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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category


Charles Laughton as Quasimodo at the close of the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame


A much idealized depiction of Jacques Cathelineau (1759-93), one of the peasant heroes (a general) of the Vendean revolt (he dies half-way through Trollope’s novel)

Dear friends and readers,

It was not wholly by chance that recently on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io we read in tandem two historical romances about or set in France. One a French literary masterpiece, Victor Hugo’s undoubtedly deeply poetic Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), set in the 15th century, but mirroring conditions in France in the later 1820s and July 1930 revolution and its aftermath. The other, based on French sources, among them the aristocratic memoir by Victorine de Larochejaquelin (see my review of Marilyn Yalom’s Blood Sisters) translated by Walter Scott (as well as a number of English sources), Trollope’s only historical novel, La Vendee (1850), set between the start and near the catastrophic ending of the revolt of the Vendean area (peasants, nobles), March 1973 – to spring 1794. We brought them together as like in genre, probably like (we thought) to some extent in subject matter — Trollope might have in mind the mid-19th century European revolts.

We discovered the term “historical novel” can be used as a label for very different books, even if placed in the same country, similar cultural sources (chronicles), and both about conflicts revealed as political, social, and fundamental. I hoped we would be reading historical books with political visions (or themes, messages) somewhat relevant to the political calamity unfolding in the US (now Trump’s autocracy through blight, lies & corrosion of all principles has spread into US presidential election), then it was as the pandemic (now having been allowed to kill over 200,000), and a collapsed ordinary economy (become much worse now, with — this would upset Trollope — a sabotaged postal service). It’s arguable both books have political visions, but neither of the sort to help anyone think through the results colonialism & capitalism confronts us with. Not that I think reading Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year would have helped anyone fix the lack of a public health care system in the US.

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You can follow Trollope’s characters and action using this kind of map ….

Trollope did want to make a political statement with La Vendee — and about issues of what is a legitimate government; how should governing bodies treat their citizenry, what should that citizenry be prepared to sacrifice or not, who owes what to whom; then happens during an internecine civil war. On the way he wants us to understand what battles are really like, war councils, what families experience (insofar as he has the stomach to describe this). W. J. McCormack (the editor of the Oxford paperback edition) grouped the book with Trollope’s first Anglo-Irish novels. But since Trollope is wholly on the side of counter-revolution, demonizing the revolution and its republican armies, his usual ability (still seen here) to drive down to fundamentals to lay bare before us the workings of a social group in crisis falsifies too much. Still Trollope’s is a conventional narrative history (as envisaged by Lukacs), and I read alongside La Vendee, several relevant sections in Simon Schama’s Citizens: A [vast] Chronicle of the French Revolution and found Schama filled out and explicated what was happening in Trollope’s book (complete with good maps). I regret to say Schama’s book is much livelier and more satisfying as a novel narrative than Trollope’s mostly unrealized characters and too timid, distanced or tame scenes. OTOH, (as Eric Hobsbawm pointed out) it is fair to say Schama is also politically conservative so that the two books dovetail is not that surprising.

I have written about La Vendee online twice before: once an outline of a paper by Prof Nicholas Birns, explaining why the novel is so dependent on pictorialism, what it aims at and does not achieve (his published paper is “La Vendee: Trollope’s Early Novel of Counter-revolution and Reform,” a paper presented at NY winter Trollope Society meeting, February 21, 2013, probably in the Trollopiana for that season). Before that, when in 2000 this same listserv (then on Yahoo) had a reading and discussion (with mostly different and more people) and I appear to have enjoyed the novel more, in the context of several people posting a lot about it, and I spending a lot more time doing outside reading as we journeyed through. More recently again, Patricia Cove is convinced the novel explores what is meant by identity politics (she does not put her ideas in those terms), “‘The Blood of our Poor People,’ 1848: Incipient National Identity and the French Revolution in Trollope’s La Vendee,” Victorian literature and Culture 2016, 44, 59-76).


A depiction of the 1973 Battle of Cholet by Boutigny

This time I found the most effective scenes to be (unusual for Trollope), the more distanced scenes (for example, early on, the Vendeans resisting enforced conscription, much later, the Vendeans as refugees fleeing back to their native terrain), and the last part of the book with the scenes after the battles of desperate devastation where the characters individually rise to an occasion, reminding me now and again of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the sequence where the family (Scarlet, Melanie, Baby, Prissy) has arrived at Tara to find it ravaged, everyone distraught and Scarlet’s mother dead, and the long struggle to survive barely minimally as the war winds down but remains deadly between strangers. Especially Trollopian (as we usually imagine his texts) is the chapter where we met Cathelineau’s embittered mother. As for me Cathelineau’s behavior seems a weak early rendition of the Daniel Thwaite-Anton Trendellson type (Lady Anna, Nina Balatka, working class), I found in the crazed dying behavior of the book’s (fictional character) villian, Adolphe Denot, an anticipation of Louis Trevelyan. A loss not gotten over was the almost complete absence of Trollope’s narrator.

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Notre-Dame de Paris as first seen in the 1939 movie (director was William Dieterle)


All the parts of the cathedral seen in the film (inside and out) were built by the film-makers on a studio set

It’s hard not to conclude that the real subject of Hugo’s novel is either the cathedral, with its central argument, the gothic architecture should not be improved, renovated, changed at all; or Paris itself, with its individual streets, areas, regions, an organic growth over 400 years — two whole books with long topographical and historical chapters are given over to this. While we were reading the book, we’d notice news that the cathedrale, burnt badly last year, was undergoing this or that renovation. There is more energy and reality in Hugo’s depiction of these places than with any individual character, though admittedly he is fascinated by his “grotesque” creation of Quasimodo, to this reader, a poignantly estranged and understandably alienated disabled man; and Claude Frollo, the seethingly repressed ambitious and hence angry and dangerous priest. Gringoire has some complexity because he is made into a self-reflexive comic rendition of Hugo himself as useless poet thinking himself writing tragedy (when his best use seems to be to the goat he saves); he can be likened to Scott’s heroes (think of Ivanhoe). The king is made a malicious egocentric, terrifying as Scott’s Louis XI in Quentin Durward (which Hugo had read). The others are allegorically shaped, or one-dimensional (Frollo’s brother, Captain Phoebus). The story a paradigm.


Frollo (Cedrick Hardwicke) — it’s not often noticed he has a cat — in the book it is pity and loneliness which prompts him to rescue the deformed baby, Quasimodo

My friend and fellow-reader Tyler Tichelaar after the reading was over, wrote a blog arguing the book is shaped by a gothic existentialism. His account of the book’s genesis and elements is much more thorough than mine here, and I agree he identifies many of the gothic elements, as well as its disillusioned modern point of view — perhaps even nihilistic. I did see a direct connection between Quasimodo and Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein. The epigraph for Frankenstein comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and it’s Satan who speaks this (not Adam):

Did I request thee, Maker, from my caly
to mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? — Paradise Lost

And the desolate man with a heart filled with tender loving feelings, mocked, excluded, beaten by people in human society is just such another as the creature; he ends a skeleton enfolding the gypsy girl Esmeralda’s skeleton, all that’s left from her corpse once brought down from the gallows: during the course of the novel, she is abducted at least twice, nearly raped, her feet mangled by a torture instrument; her mother a crazed hermit, recluse twisted by her own transgressive sexual past, takes a fanatical dislike to the girl whom she only realizes is her daughter in their last minutes of life.


The King of Beggars and Gypsies (Thomas Mitchell — often in protest-benign films)

It is a radical protest book, but it seems to me as much an inditement of human nature as the deeply crazed (superstitious fanatical religion) and unjust political and social systems of the era and Hugo’s own. The world of the beggars and gypsies is as violent, inexplicably savage as the king’s: Gringoire is almost hanged for fun. The other underworlds of the era are as cold as the bourgeois women and courtship scenes we experience. Frollo’s brother is hopelessly immoral, a product of this environement.

More than with Trollope’s La Vendee, but at similar story and pictorial moments, every so often, the book would suddenly soar, sometimes for several chapters in a row: and I remember passages: Quasimodo’s love of his bells and bell ringing, perhaps the vibrations evoked deep memories.


Victor Hugo

One of our members, Judith Cheney was reading Edwards’s biography of Hugo: Judith wrote:

In the Edwards biography, the crisis he seems to think was Hugo’s realization or surmise of his wife’s affair with his best friend the literary critic Charles Saint-Beuve. He didn’t confront them but decided to keep an eye on them & still continue his daily relationship with Saint-Beuve. His wife had become cold to him, no longer wanting to comply with Hugo’s daily sexual needs (after bearing five children in whom she was also disinterested, not even seeming to like children much at all). She continued to go to mass regularly but Hugo stopped going with her as he no longer seemed interested in religion. Edwards writes that Hugo was basically a bourgeois gentleman who wanted a warm home life with a faithful wife. This he discovered he really didn’t have & the betrayal was with his best friend. He was doubly deluded & disappointed. He turned completely to his mistresses at this time & even moving & setting up his favorite nearby. He tried to go on as before with Saint- Beuve but their friendship obviously cooled as Saint Beuve did not give up Hugo’s wife. (A real Forsterian Muddle!) Edwards doesn’t describe the loss of faith as nearly as important as the crisis of the faithless wife & unsettled home-life.

Hugo loved his children & took a great part in their care & raising. He had designated times for feeding the children breakfast before he began his writing day & again time for playing with them late in the afternoon (even waking them for it if they were napping!) & again making up stories for them at their bedtimes. Everyday! I don’t know how he fitted all this in with the mistresses & regular theatre attendance & open house drop in suppers after, except by living according to this strict timetable. Reminded me a bit of Clifton Webb’s time management character in Cheaper by Dozen. Except it seems Hugo was quite a warm loving man, very humane man. I didn’t read that he ever confronted Adele or even reacted with wrath toward Saint-Beuve. All this occurred at the time he was writing Notre-Dame.


Famous exhilarating moment in the film when Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda with a rope, crying Sanctuary! Sanctuary!

I read Victor Brombert’s book on Hugo as a visionary novelist.

Brombert argues that there is no religious feeling in Notre-Dame because by the time of writing Hugo had thrown off all such belief and at the core is an emptiness rather than “metaphysical anguish” found in Hugo’s poetry. Brombert finds this utter spiritual emptiness in Frollo — for Brombert one of the two thoughful characters (the other is Gringoire). “Religion in Notre-Dame” is a “negative force,” a group of people with the power of legal violence of all sorts over everyone, with an absence of any faith or moral Christian feeling. Abandon all hope, the famous line from Dante, is appropriate here. You abandoned all hope once you entered the Comedia. Notre-Dame de Paris presents us with a world of carceral spaces. Our “monster” and the glass window of the cathedral both have a Cyclopian eye: there is an abyss in everyone, a vacuity in which some are part of the spider and his webs, and others flies (Esmeralda). Less vatically, Brombert seems to feel behind the novel is a personal crisis or crises in Hugo’s own life. He has thrown over his reactionary views and faith and looked about and now what?

A problematic sardonic laughter ends the book.

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Esmeralda about to be hunt (Maureen O’Hara) — astonishing in the haunting beauty of the still

I tried to watch the 1982 movie but found it embarrassingly bad; the 1939, a film masterpiece. My feeling is in the later 1930s-before WW2 in costume drama you were allowed to express depths of anguish and political messages, often pro-group, humane, and what we today call progressive. The 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame is against torture as horrifying, against superstition (and religious castes), for the beggars. Of course going for violence (as they do) is all wrong and shown to be, but you must also have faith in your written word — as in the film Gringoire does – and you will win out.


Gringoire (a pleasant Edmond O’Brien)

The spirit of the film is not Hugo’s, with its happy ending for our hero, Gringoire and our heroine, Esmeralda. Thomas Mitchell is a benign beggar king. There is no crazed tragic mother and it appears that Captain Phoebus did die (in the book he does not die but lives to marry the vacuous rich girl). Though the film Phoebus is not represented as the vicious male rake that we find in Hugo’s book, he is a mild rake, merely indifferent to others, careless. We have Louis XII as a sweet king, well meaning.


Anguish or cheers?

Everyone says what makes it is Charles Laughton’ acting, that he is just inimitable as the freak-deformed man, all alone — the word not applied as yet is autistic — he is on the autistic spectrum because of the way he’s been treated too. He is deaf, illiterate. But I do not underestimate the effect of the casting of Hardwicke for the seething Frollo, O’Hara for the beautiful gypsy. The cinematography is extraordinary, the use of black and white scary, of grey. The rescue, the attack on the cathedral (and it did stand for power in the catholic church). That the characters are kept distant, that the action is left enigmatic, no rationalizing away what happens is a key to its success.

I’ll end on the guillotine: it is at work in La Vendee, and if it is not in Paris in the 15th century, the human ingenuity and heartlessness that created it is. I’ve an Irish friend who — as a joke — said to me, it’s a good thing there is no guillotine stashed away in the basement of Trump’s White House.


