Langton)

Friends and readers,

I’ve been participating in another group read and discussion of Anna Karenina! This time on the GoodReads site. And I’ve gone on to watch two more notable film adaptations, the 1985 Anna Karenina (made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky) and the 1997 Anna Karenina (an independent film, made in Russia, an even more extraordinary cast, with Sophie Marceau, Alfred Molina as Levin, Sean Bean as Vronsky, James Fox as Karenin, Phyllida Law as Vronsky’s mother, and Fiona Shaw as Lydia).


Matthew Macfayden as Stiva meeting Keira Knightley as Anna at the train. well-known opening of book and film, resembles book illustrations (from 2012 Wright/Stoppard)

It may be this is hard to believe, having watched watched three other Anna Karenina films and read essays and chapters in books, yet I feel I learned yet more, and was made to see more insights into the human condition when under pressure from this particular story and character elements.

The 1997 film, dismissed as “shallow, bloodless, having lost track of characters, by re-arranging the order and then stripping from the story almost all the larger social scenes, to focus on key linchpin memorable one-on-one intense encounters lays bare the trembling core of Tolstoy’s second masterpiece.

The 1985, less interesting philosophically is moving because it updates, make feelingfully contemporary the same trajectory as the book the 1935 Gretta Garbo AK (she is what is remembered) and 1977-78 BBC faithful and liberal-minded Donald Wilson of-Forsyte-Saga-fame AK (remembered for Porter, Stuart Wilson as Vronsky and only after that Nicola Paget).

Scofield and Marceau in their different films enable us to reach a new understanding. Both films ought to be better known; they are absorbing.

I refer my reader back to my blog on Tolstoy’s novel for the story, and AK at the movies I for the 1935 and 1948 (remembered for Vivian Leigh’s performance near suicide and Ralph Richardson as the steele-knife Karenin), and Stoppard and Joe Wright’s 2012 brilliant theatrical rendition

*******************

Bernard Rose’s 1995 Anna Karenina, an independent film:


Alfred Molina as Levin (1997, opens and closed film, given narrative overvoice)

I was astonished when Rose’s film was over. It startled me by opening on the ice-skating scene between Kitty (Mia Kirshner) and Levin; his point of view, seemingly reasonable, trying to find some rationale for what is happening, some comforting lesson or sense runs across the movie, linking the scenes. While Kitty is there and in quick moments, has the familiar turning points of dance, snubbing, sickness, rescue by Levin, baby, there at Levin’s brother’s death with brother’s prostitute-mistress by her side, hers is a minor role. The major woman after Anna is Madame Vronsky and Phyllida Law captures the banal hypocritical ways of this woman with her hard insinuating glances perfectly, so her presence at the first train encounter, and at the close of the movie as who Vronsky flees to makes her point of view that one that destroys Vronsky and Anna.


Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

Also made into a major presence is Fiona Shaw as Lydia. Rather than a mere religious fanatic clinging to, squatting all over Karenin, she is a forceful political actor (goes to political rallies).


Shaw as Lydia, while Karenin’s own austere idealism and role as a cuckold has ruined his career

Karenina is kept as an outer ring character; stern and sensitive he is the first of the Karenin enactments to move to rape when he brings Anna home after the race, and the carriage scene, which are (as in all social scenes of the movie) kept to a minimum. The point is to have the confrontation where Karenin’s sense of himself is rocked: his anger is not over social appearances and if she did agree to a veneer, we are to feel he wouldn’t keep to it.

Rose took all the famous strong passionate scenes and rewrote them so they become intense interactions where private emotions takeover; he rearranges them some, strings them together. All the rest of the story, the social world, hum drum life left out. Danny Huston’s draining of his wife, Dolly, bankrupting them, bland complacency is choral; we hardly see Dolly as she is a figure who brings in the troubles and compromises of the social and economic worlds of the novel; Huston’s role is to listen to Levin,go hunting with him, attempt to persuade Karenin to give Anna a divorce. He seems so weak against Fiona Shaw whose scene with the child where she tells Seriozha his mother is dead is chilling, scary. Somehow Levin working hard in the fields becomes another private moment of self-discovery which just happens to occur in a (lovely) public field. Childbirth is a screaming painful bloody affair that occurs twice (Anna and then Kitty). Another departure is Rose presents Sean Bean Vronsky more positively than any of the films:


This promotional still of Bean in uniform as Vronsky must be the only time in the film he seems involved in his regiment: the look of puzzle is more common.

