Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category


Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark (Episode 1, after prologue)


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza singing (also Episode 1)

Of course there has to be an end. Of course. For that is what everyone has faced since the world began. And that is — what do you call it — intolerable. It’s intolerable! So you must not think of it. You must not face it. Because it is a certainty it has to be forgotten. One cannot — one must not — fear a certainty. 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 does not exist yet. That’s tomorrow! it’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask — Demelza to Ross, concluding words of The Angry Tide, almost the last words of the 1977 iteration but not forcefully enough spoken by Angharad Rees)

Friends and readers,

So we have come, alas, to the end of a second iteration of the first seven marvelous Poldark novels of Winston Graham, with Debbie Horsfield transmuting the tragic and stoic pain of the (by no means) darkest of these novels, The Angry Tide, into hope for compromise and renewal (two of our couples, Ross and Demelza Poldark, Dwight and Caroline Enys); healing after the self has been shattered it would seem beyond repair (Drake and now Morwenna Carne); and maddened rage turned into a stone-y acceptance (as George Warleggan stands over the grave of Elizabeth with two of her children in tow, Valentine and Ursula).


Jack Farthing as George Warleggan (the last shot)

We’ve had four years rather than two, and hour long rather than 45-50 minute episodes. One script writer instead of seven. The last two episodes of this iteration were as powerful as found anywhere in contemporary TV drama. It took time for me to recover after both. When I did, I felt sorrow that Turner could not find his way to live in this role for another say three years (which it might have taken for the concluding quartet, Stranger from the Sea, Miller’s Dance, Loving Cup, Twisted Sword; and coda,  Bella  (Graham originally named it far more appropriately Valentine).


Duelling scene: establishment shot

When seen against the backdrop of the last half of The Four Swans and The Angry Tide (Poldark 6 & 7, the two novels adapted), and the corresponding episodes of the 1977-78 Poldark (Episodes 8-13, scripted by Alexander Baron, John Wiles and Martin Worth), one is driven to same kinds of conclusions as the previous three seasons.


Judy Geeson a much more deeply felt Caroline in the 1977 episodes (Part 10).

At its best the new Poldark provided much much more closely literal transposition; they were much more willing to show the characters deeply disquieted, angry, vexed at one another. Horsfield repeatedly focused on intense vulnerable and angry (and all sorts of) psychological encounters, up-close, up front in ways not quite permitted by the decorum of the 1970s BBC costume dramas. To this was added Ross’s rousing protest against the hanging of innocent and starving men as “examples” (“pour encourager les autres,” as Voltaire famously wrote in Candide), scenes of explicit radical political proposals by Ross in parliament (hinted at in the books and omitted in the 1970s), rousing radical political proposals by Ross in parliament (anachronistically standing on the wrong side of aisle, as otherwise how could he have been protesting against the Tory party as he represents the Tory grandee Boscawen, Lord Falmouth). There was some stunningly memorable photography around the scene of the duel:  the landscape seems to go from dissolve to water and back again. Some fine virtuoso acting, showing the BBC still has this in its pocket if it will only give the actors the nuanced lines and the time: it would be invidious to single any one out, but the particularly hard and poignant role of Morwenna was more or less fully realized by Elise Chappell (she was a bit hampered by the determination of Horsfield to squash Graham’s Morwenna’s revulsion against the reincarnation of the man who nightly rapes her sadistically; that is to say, the baby forced on her by Whitworth).

And it’s not that easy to be as purely obnoxious and contemptible while actuated by genuine predatory power as Christian Brassington managed in the thankless role of complacently incessantly corrupt vicious Vicar Whitworth. Robin Ellis appeared a couple of times this season as a slightly softened Rev Halse who condescends to hint to Ross some good advice, and he was joined by another “old-timer” bought back to lend some subtlety to the proceedings: as Sir John Mitford, Adrian Lukis (Wickham in the famed 1995 P&P scripted Andrew Davies), lets George know that his power as a magistrate to arrest someone is not going to be taken over on behalf of George’s personal vendetta.