There is also something sinister in Laughton’s depiction of Quasimodo

Ellen

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Phineas (Donal McCann) returns to London, is welcomed back into the Reform Club by Monk (Byran Pringle) and Barrrington Erle (Moray Watson) (1974 BBC Pallisers, scripted Simon Raven, 7:14)


Lady Laura (Anna Massey) greets Phineas, Christmas time, Dresden (Pallisers, 8:15)

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Days: Tuesday afternoons, 2:15 to 3:40 pm,
Sept 22 to Nov 10
8 sessions online (location of building: 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Virginia) 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

On line at: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2020/09/14/an-autumn-syllabus-phineas-redux-at-olli-at-mason/


Lady Glencora Palliser (Susan Hampshire) becoming Duchess (Pallisers 8:15)

Description of Course:

The 4th Palliser novel (Phineas Redux) brings us back to one of the two central heroes of the Parliamentary or Palliser series of Anthony Trollope’s novels, the major characters, political matters and themes of the 2nd Palliser novel (Phineas Finn) with a more complicated plot-design, a bleaker & questioning tone. We experience dramatizations of how party, ethnic, religious & colonialist politics shape & how money corrupts campaigns & political life. Competition between individuals gets mixed up with how sexual customs; marital, separation, divorce laws & male violence are working out in our characters’ more private lives. The novel dramatizes issues of fairness and investigative reporting in the criminal justice system in England over a murder case. There is a murder mystery, sleuthing; it is famous for the presence of recurring disillusioned lawyer Chaffanbrass. Although a sequel, supposed Part 2 of a very long book, it is one of Trollope’s masterpieces, and may be read on its own.

Required Text:

Trollope, Anthony. Phineas Redux, ed., introd, notes. Gregg A Hechimovich. NY: Penguin Classics, 2003. Or
—————————————–, ed., notes John Whale, introd. F.S.L. Lyons. NY: Oxford Classics, 1983.
There are readily available relatively inexpensive MP3CD sets of the novel read by Simon Vance (Blackstone) or Timothy West (Audiobook). Both are superb.

Suggested supplementary reading:

Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography and Other Writings, ed, introd., notes Nicholas Shrimpton. NY: Oxford Classics, 2014


Both paperback editions cited have the original dark picturesque illustrations by Francis Holt: here we have Lady Laura grieving with Lady Chiltern looking over her, both fearful that Phineas will be executed for the murder of Mr Bonteen, his rival and enemy.

I will bring into the discussion the 1974 BBC Palliser series, which covers all 6 Palliser novels, and is more or less faithful. They may be found in older and recent digitalized form on Amazon, also available to rent as DVDs from Netflix. Phineas Redux begins at 7:14 and ends at 10:20 (6 episodes). These are splendid experiences and can add considerably to your enjoyment of Trollope’s texts.


The Duchess cons Mr Bonteen (Peter Sallis) into making an arrogant fool of himself at dinner (Pallisers, 8:16)


The Maule story in the film series, scenes in the park, Adelaide Palliser (Jo Kendall), Gerald Maule (Jeremy Clyde) and Lord Fawn (Derek Jacobi) (Pallisers 8:16)

If you can find the time to read An Autobiography, I will be bringing in Trollope’s life as a novelist as he saw it, as we go along and end on his book about him: his art, the roots of the politics in the Anglo-Irish novels, the literary marketplace and magazines & periodicals of the day.

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 22: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; male and female careers. Read for coming week, Phineas Redux, Chapters 1-12, An Autobiography, Chs 1-3

Sept 29: 2nd week: Transition & Political Context; Marital & sexual norms. Hunting. Read for coming week, PR, Chs 13-25; An Autobiography, Chs 4-6

Oct 6: 3rd week: Inheritance, hierarchy, death, the press. Read for coming week, PR, Chs 26-38; An Autobiography, Chs 7-9

Oct 13: 4th week: Unscrupulous politics. Trollope’s depiction of Daubeny (Disraeli lies behind the character). Read for the coming week, PR, Chs 38-50; An Autobiography, Chs 10-12

Oct 20: 5th week: A murder mystery. How differently Trollope handles the genre. Trial scenes, lawyers, the law, sleuthing. PR, Chs 51-63; An Autobiography, Chs 13-15

Oct 27: 6th week: Phineas’ depression, Lady Laura’s case. Read for the coming week, PR, Chs 64-76; An Autobiography, Chs 16-18

Nov 3: 7th week: How the book concludes somewhat realisticall. Read for the following week, PF, Chs 76-80; An Autobiography, “Other Writings,” from Thackeray, from “A Walk in the Woods.”

Nov 10: 8th week: The Palliser series, anticipating The Prime Minister (if the class would like to go on). Trollope as an artist, one of the inventors of the political novel.


Madame Max Goesler (Barbara Murray) commiserating with Mrs Meager (Sheila Fay) while eliciting information (Pallisers 9:18)

Significant articles and books on or including Phineas Redux:

Epperly, Elizabeth. Patterns of Repetition in Trollope. Washington, D.C. Catholic University, 1989.
Frank, Cathrine. “Divorce, Disestablishment and Home Rule” in Phineas Redux, College Literature, 35:3 (2008):35-56.
Halperin, John. Trollope & Politics: A Study of the Pallisers & Others. Macmillan Press, 1977.
Lindner, Christoph. “Sexual Commerce in Trollope’s Phineas Novels, ” Philological Quarterly, 79:3 (2000 Summer), pp. 343-63. (Very dull, but the only essays to accurately describe the depiction of women sexually and in relationship to any power in the Phineas books).
McCourt, John. Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland. Oxford UP, 2015.
Mill, John Stuart, The Subjection of Women. Broadview Press, 2000. Online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645s/
Steinbach, Susie. Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th century Britain. London: Routledge, 2012.
Vicinus, Martha Independent women: Work & Community for Single Women, 1850-1930. Virago, 1985. See my summary analysis: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2019/01/11/martha-vicinuss-independent-women-work-community-for-single-women-1850-1930/


Mr Chaffanbrass (Peter Vaughn) explaining some of his attitudes before the trial (Pallisers: 9:18)


The two friends, Lady Glen and Madame Max (Pallisers, 9:19)

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Del (Brian Dennehy) and Cody (Lucas Jaye) companionable silence on Del’s front porch (Driveways, 2019, Andrew Ahn)


Dr Daniel Larcher (Robin Renucci) on trial (A French Village, Season 6)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s not that I’m not reading a number of books (if you are wondering why no postings on individual good books for some weeks now), but that I am reading so many I have a hard time getting to the end of any particular one. A more positive reason for another blog on on-line movies is I worry one will disappear from the on-line theaters and I want to put together the rest of my thoughts on the other before re-watching all seven seasons once again.


Kathy (Hong Chau), mother of Cody (Driveways)

Driveways is a suggestive title: the inference of the use of driveways for human encounters in the story is that the US has become a place where opportunities for entering the general community are so rare, space for public interaction so distrustful and therefore fraught, that driveways become a major artery to the uncompanioned heart. The US as shown in this film fosters aloneness through a lack of social structures. You have constantly to be on the move, or it doesn’t matter where you live as you connect through the ubiquitous Internet (for which however you must have electricity). For old people a bare bingo place with rigid rules; for the young a noisy neon-lit darkened areas. Junk food everywhere, what people eat not quite recognizable as food. OTOH, many of the driveways are double and it could be suggested that all these driveways keep people apart as they have little way of meeting one another as they jump in and out of their cars.

We’re given a touching, intelligent, quiet – not improbable pair of stories. Yes this favored sentimental trope of the boy (rarely if ever a girl) at the center finds a kindly father-brother figures, but unlike many such stories, all the circumstances surrounding their relationship do not flinch from realities. Among the non-flinching is at the end the old man is going to live in a unit far away because it is actually the best thing for him to maintain independence and get some care from someone who can be relied on – his daughter, said to be a judge. It’s too far for Cody and his mother, Kathy, to even visit Del. The theme of the movie is not friendship or kindness; it’s that in their situation friendship and kindness is a kind of band-aid that helps pass the time fleetingly but cannot keep people together. Although the story is set in New York State we are never told the name of the town;. I thought that was to suggest this is Everywhere bourgeois America. It’s the situation all are in that’s the core of the story’s narrative.


Driving together — she offers to drive Del to where he needs to go

A single mother – in a flashback we see how she met the father – in a shooting gallery, a bar – he phones her once and it’s clear she wants nothing to do with him nor does he know much about her. And displaced son. Remarkably controlled and effective performances from Hong Chau as Kathy and Lucas Jaye as her 8 year old son. Across the way an aging not well man, widower, who is dependent on others to drive him places, Del, the rightly much respected admired Brian Dennehy – still remembered for his conception and realization of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, also in Long Day’s Journey into Night & other such plays. I never saw them but read he played the role of Willy as hard, brash, real mean on the surface — and also originally successful. The two reviews I read (Ebert.com and NY Times) said he made long career by being the authority figure male. So he is here, but now in tender vein, sensitive mode.

Kathy is cleaning out her dead sister’s house which she must do before the real estate person will sell it for her. A big deal is made over how much stuff the sister had – why not? She lived her life and expressed herself through what she gathered — I have a lot of stuff, a nest of comforts all around me — but it does seem as if life literally overwhelmed her. Her cat died and she never noticed. Kathy brings the unfortunate animal out in a plastic black garbage bag but Cody, determined to provide some dignity for the creature, is helped by Del to bury it. Kathy’s job not one to make for connections or rootedness. She writes up medical reports sent her. She need not be anywhere near anybody – it’s also tenuous too probably.

So no one to have a birthday party with – mother and son rescued by the old man in the bingo place and what Tennessee Williams called the Kindness of Strangers. The old man’s happiest memories bound up with his experiences of the Korean war, friends he made there. That says a lot about the US too.

Both reviews complained the film was understated. Well, what a relief. The problem with Fisherman’s Friends was it was forced, forced situations, hyped up exhilaration. You’re at risk of not being pulled in, said another critic.  Right. The film didn’t have ratcheted up melodramatic high points, but its moments of understanding and quiet respect shine out. Del’s long eloquent speech at closure about his regret over opportunities lost, his life too hurried over is then its high point – and the lows, quiet depths, like in the flashback where we see Kathy walk away from said probable father with a lie, are given space and feel.

For me the worst was the humor I was supposed to feel at the transparent ignorance of the nearby white neighbor, Linda (Christine Ebersole). A nosy-body and unconscious racist. I wasn’t amused but I suppose there’s something farcical in how she mistakes fireworks set off by her own bullying son for a terrorist attack. She does make the boy apologize – we can say that for the character.


The library provides rare community space for people to be together.

It’s probably not a film that transcends in any way — except maybe Dennehy’s final eloquence. The movie had so many intriguing differently arranged shots: in the car, suddenly from on high, odd angles. It’s artful.   The producer’s name that comes first is James Schamus. He has had a long career of fine and often low budget movies: with Ang Lee (Taiwanese) a long while back Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride like the Devil. The writers Hannah Bros and Paul Thurteen say in the feature they were reflecting incidents in their own lives. The message: the devastation of the US economy and social life as a result of unmodified disaster capitalism has turned lives into bleak minimal encounters uplifted by rare spirits with kindness and needed friendship meeting now and again.

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Hortense Larcher (Audrey Fleurot) humiliated by chopping off her hair for having had an affair with a Nazi male (this was done to women in France in 1945)

I’ve now written twice about A French Village, probably more times in passing, but in more detailed way just twice, about the opening two seasons (years, 12-13 episodes each in the DVD arrangement) and then seasons three to four (Scroll down). I’ve been so moved and taught so much by seasons 5-7 I want for a third time to convey something of this experience you should not miss.

Season 5: It opens with an ironic title: Paris is liberated. What happens is what when once it is apparent the hideous people in charge during a war are losing, will lose, and may end up killed, all hell breaks loose and no one is safe. People begin killing individualistically. War is a time when killing is allowed, even encouraged, worse gloried in. So these Nazis go about now carrying on last minute spiteful killing (as it were). We see one sadist bully a young officer into shooting to death two children. The collaborators are busy trying more openly to get the Resistance people to help them. People are fleeing who can and are amoral; suddenly many care nothing for relationship or the place. It’s not an original insight but it is courageous and good and salutary of this group of film-makers to show us this happening. This is so rare. It is deeply anti-war.