Bean is driven to anger and distraction between Anna, his mother, Karenin refusing to cooperate. Anna’s baby by him dies or is stillborn in this production (we see her nursing an old broken plastic doll). When he screams at her, there is no sense from the film that she has deprived him of a career he wanted, or even a place. Just that it’s the done thing to be married so he can be an accepted landlord. The film’s tragic scene focuseson his scream and frantic mad behavior pulling himself away from the officers as we hear Anne go under the train.


Bean is that movement under blue cloth

It’s a stripping of Tolstoy to bare bones and then putting back in psychologically distraught moments. Sophie Morceau carries the film, moving from cheerful and strong by stages into utter self-abjection, loss of identity, a kind of stupor as she only half-heartedly tries to follow Vronsky. A each scene is flung at us background music passionate romantic opera or equivalent link — there’s a heavy use of music and at times pantomime. The last 8 minutes of Anna last walk towards death is all music. The houses and rooms are opulent. Trains continually brought in and function. Dialogue is extraordinary, things brought out frankly in physical interactions. No words of continuity, just juxtaposition. Are these the core power of Tolstoy, Rose seems to be asking.

Rose makes the book into a kind of wild romance. Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard made the book theatrical too but they kept the outer social world as a shaping force and the story line and dialogue had strong intellectual ironies. This film made me see Anna Karenina more as about how the personal and sincere have no chance to thrive. Vronsky’s mother’s objection, that of Betsy (Justine Wadell), and the astonishment of everyone else seems to be Anna and Vronsky’s attempt to live by some shared mutual soul within them. And this inner self can’t take this kind of leaning. Babies die. People don’t cooperate. Things don’t make sense.

The movie ends with Vronsky on a train going to Siberia. He has lost all meaning. Levin is narrator and then he returns us to his life with Kitty, and his book, asserting one can find meaning in life by turning to religion. It’s not very convincing.


Near closing shot of film, after this we see the writing of his diary (lines from Tolstoy)

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The 1985 Anna Karenina, written by David Goldman, directed and produced by Simon Langton (filmed in Hungary)


Paul Scofield brilliant as Karenin (1985 TV film) — this film returns us to Karenin as the powerful central male

This is another remarkable production. The cast includes some remarkable actors, and in the minor parts too: including Anna Massey as Betsy, Joanna David as Dolly. It opens using a sort of browned framed set of stills, to set up an antique feeling — although the attitudes of mind are recognizably those of the mid- to later 20th century imagined TV audience


Joanna David as Dolly: she is the suburban wife who is persuaded to forgive the erring husband

Simon Langton, who directed and produced the 1995 Andrew Daves P&P directs and produces; Goldman has written other fine screenplays (e.g., The Lion in Winter). It seems to have been produced by some combination of companies, filmed in Hungary and then put on TV, though its length (2 hours and 15 minutes) and feel makes it seem as if it were meant for movie-houses. It’s the only one I watched straight through and it’s exhausting. Its one weakness as a film is Christopher Reeve’s inability to act, his woodenness is a real flaw. He was considered super-beautiful (yet he was given the usual mustache). That he too is made into a positive figure enables him to carry the complex role more easily. It does have something peculiar at first: it seems as if the voices were dubbed in after for the first hour so the actors seem oddly distanced.

In conception it’s a redo and updating of the previous three I’d seen (1935, 1948, 1977) in the sense that Langton (director) and Goldman (writer) adapted the same arrangement, story line, emphases. Yes Levin and Kitty are just about eliminated but that was the tendency before. But otherwise the characters are simply modernized. Tellingly there is a softening of attitudes towards adultery and at the same time towards both Oblonsky and Vronsky. Oblonsky is merely weak, poor guy means well, and there is a repeated Americanization of both going on. Vronsky never meant to mislead Kitty; and it is presented as perfectly understandable he wants to get on with his career. There is no Lydia, so no disquieting aspects to religion (American audiences might not like that). Betsy is not a bad woman either: she understands that Anna is not the kind of woman who can live a disguised life.


Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

Unexpectedly (but this seems to me very much in line with today’s attitudes) Karenin is himself a man who lived solely for his work and Anna, and she was enough for him; why is he not enough for her. Anna only grovels at the very end of the film. Strikingly it opens with Karenin and Anna and the son, and they seem a contented enough family. He has just had a big success, and they talk about whether they should say goodnight to their child and go into the bedroom. It’s a very 1960s family scene. It’s from this position of an adjusted family that the film departs and presents Anna’s seduction by Vronksky as a sort of sickness. Anna herself is without friends except for Betsy even before she loses her reputation.

Scofield’s characteristic quiet apparent reasonableness is to the fore; when he does become fiercely enraged at Anna’s behavior at the races and her telling him in the carriage she is Vronsky’s mistress, loves Vronsky, is pregnant, it’s no loss of social appearance that drives him wild. His image of himself as a man, his choice in life to make her the center and have no other friend (he says this) morphs immediately to near rape: this is her duty. It’s that she personally betrayed him, with marriage as a one-on-one relationship. There is real sympathy for Kareinin. He decides to get back towards the end by refusing to divorce her even after she agrees to give up her son. Anna is passive sexually (so a good woman), waits to be taken. She is firm and angry with Karenin after the childbirth collapse; she wants out of this bed and only one man at a time. I admit this film made cry more at the close because I bonded in small ways with this Anna as I had not with any of the previous: this heroine is no longer a 19th century character. I felt yet more for Karenina. If I may make the comparison, the couple reminded me of the characterization of Winston Graham’s Ross and Demelza Poldark in the recent film adaptation by Debbie Horsfield.


Anna with her maid did not want to take a ball dress with her; she was not particularly ambitious; their friendliness reminded me of Lady Mary and Anna in Downton Abbey

Some viewers might like this one best. Modern readers are often bored with Kitty and Levin, and they are hardly there. The directors and actors are allowed to present the sexual scenes between Vronsky and Anna far more candidly. While not as many as the 1997 film, it does eliminate a lot of the exterior events — especially the closing scenes between Dolly and Stiva and the Levins in the country estate. Especially interesting is this re-conception of Karenin: here he is not driven by religion or even his political position, he says he has no friends, and Anna has been everything to him, he has been satisfied with her as his friend and companion. He seems to go on for politics as a principled business as an aristocrat but find no personal meaning in it. He is not ambitious as Ralph Richardson, Eric Porter and then Jude Law all are.


One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

Four hinge point scenes are revealed as what one must have: the race scene, Karenina taking Anna away in the carriage after Vronsky falls, has to kill his horse (done intimately) and her abjection in the carriage. In their talk afterward Karenin is the most sensible of all the husbands: he is warning her of what will happen: she will be lost, Vronksky will tire of her; it’s almost done kindly. Scofield’s behavior and words reminded me of how he played Thomas More. She does get pregnant, have the baby, in this one wants to die — there is a death wish throughout. There is the forgiveness scene but then (as in the other movies but one and the book) she cannot stand Karenin again and flees. When she comes for the divorce, they are like a 1960s couple agreeing on how they will treat the child; she promises to give him up, and in return he will divorce her.


Scofield in pain but controlling himself


Anna giving up her son

Reeve was mechanical in feel early on, he did much better when it was a matter of sexual interaction and in the last part when he rejects her: as in the 1936 film he grows irritated, tired of her, threatens to leave. At first they seem to be adjusted: a visit from Dolly and Stiva make the four look like American in-laws during an afternoon.

But it’s not enough. In this one Betsy does not betray Anna as the norms behind it are not really high society Russia. Anna just becomes more clinging and nervous, and he does irritation and restlessness very well. The scene of her return to the house when they return to Moscow is powerful, at first centered on the husband. Her love of her boy and her boy’s for her is touching. In this the film harks back to the 1935 Anna Karenina where the strongest scenes in the whole film are Garbo and the son.