I felt repeatedly a good feeling engendered across sequences of scenes as the actors now comfortable in their roles and doing (in the fiction) positive useful work together, socializing back in Cornwall. (Socializing in London is presented as in the book something hollow, hypocritical, dysfunctional if the aim were really friendships or building relationships). Good feeling in Episode 3 with the back-and-forth of over-voice for letters between Demelza reporting to Ross how things are going and a very different life from that in London, from which he confiding in her, his voice over turning into flashback vivid scenes. Episode 5 had effective structure, with the unexpected manslaughter of Whitworth, and then the anguished turnaround of Drake (Harry Richardson) from the girl Demelza and his brother, Sam, have engineered him into promising to marry (Rosina) and his feeling of coming promising joy, security, a peaceful existence. Almost immediately he turns back to the now abused grieving girl he has loved so deep he cannot divest himself of a need to protect her, to be with her as his comfort too. They understand one another intuitively. Then the interlace of cruel destructiveness on the part of the ever seething villain George Warleggan sending the monster Harry and the girl’s father to destroy Drake’s forge desolating.


Harry Richardson as Drake seeking Morwenna along the cliff


The home we see he had prepared for himself and Rosina destroyed (Episode 5)

Emma’s return to tell Sam she will marry someone else is full of empathy. She loves him and he her, but his religion is a barrier they will not be able to get past. She will not be accepted by his flock; he will not be able to understand her and she cannot spend her life pretending. She enjoys the more vulgar, coarse man.

At its worst was again shameless fetishizing of Aidan Turner (the prologue to episode 1 was grotesque). As in previous seasons what had been in the books handled in a naturalistic probable way became contrived improbable and melodrama, e.g. in the first episode Drake and Sam Carne wholly innocent of any wrong-doing come close to being hung.  Horsfield seems wholly out of sympathy with or cannot understand the development of the character of Demelza as realized across the books. Demelza does not have an affair with Hugh Armitage to revenge herself on or triumph over Ross, or to show power. Eleanor Tomlinson repeated this explanation, suggesting she had not read the books or thought about what adultery means even today. When Ross first married Demelza, it was not after a romantic courtship between equals, but as his servant that he had come to like and be dependent on, but someone also decidedly beneath him, younger than him; Armitage was her first introduction to romance, to poetry. Horsfield has Demelza bicker and Ross become abject (wholly out of character). Horsfield also has Demelza, Demelza (!) inform Drake just before he is to wed Rosina that Whitworth is dead and Morwenna supposedly free. That’s the last thing Demelza would do. She has done everything to bring it about. In this episode he asks Demelza why did she tell him? Good question. In the book he hears from someone else, and himself first tells Rosina and while hurt, she forgives him. Horsfield has Demelza say that she had to tell Drake or he’d have never forgiven her!  Who is Demelza considering here? But Drake reproaches this new Demelza, which has the effect of ripping him open again —  and so he is until the 8th episode when finally Morwenna freed (by the luck of a miscarriage) comes to him.

This last season was also reduced, made so much shallower by the continual presentation of George as an almost one-dimensional villain, the hater of Ross, with his uncle Cary as a chuckling minor devil. I wish too that Horsfield had not (as the previous Poldark series did) blackened the character of Elizabeth. In the 1970s Jill Townseend was ambitious and of course therefore cold; this time Heida Reed exults in George’s amoral tricks, looking unconcerned on who he hurt. Thus if it was (and I suspect this is so) that Horsfield wanted us to see Elizabeth as wishing her death (as Horsfield has her taking laudanum drops to endure her), she makes it hard for the viewer to feel the pity of the demise of a just and intelligent if conventional woman.


Heida Reed by her mirror contemplating herself and the drug Dr Anselm has given her to bring on early parturition

Still I am among those who wrote to Macmillan saying that if they were to print the scripts from the third and fourth season, I would be eager to buy them. There is much richness and care in this season and my guess is that as with the first two season (where the scripts were published), the script had more potential than was realized. The scripts can help the viewer get past the brevity of the scenes in the actual film which go far more swiftly than reading them does and the continual switch-back-forth is not as distracting.

Was there anything significantly different about this year’s episodes and those of the previous. It seemed to me that Turner had become so comfortable in this role of truly moral hero that at moment he provided a coda to scenes of anguish: as in the previous seasons, Horsfield is not willing to allow any other character to be the one who won out in catastrophe. So in the book it’s Sam who rescues most of the people from a mine flood; here we had to have Ross in the scene; in the book, it’s Drake who flies to retrieve Morwenna from Trenwith and Warleggan; here we had to have Ross come first. Here we have Ross trying to intervene to help Dwight live with whatever grief he has. The eighteenth century liked an exemplary hero who was a strong, good, earnestly emotional man.