Marie Germaine

In episode 3 another major character is killed — hung — I saw it coming, or worried about the character, Marie Germaine (Nade Dieu). What is again brilliant is with how much depth she was seen, how unsentimental the depiction — maybe that’s why the stories feel so exemplary. Now I see that Marie was too alone, too solitary and too determined. Raymond Schwartz her first lover (and the chief male star of the series as far as the French TV audience is concerned, Thierry Godard) long ago estranged sort of, but now back with Marie, driven to be in the Resistance – his wife attached herself to a chief collaborator who became the new mayor, but in the dangerous mayhem now ensuing executed as an “example.” So don’t be a collaborator if your idea is to save yourself. We witness a horrifically cruel spiteful scene; just before they leave the Nazis hang 5 men in front of the villagers, many of whom are related. Marie is beginning to, Raymond suddenly declares, take too many risks, and as with real people I’m now seeing that she was too determined, frantic almost to blow up the bridge. (In these war movies one side or other is ever trying to blow up a bridge — this happens in War and Peace.) She risks her life for this symbol under fire to reach a connective wire and Raymond pulls her back. She then flees because she says she must contact someone else. She should have stayed with her companions.

She is unexpectedly captured, and about to be shot, but events turn, and turn again and what happens is she lands under guard with the occasionally remorseful but also brutal Jean Marchetti (Nicolas Gob) in charge. He has been guilty before and he has begun to start negotiations, lets people go, but she needles him, curses and calls him coward and drives him to drive his men to hang her. How sudden the whole moment is. How senseless. She had lost perspective. Raymond worried for her, Anselme says how she combines discretion with courage. She forgot her discretion.

I thought about how at the end of a 17th century memoir I’ve read by a Scotswoman on the king’s side who cannot understand how it could be that a minority of people could murder the king. I’ve finally got the answer: all it takes is land in the custody of someone who is lethal with his own rage with a gun and a group of people who will obey him.

I began to feel for people I thought I couldn’t -l Heinrich Muller (Richard Sammet) the Sadistic Nazi officer flees with Hortense and they are behaving like Tristan and Isolde — just about — or Jamie and Claire Fraser (Outlander)

I never fully imagined what the scenes must be in war zones just as one side declares victory and the other defeat — from somewhere else, as it must be a particular places or places that such things are declared. I should say some characters manage to keep some minimum of morality intact. Interestingly beyond Dr Larcher (we expect this but he is more honest now as to why he collaborated) and the hero of the parade Antoine (Martin Loizillon). There is an attempt of the cooler heads to try to return to decent behavior but we see how horrible the need for revenge, for an assertion of some pride turns people into horrible actors. Larcher asks if they can kill all the collaborators? All the militia? On principle, no, but they will kill who they have at the moment …. I became so nervous for the characters I want them to live. Jules Beriot (Francois Loriquet) kills his first person, Kurt, the German man his wife, Lucienne (Marie Kremer) now openly prefers to him; Beriot smothers the half burnt sufferer to death. At the ball he had been the same merry cheerful man we met in the second season. Old relationships and new re-assert themselves; at the same time, people turning on one another. Larcher had sound real plan for town and Beriot would have been the mayor, but they are not allowed; they are not perceived as powerful enough. Antoine, now the police chief, arrests Marchetti (neat ironical reversal), Rita (Marchetti’s Jewish love, Axelle Maricq) gone missing


Now Suzanne, Antoine and Anselme (guerilla fighter, farmer-peasant, Bernard Blancan) elevated briefly as judges in trial meant to justify executing the French who acted as militia for the Nazis

Season 6: This is for me continually educational. In this light the experience is superior to most books — this is rare for a film. Season 5 we see how many relationships fall apart, how few people seem to have learned any humanity or understanding of what justice is after years of living under vindictive injustice. They are meting out to others who were often not responsible or on lower rungs what was meted out to them. Now the war is definitely finished, people back to civilian life so traits that had been valued by people in war no longer are no longer — so Antoine is no longer valued as he is working class, even especially as he is a man of integrity. The old hierarchical relationships spring up again. Marie Germain herself left a thug of a son, Raoul, who kills indiscriminately to avenge her (so he claims); she was surrounded by unthinking uneducated people. It’s a matter of chance who is punished, who not. Unexpected bad results: Gustave (Maxim Driesen), Marcel Larcher’s beloved son, Daniel’s beloved nephew, growing up, is in danger of becoming a criminal as he has taken up with angry young men who are genuinely bad people. Our favorites even behave badly under the pressure of other behaving unfairly: Beriot now all ambition, cold and mean to Lucienne (weary of failing to make her love him). A rare spirit of consistent humanitarianism and usefulness and reason is Dr Larcher.


Beriot in effect tries to rise above his station as principal or teacher — but finds he cannot

Larcher makes another moving speech about truth but it doesn’t help; he is not executed but “merely” dishonored. It is noteworthy that Marchetti, as we first see him is an ambitious man looking to be promoted and in class below the Larchers. His willingness to be brutal, to kill and his leadership qualities (like Antoine) leads him to be put at the head of the Villeneuve police for the Vichy gov’t. Servier who is executed for making up a list of 20 and cutting it down to 10 — was a nobody, a child who followed others — and he had married up, an arranged marriage.


The phony ceremony

The sixth season shows a remarkable innovation: We are used to flashbacks where people remember the dead. The innovation is these memories are scenes we were not privy to in the earlier parts of the movie mostly: no, thes were memories we didn’t know the character had. So it meant the actors are called back to act again, but now as haunting and haunted figures, memories evoked by the new lies everyone is determined to tell – about who was a resister, who not. Antoine sees Claude, his friend who he was forced to desert to save himself and others, walking about the phony ceremony which excludes communists (to thank the Resisters). We see how immediately all communists are excluded even if it means completely distorting who the Resisters were — there is a refusal to commemorate them. No Marcher Larcher street because he was a communist.


Jeannine threatening Raymond

They even all go back to the kinds of people they were only writ large, desperate. Lucienne takes to emotionally torturing a priest who we see emotionally twists her. Strong anti-catholicism there. Last seen poor Raymond Schwartz is frantically shagging his wife, Jeannine away. He has in him a good deal to be better as we see from what he has to say — “do you realize so many died” to his amoral imbecile egregiously snobbish wife (Jeanine’s father is never seen; it’s his power and money that sustain her — Emmanuelle Bach) — but he seem unable to rid of him of the connection because he wants to be the Big Businessman. One of the four resisters Antoine had to desert is forever maimed mentally — in an asylum — a sweet man. Hortense goes out to buy herself many hats and is last seen trying them all on. We do learn (flashback that informs us of something hew) she was a miserably abused child.

The Americans are angry it seems since one of theirs was murdered by Gustave who enters the adult world this way. I’ve seen a number of movies and read plays where one of a group of rebels insists that one of the members kill himself to prove himself. So deep does bullying and the ability to withstand or obey it go deep into human grouping. Who would be part of a group then. There are no features but my guess is anonymous letters such as we see here were common after the war — people destroying others out of seething destructive emotions.


Raymond receiving an anonymous poisoned letter

The film does justice done to how women are still treated. Genevieve (sister to the man who was coerced into murdering children (he could have been shot had he not done it) and was then brutally mocked and hanged — Genevieve is raped while Antoine is gone. At first Antoine distrusts her! — did she want it? they go to the police station and there is Alain Loriot (Olivier Soler) still in charge; he treats her like a suspect; only Antoine’s insistence (the male) makes Loriot file a complaint. Later when the trial comes on it appears a black man was blamed, and he did not rape her. She is offered 30,000 francs to drop the case and she does, thus enabling Antoine to escape Jeannine’s bullying of Raymond and the strike. He and Genevieve will live out their lives in peace as farmers with a family of children.


Marcher Larcher (Fabrizio Rongione) and Gustave as a child brought back as memories

The last 7th season: shorter than the others. It goes back and forth in time: sometimes we are in 1946-46, then in 1975, and last in 2001. But somehow coherence is kept and we know where we are, and thus the stories are condensed but given full depth. Several of our characters are now living hard lives –- fast forward they are very old and state still refusing to care for them; from being exploited driven at sawmill, to striking. 1975 Beriot and Lucienne hate one another and she pours poison into his wine; Larcher and Hortense don’t get along but it is not a matter of hatred; she is ill, he is so hurt; Tequiero, grown up (the baby they stole and then adopted) is an oddly estranged man – he too will not forgive Larcher. The story of the Larchers is still a mainstay: what happens is Hortense has a nervous breakdown and has angry delusions, is spiteful and Larcher is finally driven to put her in an asylum where she is badly treated; when he pulls her out he discovers that his business has been destroyed by the verdict; few will come to him for doctoring and so they move to Paris; as the episode begins they have returned to exhibit her art (Larcher ever kind) and he meets once again Gustave grown old. Leonor has left him. Tequiero never left the village.

Jeannine the hateful fascist-type still; Raymond trying to reach yet another woman … sometimes they’ve aged the actor and sometimes they seem to have hired another who looks very like the younger man (hard to tell). The two Jewish people (one Rita, who loved Marchetti after all and is with him when he dies from the poison she brings him so he will not have to face a firing squad) Rita and the Jewish man who survived so luckily are murdered in the earliest phases of Jewish occupation of Israel. Many return to mild or strong corruption – some yield immediately others hold out or try to – hold out include Raymond, Suzanne, Edmond (a communist leader), Loriot, Larcher is ignorant of Hortense’s misery when he puts her in asylum for a month – horrible treatment, pulverizing her to get her to obey society – repeatedly motif is that a letter or info does not get to Larcher. When he does realize only a life where he had authority teaches him how to threaten in the effective way and extract her.


Lucienne and Beriot are the same actors aged enormously; Francoise their daughter (actually Kurt’s) now takes care of them at intervals; she pushes his wheelchair

The technique of using as flashbacks things that occurred in the past that we didn’t see is brilliant. I wondered why no one else does this. We catch up with old stories. The actors come on again. And they use tiny things to reassure. We think finally some husband is about to kill Raymond in 1975 but then in the last moments of the series, a note arrives from Raymond (it’s not 2001) apologizing for not coming to Hortense’s funeral so we know he survived and we do not need to see him. We know who and what he is and he will not have changed. Antoine, another hero who rescues Anselme from becoming the town drunk — last seen in a govt’ office trying to get money to help Genevieve, who now has Alzheimers. No one will help him because he hasn’t got the documentation. He has a heart attack and we last see him in a hospital. We continually witness later in life lives are not rounded out happily as they are just about all the time in fast forwards.


Larcher and Hortense are the same actors made much older

In the 7th season we have several encounters with the communists or non-communist resisters and they say over and over, did we do this to have this tin-pot second rate general in charge? Who is de Gaulle? where was he for the four years? And we see the French state not changed at all — I mentioned Antoine can’t get help for his aging wife. Most telling is those who were police in the Vichy era and didn’t like it (DeKevern) turn to be police in the de Gaulle era and their behavior every bit as amoral, maybe more so, more ruthless, less compunction. DeKevern is a much worse man without Judith (who died so long ago now) by his side. In reaction to the strike, they send in riot police. Raymond Schwartz tries to fix a compromise but his wife sabotages it and the communists and resisters want the strike to build themselves up. Suzanne then does emerge as an intelligent heroine (you see her as the one woman on councils) and arranges a negotiation. But Edmond, the leader, lies and — since he as the man is phoned — the police come. Had this been the US, I’m sure there’d have been a massacre. But individuals, Raymond especially active and listened to, manages to cool things done, assert in place they have an agreement — Anselme is killed because like Marie he has lost all perspective. The Nazi officer,  Muller, is last seen working for the CIA again torturing people. But someone, a woman gets lose, and I think manages to shot him dead in the face.

In the back and forth we see how Hortense has driven Larcher beyond coping with her. She puts the boy into a closet, locks him in, and he knows could ruin the story of Santa for him (how guilty that made me feel — but also that others have done this). So he puts her in an asylum; he thinks she spitefully lied to tell him Sarah had died; the Jewish maid whom he says is the only person who ever loved him. But he learns the story was in fact true.


The parade (end of 4th season) in memory becomes a cherished moment of their existences, a high point of courage and identity

I was deeply moved by the final close: at the end the our central true hero, Dr Larcher dies — he is very old. It’s supposed to be 2001. His adopted son, Tequiero and Gustave, now men in their thirties attempt to solace him and say they will visit and he is to come to them now Hortense has died. They leave and we see him puttering about, but he has a bad memory, and then a heart attack, writhes, falls to the ground. His brother comes to him in a vision and tells him something he did as a child was noble. He has been a noble spirit throughout — human with failings, trying his best, sometimes very blind — someone says of him in this last hour he could enter into other people’s cases — the thing is in the series we see how few people can. He walks off at last with Marcel. A vision.

One real reservation; no heroine in the series comes near either Larcher or Beriot (most of the time) or Antoine.  The values we are most to value throughout intelligence, self-control, steadiness, calm, altruism, a real distrust for violence, individual integrity.  Among the women, Marie Germaine comes closest, but she dies too young and she is too thoughtless, impulsive, she (we are made to feel), should have stayed by the side of Raymond towards the end where she would have been safe. That says it all. The good women are the ones who want to be and are faithful wives. In the end Lucienne is — she tried but we discover failed to poison Beriot. And her last words are: I was there – at the parade. The parade is the great memory of everyone’s lives.