There’s real pathos as Anne bends her head; Reeve’s stiffness as Vronsky works well here

The last part of her chasing after Vronsky gone to his mother and her choice for his wife remembers the 1948 with Vivien Leigh. Bisset is going mad with nothing to do, no one to be with. She wears a dress that looks like a prisoner’s outfit, all stripes. She too is haunted by bad dreams and sees a figure of a man. But she berates herself in practical 20th century American terms: she has destroyed two men, one boy, and she does not love her daughter. In this film we feel why she does not love the daughter: the daughter stands for this new life Anna claimed she loved (I don’t need society) but found herself cracking up under. In this film she does not go to the opera; she obeys Vronsky and still she and he quarrel. He wants to escape her altogether. The last moment shows her by the train and then we switch to where Vronsky has become aware she has come after him from Annuska and turns horrified at what he sees. End of film.

I suggest that the 1985 film has the most modern feel because of the depiction of Karenin is not based on religion or status and of Anna as the most inward, inner directed people might say. I wondered if the elimination of many of the social scenes gave Rose the idea for his re-conception.

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One of the older Penguins

Returning to Tolstoy’s book too, I am just reading a book by Joan Hardwick about Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife, whose father was not her mother’s husband. Hardwick paints a picture of the aristocracy in Europe at this time as often adulterous, with differently sired children in one family. Karenin is then as unusual as Anna, but they live in a world of egregious hypocrisy. Oblonsky represents the norm. That makes the outlook many middle class 20th and 21st century readers and viewers have had on Anna anachronistic; it was not her adultery that was so unacceptable; it’s the way she went about it with passionate integrity. In that she resembles Levin. And the movie adaptations that come closest to this are the 1948 and 1977.

We might say now in our 21st century political and corporate culture what the filthy rich do today esembles the parasitical aristocrats of Tolstoy’s day, so it may be the 1% as a culture (which are where Tolstoy’s characters fit in) are not so far from these corrupt aristocrats as we like to imagine. Levin and Anna are our figures of integrity — Kitty is simply another utterly conventional young woman, believable yes. These hollow pretenses have provided the way Karenina, along with rank, and wealth and status, has risen so high. A real jack-ass con-man whom of course Oblonsky gets along perfectly with wins an election in Vronsky’s area; Levin can’t figure out how he did it. Like Levin, Anna doesn’t fit in; she will not play the social games with all their hollow pretenses.


From a two act production in the Abbey Theater by Irish playwright Marina Carr, directed by Wayne Jordan

The book was written by a man and all these movies made by men. What matters in male-centered, male-written, male-made movies is adultery, the man has been betrayed. What matters to women is the custody of their children. Anna Karenina shows these outlines too.

Next up for Anna Karenina will be an account of a few other of the Anna Karenina films as found in Tolstoy on Screen, edd Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael Denner. The list of movies is NOT endless. You don’t have to watch them chronologically. I am slowly discovering more about Tolstoy’s book by watching these

Ellen

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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) singing, after Christmas dinner (2015 Poldark, episode 4)

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark)

Friends and readers,

Not such a small but a short note for those engaged by Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and the two sets of film adaptations.

I’ve been rereading the novels again, and have confirmed an old memory that while Christmas is in itself not valued for any kind of religious belief, a number of the novels end around Christmas time with the characters gathering together to enact a yearly ritual, and memories, and talk emerges far more for real at moments than other times of year. Some of these endings are melancholy sweet, strained, or near breaking point: Ross Poldark, Demelza and Warleggan (1st, 2nd & 4th Poldark books) respectively. At the close of Demelza:

“They watched the scene on the beach.
‘I shan’t have to finish that frock for Julia now,’ she said. ‘It was that dainty too.’
‘Come,’ he said, ‘you will be catching cold.’
‘No. I am quite warm, Ross. Let me stay a little longer in the sun.

Some are bitter, and then the emphasis is on winter itself, December into January, dark, cold, bleak or wild: The Angry Tide (the 7th) when Elizabeth has just died.