Robin Ellis as Ross not invited to the party, the outsider — he was not the same kind of exemplary figure, but far more elusive, look at his steely eyes behind which we sense pain from simply enduring existence on the terms it’s offered


In this scene Monk Adderley snidely takes Ross for a threadbare troubadour (1977 Poldark) — a shallow back-biter

The last three episodes of both Poldarks (1977, 11-13; 2018, 6-8), both taken from the concluding third The Angry Tide can be aligned. Episode 11 (1977) and 6 (2018) both realize the lavish party George throws in Cornwall as a prelude to his coming career in Parliament and in both the socipathic murderer, Monk Adderley (Malcolm Tierney in 1977; Max Bennett, 2018, both uncannily mocking evil) meets Ross talking to Elizabeth in the garden. Alignment as in the previous years show how much has been lost of detailed novelistic complexity in the dramaturgies of the new era where so many events of different types are piled in within an hour when the older dramaturgy actors could develop a single scene a length. The older series took such time to dramatize the ball; while the new one twists and turns over scene after scene with lighthening speed so we can’t savor the build=up to George’s sudden fury and are to ball back on quick shots of the ravaged face of Elizabeth once Geoffrey Charles has pronounced his half-brother, Valentine, as the “spittin’ image of Uncle Ross,” and George has shut her and Valentine out again.

One flaw in the final ending: far too much emphasis was given to Ross’s relationship with Elizabeth as the central thread of the whole series, by going back to the initial prologue of the first episode of the first season. The invented flashback scene to 1780 in the last episode had the effect of giving us time’s perspective and how things turned out so unexpectedly (the one man Elizabeth didn’t marry was Ross) but we are asked to use this material to reduce all that has gone on between. Elizabeth is not the muse of the books. She is one of three major characters to die at or towards the end of each set of books: Francis’s death desolates Warleggan; now Elizabeth’s Angry Tide; and Jeremy at Waterloo in Twisted Sword is not to be gotten over by Demelza ever. It’s these larger patterns within which several story lines go on that matter. Horsfield softens the incompatibility of Dwight’s idea of a meaningful useful life with Caroline’s (in the novel frankly) boredom. She leaves us with a simple easily assimilable pattern and scarcely does justice to the experience she has offered over four years.


The young George and young Francis

At core the Poldark books are melancholy. Ross Poldark is a driven man, angry at the world’s injustice, striking out now and again insanely. Demelza provides for him a center of stability and hopefulness. I thus conclude this blog with Graham’s very last written story, “Meeting Demelza”  The text has been published in a magazine long ago, and I cannot find it online but there is an audiobook. “Meeting Demelza.” Graham was near death when he wrote it, and in the story he looks to join his most beloved characters: Ross, Demelza — and Dwight — I just knew he loved Dwight as much as Ross and Demelza (Luke Norris this season began to hit the true note that Richard Morant seemed to capture effortlessly so long ago). It will take 12 minutes to listen to.

A ghost story before we go into that night. Ross (let’s recall) begins as a revenant.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


The Duke (Philip Lahtam) and Duchess (Susan Hampshire) in conflict in The Prime Minister (Pallisers 11:22)

Friends and readers,

Having once again watched the 26 episodes of Simon Raven’s 1974-75 BBC Pallisers with a few people on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io, I feel compelled to write just a little more on this sustained brilliant work of art. I don’t want to go into detailed analysis yet again: 73 (!) blogs and one conventionally published longish paper (Intertextuality in the Pallisers and Barset in Victorian Literature & Film Adaptation, edd. Abigail Bloom, Mary Pollock) should suffice.

I thought that as a coda to a very good time over many weeks (more of us watched the 7 episodes of Alan Plater’s 1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles together too), I would say watching them in tandem, I had a chance to feel the full impact of Raven’s thematic changes as a unifying force. As everyone knows who’s watched the series, the central couple, Plantagent Palliser, later Duke of Omnium and Lady Glencora McClusky Palliser, later Duchess,” become the dominant couple throughout the films (as they are only intermittently in two of the books, intermittently in others, and not at all in at least two of the novels). Madame Max later Mrs Flynn is promoted to secondary sustaining heroine (by episode 6) with Phineas providing parallel and contrast to Palliser as an effective ethical politician.