Marchetti trying to help Suzanne Richard (Constance Dolle) as communist resister

Suzanne comes near but her activity as a communist is not sympathized with. After all, as a whole, the series does justice to the communists — I had not realized how many of the resistance people were communist and the series shows how communists were sidelined, repressed — done in.  But Suzanne will not only murder in hot rages, just throws off her husband, has several lovers, she eggs others on to kill in revenge. Those women who are very active are criticized as promiscuous or mean.  So the series is I’d say, if not misogynist or anti-feminist, definitely masculinist in its outlook. All sorts of things revealed, among them many women at the end of the occupation were shattered — some ended up in awful asylums, treated horribly, shocked and starved to death. Never take anyone to an asylum (like almost never call a cop) say I.


One of several trailers — this for the 6th season into 7th

I shall start watching from the beginning tomorrow night. It’s like a huge complex novel.

Now I have the companion book too – In French from French Amazon, a hardback cost less than the paperback – I didn’t see an ebook. It’s a beautiful book, sewn, on art paper, glorious pictures. Lots of information about the occupation — and explanations for the stories I didn’t understand, what many characters and events stood for. I got a used copy — hardbacks come cheaper than paperbacks once the books is used. Names of everyone, and in most cases the name of the actor/actress. The moving spirits, the historians, film-makers, diplomats, script writers, all named: centrally the film was shaped by Jean-Pierre Aczema, a historian. I hope, gentle reader, you have learned something from all three postings on this remarkable French TV series.


The companion book for the series

Ellen

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How she looks while you are watching.

Dear friends,

I usually reserve this space for cultural events, talk or writing about books, movies, theater, operas, concerts, visual art, but I thought I’d break my self-control or habit/convention here, and offer a URL to Angela Merkel’s speech to the German people — and by extension as it was put onto the Internet with translations into other languages than German. For us living in the US (and people in the UK too), there is nothing like this from anyone with authority or power to make the words operative for us. In the US all we have has from POTUS is more lies about himself (now he knew about the pandemic before anyone else) and more attempts to hurt the American people and anyone else living on the landmass of the US (to say nothing of those he can affect outside it). I don’t know if you can reach this — I hope so — that it is translated if you do not understand German. I heard the German with an over-voice of English, so I heard her tones.

I found it terribly moving, the kind of thing so moving that (as Scott said of one of Johnson’s poems) you don’t cry: Angela Merkel speaking to the German people. I do feel bitter shame that there is probably not one person in the US who could have spoken like this and has no chance whatsoever:

https://www.dw.com/en/merkel-coronavirus-is-germanys-greatest-challenge-since-world-war-two/a-52830797

Here is a further explanation

I accompany this with a URL to the John Hopkins’ Corona Site

Thus far three of the four courses at an Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning attached to American University that I was set to teach (one) and take (two) are cancelled or probably so; the same one (The Novels of E.M. Forster) I’ve cancelled at the OLLI at Mason. I cannot do Zoom and remote access; not simple or easy, it’s a complicated difficult process as teacher, & beyond me without a lot of training in my house, someone sitting next to me. For my style of teaching, I would not be able to transfer what I can do face-to-face, in a room where all the people are together, so all equally there, participating potentially and actually, with nothing recorded. My younger daughter who lives with me will by Tuesday be working from home (teleworking) at her job as a librarian: she is learning how and on Tuesday a laptop will be brought to her from where she works and she will link in through that.

I wrote about the pandemic from an autobiographical stance. I have been reporting (sending what I consider important information and essays and or videos (Sanders’ fireside chat) perhaps overlooked by mainstream and other media, for example when Trump and his cronies tried to buy a German company working at producing a vaccine to create a monopoly for himself (then he said it was the US) so he could grow rich and/or weaponize the virus and vaccine; or when he for weeks denied the seriousness of the pandemic situation (falsifying analogies).

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How to comfort and strength ourselves individually and within our own circles of companions? Humor, an absorbing sincere intelligent movie or movie-series, reading (of course), writing or what you do that you value as an occupation (hobby, or a vocational endeavour). So I leave you for today with an example I hope of each: a little Gilbert and Sullivan cheer:

I am the very model of effective social distancing!
I listen to the experts on the topic of resistance-ing;
I know that brunch and yoga class aren’t nearly as imperative
As doing what I can to change the nation’s viral narrative.

I’m very well acquainted, too, with living solitarily
And confident that everyone can do it temporarily:
Go take a walk, or ride a bike, or dig into an unread book;
Avoid the bars and restaurants and carry out, or learn to cook.

There’s lots of stuff to watch online while keeping safe from sinus ills
(In this case, it’s far better to enjoy your Netflix MINUS chills)!
Adopt a pet, compose a ballad, write some earnest doggerel,
And help demolish Trump before our next event inaugural.

Pandemics are alarming, but they aren’t insurmountable
If everybody pitches in to hold ourselves accountable.
In short, please do your part to practice prudent co-existence-ing,
And be the very model of effective social distancing!
Eliza Rubenstein (rated)

For fun in the unlikely event that you’ve never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? “A Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance:

A modern version: Tom Lehrer on the Periodic Table:

“A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” — the patter expressed as dancing, another production of The Pirates of Penzance:

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A still from the first episode

Try Un Village Francois: a friend characterized it accurately thus: “a fictional treatment of the Nazi occupation of a village in France. It speaks to our present struggles to cope with the latest version of ethno-nationalism/fascism [here in the US]. Many many movies in this realm but this stood out for me because of its sincerity , brilliant acting, and intelligence.” It is available on Amazon Prime (if you are member) or maybe bought (from Amazon again) as 5 seasons of DVDs

We see and experience what occupation means when several groups of Nazi troops come in, take over a village: it begins with planes appear over the village dropping bombs, and then troops come in fully armed, preventing freedom of movement, immediately instituting all sorts of (often absurd unrealizable) demands o people to teach them to obey but also to take from them all their wealth, many of their places to live in, to meet others in — achieved by implacable bullying backed up by indiscriminate and spiteful killing.

From the 2nd episode of 18, the individual characters and family groups begin to emerge, the two central male protagonists are a doctor in the village and a Jewish businessman. The mayor has fled. The doctor’s wife is childless and in this episode manages to rescue a fragile infant whose mother died giving birth to it — the baby was in danger of a jealous nun insisting on putting it into an orphanage where it would die. The doctor is a magnificent ordinary man who acts decently and courageously and sensibly and helps organize the villagers but is helpless against the ruthless brutality of the Nazis who just murder indiscriminately. The Jewish businessman’s wife thinks very well of herself and is suing the school for being responsible for some hurt her child received – not dead and it is an attack in effect on the teacher. He maneuvers to gain access to a single woman who is working temporarily as a nurse, she is married, her husband away and we see them making love after he has pursued her by a bridge. We see him drawn into collaboration with the Germans, agreeing to use his wood-making business to make objects for them, in return for favorable treatment (like a pass across a bridge).

What is important is the atmosphere and to see how social and gov’t structures just collapse under a fascistic and militaristic onslaught. We who live in fear that Trump will postpone the coming election and get away with it as another step in the direction of the lives of these victimized French villagers have a parable for our times before us. We experience the hidden lives of people like ourselves. It is inspiriting to watch how these people cope.


The poster for the series: To live is to make your choices

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C.S. Lewis came to mind as I watched: from his Epilogue to An Experiment in Criticism. “…we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. …. The secondary impulse [of each person] is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.” … “This … is the specific value or good of literature considered as Logos [something said]; it admits us to experiences other than our own.” (139) “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.” (pp 137-40). Lewis does not imagined experience need be autobiographically true on the author’s part; the good reader is not seeking to learn about the author in any direct way, but to see the world as he or she saw it ..


Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), Episode 4 (Wolf Hall)

Of course he is speaking of books (but such a movie functions as books too) so (I suggest only if you’ve read the first two volumes) hunkering down with Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.

As it opens, after the initial sense of groups of lethal Catholics at bay for Cromwell’s head, the narrative switches to Cromwell’s trying to carve out some space for the king to operate in calm and legitimately. To do that Henry VIII must be regarded as legitimate (still not a matter of course by any means), have legitimate heirs who can take over: Richmond, the illegitimate son, fatuous, mean-minded; or the disabled half-crazed Mary who yet has an integrity attached to her religion and affections; “he, Cromwell” must deal with an unstable distrustful and now openly murderous king. Threaded through all this Cromwell’s re-lived memories of the hideous executions that ended Bring Up the Body. I love the return to the characters who love Cromwell, Rafe, his wife, Helen, Cromwell’s nephew, Richard, the people in his household still alive. It is Rafe who persuades Mary Tudor to sign a document saying she will accede to the idea her mother was not married to her father, and Henry is the head of the state and a new church. A friend reading with me quipped when our computers seemed to go awry at the word “epidemic” that what we need in our state today is a Cromwell at the head, and Rafe his Man Friday

I [Cromwell-like] want to grab a quill, write something, and hand it off to Rafe. “Deliver this at once, Rafe. ‘Wait for an answer.'”

I’ve never seen a historical fiction lean so heavily on the knowledge of the reader of the ending and what happens for a couple of decades afterward. Elizabeth as a baby is constantly described as grotesque, fat, absurd ginger hair, useless to anyone but Lady Bryan who took care of Henry’s children after he rid himself of Catherine and would not let Mary stay with her and executed Anne; all the while we know that Elizabeth grew to be an able wonderful leader. The book is also profoundly anti-Catholic as profoundly against atavastic thinking and cruel tyrannies (mirroring 2020).

It’s another haunted book: Cromwell now carries with him in his mind and among his material objects his remembered wife, Liz, of course Wolsey, others; at the same time, it’s hard to get into, the erudition in effect expected of you is enormous: the people at an event know why Henry’s sister, Margaret Tudor’s daughter, Meg aka Margaret Douglas, is there to carry Jane Seymour’s train, but we cannot get the jokes unless we know, for example, that (to us a minor historical figure) Margaret Tudor married more than one man, who she went to bed with, whose child Meg is, because Margaret’s heirs (outside Meg who is probably illegitimate) are rivals to Henry (Mary Queens of Scots is her grand-daughter & Meg’s niece).

Colin Burrows (in London Review of Books, alas behind a paywall) has again understood Mantel and here the problems of his magnificent book, which is attempting to mirror our own deeply threatened uneasy time. From Burrow’s review:

These darkening memories make it seem as though the unenactable revenge plot against Henry has been driven underground and become a process of internal retribution, in which Cromwell’s own memories make him come to see himself as the brutal king that historians once believed him to be. When he is finally imprisoned in the Tower, these memories become ghosts who visit him as he waits to die … The episode of Margaret Douglas’s bethrothal also allows Mantel to play some of the elegant games with historical sources which have been one of the less obvious pleasures of this series. Thomas Howard [a new character in the series] wrote several love poems to Margaret Douglas, and she wrote some in return. These survive in the Devonshire Manuscript, a poetic miscellany gathered and curated by a group of women at the Henrican court (Mary Shelton, Mantel writes, ‘was clerk of the poetry book). Howard’s inept versification becomes a running joke.

We will need another movie series to realize the book fully — for it cries out for that, depends on our memories of the movie or stage play. I hope all the wonderful actors who were in Wolf Hall will return.

The lovely cover of the British edition and a limited 300 copies signed by Mantel (Herself!)

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So, to my gentle readers, stay in, wash your hands, try to stay well, do what you can to back leaders who will do something effective to help you with for your possible insolvency and medical bills, don’t let irrational fear drive you into hoarding any items you see in the supermarket which strike you as non-perishable — and find what pleasure and uplift and meaning in life you can during this time of social distancing (and all this will cost us individually) for the good of us all …


Us by Olga Pastuchiv, cover illustration for Fe-Lines: French Cat Poems through the Ages

Ellen

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Opening moments of Fortunes of War (1987 BBC 7 part series)

Dear friends,

Tonight I had intended to write a blog-essay on the first two novels of Manning’s superb six volume cycle of novels, Balkan Trilogy followed by Levantine Trilogy set across World War Two (1939-44) and its equally fine film adaptation by Plater and Jones, Fortunes of War, famously starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. But I find to my slight amazement, I’ve already written a blog on precisely this material, where I had also finished The Great Fortune, and reached the end of the second novel, The Spoilt City and vowed to go on to the third, Friends and Heroes, and then the second trilogy — and never did. (I have begun Friends and Heroes.) As when I first began reading these novels for two sessions of a five session course at Politics and Prose (bookstore in Northwest Washington DC), and discovered my mind was a complete blank over them (I forgot I had made my files of notes), so I had completely forgotten this blog.