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive! We are. We are. The past is over, gone. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow! It’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask … Demelza to Ross (last page of The Angry Tide).

Some are quiet-reflective, The Miller’s Dance and The Loving Cup (the 9th and 10th books). In The Twisted Sword (the 11th), the deep tragedy of Jeremy’s death continues to the end, only lifted somewhat by the birth of Lady Harriet Warleggan and then Cuby Poldark’s baby, while Demelza keeps the festival.

Deliver us from swords & curs — The Twisted Sword

Lastly, Bella (the 12th) just after Valentine’s death and Ross’s nightmare, the characters all return to Cornwall for Christmas. We pass a bleak Christmas in the second half of the novel Jeremy Poldark, but it is not emphatic, just part of the year made much harder because of desperate conditions during this festival time, and we observe Christmas more emphatically in The Black Moon during the birth of Clowance when the news comes to Nampara that Dwight Enys is still alive.

I’ve only followed the devices and desires of my own heart … Demelza, again the close)

So only four novels do not end in December/January or Christmas: Jeremy Poldark (a christening), The Black Moon (very bitter at the close), The Four Swans (very uncertain, all the women having been forced into bad choices), and The Stranger from the Sea (an uneasy unsettling).


A painting of Cornwall, the shore for fishing, early 20th century impressionism (photographed from a visit to a Cornish museum, summer 2016)

As important, all the novels are carefully keyed to seasonal time-lines, from autumn to winter, winter to spring and summer again; attention is paid to the relationship of what’s happening to daily customs, agricultural and other rhythms, the weather, and Christmas is part of this, and made more of when it coincides with some crisis. I conclude the natural world as central to human existence (and Graham’s love of Cornwall), and holiday rituals meant a good deal to Graham for their creation of a sense of community and humane comradeship, for their enacting memory and for hope of renewal.


Stanhope Forbes, Fisherman’s wife (Cornish painter, 1890s – 1910s)

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Even among my nearest and dearest there is no transference — can be no transference — of experience. One can feel empathy for someone suffering, but one cannot feel the suffering. We are all alone —- desperately alone. What are we in this world? A conjunction of subjective impressions making up something that is accepted as reality — Graham, Memoirs of a Private Man

One reason these patterns may not have been noticed is they are not observed in the either the older or newer serial drama. When Christmas does emphasize something special in the story at the moment (new marriage, desperate poverty, worry over the life of an imprisoned friend), then it’s there. But not the seasons and no sense of a sequence of customs to which Christmas belongs for themselves. The interest in Cornwall is decorative; in the older, there is reveling in the place, in the recent they attend to the workaday world.

We don’t have adaptations past The Stranger from the Sea for either series, but looking at the older 1975-76, 1977-78, the only transitional moments from one novel to the next where this kind of coda is observed is in a mid-book, the bare bleak half-starving Christmas from Jeremy Poldark, complete with a family dinner, caroling, Demelza wanting to ask the Brodugans for money).


Bare strained family dinner (1975-76 Poldark, Part 11, Episode 3)


At Nampara, Demelza (Angharad Rees), pouring port, asks Ross (Robin Ellis) why cannot they ask other friends for money (1975-76, Poldark Part 11, Episode 4)

One could cite the mood and bleak outdoors in the final episode of the second (and as it turned out) last season (1978), The Angry Tide, which ended, with Demelza and Ross looking at their children holding hands, and George grieving at the window from which the camera takes us to gaze at wild waves and rocks. Except it is not Christmas nor December as it explicitly is in the novel. A good deal of the original series was filmed on sets, and the focus was strongly on particular personalities in a story. So even just two scenes from the older Poldark show the intense attention paid to interweaving a Christmas piece with the realities of the characters’ dispositions, circumstances at each moment.


Christmas dinner at Trenwith (2015 Poldark, episode 4)

The recent 2015-16, and now 2017: in the first season (2015), the fourth episode near the end corresponds closely to the end of Ross Poldark, Ross and Demelza now Poldark go to Trenwith for a visit and (as it turns out temporary) reconciliation, and details from the book are dramatized, such as Demelza’s singing (above), though not Elizabeth on the harp.