A rare private moment for Marie (Barbara Murray) and Phineas (Donal McCann) and he defending the Prime Minister from the same episode

What might not be so often noticed is how Raven’s story of Lady Glenn as a thwarted rebel and saloniere and frustrated woman as wife (or lover) is centrally sustained across the whole series. Lady Glen is Raven’s semi-tragic heroine, his alter ego with a serious burden of loss and compromise uniting the many episodes when for Trollope she is more of an ironically readily duped figure. The Duke’s isolation as a asocial personality and lack of deep compatibility with his wife, that he is paradoxically an unambitious idealistic man, for Trollope central, becomes secondary in the films. Raven’s own pessimistic outlook also leads to sizzling ironic political stories which mostly hinge on or reinforce disillusionment with any progress. In the supporting story Phineas learns he must often lose, and usually compromise, with Madame Max upholding a wistful kind of hope in gradualism for the future. The result is a strong undercurrent of melancholy in the series. I no longer see this mood as dissolving in nostalgia (despite the picturesqueness of the mise-en-scene) so much as relying on active continuity between what’s left over from the past and and seen to be about to come. The characters gain their sense of security from repetition, doing what others before and around them are doing that seems to do no harm, and does occasional good.

The ballast: the separate individual stories, amusingly cynical, earnestly corrupt (an oxymoron that works for George Vavasour, George Watson), angrily resentful (Quintus Slide), gratingly inept (Lord Fawn and Lizzie Eustace, Derek Jacobi and Sarah Badel), are contrapuntal:


Lord George de Bruch Caruthers and Mrs Carbuncle (Helen Lindsay and Terence Alexander) — they’ve escaped out of back doors before (Episode 7:14 from The Eustace Diamonds)

Sometimes Raven cut savagely and brought out emphatically what was muted in the original books: Mr Wharton (Brewster Mason) making a deal with an arms manufacturer to remove Lopez (Stuart Wilson) to South American brings out how unimportant it to such men which side wins and counterproductive when war ends. He was not as sympathetic to Lady Laura Kennedy (Anna Massey) as to her sexually frustrated domineering husband Kennedy so her tragedy is lost to view.


She ends endlessly scolded by her brother, Lord Chiltern.

When not re-shaped to fit Raven’s vision, some material is far more thoroughly developed with many more incidents across the series — like the many earlier appearances of Lord Silverbridge (Anthony Andrews pitch perfect) as boy and then young man, to bring out Lady Glen’s trajectory as a mother who wants to see her children have the liberty she did not and yet uphold the nobility she recognizes in her husband. Also Palliser’s intense conflict with his son resolved by the son’s buying into his father’s values (as is foreshadowed) partly because of Lady Glen’s influence. I missed the erased brighter comic figures (the Widow Greenow in CYFH?), the victim-virtuous heroines (Lucy Morris in Eustace Diamonds) but comic wry crooks, seething figures and Henry James-like couples remain


Anna Carteret as Lady Mabel Grex letting go Jeremy Irons as Frank Tregear backfires (Episode 12:24, The Duke’s Children).

Some of us early on found some of the actors too old; the dramaturgy is that of a stage; you are to be absorbed by long nuanced novel-like scenes requiring mature alert attention, but rather than find that dated to me that was central to why the series is still capable of absorbing the patient viewer. I did think the series improved as it went along with bravura scenes especially in the Phineas Redux material: the murder of the thwarted politician Bonteen (Peter Sallis) because he behaved ethically on a woman’s behalf. One of my favorite scenes is still Madame Max using non-traditional methods to discover the truth of what happened on the night of the murder by befriending and bribing Mr Emilius’s desperate landlady, Mrs Meager (9:17)


Poor Mrs Meager, what a hard life you must have …

Marie: Have you told this to the police?”
Mrs Meager: “No, maa’m, in our parts we is not overly keen on talking with the police.”

There is so much here, scenes with police, the court case with Chaffanbrass brought to life, Phineas brought Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career and The American Senator by his good friend, Monk to read while in prison… I can’t begin to mention everyone or all the delights.

So I’ve digressed: the point of this blog is to suggest, bring out that Simon Raven turned a series of novels revolving strongly about a continuum of male politician types with women’s fully felt (to be sure) destinies slotted in, into a continuous story line navigating the rise and falls and price paid for her life’s adventures by a young girl grown mature woman who dies early after which life carries on for the others left behind who remember her.