I know why. I read the novels during the first half of the summer when Jim was dying but I thought he might live and then had the shock of realizing the doctors had filled us (or me) with false hope and allowed, nay encouraged him to take a dreadful operation (an esophagectomy) on the supposition it could help stop the spread of the cancer. It did no such thing, and when the cancer metatasized into his liver, his inability to eat anything without having it slosh back with acid and sour tastes of the worst sort made the last two and one half months of his existence a yet worse hell than even it was.

2013 was a long time ago now. Seven years have gone by in my life, and I’ve changed a lot and had many new experiences (yet not changed at all and remain the same person unable to do very different things — mostly because I don’t want to). I remember reading somewhere the body replaces itself every seven years. More to the point for Manning’s books and TV series, the political world has shifted dramatically so that my perspective at the time — one where I compared the art of the books to the art of Jane Austen — emerges as obtusely unimportant, showing how this influence led to the making of a more delicate nuanced art, but missing or de-emphasizing why one reads these books and what made them important in shifting political world of 1970s as a reflection of the world of the calamitous 1940s. I grant my old blog this much: I retell the basis story and outline the themes of two of the books and the movie. But in 2013 we still had Barack Obama as president, and however troubling was the state of the world and retrograde many of the attitudes in public that dominated over social, sexual, economic, political life inside the US and the cultures worlds like it, all that is nothing to what this US gov’t, the public world of our society, and all sorts of norms have become or been contested into since Trump took office in January 2016.

Suddenly Manning’s depiction of how the average person will experience the step-by-step closing in of a military dictatorship, disintegration of many aspects of society (from closing of schools, to wiping out of all sorts of accustomed freedoms — like movement, to new forms of imprisonment, destruction of social services, many protections), ruthless killing in say the streets and just over the hill of the skies in another country (where “anything goes”) is starkly relevant. This first part or the first three novels are basically a woman’s view of war, what she gets to see (a lot) and how she copes with it. The second three take us to Egypt and into the desert war where the characters who dominate (or become Harriet’s friends) are men fighting in battle and coming back shell-shocked; we witness war itself, the blowing up of people, of trucks, of towns directly. Gentle reader, I cannot rewrite the blog nor do I want to transfer it so I leave it to you to read the details of its summary up to the third of six books and about the TV film series.


An evening in the Pringles’ flat in Rumania ….

To that I want to bring out this time the brilliance of making Yakimov as third central character through the first trilogy. Because he is so perceptive, alienated and amoral, yet calm because he expects nothing else, his reflection as a mirror of say the fearful and hurryingly hidden passengers on the trains, the seeming and real luxury of the hotel lobbies become electrifyingly frightening in an uneasy tragi-comedy. I want to do more justice to Harriet as our moral commentator: she registers far more than I was giving her credit for. Guy is not a joke, but a genuine idealist and sociable man whose idealism as socialist-communism, and lack of personal ambition, his philosophy wholly inadequate. That’s important.


Ronald Pickup as Yakimov — oddly we grow very fond of him, our Pandor, despite his betrayal of his friends — he is suddenly senselessly killed

There is also Manning’s uncanny ability to create the atmosphere of war for civilians just outside a war zone (the book is autobiographical). We feel the cold and we feel the hunger as Guy and Harriet are helping others in a kitchen for a job and themselves not fed. The not knowing what is happening while you watch the bombs go off. While you watch one group of people take power and another be imprisoned, tortured, disappeared. Then how do most of us experience war in a war zone? as unnerving terror, as flight, as death and disappearance of people all around us, how the dreadful to see and experience becomes the normal. We can’t imagine it until we’ve lived it and only those who try to get it down in imagination can help us — so I must now read the Levantine Trilogy.


The Danger of Tree was a considerable literary success (she was disappointed not to win the Booker); the other two are The Battle Lost and Won, and the posthumous The Sum of Things

Now I refer my reader to Manning’s Extraordinary Cats, and conclude this brief survey of Manning’s masterpiece by returning to that first blog once again where my then close and now old friend, Judy Geater spoke of how the film adaptation lacked the deeper sense of the books about hunger, about clothes turning into rags, about desperate living conditions.

I did feel the whole theme of hunger and poverty which dominates large sections of the books is underplayed in the series, and in the books everybody is also increasingly ragged – Yakimov’s grand fur coat is falling to bits. Of course it would be difficult to show all this fully, as you can’t starve your actors, but the desperate beggars in the streets are a constant presence in The Balkan Trilogy and almost never seen in the series.

She saw the two cats as not only creatures to whom the love-starved Harriet can attach her but also doubles, doppelgangers for Harriet herself

In the novels Harriet also starts to look after a second cat later, which is half-starved, at a time when the characters are all desperately hungry – this cat didn’t feature in the series. While reading the books I felt as if both of the cats were possibly doubles for Harriet, playing out what is going on in her mind, as her thoughts become increasingly “fierce” and desperate and then later she is starving for both food and love and with nowhere she can call home, like the second stray cat.


The kitten in the TV series

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Last time I had a chapter from Thomas Staley’s Twentieth Century Women Novelists to recommend and summarize (see last quarter of the blog), a review of Deirdre David’s biography by Margaret Drabble to convey and one essay by Mary Salmon about Manning’s deep feeling of not belonging to cite. Now I can add David’s biography itself, and say I find it to be far better than is acknowledged — insightful, beautifully written, giving full depth to Manning’s life, taking the reader along that life and moving back and forth between time past when a novel takes place and time present when she’s writing it. Manning spent her life writing so the effect is to go from book to book, sometimes the book providing the past and sometimes its context another parallel present time. Her Anglo-Irish background and time in Palestine are done justice to. I also found a book-length literary reading and study: Carmen Oliver’s A Literary Reading of Olivia Manning’s World War II Trilogies. I found it as a pdf (which has now vanished, but if any readers are interested, contact me and I’ll send it to you by attachment). Finally a new pattern interests people: the refuges, the hard lives Harriet and Guy live — half-starving as refuges are discussed by Eva Patten, Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War, reviewed by Heather Ingman, in the Irish University Review (43:1, 2013).


I am just now reading two further books about women at war: DuMaurier’s King’s General where the heroine is hopelessly disabled (her legs paralyzed, twisted) and for a time lives in a war zone; Sontag’s Volcano Lover where the core deeper characters are the women attached to William Hamilton, our collector, and for a stretch we experience the terrors and insane cruelties wreaked on the Jacobin revolt in Naples.

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Olivia Manning (an appealing close-up)

Olivia Manning had one close woman friend, Stevie Smith, also someone who didn’t fit in, didn’t belong, was at heart a spinster type (no matter if she had affairs too), and could also become close to cats, as seen in Smith’s Cats in Color. My two close companions nowadays are my beloved cats too. So as I began with myself I end on similar use of the cat, unsentimental and metaphorically to that found in Smith and Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy.

The first is by a post WW1 and 2 German poet, Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74): Die Katze

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought home.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

(from The Defiant Muse: German Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to Now, ed. trans. Susan Cocalis)

The second a paragraphy by Hilary Mantel, her final devastating critique of life in Saudi Arabia is in her last paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazza Street: how relieved she is not to have to see the state of their cats, like ours, an emblem of us:

The street cats swarmed over the wall, looking for shelter, and dragged themselves before the glass. She watched them: scared cats, starving, alive with vermin, their faces battered, their broken limbs, set crooked, their fur eaten away. She felt she could no longer live with doing nothing for these cats. Slow tears leaked out of her eyes.

Ellen

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Warleggan, the original or first 1953 cover — in line with the first covers for Ross Poldark and Demelza (we gaze through the windows of imagination into the Cornish landscape & seas)


The Black Moon, the original 1973 cover

Study of allusions (or intertextuality), uses of dramatic and plot-design irony, female POVs, working class allegiances yield a new kind of reading of Graham’s books

My readers, I hope, have not begun to give up hope on my projected book on Winston Graham — not that anyone should care but me. Well, I’m still working on it. Since last in mid-July I outlined very sketchily a new approach to this book I’ve decided I must take (The Poldark World: A Matter of Genre), I am ever working on it, sometimes more slowly and for entertainment, as it were living with the characters in Poldark (participating in the detailed discussions of these 12 books which go on on a face-book page called Poldark Book Discussions; watching the two series, one every few nights with occasional breaks), and sometimes more progressively, consistently and as study. Before the fall term ended I read two written during the first quartet of Poldarks:

Night Without Stars, 1950
Fortune is a Woman, 1952


Night Without Stars, 1950, the original or first cover

Like so many of Graham’s novels, Night Without Stars features a disabled person, this time seriously disabled, the hero, a man blind for a long period after his war-time service; it also (unfortunately kept secondary) includes a telling story of the nearly destroyed life of a French woman during the war

Still I must admit I couldn’t understand why or how Graham could take time out from the Poldark world to write these since they seemed to me so faded, at moments so cliched, without strong vivid characters (especially Fortune is a Woman), inferior to all Graham’s historical fiction (I much admired The Forgotten Story, 1945, set in 1898 Cornwall; Cordelia, 1948, set in the 19th century with a female point of view). One must conclude writing in this male genre was compulsive to him. Even stranger to me, both were adapted into commercial cinema movies, with Night Without Stars presented so weakly, and Fortune is a Woman downright embarrassing to watch. The first movie adaptation of a Graham novel, Take My Life, 1947, had been turned into a memorable film noir.

But once term started to slacken off (early November) I’ve been steadily reading these or what I call his mid-career non-Poldark books, the ones written during the 20 year interval after Warleggan and before The Angry Tide. I’ve not yet finished this phase of his writing career, but have read for the first time, begun to study, or re-read and/or read some background books for

The Little Walls, published 1955 (the only one of Graham’s books to win a prestigious prize)
The Sleeping Partner, 1956 (a movie was made, just awful)


An attractive stark cover for the first edition: the appeal in the letters

Greek Fire, 1957 (remarkable use of the internecine politics of the era)
The Tumbled House, 1959 (very fine, impressive)


The Portuguese cover for Marnie: a rare one to suggest the actual content of the book with some discrimination

Marnie, 1961 (the notorious but nowadays much admired and influential Hitchcock film, 1963)
The Grove of Eagles, 1963 (but begun 5 years before, worked on for a long time), set in Cornwall
After the Act, 1965
The Walking Stick, 1967 (one of Graham’s best non-Poldark novels, & made into an intelligent movie)


A still from the movie, Walking Stick, suggesting Graham’s derisory description of it as a kind of Elvira Madrigan is false — this flat just off the docks is one of the central settings of the movie

I skipped Night Journey, 1966, having read it the 1941 version, which I found had something of the power of the amoral “entertainments” of Graham Greene during the war (say The Ministry of Fear); at the time I immediately went to on to compare this WW2 book with this shorter, 1966 revision and found the later one commercialized, slicker, so much lost by the streamlining and updating, “modernizing.”

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I stepped back, and have now reread my various blogs on the earliest novels (1930s), and the World War Two ones (you may find them by clicking on the tag Winston Graham, or using the search engine for the blog). I have three to go: a final suspense book for this period, Angell, Pearl and Little God, 1970 (I have read it and found it powerful – I can here imagine a strong movie); a 1971 book of varied short stories, gathered under the title The Japanese Girl (some gothics, one ghostly; one historical fiction, one rather nasty O. Henry type story among them), and the non-fiction 1972 history, The Spanish Armadas (once again it’s a matter of Cornwall, this time the battle during the late Elizabethan period). But I thought first I would use this blog (as I have others) as a way of thinking about, seeing some patterns in this group that interest me.


Cordelia, from the 1960s Bodley Head edition of 12 of Graham’s novels — most covers for this novel are anachronistic (the characters are given mid-20th century clothes, or they are much sentimentalized doll-like visions of a picturesque 19th century set)

I’ve been paying attention to which books have a female POV: thus far:

1938 Giant’s Chair (rural Wales), Mary Seymour, 3rd person
1939 Keys of Chance, Norah Faulkner, 3rd person
1945 Forgotten Story (1898 Cornwall): young boy moves into older cousin Patricia Veal Harris, back and forth, 3rd person
1949 Cordelia, Cordelia Blake Fergusson (19th century fiction Manchester), 3rd person
1963 Marnie – Marnie Elmer, genuine first person point of view* (with intermittent breaks and movement into omniscience, for Mark’s point of view
1967 Walking Stick, Deborah Dainton, who is lame genuine first person point of view*
1998, Ugly Sister, Emma Spry, maimed on one side of her face, genuine first person point of view*, historical fiction, 19th century Cornwall

So just two in this mid-career sub-set.

In this mid-career sub-set, though, several take place in and around the Mediterranean world or have long sequences which occur on one of the islands, all of which show much knowledge of these areas. Greek Fire practically maps Athens and parts of Greece for the reader. Water ways are ever important in Graham’s fictions

More interesting as art:  several use irony centrally. In Marnie, the POV may be Marnie (except when the author has changed allegiances to Mark) but there is perpetually an ironic distance between the author and his character, one only implied and not without sympathy. This ironic distance is even stronger but less obvious in After the Act, where Morris Scott’s self-loving view of himself is even less shared by the author; arguably, he is an unredeemable shit. In The Walking Stick it takes us most of the novel to realize the heroine has been lured into a web of lies, and most of what she believes of this working class deprived man she falls in love with is not true; he is a self-pitying utterly conscienceless criminal. The character see himself positively (as does the sexually promiscuous wife murderer of After the Fall) as perhaps does Stephen Carrington in the Poldarks

Last, four have remarkable central uses of allusions to other books or films that I found wholly unexpected, and lifted the Graham book into another realm of meaning. He had used literary, art and even music allusions interestingly before (Strangers Meeting, Merciless Ladies) but not so intertextually.


Richard Chamberlain and Eileen Atkins, said to have been the best actors in the central roles of Lady’s Not for Burning

Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning is important in The Tumbled House (one of the superior suspense novels, indirectly highly autobiographical)

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey tells us how Marnie is intended to be understand as about an angry working class girl, to fit into the literature of the period about exploited downtrodden (not that Marnie will allow that) working class lives

A.L. Rowse’s Tudor Cornwall is simply the central source for Grove of Eagles (despite much research into documents too)

Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors (a bitter farce about man wanting to murder his aging inconvenient wife turned into a tasteless movie with Peter Sellers) for a frame for After the Act (one-third of the way in this “hero” murders his nagging embarrassing wife and the rest of the novel is his remorse and ultimately the ironic showing of him getting away with this in a kind of triumph because his work makes so much money for others — a personal nightmare, self-flagellation?)

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (called by WG in the novel “a strange somber classic” with the narrator a woman writing three remarkable paragraphs about the movie); and Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma for the remarkable Walking Stick (another superior book, WG said it sold more than any other or made him more money). A cornucopia of allusions to Browning, Shakespeare, Donne

Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading and then watching the really fine 1987 TV film adaptation of The Lady’s Not for Burning, featuring Kenneth Branagh, Cherie Lunge, a very young Susannah Harker (impeccable in her part), and thinking about the parallels between what is said in it about human life and relationships and what is found in The Tumbled House; also how it can be related to other of Graham’s fictions. I just loved the movie and scripts (both stage-play and screenplay are by Fry).

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But this blog has gone on long enough.  I’ll end by recording I’m about to embark on the same study of A Taste of Honey (play, 1961 movie by Tony Richardson) for Marnie. Also relevant the French film Tony Lee Moral discussed: Sundays and Cybele (about a child deprived of parents, or a home life taken up by a mentally troubled man after WW2). I find all movies made after Hitchcock mentioned by Lee, of which I’ve now tried three, are mesmerized by the core paradigm Hitchcock pulled out of it, which resembles the core paradigms of most Hitchcock movies so are more or less worthless — not Sean O’Connor’s play but I cannot reach the text. I’ve a good book on Delaney and will return to Margaret Foster’s fiction of this era, and Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (about two working class [one “in service” for a while] lives).

I mean to go on to do the same for Waltz of the Toreadors (which I saw at age 13 with my father watching too and commenting on what was then Channel 13 in NYC — a remarkable production) and After the Act, which to my mind anticipates Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. I must re-watched Wild Strawberries and I’ve obtained a copy of Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma and will rent the movie (yes there was a movie made). Graham is much interested in doctor’s dilemmas in his work, most notably through his beloved Dwight Enys. My heart has warmed towards Luke Norris: I’ve come to love the way he does the part in the New Poldark.


This promotional shot of Luke Norris as Dwight Enys in the 4th season emphasizes his beauty — but he is more often seen seriously about doctoring, and troubled over how little he can do, aware he must not dominate his patients, he is their advisor, not their boss.

So here’s where I am, just before the Winter Solstice in 2019.

Ellen

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Nampara and the sea

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 — concluding passage spoken by Demelza in Graham’s Angry Tide is divided up, re-paraphrased to be more sentimental and spoken by Ross and Demelza in tandem as concluding passage in 8 but for Ross’s promise to return

Friends and readers,

The ending of the eighth episode of this (last?) fifth season is carefully structured so that its last scenes (and words) are those the eighth Poldark book, The Stranger from the Sea implicitly rehearses at its opening as the remembered ending of the 7th book, The Angry Tide. In case we don’t see this (Debbie Horsfield has to keep in mind the viewership may not have read the first seven books upon which the five seasons of the new Poldark are based), she underlines a projected intent with a (overdone) reiteration by Ross that he promises Demelza he will return. The music surges, his figure is seen walking into the distance rhythmically like some god or force as she watches from the cliff.


Ross’s (Aiden Turner) last words to Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson): “I swear to you, my love, I will return ….”

In this second half of the season once Despard (Vincent Reagan) is hanged, the love stories that Horsfield has developed out of Graham’s material and her additions take over what subjective space and matter there is and are more or less concluded: Cecily Hanson (Lily Dodsworth-Evans) attempts to elope to Jamaica with Geoffrey Charles (Freddie Wise) and is thwarted by her father. Morwenna (Ellise Chappell) cannot resist stalking the small child John Conan, causes emotional havoc for herself and Drake (Harry Richardson) and almost lands Drake in prison once again, except that the harridan old woman, Lady Whitworth (Rebecca Front) softens, after which we are expected to believe Morwenna goes home cured, ready to have sex with Drake. (What does one thing have to do with another? She was not avoiding sex because she was in love with this child — it was her memories of harrowing sadistic sex that froze her.)

Tess (Sofia Oxenham) functions like the femme fatale of spy thrillers (more on this in the comments) except she is a thug: she heads a band of thieves stealing precious ore from Ross’s mine, she lures Sam (Tom York) turned stupid once again, away from the good pious Rosina (Amelia Clarkson), and has an affair with Ross who himself uses her for his plot to undermine the French conspiracy to invade England.

Side stories suggested briefly: Caroline’s (Gabriella Wilde) maternal instincts are aroused when Mowenna’s baby is born and, like Morwenna with Drake, almost miraculously, she is ready once again to have sex and a child with Dwight (Luke Norris). A much better scene is the one where she thinks of how she can approach someone powerful to protect Dwight from whatever he is doing (he also keeps her in the dark)


Sam and Rosina are a convincing pair until the silly Tess material intervenes and then they given but one scene together — it is effective their making up


Caroline is given gravitas in her dress and behavior in the last parts of the fifth season — mostly during the trial and aftermath

I say what subjective matter there is because in the last two episodes of the season, the script is that of the spy-mystery thriller action-adventure melodrama so typical of serials on most TV channels in the last few years. The trajectory is that Ross (at first to save his own life when he is captured by a French traitor-revolutionary) pretends to join in on a French conspiracy to invade England; he is gathering information so that he can send it to William Wickham, and thus restore the respect he had enjoyed from this man before he became involved with Despard. He hides this motive and this aim from everyone so that he appears to have distanced himself and become another man, mean, cold, sexually unfaithful.

We are then treated (inbetween bouts of sentimental stories) antic twists and turns to as each of the characters who care so much for Ross and are so worried about him and put-off by his behavior themselves go through a trajectory of super-anguish, super-heroism, anger, and so on to match his, all presenting their inner souls in melodramatic (over-done) gestures. Time is taken out for Cecily and Geoffrey Charles to attempt two elopements, an absurd attempt of George to marry Cecily to spite his step-son (deterred by the step-son suggesting Cecily could be pregnant so George would have another illegitimate child), Ross and Demelza to hide the lovers who are nonetheless snatched away, he beaten within an inch of his life, she deciding she would rather not marry anyway, but for a moment feeling for him.

The reviews made fun of much of this, either implying or saying outright all was preposterous, outrageous improbability. Why should (for example) Meceron (Tim Dutton) and Hanson (Peter Sullivan) come to Cornwall to confide in George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) and his uncle (Pip Torrens) as their own means of revenging themselves on Ross. What should they revenge themselves on him for anyway? George Warleggan as a character is turned into convenient never-ending engine of spite against Ross until the last moment. (In the later books he dislikes Ross intensely but he has other interests.)


Geoffrey Charles and Cecily parting — they are the romance couple of the season

Everything culminates in Ross’s plan to have his friends (Drake, Sam, Zacky Martin [Tristan Sturrock]) set off fireworks to warn people (who we are told) of the invasion just as it starts (which it never seems to). He has told Dwight the truth since Dwight (whose character is utterly travestied) threatens to end the friendship unless Ross explains himself and Dwight is involved somehow or other. Since all our male friends are enlisted for this spectacle we have Morwenna and Rosina and Caroline (reminding me of Kitty in the 1950s Gunsmoke while Matt is out endangering his life) at home worrying. One of them even says “Be careful” in that usual way. At the last minute finally Demelza is told (off-stage so we have to guess) that Ross has all along been behaving as a mole-spy, having an affair with Tess as part of this cover-up.

So what does she do but rush back to Nampara to throw herself into the very danger from the French working there, which danger Ross purported to be protecting her from. A wholly improbable duel emerges because she then pretends to want to have sexual intercourse with the French leader in front of Ross to humiliate him. How far can we go? But along comes an unexpected deus ex machina: George, who turns up with a conscience and a gun to stop the dueling; he cannot bear to betray his country. (Everyone who is a major character must have some good qualities.) And (like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes) wakes everyone up to what is supposed reality.


Ross with sword — no cuckold he —

The program is now ready to swing back — in effect to erase all that has happened for 8 episodes. Geoffrey Charles (his name is never shortened), while bitterly disappointed, turns from grief to studying and training to be a soldier; he can certainly ardently love someone else – as he does in The Stranger from the Sea. Morwenna and Drake now have that baby, Loveday (with the strange name explained) we learn is growing up when we finally hear of her in Stranger from the Sea; Tess exposed, there is nothing left for Rosina and Sam but to marry as they are when the new book opens.

A self-reflexive touch was to bring Robin Ellis back as the Judge Halse who will put Merceron and Hanson away for a long time so we get Aidan Turner and Ellis shaking hands just about near the end. Poldark lives on you see – then we learn Demelza, now completely reconciled to Ross’s lying (and behavior) is pregnant again (accounting for Isabelle-Rose whom we will meet in Stranger from the Sea).

Some of these scenes could have been moving, and for fleeting moments are (Harry Richardson manages it) were it not that they are given such brief mostly unprepared for scenes and embedded in spy-thriller nonsense. I found Ross and Demelza’s last scene ludicrously overdone because of the reiterated “I will return.” If you turn off the sound, the actors are effective. By the time of Stranger in the Sea Ross has been away for months, in London and in Portugal and Spain, working for reform, and now a quiet agent-spy for George Canning. He returns to Demelza, presented as preferring Cornwall, one-third of the way into the book.


Far shot of George taking leave of Trenwith and the staff with dignity


Close up of him looking round once more at this place he had so coveted

One exception is the curiously moving silent pantomime moment given slow ritual play seen at a distance when George leaves Trenwith – which has been left abandoned when Stranger in the Sea starts again. The actor did pull it off, for a moment the last hour of this fifth season was lifted from its concluding morass of absurdities.


Ross takes out time to shame Tess (who Demelza says she feels sorry for but is smugly looking on) — the ejected bad woman

In the last two episodes especially of the fifth season we have the embarrassing spectacle of a intelligent and thoughtful woman script-writer and “creator” (the writer is the linchpin person of these costume dramas on British TV) leading a team of capable people to make a travesty out of fine somewhat seriously intended historical fiction. I presume it’s the drive for high ratings and in a gut level way her own lack of sympathy for costume drama and liberal-left politics. It saddens and dismays me to see this. She does update: Ross is “disappeared” by Hanson and Merceron at the opening of the 8th episode (like any rebel in contemporary fascist dictatorships)


Despard on the scaffold just before he begins to speak


Catherine watching from below

What is valuable in this fifth season (though represented through the lens of hostile conservative historians) is the presentation of the Despard story. I assume many more people will now have heard of this man than have done for many a decade. At the close of the fifth and sixth episodes time and dignity are afford the trial, testimonies and killing of Despard. He is allowed to give part of his speech at the time. Debbie Horsfield has read her history and the names of the men murdered alongside Despard are there and accurate.

Catherine Despard (Kerri McLean) was a pro-active intelligent woman who did all she could to publish what was cruelly inflicted on her husband and others in the prisons and to obtain a pardon for him after the guilty verdict. I was glad to see though Horsfield seemed to feel she needed to knit Catherine into the love stories so she has Dwight falling in love with Kitty (again a repeat — he fell in love with Keren Daniels, also another man’s wife Caroline reminds him) there was no sign of this woman having a romance with Dwight. Indeed in the story he is made to testify that Despard was mad and not responsible for his actions, the slur the newspapers placed on Despard’s actions, which survived into the 19th century histories of the incident.

Costumes, setting, music: Looking back over the five years I’d say one of the strongest elements has been a combining use of music and landscape to mesmerize the viewer, to create a continual mood which draws upon the place (Cornish landscape, seascape, minescape) and the projection of passion in the actors. When a sequence or scene is given some time, it’s been especially effective, but even when the scenes are swiftly and endlessly switched back and forth, the music offers a continuity that binds the experience together. The costumes blended in, did not call attention to themselves except when the character was in an occasion.

This last season a decision was made to dress Eleanor Tomlinson in an emerald green pelisse and matching squarish hat; the effect was to emphasize her height, and make her look mannish; since several times she is put on horseback, riding to some rescue, I suppose this was an attempt to make her into a female hero but found it grating, alienating. I have read comments by her which suggest how much she loves the Demelza of Graham’s books. Before this role I loved the way she embodied characters; here she has been made to alternate between a calculating hardened shrew and a woman whose understanding of love is a demand her lover prove it.


A rare unforced thoughtful moment for Tomlinson as Demelza

All along I have suggested that making Aidan Turner into a central over-sexualized fetish undermined the sometimes effective ensemble nature of the story, and what I suggest what Graham’s general aim: to provide a picture of an earlier time and place with his hero as an effective if self-contained and private presence within a group.

I was interested to notice that the ending of the second season of the first Poldark season (1975, Warleggan) where we see Ross (Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) walking on the beach as he prepares to return to the army and she to wait for him in Cornwall was in effect revived. Also an utter departure from Graham’s book

If the series does return, my hope would be that Debbie Horsfield returns to her literal closeness to the books in the first and third seasons. I think the problem for me all along has been Debbie Horsfield’s lack of sympathy with some of Graham’s central conceptions so that her stories while variations on Graham’s stories Horsfield, lack or are the reverse of his outlook. This year she dropped Graham just about altogether except his method (the choice of a minor historical figure, costume drama itself). At core what I have liked all these years is the transfer of the matter of Graham’s Poldark into these videos, realized through effective acting, dramaturgy, the whole experience of film. The anticipatory hints suggest more frustration. In lieu of Portugal and Spain as the secondary setting, and the colonialist war of the era (called the Peninsular war) at the opening of The Stranger from the Sea we might find ourselves in Paris, France, near Napoleon (better known), with Ross as Canning’s spy and Dwight as Ross’s sidekick, spending time investigating psychological “medicine” in a nearby sanitarium.


Demelza, Caroline, Dwight

Hail and farewell.

The two Rosses

Ellen

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Inside the Culloden museum

As brevity is the soul of wit, I hope for once to please here that way. Over on my Austen reveries blog I told of my months of effort towards a paper on Culloden and the highland clearances as a crossroads of existence for so many: and that I finally focused on Naomi Mitchison’s masterpiece of a historical novel, The Bull Calves, written over 1941-47, set over two days in June, 1747, not far from Inverness, and the 1994 indie movie, Chasing the Deer, which adds a moving human story and the beauty of Scotland and another sophisticated interpretation of what was Jacobitism: well, I delivered said paper in a session on Jacobitism: Then and Now, at the recent EC/ASECS conference at Gettysburg, and have put the paper on my site at academia.edu.

Here it is: At this Crossroads of my Life: books & movies about Culloden and Its Aftermath.

Do read it, gentle reader, and if you have time or are so disposed, send comments, suggestions, thoughts for future reading and watching.


This is not a trailer advertisement, but a promotional reel made to attract funding for Chasing the Deer (first aired on Grampian TV)

Ellen

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One of several competing portraits of Edward Marcus Despard (wikipedia offers a barebones outline of the man’s life)


Promotional parallel shot of Aidan Turner as the somewhat aging Ross Poldark, and Vincent Regan as Despard in his last 4 years (Season 5)

Friends and readers,

I had not written until now on the fifth season of Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark because I’m in several minds about it. Having watched the whole season twice, and now going through carefully each episode Sunday by Sunday I know had this been the first group of serial drama episodes I saw I would never have gone on to read Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. I first read the first four quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan, written 1945-53, and set between 1783 and 1793) after watching the first four episodes of the 1975-76 Poldark (scripted by Jack Pullman, mostly directed by Christopher Barry).

I learned later Winston Graham detested Pullman’s adaptation of Ross Poldark (Pullman departed radically in linchpin scenes), but I found myself having a deep affinity with them, and unexpectedly, as the series was itself ceaselessly disdained as romance costume drama [for women], and I assumed the books would be perhaps a cut above what was called “bodice rippers” (historical fiction except for a very few writers had fallen to a debased level in the early part of the 20th century), fell in love with them. They seemed to me fine historical fiction with something serious to say to readers barely out of, recovering from the devastation of World War Two.

Horsfield seems to have made the decision to fill the ten year interval between the ending of the first trilogy of Graham’s Poldark novels (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide, written & published 1974-77/8, set 1794-99), and the beginning of the second The Stranger from the Sea, The Miller’s Dance, The Loving Cup, written & published 1982-4-84, set 1811-15) — not from the fragments of details about the intervening years found in the later five books, but by inventing a story whose source and treatment resembles that of Graham.

In my paper on the use of documentation in Graham’s historical and suspense fiction I demonstrated Graham had a penchant for choosing the minor real figures of history who were just and decent men scapegoated (using law and state terror and legal violence) by or part of a reactionary establishment but often meaning to do good or not wholly bad men. His deepest sympathy was for the humane rebel, the Che Guevara type combined with the elegance of Gainsborough historical romance males that his own hero, Ross Poldark, represents. To have picked a man like Edward Marcus Despard speaks very well of her, we must give her the credit of calling attention to this man to a wider audience than ever reads non-fiction about the French revolution, the analogous upheaval in the UK in the 1790s for reform (prompting the reign of state terror by Pitt and his state machinery).

As the promotional photo for the series suggests, in real life Despard was such another as Ross Poldark in Jeremy Poldark where we see him come near to hanging and/or transportation because his very real illegal activities leading a huge group of local ordinary desperate people to remove and use for themselves the flotsam and jetsam of two wrecks from a violent storm were used by his enemies (and the local state apparatus) to make an example of him to deter people from combining to demand a far better life and share in the good things of the earth than they had ever had. Apparently Despard was part of a revolutionary group whose deepest aims were to radically alter, overthrow (if you will) the oligarchical and unjust orders of the 18th century European gov’ts, but he was not guilty of what he was accused of. He was rather a political enlightenment Anglo-Irish Protestant around whom revolutionary people swirled, and was potentially willing to lead a rebellion if one could succeed — with say the help of the French in Ireland.


Promotional shot of Kerri McLean who plays Catherine (Kitty) in this fifth season of Poldark

She also brings to the viewer’s attention other people who lived during this ten-year interval and whose life history also has much to say to us today. Joseph Merceron, a corrupt Godfather boss of Bethnal Green (or Spitalfields, as a blog about this older area of London calls it), a Trump type colluding with Pitt’s gov’t to spy on and help imprison, transport, execute anyone who wanted to change the status quo. James Hadfield, a pathetic religious fanatic, crazed by his life and experience, who tried to kill George III (Andrew Gower, fresh from his brilliant complex portrayal of Prince Charles Edward Stuart makes the few moments we glimpse this man memorable).

Catherine Despard, about whom records are sparse, come from just the period of her (probable) marriage to Despard, life with him, continual remarkable unusual pro-active activities on his behalf, including publicizing the horrific conditions in the prison he was thrown in for two years (Coldbath Fields), showing herself (probably a Creole, daughter to a freed African woman living in Nicaragua, herself alas the owner of enslaved Africans) to be better educated than many European women, until the time of his execution, whereupon she disappears from public records. It is thought she took her and Despard’s children to Ireland in an effort to appeal to the consciences of his Anglo-Irish protestant family. No picture survives


Geoffrey Charles (Freddie Wise) and Cecily Hanson (Lily Dodsworth-Evans), the only conventionally romantic couple in the season ….

Catherine is interestingly accurately likened to the wholly fictional Cecily Hanson, daughter of Ralph Hanson (Peter Sullivan). Catherine was an educated woman who understood how to negotiate with upper class people and could hold her own in political salons (it takes Demelza many years to learn this). Cecily shows self-esteem and agency in her choosing to engage herself to Geoffrey Charles, and then when (in a later episode), she finds he is beaten senseless by her father’s thugs and cannot begin to hold onto their relationship, give him up. A feel of poignancy hovers around Geoffrey Charles, as the orphaned son of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark.

Hanson’s name harks back to a real brutal plantation owner from the Caribbean, Hanbury, a composite figure (such men did make money producing natural wood for mahogany found in mosquito-infested places), who Hanson attempts to coerce into an advantageous marriage with the sadly-reduced but still cruel and amoral widower George Warleggan (Jack Farthing sustains the difficult part of a man hallucinating from grief and guilt, rescued from heinous treatment by Dwight Enys, Luke Norris in the familiar Graham conception).

I’ve discovered Debbie Horsfield’s William Wickham was an under secretary of state, working for Castlereagh in 1802, the supervisor of a group of spies (see Conor’s Life and Times). (There was another William Wickham, official in the foreign office during Canning’s time — and given Graham’s respect for Canning and in the later novels make his Ross an reporter-spy-negotiator for Canning — so to use the name could leave room for a return to the 8th novel, Stranger from the Sea, which there are various signs in even the first four episodes of this series Horsfield and the film-makers, crew and actors would be willing to do. She’d conflate the two figures.)

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Promotional shots push viewers to liken Demelza to Tess and Demelza in this series is presented as seeing herself in Tess

So with all this important history for interested intelligent viewers to explore, which can also be linked back to Graham Winston’s own novelistic achievements and politics, what can be the cause of my dismay? 1) that Debbie Horsfield’s interpretation of Despard is that of the authorities and establishment of the later 19th century which stigmatized and degraded Despard into a “nut,” a deluded naive upper class male who courted his own destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth, but in scene after scene we have Ross and Demelza and Catherine stopping a foolish man from following the obviously provocative antics of envious revolutionary thugs; 2) that freed from any text, Horsfield abandons the middle-of-the-road perspective of Graham on the revolution (his stance might be likened to the Girondists) continually to condemn any rebellion as coming from envy and dense stupidity, actuated by spite. She turned Graham’s Keren Daniels (who had some cause for discontent) into a dense promiscuous thug; now she invents such another in the character of Tess (Sofia Oxenham). I also cannot stand the way she re-interprets Demelza to be an pro-actively distrustful wife.

It is painful for me to consider (as I do) that Debbie Horsfield might be accurate: there are scenes of Demelza showing hurt, anger and resentment at Ross’s cold distrust of her in the second half of Jeremy Poldark and after her love affair with Richard Armitage. Similarly in Graham’s suspense novels post-World War Two, and later Poldark novels Graham evidences a great conservatism. That’s why I am in several minds. I may have been misreading Graham for all these years.

I face the reality that my love of many film adaptations derives from my love of the source book and the original conceptions of the key characters. I have no doubt that Debbie Horsfield’s conception of Demelza as frequently vexed with Ross, dominating when she can (masculine in her approach — as made visible in her mannish outfits), pro-active on behalf of the material needs of her family makes sense prudentially. It might appeal to non-romantic women in the 2nd decade of the 21st century that Horsfield introduced the idea that Ross regards Demelza as his savior, and he repeats this ad nauseam in season 5. Demelza likens herself to Catherine Despard (Eleanor Tomlinson must follow the script she is given) by asserting she too “entrapped” a man whose kitchen she also was (this is a startling travesty of what happened in Graham’s Ross Poldark, Jack Pullman’s adaptation and also Horsfield’s own Episode 4 in the 2015 Poldark). I can only assert and ask those who have read the books if I am correct: Graham’s Demelza is the underdog, a different kind of misfit from Ross, having given her ego, her very soul into her relationship with Ross; like him, finding deepest pleasure in disinterested activities and quiet solitude. What is so appealing about their relationship is they never bicker, are unself-conscious about their deep compatible character geniality.

Now that she is freed of Graham’s texts, I feel Horsfield travesties all Graham major women characters, but Verity, who is dropped, perhaps with relief? (Several of the students I taught Graham’s novel, Ross Poldark to, maintained she was a female Ross as understood in that humanely idealistic book, figures who found peace in solitude.) Graham’s Morwenna loathed the child Whitworth impregnated her with; Horsfield’s is turned into a sentimental fanatic, trailing around abjectly after the boy child, barely protected by the vulnerable (because low-class) Drake (Harry Richardson). She is made to behave as self-destructively and more than half-mad as Horsfield makes George Warleggan in his grief for Elizabeth. Debbie Horsfield is more comfortable or wants exaggerated emotional states: in the later novels we are told George grieved, felt guilty, remembered ever after all Elizabeth’s finer qualities, but he did not go mad: Jack Farthing’s acting carries it off as would Elisse Chappell were I not embarrassed for her — perhaps some viewers will be embarrassed for George:

I found irritating Morwenna and Rosina being turned into tenderly loving schoolmistresses — back to the patriarchy. Caroline (the now anorexic-looking Gabrielle Wilder) reminds me of the medieval statue of Barbara, always with lamp except she carries around a deliberately chosen fat dog. She is now resentful and jealous of Catherine whom Dwight does seem drawn to. Even he is travestied, becoming belligerently aggressive toward Ross in order to pressure Ross into giving up his loyalty to Despard (as imprudent). Dwight’s complete lack of this kind of emotional blackmail has escaped Debbie Horsfield (or she is glad to shed him of a characteristic generosity and inability to pressure others many would despise him for). OTOH, as in the books he shows himself to be his own man; he has his professional conscience and follows it despite his wife’s upper class prejudices and ignorance.


Dwight helping George by taking him to his wife’s grave: he utters an idea which is a play on a sentiment that Graham ends The Angry Tide with: all we have is that we are alive here today and that is what we must make what we can of

I find the relentless pace of these four episodes and constant switching back and forth of the scenes destructive of any development of conversation or thought. Many of the recap blogs wax snarky over this. Debbie Horsfield does trust her viewer to have the patience to see small moments develop slowly. We cannot dwell in the relationship of Ross and Demelza when it is deeply companionable because the scenes are so rushed and embedded in distractions (juxtaposition, switching back and forth):


The look on Eleanor Tomlinson’s face here suggests to me she has read Graham’s books, and some of her comments show how much she has invested in Graham’s heroine ….

I realize the larger content, the actual thrust of episodes is so often sheerly repetitive of the first seven books and earlier seasons. Again Ross is saving countless victim- miners and their children from death in an avalanche. Again he risks all his estate and fortune, this time to save the miners from unemployment. At least in Graham’s books, he does this to begin a business for himself, because he is guilty over Francis’s death and wants to control Elizabeth, make her dependent on him.

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Opening of episode 1: gradually we focus in on Ross out in his boat, and watch him come into shore

A few elements to praise:

I wish there were more moments in the four hours that derive from Graham’s Poldark books or conceptions, which the reader of Graham’s novels, someone who has read some 18th century history and knows the importance of the French revolution and the Enlightenment to a modern way of life today, and the lover of thoughtful period costume drama is left alone in peace to enjoy. Examples: At the opening of the first episode this season we see Ross out in a boat fishing by himself quietly. He is taking a needed break. George at first leaving Trenwith to rot; then his beginning to see Elizabeth and returning to Trenwith to find her is touching. I thought the conception of George’s half-craziness and coldness towards his son well done by Farthing, though he is blackened since in the books he did pay for Geoffrey Charles’s education as far as Geoffrey Charles asked for. The depiction of less major characters too — that Morwenna will have a hard time coping with sexuality is at first presented with sensitivity as is Demelza’s attempt to win over the workers.

Episode 2 has much that is persuasive and interesting politically — as a historical film (the way the first four seasons presented mining, farming and other realities of the era). The 1790s was a period of severe repression — unfairly because the English protesters were out for reform, but Pitt and the wealthy were frightened by what had happened in France. And they did frame people, and use just such printed circulating pamphlets. The gov’t did have surveillance techniques. Despard was far smarter than she presents him, he was impulsive and used to using violence; all characteristics praised and honored by the establishment of this era — very like Nelson (who he was friends with, worked with in the Caribbean) in some ways, only more controlled.

Episode 3: There is an anticipation of a sixth season in the behavior of the children: the young Clowance looking yearningly over the fence at Trenwith. We will find her there in the first phase of The Stranger from the Sea. Sam and Rosina slowly getting together over Bible-reading. Valentine ever alone wandering, picked up by the kindly Ross (who we see is his father from visual resemblance).


Ross watched by spies, enemies ….

In this interim plot-design, we are shown how slowly Hanson and Merceron in London draw a noose of inference and suspicion around both Despard and Ross, to accuse them of treason. This was done in the 1790s and people were tried, imprisoned, hung — 10 famously got off partly by the brilliant defense, Godwin’s publication of a treatise on equity and justice, and the reality the population was deeply against this repression. Of course our characters use Tess as their mole and encourage her to get at the head of gangs to destroy houses and people (highly anachronistic the idea any mob of men would automatically obey a woman). A noose of inference and suspicion is gradually being unfolded around Ross, ever oblivious in her desire to help his friend, bring about meaningful reform, love his wife and children …

Harry Richardson as Drake Carne attempting to care for a mentally distressed young woman delivers a pitch perfect performance; his behavior a parallel to Dwight Enys in the fiction; Luke Norris has his character as far sterner, but then he does not love the people he is treating.


Epitomizing shot

The linking together of the neglected Valentine with the once abused Morwenna is valuable symbolically.

I’ll conclude with my finding that several of the heroes of Graham’s suspense novels involve themselves politically, usually on the left, and act in ethical ways against their own interest, endangering their lives. In one I have been studying, Greek Fire, a depiction of the US-UK ruthless intervention in Greek politics in the 1940s and 50s to destroy social democracy — it result in years of dictatorship, but then Papandreos took power by election and a social democracy for years emerged — Graham’s hero is characterized in ways that recall Ross. Greek Fire was written not long after Warleggan. Here is one typical characterization: a friend wants the hero to give up his ethics, morality, efforts: and the man says here you are “pushing on, never letting up, … why do you not accept life as it is instead of trying to worry it with your teeth all the time, like a terrier with a bone. Is this not Ross too?

Ellen

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Claire Randall looking longingly at a vase in a shop window (Outlander 1:1)

Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years.
Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase.
That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing.
And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own …

But I can still recall every detail of the day when I saw the life I wanted sitting in a window.
Sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d bought that vase and made a home for it.
Would that have changed things? Would I have been happy? Who can say? I do know this:
Even now, after all the pain and death and heartbreak that followed, I still would make the same choice.

Friends and readers,

So, after all, I am going to the 50th anniversary conference of ASECS (American Society for 18th century studies) in St Louis, Missouri (! — where?). About a week ago the male scholar-professor for whose panel I gave my paper on Winston Graham’s uses of documentary facts and silences in the last ASECS emailed me to ask me if I wanted to submit a proposal for his panel, which request pleased me (it means he respected my paper) and whose new proposal had puzzled me:

“I Refute It Thus”: Encounters with Eighteenth-Century Objects (Roundtable) [Northwest Society for Eighteenth Century Studies] …. Proposals invited on any aspect of encounters with eighteenth-century objects, then and now, whether personal, professional, or philosophical; whether in texts, or with texts, or without texts.

Like many — almost all — of the Calls For Papers this year I just couldn’t get it — most of them were filled with jargon beyond me; this (thought I) must came from “materiality” theory, which (to me) is a hodgepodge of gobbledygok most of the time. So I asked him (as he had emailed me) could he explain in commonly used (natural easy) — English — for I would like to join in another panel with him. After a couple of days he did.

What I was thinking for this round-table was a set of 10 minute presentations on personal encounters with 18th-century objects, in mini essay form, that captured what essays can do, and connects with specific research you might be doing. It could be as simple as encountering an 18th century text, or an object associated with an author (Jane Austen’s turquoise ring?), or even encounters with objects in fictional texts. The main linking element really would be the essay/roundtable form, which allows for having fun with a topic. Some round-tables invite discussion because of the ideational content. This one would invite more “show and tell” responses from the audience with other encounters, I’m thinking

Well, all right. Not only did I get it, I found myself enthusiastic. I am it’s not too much to say profoundly engaged by historical fiction and romance. A couple of summers ago I taught Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover. The impetus or impulse for this book (so Sontag has said) was the collection of extraordinary objects and painting Sir Wm Hamilton gathered together, especially his vases.


An ancient vase found in Naples area

To teach the book and put this idea across I had bought a marvelous (expensive) art book on this collection published by the Sloane Museum, which owns a goodly part of Hamilton’s estate: Jane and Kim Sloan, edd. Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection. I passed it around to the class and we looked at a variety of real historical objects found in the catalogue and in Sontag’s book. With The Volcano Lover, I taught Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. The class’s subject matter was historical fiction set in the long 18th century: this book is set during and in the years just after the 17th century English civil war in Cornwall. It’s an unusual book for her because closer to historical fiction than most of hers; it is far more thoroughly researched than most of her books, based on papers and documents about a siege at Menabilly, which ended in attempting to burn the place down, a real general (a cruel ruthless man), indeed many of the Rashleigh and other Cornish family and military characters really existed. Its impetus too (I can’t remember where I came across this — probably Margaret Forster’s biography or one of DuMaurier’s memoirs) was an old wheelchair (ancient type) that she claims she once saw (I am not sure this is true) in an old building on the grounds of Menabilly. She also tells a ghostly tale about half-ruined objects found in a closed tower, suggesting someone hiding away or imprisoned for years on end — haunted things left over from the 17th century civil war.


Said to have been Sir Thomas Fairfax’s wheelchair — DuMaurier says the one she saw was pathetically feeble and looked uncomfortable


The famed (since DuMaurier’s Rebecca) Menabilly with DuMaurier and her children during her long time there as tenant

I said nothing of how the central propelling image in Ahdaf Soueif’s tale of Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Cairo, Map of Love, is from John Frederick Lewis’s oriental paintings, still in a Kensington museum, which I had just reread, attended a class on, and blogged and written about too.


John Frederick Lewis’s Cairo: Indoor Gossip

But I did talk of Paula Byrne’s brilliant biography of Jane Austen, a series of essays meditating and ferreting aspects Austen’s life through the small things she owned and we can look at still: A Life in Small Things. How successful (so suggestive) is Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: she too writes lives of Brontes, using relics, this time objects connected to them through death — some might find this morbid. I didn’t and don’t. And how I remembered Martha Bowden’s perceptive study of historical romance and fiction, Descendants of Waverley, romancing the 18th century, dedicated a whole part to how real historical objects put into fiction makes them come alive, validates them, are vivid focuses.

Bowden traces fascinatedly how these novelists mix true realities then and now (say time) with fictionalizing techniques (e.g., richly subjective world historical characters), especially those using allusion and intertextuality (to music, plays, once or still extant historical paintings and relics, memoirs) … Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge and Crossing the River (not covered by Bowden) include[s] a precious historical document, the scrap remnants of a past that have survived, and Phillips’s novels produce a take on this material that is sustaining and comforting today to those who today still suffer … where there is an intense desire on the part of a specific readership to go back and retrieve the past, to experience it intimately … there is a section on ekphrasis and the importance and uses of archeaology …

And so my proposal was accepted and then the panel also. So I’ve some delightful reading, re-reading, interesting thinking and dreaming and I hope effective writing ahead.

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Kenneth Branagh as Thomas Mendip, the discharged soldier who says he longs to die


Cherie Lunghi whom the town longs to burn as a witch — she escapes by fleeing …

I would say most of the time Winston Graham does not turn to material objects for inspiration or begin (say) with manuscripts. He is a sceptic and when he does have a written document will point out how problematic it is (Forgotten Story, Groves of Eagles, “Vive le Roi”). He does have pictures and the collecting of art objects as central to a number of his suspense books (his characters are artists, connoisseurs, insurance agents, thieves) and every once in a while (no where often enough for my taste) a real book, author, piece of music painting, but he rarely names any, most are fictional (cited plays in the Poldarks). He will use an alluring allusion to enrichen his meaning (again mostly in the suspense books): in one of his best I’ve discovered, The Tumbled House where a now deceased writer, John Marlowe’s reputation is defamed when John Shorn, a supposed younger friend, driven by envy and perhaps a betrayal, accuses him of plagiarism, and Don, the son and Berenice, the daughter experience much trauma suing the man for libel (a kind of nightmare haunting Graham himself — who had a son and daughter): the writer’s son’s wife, Joanna, is a TV actress playing the part of the witch in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning. This complex and Christianizing play preaches charity, tolerance, forgiveness — not that the wife whose adultery the novel suddenly swerves to focus on (to the detriment of the book) is at all to blame for what happens. Don and Joanna get back together at the end of the book in the same way as Ross and Demelza do at the close of Angry Tide,

When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity … Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter

and the final moral that here is all we have, all we can have, so we must cherish, make do is the burning center of all Graham’s disillusioned texts.

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


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark repeat in turn parts of the above passage with bits of sentimentalized love language thrown inm — done far too passionately, Debbie Horsfield, 5th season of her Poldark


The older series (script Jack Russell) had Angharad Rees say the lines softly, unchanged to Ross as what comfort could be found for death, and thus got closer to the book (1978 BBC Poldark 13:6)

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Still all historical texts romancing objects begin with a kind of enchantment with the past, haunted by imagined passionate caring for what the objects stand for in the past: these prompt the minds of the historical novelist.

Today is the 7th anniversary of Jim’s death and his spirit is everywhere in this house in all the objects with me from our lives together. Here is Samuel Johnson on Sorrow: Rambler No. 47 

” The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment …  Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away.”

Ellen

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