Then again in the second season (2016), scenes corresponding to the observation of Christmas during a hard time in Jeremy Poldark, and the third season (2017), scenes corresponding to The Black Moon and placed just before the rescuing of Dwight Enys where there is a quiet Nampara Christmas and Caroline and Demelza and Verity seek funds at a party.

For all the rest while we might have a funeral at a close of an episode (we do twice, Jim Carter and then Julia), nothing is made of the year’s seasonal patterns nor Christmas. The perpetual coming out on the cliffs is not keyed to any season, any activity but the openings of the episodes at the mines. Scenes are not complexly nuanced in quite the way they were in the older series.

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Elizabeth Adele Armstrong Forbes, later 19th century woman painter in Cornwall, a Ring of Roses

What this suggests is how different are the rhythms and internal structures of the episodes of both Poldark film series from that of the novels: the exception in the series is Jeremy Poldark and The Black Moon in the first iteration (1975, 1977), and Jeremy Poldark and The Black Moon in the second (2016, 2017). But also how important season, time, holiday ritual was to Graham and has not been to the any of the film-adapters of his work thus far.

A curtain of mist hung over the Black Cliffs at the further end of Hendrawna Beach, most of it caused by spray hitting the tall rocks and drifting before the breeze. There was a heavy swell which reached far out to sea, and a couple of fishing boats from St Ann’s had gone scudding back to the safety of the very unsafe har­bour. Gulls were riding the swell, lifting high and low as the waves came in; occasionally they took to the air in a flurry of flapping white when a wave unexpectedly spilled its head. No one yet expected rain: that would be tomorrow. The sun was losing its brilliance and hung in the sky like a guinea behind a muslin cloth.
Clowance squinted up at the weather. ‘Have you got a watch?’ ‘No. Not one that goes.’ — Bella

It might be objected, Does any movie? some do, and some film adaptations. One set that comes to mind are the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, especially the 1996 ITV by Andrew Davies (with Kate Beckinsale as Emma, Mark Strong as Mr Knightley, Samantha Morton, Harriet) and the 209 BBC Emma by Sandy Welch (with Romola Garai as Emma, Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley, Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates), keep to seasons and emphasize Christmas or the winter holiday, snow. Have a look here.

So they all went to look, at least as far as the stile leading down to the beach)· further it was unsafe to go. Where the beach would have been at any time except the highest of tides) was a battlefield of giant waves. The sea was washing away the lower sandhills and the roots of marram grass. As they stood there a wave came rushing up over the rough stony ground and. licked at the foot of the stile) leaving a trail of froth to overflow and smear their boots. Surf in the ordinary sense progresses from deep water to shallow) losing height as it comes. Today waves were hitting the rocks below Wheal Leisure with such weight that they generated a new surf running at right angles to the flow of the sea) with geysers of water spouting high from the collisions. A new and irrational surf broke against the gentler rocks below the Long Field. Mountains of spume collected wherever the sea drew breath) and then blew like bursting shells across the land. The sea was so high there was no horizon and the clouds so low that they sagged into the sea (from The Angry Tide, quoted by Graham at the opening of Poldark’s Cornwall, 1983 version).

This matters because these books are in the peculiar position of fake knowledge. A lot of people think they know them because they’ve seen these film adaptations. Others may read the books after the adaptations and have their understanding framed by the films. What they remember is what the film emphasized. There is a long respectable history of publication for the first four books from 1945 to 1953; and the second trilogy (the novels of the 1970s, Black Moon, Four Swans, Angry Tide) have been in but watched partly as a result of the films and seen through the films. The last five are much less well-known. Many classics are in effect in this position: far far more people saw the film Wuthering Heights in 1939 than had read Emily Bronte’s book in the previous 150 years of publication and availability. But the Brontes have true respectability and people went on to read WH and other Bronte books; they have now gotten to Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the film adaptation was made as a result of Bronte popularity. That’s not the case with Graham’s books. For my part I’d love to know what sales of the books have been like over the past 60 years and have a way of measuring how much that reflects actual readership.

Ellen

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