The Coerced Match

Keeping this brief: in the adaptation of Small House of Allington and Can You Forgive Her? (Episodes 1-5) we see Lady Glencora McClusky driven to marry a man with whom she is temperamentally incompatible and whose deeper goals and personality she does not sympathize with. In the adaptation of Phineas Finn, we see her turn society hostess and find that in compensation for what she has personally lost she is willing to pressure anyone she can to make sure her son will inherit the dukedom and the vast properties that go with it (Episodes 6-10). We see strained and broken relationships in Phineas’s accompanying story as he too is forced to compromise and when he won’t, loses his place among his peers, must return to Ireland where he is not living with anyone who understands him. In Eustace Diamonds Lady Glenn has to give up enjoyment of life, excitements she wants to take care of a dying drone of an old man who was responsible for this marriage (Episodes 11-13). Phineas Redux brings Phineas’s story to the fore and she is helpless; it is Madame Max who rescues him, no one else (Episodes 14-18).


Duchess

The Prime Minister she comes as far as she ever does to living the life she dreamed she would have in lieu of personal fulfillment and finds it ashes and hollow. The accompanying story, of a ruthless outsider who ends killing himself reinforces this (Episodes 19-23) The Duke’s Children, we see her resigned and ill, affectionate to the man who stands for the best of the patriarchy she has been an instrument for; she cannot get for her daughter control of her money or independence (Episodes 24-25).


Still Thwarted: the duke objects, the daughter is only 19 …

And understandably, there is a mood of melancholy providing a kind of continuous base for the series.

I especially liked the treatment of Madame Max and Lady Glen’s friendship; to be sure it’s there in Trollope but in the context of Raven’s angle, given more shared plangency


The two friends, 10:20

This friendship and her children’s love for her her compensation or consolation.


Lady Mary Palliser asking the father why does he want to make her miserable for life (12:25)

I outlined the same kind of point with nuanced details brought in in my last blog of the 73: Retrospective.

I hope I have kept this short yet suggestive.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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


Original cover for Strangers Meeting

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


Jane Wymark as Morwenna escaping (1977 Poldark)


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

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


Original cover for No Exit

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect series)

I, too, dislike it — Marianne Moore

Friends,

I’ve embarked on a reading journey through an area mostly unfamiliar to me, and Polonius-like, can come up with only the clumsiest of labels: the mystery, detective, suspense, gothic, spy thriller, crime, murder novel. Most of the time even with the most generally admired, about half-way through I grow tired of the formulas, and either give the story up altogether, or skim-read to the end. That’s what happened yesterday when I read for the first time Dashell Hammett’s much-bepraised The Maltese Falcon. Or I get to the end, and think what a good book this has been, until three minutes thought assails me, and I see it for the claptrap anti-feminist thing it is and become seriously annoyed. That’s what happened the other day when I finished Winston Graham’s Merciless Ladies.

I admit I can be hooked by a film serial; especially late-at-night, with a female hero, be drawn intensely in by its mix of ingredients blended into my more favored fare: that’s what happened with the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. I can like the “Golden Age-1930s mold” even with a wholesome male at the center and a sermon at close: my favorite time for watching James Norton in Grantchester was 1 in the morning.


Typical cheap paperback cover illustration for the era …, now published by the New York Review of Books as a worthy book, became a remarkable 1950s movie by Nicholas Ray

But I’m no more fooled than Raymond Chandler in his debunking “The Simple Art of Murder,” or Julian Symons in his truly brilliant and entertaining Bloody Murder: “it is an inferior thing, but a thing with its own particular and unique merits. Nobody condemns Restoration comedy outright because it lacks the profoundity of Jacobean drama” (20), as with most film noir and ghost fiction.

I’ve embarked on this because I’ve embarked on a book on Winston Graham, his Poldark novels and Cornwall (working title). I don’t intend to read every work he ever wrote, or study every film made from said work (some in each kind are dreadful). To understand the man and his genuinely creative books, one cannot ignore 30 odd volumes of suspense set in our contemporary era, a few of which have been much admired, with one famous title (even had an opera made of it last year, i.e., Marnie, and some time ago a very good play by Sean O’Connor). One chapter I’ve told myself.

I’ve been reading these desultorily, out of order for a few years now, depending on what I thought I could stand: The Forgotten Story, written the same year as Ross Poldark, historical Cornish, deeply reflective of the trauma of WW2, Angharad Rees starred in the now wiped out serial; The Walking Stick, with its fine movie with David Hemmings; The Little Walls, won prestigious prize; Angell, Pearl and Little God, despite its godawful title, said to have been considered for a movie with Brando in a leading role. Graham has a number of novels with (to me) unappetizing titles, many first published with embarrassing covers.


I like this 1960s Bodley Head cover illustration of Demelza used on all four of the Bodley Head publications of the first four Poldark books

But now it will be my project, give me some kind of goal for a biographical book of my own, one I think I can do for real, and which is called out for — there is no book on this man whose work is so well known, liked, has made a great deal of money for so many. And I’ve corresponded with his son who for now has no objection. All the reading and love I’ve put into my study of biography and continual reading of literary ones (now there is a genre or book type that when done right I don’t tire of but read on however slowly to the end) — could just emerge in one of my own.

So I’ve begun steadily working through Graham’s early ones in the order they were written, and when revised, cut down, rewritten (several were) even comparing the two texts. And I’ve found myself engaged, e.g., The Giant’s Chair, 1938, became Woman in the Mirror, 1975. Alas (for Graham’s mature judgement of his own work), the earlier version is much better. I’ve heard this said of the first 12% longer version of Ross Poldark. The Giant’s Chair set in 1920s Cornwall, with attention paid to geology, geography, local feel, has an idiosyncratic charm, a traumatized secondary hero, disabled son, unjust death (not by murder), with believable heroine who has Radcliffian adventures, lesbian sexuality, becomes a weak hard-boiled thin bloody murder read, albeit with some stronger lines and passages — and more coherent clarity.

Tomorrow if I can get through the byzantine “security” procedures of the Library of Congress (whose real effect is to curb research, lest the cowardly congress be at risk as they place their iron heels on 90% of us), I shall read the relatively rare 1937 The Dangerous Pawn. It fetches $2000+ on the open market.


Jeremy Brett — the 1980s Sherlock Holmes

For tonight I thought I’d introduce one aspect of this fantastically successful genre, which the reader may not know or not mind being reminded about. (Beyond how necessary it is to find delight and solace in its central detective figure0. How flexible it is all the while keeping its recognizable furniture. It can accommodate so many kinds of stories & materials because one can tell anything to Sherlock. Two weeks ago I watched a remarkable modern-type BBC film adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s real novel of quality, The Woman in White (1860), arguably one of the pattern forms. I remember reading it in two days when I lay sick with flu — 1973 that was, we lived at the top of Manhattan with our dog, Llyr. The Italian Fosco was the origin invention that gave rise to the book of Marion Halcombe, the spinster who I defy anyone not to like. About the subjugation of women. The lady gone mad is not in the attic but wanders from her asylum across moors.

I had thought a genre I am familiar with, have long loved in the dyptich, historical romance, historical fiction, was very far from suspense novels. I was wrong. As in Graham’s oeuvre, characteristics, motifs, character types slide across one another co-terminously. It is not that uncommon to alternate between them. Police procedures can combine with women’s subjective novels, which historical romances are a version of in disguise. The great Breaking Bad belongs to this genre.

And today LeCarre is one of those who have made of them philosophical politically engaged books. I suppose the road was opened for this first by Hammett (1931, The Glass Key is not far off his rewrite-collaboration with Lilian Hellman from stage to film, Watch on the Rhine, 1941). I remember first reading LeCarre’s early, A Small Town in Germany (1968) which I thought was a fable about integrity very like Trollope’s The Warden (a similar retiring male at the center).

Trollope by the way knows the drill. In his parodic dark The Eustace Diamonds he has the de rigueur fuss about key, locked room, weapon (depends for working on some mechanical device), not to omit the importance of the exit/entrance and mappable space. By reverse logic, it stands to reason Trollope had no feel or urge to write historical fiction. He didn’t care what happened at “exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning” fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone.


A Nancy Drew introspective cover, as Umberto Eco says at the opening of Il nome della rosa,

Naturalmente, un manoscritto

I have almost written myself into admiring this stuff. As I write myself into wakefulness and a feeling of cheer. Now if only I could find real pleasure in reading it. It can be fun to read about it on the train and watch it obsessively at 1 in the morning.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

Friends,

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


Photo found on the Net in this article

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

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

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


Eric Tucker and Edmund Lewis

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

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

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


Early poster

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Illustration from the original 1933 edition

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the last sentiment. We are hearing Woolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biography considered as a science.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A modern biography …


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »