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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category


The fens, marshlands of East Anglia (from Waterland 1992)

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives … quoted from Waterland by George Landow in an essay on the novel (Studies in the Literary Imagination, 23:2 [Fall 1990]:197-211)

Friends and readers,

One of my kind Net-friends, someone who writes to me and whom I write back to a lot, we read together, share thoughts, asked me tonight if I could recommend some gentle, gentle movie and how hard they are to come by. I did have one, I watched it over the past two nights, as well as much of the voice-over commentary and a feature on the music: Waterland, directed by Stephen Gyllenhall, scripted by Peter Prince, based on a profound and inexhaustible novel by Graham Swift: Waterland. Yes, another Booker Prize book, this one merely short-listed. I listened to Christian Rodska read it aloud on an MP3 in my car on and off for a few weeks. So you can say it’s provided much imaginative and spiritual and intellectual sustenance for me. I gave the course I did this season on these books, because they are themselves inexhaustible, so many and still coming, and yet there is a core similarity among most of them, one that answers to needs in my lonely soul.

My excuse was I was teaching my beloved Last Orders — and I re-watched that deeply resonant film too, and showed some of it to the class, wrote about it again in the form of notes for a lecture. What can I say about it? Shall I begin with what what reached my soul last night: Jeremy Irons’s voice as Tom Crick, a history teacher, telling his students stories, opening up to them his vulnerability, that aching gentle elegant voice, tall thin and tortured was the way his body was once made fun of (he’s the narrator-center of the truly great mini-series, Brideshead Revisited), but in this film becoming deeply genial whenever an opportunity opens, listening to others and accepting what they say (sometimes tough, often lies, but occasionally out of their inmost soul a need), and then coming back with a response that elicits from most a reasoned reply


In the classroom

I can’t say it’s a hopeful over-story, for he is being fired, forced out because who wants to know history? what use is what is called history, asks one arrogant student in a love-revenge relationship with him, Price in the book, played by a very young Ethan Hawke. How dare he tell personal private stories (about his adolescent sex life, married life, treatment by the principle of teachers) instead of what’s in the curriculum?


A dream vision where suddenly (as happens a lot) Crick’s story turns into “reality” and we are in a dream vision back in an earlier time so here Crick is showing Price the bedroom his mother died in, where he grew up afterward

Swift was accused of plagiarizing Faulkner in his Last Orders, and readers persist in this pairing (plus Thomas Hardy and Dickens) to explain literary sources for Waterland. Swift doesn’t deny them, but he cites as often Virginia Woolf, her Waves, her To the Lighthouse: her landscape is the same East Anglian marshlands where she finally did away with herself, the center of the second book a meditation on time equivalent in magnificent stasis and meditative richness as the whole of Waterland. For Swift water, the sea, is a central image for life and for the unanswerability of death, the silence when people disappear (as my Jim has forever), and so too Virginia Woolf, from The Voyage Out, to her slighter sketches along the Thames.

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The windmill — where important events in all three stories take place ….

“Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.” — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

The book and film ask the question what is history? in the book as narrator Swift asks, why is this set of events put in history books and not that? Why do we learn about who was murdered at the guillotine and not who was building a system of locks in the marshlands, who was draining the lands in France or East Anglia? Which after all had the most lasting useful effect? And anyway (not mentioned explicitly by Swift, but it’s assumed we know) numbers of the French landowners and relatives guillotined were killed because they enclosed the lands their peasants had farmed, overcharged to drive them away, in order to drain it and make huge sums from large agriculture. In England the story of Crick’s great-grandparents, the Atkinsons who reclaimed the land bit by bit. In Waterland there is as much about drainage and how to make good beer from hops (a subject at least alluded to in Last Orders) and how to beat the competition out to be a successful business and distributor as there is in Moby Dick about whales. Some might find this tiresome, but Rodska manages to put it across.

The story of the film and book are the same — this is a film which means to convey the book as nearly as a sellable commodity in filmic art can. It needs unraveling and only gradually unfolds (as in Last Orders). Del Ivan Janik (“History and the ‘Here and Now’: The Novels of Graham Swift.” Twentieth Century Literature, 35:1 [Spring 1989]: 74-88) provides a good retelling:

The novel’s structure is rambling and recursive, intermixing episodes from three major elements. The first of these elements is a history of the Fenland and of the prominent entrepreneurial Atkinson family and the obscure, plodding Crick family, from the seventeenth century to the marriage of the narrator’s parents after World War I. The second consists of events of the 1940s: Mary Metcalf’s adolescent sexual experimentation with Tom, Crick and his “potato-head” half brother Dick (who in his demented father/grandfather’s eyes is the “Saviour of the World”), Dick’s murder of Freddie Parr, Mary’s abortion, Tom’s revelation of Dick’s incestuous conception and Dick’s consequent suicide by drowning, Tom’s return from the war and his marriage to Mary. The final element involves events of 1980, the narrative present: Mary’s religious visions, her kidnapping of a baby (whom she calls a “child of God”) from a supermarket, her committal to a mental institution, and Tom’s loss of his position as a history teacher. The structure is not chaotic, for each of these three major elements, as it comes to the forefront of the narrative, is treated more or less chronologically; but as a whole the novel conforms to Tom’s characterization of history: “It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours” because “there are no compasses for journeying in time.”

Mary Metcalf is played by two different actresses, Lena Headley as the young Mary who is aggressively sexual with four boys, and becomes pregnant by Tom (Grant Warnock, the young Tom), and is driven to obtain an abortion which seems to have deprived her of the ability ever after to have children. (As with Last Orders, you cannot avoid two different sets of actors to play the characters at widely disparate decades of their lives). I much preferred Sinead Cusack in her role as the older Mary, she had the same mesmerizing presence as Irons, told her delusions, held on to them for dear life with the same persistent gentleness.


The older Mary and Tom standing together after their nightly walk (for decades, like Jim and I in NYC at the top of Manhattan and then here in Old Town Alexandria) looking over Pittsburgh (a senseless substitute for England, probably done on the theory you need something American to attract an American audience)

We never see Mary put into an institution nor the institution. the last scene of the movie has the older Tom, now retired and with no company, wandering in marshes with a dream of Mary seeking a baby in front of him. The book ends with Tom’s memories of his mentally retarded (the term used in the 1930s and even the 1980s) older brother, Dick (played almost unrecognizably by David Morrissey), in a boat sailing down the river with Tom, and his father (played in the movie by the ever memorabley Peter Postlethwaite). The three together, the family left. A comforting image but underneath is violence: mocked and jeered at, Dick falls in love with Mary (who does wrongly go after him sexually) and when the arrogant rapist-criminal type, Freddie Parr, claims he is Mary’s lover, Dick murders him through a clever ruse of accidental drowning. Dick thinks the baby he, Dick, should have sired, was sired by Parr. Perhaps good riddance? Tom admits he fears his brother. Dick is never thought of as a cause of Parr’s death, and we can see his mostly isolated life is punishment enough for him.

Swift repeatedly has autistic characters in his novels: disability is often at the core of Booker Price books and films (as for example, The Sense of an Ending, when we discover the child our aging hero (played in that film by Jim Broadbent) sired by another aggressive femme fatale type (I don’t claim feminism for Swift) turned out to be a gently autistic baby. Broadbent has spent decades alone because his wife (Harriet Walter) and others know that (in a moment of jealous spite) he cursed the young woman without knowing that the curse could be seen to have come true.


The class trip — made funny by the flags and stacking of the students


The country house they arrive at

I like hard stories — for me comfort and strength emerge when the matter put before me is believably life and the characters somehow or other cope, survive, that is my sort of contented ending. I think Last Orders is a directly comforting book — the way the characters remain friends as they betray, prey on, love and help and support one another; while Waterland is not even if it has its comforting scenes. What Waterland offers is indirect strength by putting before us how history doesn’t stop and taking us through the different lives and eras, including the day-long talks to the students as Tom takes them to old country houses (in England, how this happens from Pittsburgh is explained as dream visions by him which alternate with the students in a comic bus on a tour), to villages, to pubs, to someone’s house for dinner, to remembered rooms, a windmill, into trains and out, to the classroom, to the auditorium where the principle hypocritically congratulates Tom on his wonderful career now (forceably) coming to an end, to a supermarket where a frantic mother is so relieved when Tom and Mary return her baby.


The train when young

In real life Cusack and Irons married and have been married for many years: here they are at a recent demonstration on behalf of laboring people, the National Health, against war and imperalism:

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Graham’s novel’s real vindication of life, and the film’s is in the telling of these stories. We harken, we listen, we feel things are made some sense of, we express ourselves, we come into contact with deeply imagined and thus known and understood presences.

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives (from the book).

The importance of stories seen from the perspective another Booker Prize book: when I was lecturing, discussing with a class at the OLLI at Mason The English Patient, we talked of Kipling, an important influence (intertextual source) for that novel and book. I have never read Kipling’s Kim, nor most of his colonialist stories, only seen a film adaptation of The Man who would be King. But Jim enjoyed Kipling (scroll down to read a Kiplingesque poem written for Jim when he retired), once read a story by Kipling aloud to me to comfort me when I came home from the Library of Congress crying. I thought a rare novel by Charlotte Smith I had located and put on my shelf (inside a rotunda for those with reading desks) had been stolen. I remember feeling better by the end. I told the class of how Jim read aloud several of Kipling’s Just So stories to Laura and I in front of a fire in this house (he had made) and paraphrased the loving endings Kipling as narrator voices to the child as his “best beloved.” To my surprise about 3/4s of the class knew these stories, had read them as children. I never — until when Laura was 6 or 7 he read them aloud to her and me.

Today was not such an easy day. It was Mother’s Day but for Izzy and I it was a usual Sunday: we shopped in the morning for food, and in the afternoon went to a movie together: a remarkable one I’ll blog about later this week: A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickenson. We had good talk about the movie and poet afterward. Laura, my older daughter, wished me a happy mother’s day by sending me a photo of her cat attempting to lick the person on the other side of the photo

Thao, who lives in Canada, and I used to call my third daughter, an ex-student who visited me shortly after Jim died, sent me a card and loving words.

I am reading two wonderful books, Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and Claude Berry’s county book, Portrait of Cornwall, which I will also tell of separately. But it takes strength to hold together when I know others are out enjoying themselves in clubs, dinners, traveling. A 70+ year old widow’s life. I watered my flowers tonight. I have my two cats near by — one squatting on my lap, the other playing with a string. Tomorrow I will resume going to the gym for a class in strengthening exercise which attracts some 50+ people around my age. It’s cheering for me.

I have yet to pick my movie for tonight. I am trying to do without sleeping pills now, to rid myself of all drugs. So I need to be sure to get one the right amount of time and tone.

My Iranian friend who has translated Woolf into Farsi and runs a small magazine sent me this poem by email too today:

After You’ve Gone

After you’ve gone, the rhododendrons
of Anacortes remain fully in bloom,
the islands are still deep green
in their blue-green sea, and the gulls
wheel and turn in breezes that never die,

but I am alone like the shell
of a bombed cathedral, a precious ruin.
— Sam Hamill

Ellen

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. –Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)

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Hana (Juliette Binoche) looking around villa wistfully before moving in with her patient (The English Patient, 1996, Anthony Minghella)

Echo is the sound of the voice exciting itself in hollow places — a phrase from Christopher Smart’s poem to his cat Jeffrey which repeats across the novel. Smart was put into an insane asylum by his family, exiled, displaced, left to rot. He was kept company by his cat Jeffrey: For I will consider my cat Jeffrey is an extraordinary masterpiece of a touching poem.

Dear friends and readers,

I am increasingly remiss about writing to my wider circle of readers and friends. I will try this summer to return to more frequent blogging, especially about the books I’ve been reading.

This spring I have been having such a good time with all three of my classes of retired adult readers at two Oscher Institutes of LifeLong Learning, pouring myself into everything that leads to a good lecture and discussion as a teacher, and what’s necessary to participate as one of the “learners.”

One book that for me functions as an absorption into beauty through extraordinarily poetic rich literary prose and loving compassionate comfort from the believable relationships among the characters who are presented up close to us is Ondaatje’s The English Patient: the charred remnants of the witty, humbled Almasy, the as yet undefeated by death mothering-nurse Hana, the desperately seeking meaning, once tortured Caravaggio, the utterly self-sacrificing figures of true integrity, the bomb disposal soldiers, Kirpal Singh and his lieutenant Hardy. Turned in Minghella’s movie into a wildly unreal romance of death between a Scarlet Pimpernel kind of hero (again Count Almasy, Ralph Fiennes now heroic adventurer in the desert) and self-deprecating warm-hearted Rebecca (Katharine Clifton). One admits in the film the actors present characters so deeply well-meaning and humane, in a film of unsurpassing visual beauty (the desert becomes sheer color), soaring music, that I could never cease from watching. The DVD had a second disk whose features about the making of the movie are (put together) longer than the 2 hour film story. It was such a commercial success (as has been the book) I’m just going to assume, you, gentle reader, have read the book and seen the movie.

So what can I say that might be of interest? Well we read it in my course called the Booker Prize marketplace niche. It is a quintessential example of the best kind of literary masterpiece that wins the prize. It speaks to us in our present political and economic predicament. for the characteristics of these books, see my blog On Using a Long Spoon: the Booker Prize (scroll down).

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Count Almasy (as yet unnamed, Ralph Fiennes) listening irritatedly to Katharine Clifton’s chatter as they drive through the desert

No book occurs in a vacuum and like so many Booker prize books this one has a rich context, which nowadays includes the movie in our emotional memories.

I begin with Ondaatje, as the book, the source of our talk and the film’s script comes out of the soul of the author: multinational multicultural, family divorced. While the elite of a colonialist nation – a colony – often lose out when the imperialist government in the “center” departs, which partly accounts for why his family left Sri Lanka, and moved to Britain and then Canada, he went to the upper class elite type boys’ public school. born on 12 September 1943 in Kegalle, fifty miles west of Colombo, the capital of what was then Ceylon (sehLOHN) and is now Sri Lanka. His family owned a tea plantation, members of the Eurasian élite. Name tells you the originals are probably Dutch — the Dutch early colonized the Spice Islands (as they were called).

When he is 2, his parents divorce (his father violent, alcoholic) and his mother and he go to live in Colombo where he goes to a boys’ school modeled on upper class British schools: St Thomas Boys’ College. Many of the countries Britain colonized took some form of this and you can find versions in US prep schools. So British/English background very strong. He moved to England in 1952 (age 9) and goes to Dulwich College, an old public school with strong academic record and long literary associations. In 1962 he moved to Canada (age 19) where his older brother was living and enters another school rooted in British traditions, Bishop’s University, only it’s in Quebec which is French speaking and strongly French in culture. He’s lived in Canada ever since — with time out for visits to Sri Lanka.

As far as I can tell his novels are set either in Canada or Sri Lanka except for The English Patient. He has written a memoir; In the Skin of the Lion is a powerful historical novel (set in earlier 20th century and Canada). His novels are discussed as Canadian and compared to other Canadian novels. He calls himself an someone with a migrant’s perspective, and it’s one that is more than double

When independence comes to a colonized place, the old élite often loses out badly, not only in terms of money and property but in the sense of their identity. They don’t belong in the “old” or mother country. They are themselves then the marginalized and deprived. Which is what happened to Ondaatje’s father and his mother in a double sense (divorced too). This marginalization of the previous bosses now aging is the subject of an early Booker Prize winner: Staying On

His background is that of the commercial writer, someone who makes his living through writing, not writing and teaching in a university (which many writers do as most people can’t make enough money from writing to support themselves). He left a university post when he didn’t do a Ph.D. thesis; he’s on his second marriage. He’s also a poet; in fact his earliest successes were as a poet. There’s a Trick I’m learning to Do with a Knife is a book of poems. His education is that of the upper class élite, but his homelife one of a displaced person. He seems to have a penchant for admiring the adventurer male, for finding release and romance and meaning in the lives of those who live on the social edge and are unconventional. An early book of poems and narratives is called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Billy the Kid was a psychopath, homicidal, and not really a conventional hero whatever cowboy stories might make of him.

Booker Prize books are deeply rooted in history, the past, meditate the unknowability of history at the same time as uncovering its layers through memories of the characters and in depth presentation of the story’s cultural nexus. The books to read are: Saul Kelly’s The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura, Paul Carrell’s The Desert Foxes (1960, from German point of view, non-fiction), and H. O. Dovey’s Operation Condor: Intelligence and National Security (1989, an M15 Man based in War Office in Middle East).

Who was Count Laszlo or Ladislaus Ede Almasy? He was a Hungarian count from an ancient family; born in deepest Hungary; he was educated as an aristocrat and his politics were deeply reactionary. He was an anti-semitic Nazi; he sold secrets to the Germans which probably led to deaths of spies on the Allies’ side. That is one way he lived. He also spied for the Soviet Union and he spied for England. He had to have done the latter as it’s the only way to explain his escape from a prison for Nazi spies which someone helped him escape from. Almazy was the kind of person you can’t buy; they are only for rent. He was probably not a nice man. Indeed he was probably a bad man in many ways, amoral. The world of spies is still a dirty and nasty one; it is still filled with amoral types. The world is I’m afraid made up of such people and they sometimes end up running countries nowadays — if they can spout piety at people and have control of the military.

Almasy’s was a marginalized family (like Ondaatje’s). By the 1910s aristocrats were out and his family was cash poor. The way to grow rich was not to go on adventures through the desert which is what he did. The way to grow rich is become an investment banker, to go into industry, build railroads and interconnective communications, be in short bourgeois, self-controlled and dull. You do like Donald Trump – buy and bankrupt companies and sell early; Romney did that too. You don’t spend all your hours hanging out in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo reading poetry and getting very drunk. Almasy was your adventurer-explorer. He was also homosexual. He left a packet of intense love letters to another man. He was passionate and romantic; the homoerotic aspect of his character is hinted at in the relationship between Madox and Almasy in the book and the film.


Madox (Julian Wadham) as yet not aware his friend a possible spy, is angry over Almasy’s apparent carelessness over the maps and papers detailing plans

Elizabeth Pathy Salett, the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat posted in Egypt in the 1930s, said that the count had planned a desert museum as a front for German espionage. She lived in Washington, DC and her father, Laszlo Pathy, was Hungarian consul general in Alexandria, Egypt; she wrote an article for The Washington Post that outlined how Almasy sought revenge against her father. After the count’s museum plans were scotched in 1936 because the Egyptian king learned that the museum was planned as a cover, the count blamed her father, Mrs. Salett said.

Six years later, while in Rommel’s service, the count sneaked into Cairo for 10 days, Mrs. Salett said. On his way out the British confiscated his briefcase and found a list of the people Rommel planned to arrest when he occupied Egypt. Among the names, she said, was her father’s. For Mrs. Salett, and other Hungarians who have seen “The English Patient,” the movie portrait of Almasy is “amoral and ahistorical.” She said that by ignoring the count’s work for the Germans, Ondaatje, who won the Booker Prize for his novel, trivialized the “significance of the choices men like Almasy made.”

Almasy (as in Ondaatje’s book) cultured, well educated in among other things geology, and he become part of a group of people living in or continually visiting Africa between the 1910s and 1940s who were interested in exploring the desert. Some were archaeologists (Louis Leakey was one of these), some big-game hunters, some plantation builders. He was an important member of the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa which was international in membership; he wrote a couple of important monographs on the desert. He did heroic research and deeds. He crossed the desert alone under very extreme circumstances more than once.

There was no such person as Madox — though Almasy’s had lovers. He is fictional but there was a Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. It’s not clear whether Geoffrey was a spy; he might have been. He was also a genuine explorer; he died young and Katharine was an adventurous woman. She died during World War Two in a plane crash. A whole group of them in Kenya found in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. West with the Night a classic book by Beryl Markheim, bush pilot; like other women people have claimed she didn’t write her book. She did not die in a plane crash but lived in poverty for a while until her book was rediscovered, she gained back friends with her money and became a horse trainer. Plane crashes were not an uncommon way to die among the members of this group. The Royal Geographical Society threw up another political figure probably much more important than Almasy; he’s mentioned in the book and I think in the film (though I’m not sure): Major Ralph Bagnold. Post-modern history prefers to tell of the subaltern, the marginalized.

Bagnold is said to have helped the British take over much of the desert and succeed in beating the Nazis in the desert. Like Almasy, he had at his fingertips and in his brains solid knowledge of how to live in the desert, how to survive, how to carry on a campaign, and he headed important groups of military people in the mid 1940s. He was awarded all kinds of high medals at the end of the war. Almasy was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions by Field Marshall Rommel and died in 1951 of dysentery.

Ondaatje must’ve done enormous research both on the desert, on this Royal Geographical Society (all sorts of small details turn up which are transformed into the fiction) and into Almasy’s own life. This beyond the literary intertextuality that is continual. A certain kind of Booker Prize book is like this: Wolf Hall by Mantel is this way.

He also researched the way the way was fought in Italy, landmine bombing; there is much transformed information about World War Two, about the migrations of peoples across Italy. Italy was a melting pot people moved up and down and ravaged the place; amazing anything left except that it was not bombed from the sky in the way Germany, England and Japan were. Japan suffered by the way horrendous losses even before the two atom bombs. Much of England’s old structures on the ground were destroyed; a couple of German cities were firebombed to the point that you probably could not have killed more people had you dropped an atom bomb. Back of book, credits show he read up on experience of Canadians in World War Two. The descriptions of the defusing of the bombs is utterly accurate and as I said you could worse as background for this book than watch the 1970s mini-series, Danger UXB.

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Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Hana’s first encounter — in the ruined library which he rightly worries is landmined

The book’s deep archetype is (perhaps unexpectedly seeing the above background) home: the characters we learn to know and love rebuild themselves a new family, and a home: in the movie we do see Hana (played in the movie by the lovely Juliette Binoche) gardening a lot; several times a family is formed and it’s destroyed or can’t last under the forces of war, colonialization and the way society is structured which pulls everyone hither and yon. The book to me – you may disagree – has this deep motif of retreat which I see in A Month in the Country (the second book we did in this class on the Booker Prize) – the world of art, science, thought imagination and without stretching it one can say The bookshop (the first) stands for that with its wonderful set of books as originally set out and described by Florence Green.

The English Patient is deeply post-colonial: a protest on behalf of the marginalized subaltern person subject to the economic and political and military domination of the patriarchal imperial west. In an interview Ondaatje is quoted as having said: “There are a lot of international bastards roaming around the world today. That’s one of the books (and film’s) main stories or themes.” It is also post-modern, characterized by high scepticism towards the idea that people really believe in enlightenment moral values and act based on these, and that these values will save our civilization from horrific self-destruction.

As the novel opens we meet two exiles, Hana and Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), then a third, Caravaggio (William Dafoe), and finally a fourth, Kip or Kirpal Singh (Naveen Andrews), with sidekick, Hardy (Kevin Whateley): who’s not that much a felt presence in the book; he is made much more of in the film, but he stands for all that is decent in the normative). They are living in an abandoned house which was built in the Renaissance, the house of a great poet and learned man, Poliziano. Repeatedly the novel connects present time with the past to show how much what we experience today and do is continuous and built upon what others experienced and did in the past. While far fewer and less varied, the war scenes are as realistic, seriously felt and realized as Tolstoy’s in War and Peace.

All displaced and exiled characters; at the same time they are rooted in their original cultures and don’t forget their earliest experiences. In England we find people who are deeply rooted: Madox, Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden, Mr Harts, who form an English family for Kirpal or Kip (named so as to allude to Kipling’s Kim) and the Cliftons (Geoffrey is played by Colin Firth) who are very upper class British.

It’s a novel about attempts at healing too. They find comfort in one another, read together, listen to music, the deepest wounded take morphine and drink condensed milk. The character Cavavaggio is especially important when he decides not to murder the English patient. The villa is a kind of Eden, an escape, a primitive garden, a cul-de-sac. The people come together without technology.

The beauty of the figures in the Cave of Swimmers is repeated in the beauty of the figures on the church walls in Italy, the songs from the old fashioned record player, the piano. What does sex become in the villa? Not this violent challenge, this devouring of one another. But nurturing. I’m attracted to the character of Hana and Caravaggio and their friendship: niece and uncle. He and Hana are my favorite characters. Displaced daughter/father lovers; “You have to protect yourself from sadness. Sadness is very close to hate”; each of them in their “own spheres of memory and solitude”; “To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement. A bath in the sea, a fuck with a soldier who never knew your name. Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self” (p. 49). I find Hana a beautiful character; so too the way Cavaravaggio is presented — in the novel.

In novel Almasy says he hates ownership. In film this idea is scotched because he is turned into a sexually jealous man who wants to own Katharine. But in the book it’s a significant theme. Who owns who? Does anyone? Whom do we learn from? Ondaatje has said a central relationship in the novel is that between Kip and Almasy: the colonialized and the elite European male. Kip learns to respect the man but he demurs at the books which argue for colonization and marginalizing his people. Why are they paired?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an ultimate colonialist text; there’s a deliberate echo of the name Kim in the nickname Kip. I’ve never read Kipling’s famous novel, Kim, though I have read his The Man who would be kind; Jim my husband read aloud his children’s Just so stories to my older daughter – how did the elephant get its trunk, the camel its hump, Rhinoceros its skin – they all end with this loving coda to the child being spoken to. Tone at end reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family. Kipling has a bad reputation today but it’s unfair. It has poems by Kipling, original book had glorious and interesting illustrations.

Herodotus, the book Almasy clings to, puts his photographs and letters in, was an early Greek historian; called the father of lies. He tells a very slanted history. He is known for his folk stories and mythic geography. Great chronicle with world wide scope.

It’s a novel about a world in ruin but also asserts that the world has always been in ruin. We cling to these roles because we don’t know what else to do. Cultural identities are given people. People insist English patient English. Why? Because of his culture. We see our characters make alliances based on individual affinity and congeniality of outlook and taste not biology and cultural ritual. Body as a site of resistance is very frail in the book. People smashed easily, burned up. Now you are here, now you are not. Lord Suffolk trinity; Hardy. Violence important in book: barbarity of people to another another; indifference of natural world.

Its meditation on the place of memory accounts for the rearrangement of time to be subjective. The language gorgeous: a voice of his own. Splendour of imagery everywhere, songsong lyric quality.

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Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas) telling the story of Candaules and Gyges (voyeuristic husband turns murderous over lover) from Herodotus as the other men listen …. in the desert

It’s useful to compare a film adaptation to a novel since you have much of the same story matter. By seeing what’s omitted you can gauge both the thematic resonances the film wanted to avoid and the new ones they put in place. The same goes for looking at what’s added. On average another statistic at 37% of the original story matter remains; the rest is added. This is a case where the movie has gotten so intertwined with people’s memories of the book I have now to differentiate the movie from the book.

Minghella’s film reverses the emphasis of the book: specifically the romance story of Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) with adultery and the jealous rage of Geoffrey Clinton (Colin Firth) takes over the movie. If you look at the book, after the initial seeing of the airplane in flight over the desert, the shooting down by Germans, the burning of Almasy and trek through the desert, we do not return to the story of Almasy and the woman we saw in the plane until the middle of the book’s 4th section, Cairo (1930-38), of ten, and don’t get into it in earnest until the 5th called Katharine. In the film this material is continually there, moved up front, woven into the story of Hana, Almasy as charred patient, Caravaggio, and Kip in the Villa San Girolamo (presented as once the home of Poliziano, a Renaissance prince and writer), is added to, and forms an important part of the final ending when the initial scene is finally explained. In the book the explanation for the woman in the airplane (we are do not know she’s a corpse when we first see her) is finished at the end of the 9th section, “Cave of Swimmers,” (where we see the ancient drawings of swimmers inside a cave) which contains also considerable material on Madox (Julian Wadham), implicitly Almasy’s lover, whose suicide matters in the book and is hardly mentioned, much less explained in the film (from horror at the church worship of the war, from loss of Almasy’s love, from Almasy’s betrayal of the British as a German spy); after which we the 10th section, “August,” move back to life at the villa, Kip and Hana’s love affair, Kip disposing and defusing bombs at great personal risk, the atom bomb, and Kip’s strong revulsion, and coda in Sri Lanka and Canada, where Kip has returned to his home culture to become a doctor and family man, and Hana retreated from the world to an island with her aunt, while Caravaggio resumes his role as wanderer, which coda is left out of the movie altogether.

Kip’s building of an English family in Sussex with the delightful Lord Morden (who never left Sussex in his life), his secretary Miss Morden (the name alludes to death), and their loving butler, with the thermos and sandwiches — they explore the geology of Britain together — all omitted. If you do not read the book you may see Kip simply as Hana’s lover. In the book he is not only a Sikh, but also an Anglophile, risking his life endlessly to save the Allies and people of Europe. His affair with Hana is counterpointed against the affair of Katharine and Almasy with more resonances and depths, and neither the major story. He does not break away because of Hardy’s death but because of the dropping of the bombs on Japan. His people were regarded as dispensable, wiped out in minutes.

The true model for the Almasy-Katharine story is Baroness Orzcy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel crossed by DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Think The Prisoner of Zenda. A band of English gentlemen dedicated to rescuing innocent aristocratic victims of the French revolution. The hero whose name is Sir Percy Blakeney appears to be effete (subtle, sensitive, impeccable manner, has read the classics) but is in fact a determined man of action. I hope no one needs me to summarize Rebecca, a femme fatale (it’s actually a misreading of the book but that’s another blog). It is simply factually true that Rebecca was used as a code book by the Nazi spies: it was carried about by Almasy’s men into Cairo. It’s just the sort of thing that might have appealed to the real Almasy who thrilled to adventure and romance.

Hana is no longer central; Katherine is — though they are treated as a double figure. In the book Almasy tells Hana about the winds; in the film, he tells Katharine.
The inimitable Kevin Whateley as Hardy — carrying Kip’s boots to be cleaned

Nonetheless, there is much gain too. The film ends differently: the film stays true to the transnationalism of the rest of the book. By showing torture you bring it home to people. The way the film opens and closes on the plane, desert and cave of swimmes, with the desert and the incessant maps assuming the function of presences, characters. Almasy chooses to die in the film; Caravaggio is given more intensity against Almasy in the film.

Actors enrichen a work: William Dafoe is particularly good, and Fiennes through his makeup. Hana too has inner beauty. With his small role as Madox, Julian Wadham does very well. He has presence and overshadows Kip as someone in relationship to the English patient.

Let’s not be snobs: there is a splendid visual quality. From Allen Stone’s review on line (“Herodotus Goes Hollywood”):

The English Patient is stunning, filled with archetypal, exotic, and oneiric images. The film contrasts the browns of the desert with the greens of Northern Italy, the scarified face of the burned English patient with the handsome profile of the Count. Constantly finding creative camera angles and perspectives, the cinematography intrigues and fascinates from the opening scene. And it sustains that intensity for more than two and a half hours.

The English Patient begins with a close-up of a painter’s brush drawing exotic figures on a textured surface. We have no idea who the painter is or what the figures represent. Eventually we will learn that Katherine Clifton is the painter and that she is copying figures from the walls of the “cave of swimmers”–a real cave discovered by European explorers of the desert between the two world wars.

Minghella makes them into a team whose members are of diverse nationalities; he does not want to deny the possibility of love which is what the book does. At the end in the desert Almasy paints the corpse and does not weep. Hana returns to her family; so too Kip.

The film ends with a sad but hopeful image of Hana in that truck with the child beside her, clutching Herodotus.

Ellen

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An Arthur Rackham illustration of Undine

Friends,

How all things come together (with or for me). I’ve embarked on teaching Booker Prize novels: a marketplace niche for good books? I include two historical fictions: J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country and Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient. And today my proposal for teaching a course I’m calling Romancing 18th century historical fiction (scroll down for syllabus) this summer at the same place has now been accepted: the books, Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. The reality for me is both courses and my interest in the Winston Graham Poldark world, Outlander, seem to swirl around the same compelling immersion: historical fiction.

Is this genre just so much pastiche? I hope not because I wrote a good review of Martha Bowden’s fine book on the subject, and it’s been published in a fine periodical I’m proud to appear in, The Intelligencer (NS, Vol 31:1 [March 2017]:42-45). In order to give my essay more circulation, to tell the contents of this book, I’ve placed the essay on academia.edu.

Ellen

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From The English Patient: the burnt-up hero (Ralph Fiennes) reading Herodotus, the Canadian who has been tortured (William Dafoe)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday later morning into afternoons, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
March 29 to May 17
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we will discuss four gems of Booker Prize fiction. Some have said the prize functions as a brilliantly exploited marketplace tool aimed at a specific readership niche, just perfect for high quality film adaptations and literary criticism. The selected books are characteristically historical fiction, self-reflexive, witty and passionate, post-colonialist, — plus all have been made into films. Before the class begins, please read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop;then in class we’ll read J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Graham Swift’s Last Orders

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Bookshop. 1970: rpt. 1997: Boston: Hougton Mifflin. ISBN 0395869463. Or latest edition: Introd. David Nicholls, Mariner, 2015 iSBN: 978-0544484092
Carr, J. L. A Month in the Country. Introd. Michael Holroyd. 1980; rpt. New York Review of Books, 2000. ISBN 0940322471
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Swift, Graham. Last Orders. New York: Vintage, 1996.


From Patrick O’Connor and Simon Gray’s A Month in the Country: the protagoniss (Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth), and stationmaster preacher (Jim Carter)

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

March 29th: 1st week: The politics of selling good books: history of the Booker Prize; we begin with Penelope Fitzgerald

April 5th: 2nd week: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Bookshop; we begin J. L. Carr and A Month in the Country: historical fiction

April 12th: 3rd week: A Month in the Country; clips from the film and discussion

April 19th: 4th week: A Month in the Country; Michael Ondaatje and context for The English Patient

April 26th: 5th week: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient; clips from the film and discussion

May 3rd: 6th week: The English Partient; begin Graham Swift and post-modernity (Waterlands); Orders

May 10th: 7th week: Last Orders: alternating streams of consciousness; clips from film and discussion

May 17th: 8th week: Finish Last Orders; Return to Booker and other prizes; wide discussion for future courses reading books like these

From Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders (2004): Jack’s four friends (Ray Winston, David Hemminges, Bob Hoskins, Tim Courtney) on the pier, by the sea, and his wife, Amy (Helen Mirren) getting on the bus

Suggested supplementary reading & films:

Cooper, Pamela. Graham Swift’s Last Orders. NY: Continuum, 2002
English, James. “Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art,” New Literary History, 33:1 (Winter, 2002):109-135.
The English Patient. Dir. And Screenplay. Anthony Mingella. With Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliet Binoche ….. Miramax,1996
Gray, Simon. Old Flames and A Month in the Country: Two Screenplays. London: Faber and Faber, 1990
Huggan, Graham. “Prizing ‘otherness:’ A short history of the Booker,” Studies in the Novel, 29:3 (1997):412-33.
Kelly, Saul. The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura: The True Story Behind the English Patient. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2002.
Last Orders. Dir and Screenplay. Fred Schepisi. With Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine … Sony, 2004.
Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. New York: Vintage, 2014
Minghella, Anthony. The English Patient: The Screenplay. London: Methuen, 1997.
A Month in the Country. Dir. Patrick O’Connor. Screenplay Simon Gray. With Colin Firth, Patrick Malahide, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson …. Pennies from Heaven, 1987.
Moseley, Merritt. “Britain’s Booker Prize,” The Sewanee Review, 101:4 (1993):613-22.
Norris, Sharon. “The Booker Prize: A Bourdieusian Perspective,” Journal for Cultural Research, 10:2 (2006):139-58.
Rogers, Byron. The Last Englishman: A Life of J. L. Carr. London: Aurum, 2003.
Showalter, Elaine. “Coming to Blows over the Booker,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 48 (June 2002):42
Strongman, Luke. The Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire. Netherlands: Rodopi, 2002.
Sutherland, J. A. Fiction and the Fiction Industry. London: Athlone Press, 1978.
Todd, Richard. Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.


The sea and the desert …

Ellen

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson)

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Elizabeth (Heida Reed), Geoffrey Charles (unnamed) and George Warleggan (Jack Farthing)

She’d say life holds only two or three things worth the having, and if you possess them the rest don’t matter, and if you do not possess them the rest are useless (Graham, Warleggan, Bk 4:Ch 5, p 439; repeated in screenplay but attributed to Ross rather than Demelza, screenplay, 70 INT, pp 578-79)

Dear friends and readers,

[Note: this blog assumes the reader has read Graham’s novels, viewed the 1970s mini-series, and is interested in the art as well as content of the books and this older and the new 2015-16 mini-series. I don’t re-cap, expect the viewer to have seen the film, understood the story, and remember it generally.]

So we come to the end of the second season of the Debbie Horsfield’s new Poldark and Winston Graham’s powerful fourth novel, Warleggan. I was powerfully moved by the new finale, which remained close in most respects to the book, but have to admit I was equally deeply engaged by its counterpart in 1975, Jack Russell’s Episode 16, whose events moved so far from the book so as to present a different story, but whose sense and spirit were a theatrically Jacobin version in spirit of the book (rather like Jack Pulman’s Episodes 3 and 4 related to the conclusion of Graham’s first novel, Ross Poldark). I burst into tears at the 1975 version, not just because Demelza’s beloved dog, Garrick, is shot by Warleggan’s thugs, but at some wrenching of me within as Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees), continue fiercely to tear at one another.

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I didn’t cry during this second iteration because I have a hard time accepting one of the changes Horsfield made: in Graham’s book and in Russell’s rendition, well before Ross’s last visit to Trenwith to talk with Warleggan and (in the book) Elizabeth, Demelza makes the difficult effort to forgive, accept, and let her love for Ross come out and respond to him again so that they could have gone to bed again (Bk 4, Ch 3, pp 413-414 — he feels he will wait until she will feel no reserve once again). In Warleggan they do quarrel angrily in the last scene (over very different and woman’s way of seeing his conduct and his refusal to acknowledge her understanding of what happened is just too), such that they nearly break up as they nearly do in Horsfield’s version (Bk 4, Ch 7, pp 460-66). In my view Graham stopped writing the series for 20 years because he had reached such an impasse, with Ross still at least longing for Elizabeth to acknowledge an ex-love (she won’t, now that he never turned up after the rape, left her pregnant, and she has had to marry a man she doesn’t love and who she knows doesn’t love her, she hates Ross), and Ross and Demelza reconciling themselves to the reality of conflicting emotions they must live with. But Horsfield and Eleanor Tomlinson’s Demelza reached a point of bitterness, sarcasm (she jeers at Ross — “What it is to be married to such a great man!”)), spite in her eyes, hate in a visit to Elizabeth (not in the book)

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Demelza confronting Elizabeth

Elizabeth: ‘Why have you come?’
Demelza: ‘I thought ’twas to tell you that I hate you. That you’ve marred my faith and broke my marriage. That I envy you. for the passion you roused which Ross could not withstand. That I pity you … But now I wonder what do any of it matter? what you did — what Ross did — cannot be undone. And you both must live with that. But I need not.

and reluctant grudging silence even in her last scene with Ross, her eyes so narrow, her face so pinched, that I felt alienated from the character I had bonded with. I found it just so painful that she did not seem to value Ross, invest her whole being there (the way I had with my husband and have imagined Demelza does in the book). A part of my deep joy in the novels is the character of Demelza as imagined by Graham and she is never hateful with fierce looks of spite; never stalks anyone. I can respond better to open hurt than rigid withholding of the self and resentment. Horsfield’s conception and Tomlinson’s acting makes deep pyschological sense, but I could find little to comfort myself with here. I felt for Aidan Turner as Ross, remorseful, trying to be honest (she says he is not honest when he is), and clinging to her (Horsfield gives Graham’s Demelza’s words to him (see above). In the long feature to the DVD of this second season, Jack Farthing remarks that the series “is not a museum piece,” but treats of issues, presents characters of direct contemporary relevance today. In book and this episode she does sow doubt in Ross’s mind that she just might have gone to bed with MacNeil (Henry Garrett) and the scene of Ross’s anger at this in this episode’s penultimate scene is word-for-word from the book and very good (and not in the 1970s version where Demelza never moves away from Ross at all), and she does threaten to leave with Jeremy, but in the last pages of the book and here on the cliff again does not.

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Agatha has nearly the last words of the episode as she tells Elizabeth she has made a pact with a devil and warns the baby may come in February (9 months after May 9th, the night of the rape)

For the record the changes in Demelza are not the only way Horsfield departs from the Warleggan (perhaps, some would say, modernizes). Some of the material comes from Black Moon (Book 5); so too George’s attempt to part Geoffrey Charles from Elizabeth in Black Moon, Elizabeth’s fuller realization her coming baby might be Ross’s – she suspects, worries but the realization comes later. Here it comes at the close from Aunt Agatha’s (Caroline Blakiston) insight; entirely new (not in book, not in earlier series) is the way Horsfield has developed the relationship of Agatha and Elizabeth. Agatha functions in the way the fool did in Elizabethan drama: she tells Elizabeth truths Elizabeth doesn’t not want to hear but knows in her heart. In Warleggan she realizes George has married her as a trophy, is not manageable or comfortable to be with as Francis, but it takes the time passing in Black Moon for her to see she has married a mean bully in George.

The mob scene is the invention of Jack Russell. There is none in Warleggan (as Pulman invented the idea that Charles Poldark took a needed £300 from Ross after he borrowed it from Pascoe, and Horsfield changed that to Charles trying to bribe Ross to leave). Horsfield has not allowed this natural result of enclosure and destroying the tenants’ houses to move into open riot, murder (the crazed lonely Paul Daniel is shot through the chest by Warleggan in 1975), nor allowed Trenwith to burn down, but the episode does give us a theatrically effective rendition of the rage the tenants and all around Truro George’s behavior is causing. Having Trenwith burn down in the older series made havock with Black Moon and Ross and Agatha’s deep resentment and George’s exultation to be in Trenwith. I object to the new way it’s done where Horsfield far more blames the workers (as a foolish group, not a starving deeply wounded people with nothing to lose) but the new episode gives Ross a chance to redeem himself by stopping the riot and appealing directly to Demelza to come home with him. He has come for her.

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Demelza climbing up in front of Ross once more

Jack Russell has Ross called to war to join his regiment (this is anachronistic), so that at the close he leaves Demelza with Jeremy; there is nothing like this in the book — for the very good reasons Pascoe (Richard Hope in this version) and Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) in the new episode tell him not to: he needs to be there to develop his thriving tin business, to keep up his family. But Horsfield picks this up too as theatrical; he joins Dwight in London after the disillusioned Dwight (he has been told wrongly that Caroline has engaged herself to a Lord Coniston) has signed up, but cannot get himself to leave. Horsfield conveys the ominousness of war through having Jeremy play with toy soldiers against the larger background of taverns, and men readying themselves. There is much less romance to it than there was 40 years ago.

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The two friends reunited

Much was done very well –- and the parts that were closer to the book finer in conception, subtler, making more true sense than what Russell concocted (see my account in the comments). In general throughout both seasons 1 and 2 of this Poldark and the whole of the previous, where the writer is closer to Graham, the series is better. As so common, it opens with Ross and (now) Henshawe, Paul Daniel all working at the mine. Only now Demelza is not there; she is not helping but acting out the “elegant” lady, walking in the meadow. We move to Trenwith where George is having Francis’s picture removed, placating Elizabeth with a dual portrait of them in its place(by the “celebrated John Opie — “oh George,” says the fool, “you spoil me”), all the while thinking of how he may part her “reasonably” from Geoffrey Charles (a good school you see) and plotting with Tankard to shoot people on sight who take the hitherto public right of way, and by the next scene seeking to wrench from Ross the shares he paid Elizabeth for from Wheal Grace while they were worthless. In this second scene, Elizabeth lurks by the door and does realize for the first time that Ross had tried to help her, but after a ferocious physical battle where Ross tries to burn George, and he has his men eject him after smashing his face, she seems to side with George. Jill Townsend’s Elizabeth was cooler, assessed George better (as does Graham’s), knew she was caged upon marriage.

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Townsend’s face hardens as she realizes George will not keep any of his promises (to take her to London, to provide her with a great lady social life ….)

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Reed is ever soft: the scene ends now with her telling her boy, George will be his papa now — the child is not impressed

The Dwight and Caroline (Gabriella Wilde) scenes and especially when John Nettles as Ray Penvenen is there are very well and carefully realized. Nettles is a fine actor, and a deeply appealing uncle, who conveys complex feelings: we have the scene where Dwight tells him he has “the sugar sickness” and will not get better by altering his diet (no wine) but may prolong his life.

nettles

I cannot warm to Horsfield’s conception of Caroline as a shallow egoistic heiress slowly growing up; by contrast Judy Geeson is shown as genuinely caring for the beaten down impoverished Rosina Hoblyn:

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Jack Russell’s Caroline hires Rosina as her maid (very anachronistic). Neither is quite Graham’s conception: Graham’s Caroline is a hold-over from the gay witty lady of Restoration comedy, and becomes humanized through her flirtatious relationship with Ross, friendship with Demelza and her ambiguous marriage to Dwight (she does emasculate him somewhat, and in the later books he holds himself apart). But there is something touching about Wilde’s behavior, how she holds her body, when Ross comes to thank her, and brings her back to Dwight (she stands there looking more penitent than ever seen before). It’s pure romance:

wilde

norris

I was moved when after the lovers’ night together, she returns to her lonely uncle to care for him.

I also warmed to the added scene of Verity’s (Ruby Bentall) childbirth: her step-daughter has now sofened towards her; the whole scene is not literally in the book but a fair extrapolation. And it gives Horsfield a chance to have the sympathetic Verity try to talk Demelza into accepting and forgiving, into remembering, believing Ross does love her — and not to let go of that.

verity

Verity is dropped from the books, marginalized as a character from the time of Black Moon on. In Graham and the 2nd season of the 1970s Poldark (1977-78), instead Demelza’s great friend becomes Caroline Penvenen Enys. I hope Horsfield changes that, and keeps the sister-friendship up as she has developed the aunt-niece relationship of Agatha and Elizabeth.

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Turner in one of several scenes between him and Demelza where he is reasoning with her, trying to apologize, to explain himself.

I thought Turner superb in the episode: it was a hard part. He had to be didactic and explicitly say moral things left to interior thoughts in the book and he did it very well. I found him very appealing throughout. He has become this complicated character thoroughly, driven, with many conflicting loyalties, rightly fiercely protective of everything good which Warleggan would blight. Given the present horrible things going on in the US where a man has taken power and is inflicting pain and deprivation on the majority of Americans, treating non-whites as semi-criminals (they are not safe in the streets anymore), having immigrants snatched up and deported to anywhere, prosecuting parents, increasing private prisons (shown to be cruel to prisoners), Ross Poldark is now an important hero for our time in a way he has not been since the 1940s when he was conceived as an antidote to the barbarism and nightmare war of mid-century Europe. His finally striking out at George, meaning to kill him almost unless stopped is another moment of understandable rage for the character who is emerging as flawed but meaning and doing well often (exemplary in most ways). Farthing is acting George as he is in the book (and as Ralph Bates acted him in the 1970s), we see the banality of evil, cold selfishness, no care for anyone but himself and those he deems extensions of him. I regret they dropped his father Nicholas as a semi-moral villain, slightly comic, amusingly acid (Allen Tilvern); we are in an era where there is no room for comedy and so we have the icy relentless Cary Warleggan (Pip Torrens).

A telling repeat image in this episode is that of people writing letters to one another; we see George writing, and and switch to Ross writing and back again:

letters

There are scenes of signing, Dwight leans down to sign his return to the navy (as a doctor aboard a ship), Ross nearly signs, he takes documents from Pascoe to London. George is continually among his documents, looking at them (as was Ralph Bates in 1975). No longer boxing and fencing with someone, but attacking the world through ownership and lawyers.

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Not a museum piece as Farthing said.

I aim to reread the coming novels, Black Moon and The Four Swans this summer and am now eager for the third season and for all twelve novels to be adapted into this film adaptation. I also hope they will keep the same actors when after The Angry Tide, the series must move ahead ten years to The Stranger from the Sea. As with The Pallisers (where they age considerably) or I, Claudius, I would enjoy seeing the actual presences grow older and change and endure on.

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The working mine the set-designers keep to

In Maureen Turim’s book, Flashbacks in Film, on history: she makes the point how Hollywood films seem always to tell a political or historical story through the story of individuals; one must. Her philosophical criticism is that this must distort realities, especially as often the film-makers choose exemplary characters and of course they get to chose what example they want to present, and often provide a happy ending. One way the history film can get past this is the use of flashback, montage, retrospective, wide far shots, the characters remembering: well at the close of Poldark on the cliff and in the returns to the symbolic buildings, Trenwith, Nampara, the village, that’s precisely what the film-makers are suggesting.

Next up: Outlander, the second season, when I’ve finished War and Peace. Just now I am watching in a row all the Anna Karenina movies, and especially loving the 1978 13 part BBC mini-series written by Donald Wilson, the same man who wrote much of the 1967 Forsyte Saga. Keep hope alive, my friends, keep hope alive. And I will be writing on books too.

Ellen

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Pierre (Hopkins) attempting to tell the deeply congenial Natasha he feels called to encounter Napoleon (while Moscow burns half-crazed he decides the calling is to kill this pest)

Dear friends and readers,

As promised, I here conclude the two blogs I’ve written on Pulman’s masterpiece mini-series out of Tolstoy’s novel (see Part 1, Episodes 1-10). These come out of a fulfilling experience I had with a group of people on Trollope19thCStudiesw @Yahoo (we read Anthony Trollope and his contemporaries, but also books on the Victorians, NeoVictorian novels, and talk about film adaptations of 19th century novels and films about the 19th century. I’ve posted an appreciatoin of Tolstoy’s novel after nearly a year of reading; more than a year of watching. Then I did a review of the 1955 King Vidor Italian-American Hollywood W&P; and a film study of Bondarchuk’s 1966 visionary epic W&P.

Doing these has enabled me to re-live these fulfilling experiences, and in the case of Pulman’s film I hope to tempt people who love beautifully acted, written, well-done film adaptations to see this nowadays under-rated (hardly spoken of) mini-series.

We left off at the pivotal center of Pulman’s film (Episode 10), Natasha’s (Morag Hood) delusionary nervous seduction by Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker), the thwarted elopement, the rigid Andrei Bolkonsky’s (Alan Dobie) bitter disappointment to where he has broken off with her for good. He has lost what had given him hope again to build a good life and (in effect) throws himself away, re-enlists in the renewed war. She grows closer to Pierre Bezukov (Antony Hopkins), who has wild ideas of stopping Napoleon himself. As Tolstoy says (in words given to Andrei in Episode 11 as he listens to the war counsel of Alexander (Donald Douglas) it seems everyone is helplessly moving into a maelstrom of destruction. Thus the tragic second half of the film.

Unlike the novel, Pierre is never absent for any length of time now. He is in almost every episode. A rare instance is 16 where Natasha and Andrei are central forces as he lays dying, and Sonya grieves for the coming loss of Nikolai and all her hopes.

Episode 11: Men of Destiny

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Napoleon (David Swift) determined to become (in effect) emperor of Europe with Paris as his capitol: the massive hubris of the man is caught in Swift’s stiff face

Much of it was dramatized scenes not in the novel at all. At this point the mini-series is approaching the 1812 and so they were (Pullman of course) confronted with the problem of what to do about Tolstoy’s arguments not just about history (which I see Tyler has commented on and I’m glad and will try to respond to later today) but a view of Napoleon which is essential to under the battles. Also they want to convey how Andrey feels about the battle and why — as that is part of the material.

So we have an astonishing good scene between David Swift as Napleon and Morris Perry (a great actor of the 1970s, then an older man) as Fouchet, the police chief who was an advisor to Napoleon and angered him greatly. Fouchet presents all the arguments against going into Russia that Tolstoy relies to make us understand Napoleon was an aggrandizing pest; Pullman puts in Napoleon’s mouth ideas about his control and direction that are clearly wrong. We then move to the Rostovs in Moscow: again there is much monologue and point of view in the continued desire of Nikolai to marry Sonya (Joanna David) and her intense desire to take him up on it: Pullman invents a very good scene between Natasha and Sonya where Sonya reads aloud a letter from Nikolai so that they discuss the issues. Inbetween these two we have other good scenes: the ball that goes endlessly on oblivious, ironically, the men on the battlefield coming on, and Petya wanting to enlist.

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The ball

We move to Alexander and his council or generals: not in the book this scene but Tolstoy’s idea of how useless and narrow most of their advice; one man does say they must lead the French on, not engage directly in battle and the whole effort itself will destroy the French army. Andrew is listening and in over-voice we get Andrey’s justified rejection of much that he sees as corrupt politics. We move to the Bolkonskys and Andrey is home: again a scene between Marya (Angela Downs) and Andrei about their mean father, a dinner scene where the old prince is a lecher towards Mlle Bourienne and Andrei tells him publicly how he should get rid of that woman and is told get out. A scene where Pierre brings his bible to Natasha and attempts to interest her in the 666 of the Bible and she cannot get it, but is eager to please him. It’s sweet. A swift wipe-out and now Napoleon enters the empty ballroom, exultant. Money was spent and they filmed scenesenough to suggest huge armies being amassed. The words in the dialogues skilfull quiet irony to show us how tragically and horribly wasteful all this is.

Pullman knows has made many invented scenes for this transitional pivotal episode. Snobbery never ceases and as I’ve said there is not one published article about this excellent series. This episode is just magnificent in the old version. David Swift as Napoleon interacting with his underlings, especially the chief of police is superb. . The BBC 1972 film is vitriolically anti-war. How appropriate the now ironic paratexts. We see the golden icons of shield, of tzarism, of imperialism slowly canvassed by the camera, and then cut to the countryside probably of somewhere in the British Isles, but plain and vast enough to stand for land people, real actual people attempt to wrest a life out of. The music is appropriately filled with trumpets until we reach the countryside and then it’s the men marching in the dark over the bridge. Then it quiets down. I don’t recognize it but I am not learned in music so that does not mean it’s an original score. The thematic music of these costume dramas matter: they frame and sandwich the experience as “not like the rest of TV;” cut off to be a special experience.

Episode 12: Fortunes of War; 13: Borodino

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The serfs’ attempted revolt; POV the astonished Marya

I found myself more interested in Episode 13 than 12 since Episode 13 like Episode 11 (Men of Destiny above) confronts the problem that in order for us really to grasp the larger meaning of what we are seeing requires invention of scenes and transposition of Tolstoy’s narrative into dialogues between characters.

As before 12 is distressing for me to watch. Not for the scenes of Napoleon and Murat who are on about strategy, how this group of soldiers will do this or that (thoroughly ironized for us by the dialogues of Episode 11) or Andrei and the servant telling of the father’s death and move of the family: the first again an interpellation from Tolstoy’s narrative monologue, the second dramatizing Andrei’s intense inward grief. The scenes that come straight from the book: the uncomfortable elder, the naïve puzzled princess (meaning so well), the peasants’ attempt to revolt lead up to the arrival of Nikolai (Silvester Morand) and the way he so easily subdues the peasants by bullying them, by simply asserting his authority, two immediately handtie the leader and they hasten to obey. I dislike Nikolai in this scene and feel so helpless at the peasants’ abjection. The BBC means us to see and feel this embarrassment and this film belongs to the 1970s liberal point of view of costume drama. In the book and here it begins Marya’s dependence on and transference of love to Nikolai as a much better, a kindly strong male.

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The deathbed scene of the old man, Marya hides her face

13 is to me a lesson in how to try to convey the horror of battle and the way people respond to it. Just about all we see occurs in the book in some way but not dramatized as large scenes. It begins with the small human dramas: the corrupt Julie come to commiserate and repeat her usual hypcrisies (it’s a sardonic long range comment that it was she Marya used to pour her heart out to) about Moscow’s safety she’s heard — all the while she is there to see if the Rostovs are fleeing. The Countess Rostov (Faith Brooke) says she will not until Petya returns and before we can object to Boris’s doings (told so proudly by Julie) the count and Pierre come in to say Petya is safe and Pierre has had him transferred. Natasha all gratitude, Pierre rushing off lest he take advantage. But then the contrast of the war scenes – the BBC spent a lot of money The men coming, the setting up of Napoleon on the hill and the gravity of it. Pierre does look a fool and out of place. The ridiculous icon carried through which Kutusov (Frank Middlemass) comes to kneel before. We are expected to remember how he and then Andrei (in 11) told the people asking for strategy there can be none. Kutusov looks intensely grief-stricken; he tells Andrei he has to told Andrei he has to do this because everyone wants it. And then this death scenes, the bombs, individual vignettes which does not end when Andrei is hit but pans out to show us all the death (in every which way ) and writhing bodies.

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Kutusov: from here on in he is presented as a contrast to Napoleon — his face filled with pity

Borodino: here is where Pierre gets caught up in the battle too and we experience and see the battle from his POV. Andrea seems to be blown to bits by a bomb — Pulman’s Pierre is not the deeply good man, that Davie’s Pierre is; but he is humane and what is happening on the batttlefield horrifies him. I thought of our own continuing wars and the very dangerous man who is now commander in chief of US military and his “Mad Dog” appt, which newspapers are glad of (that it was not someone far worse).

Episode 14: Escape

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Rostopchin exulting over Pierre: war and power brings out the worst in many peopel

Another superlative episode using invented scenes. In the book Rostopchin (Mayor of Moscow) is made hideous to us by the way he sets up a mob-murder scene of Vereschagin (a once naive idealistic student imprisoned and tortured). Pullman wants to make Rostopchin’ s behavior feel equally anathema. So a fine actor (whose name I could not find) reads the proclamation which declares all is fine and no one need flee Moscow in front a gathering of middle and upper class men: Pierre just returned from the battlefield keeps saying “nonsense.” Whether Rostopchin heard or not, he asks Pierre to come into his office and then deliberately is as vile and threatening to Pierre as he knows how: each act is a comment on our themes. He says how he is imprisoning Vereschagin as a free mason (whether he is or no) and will use and torture him (it’s implied). As a free mason, he regards Pierre as subject to arrest and death and tells him to leave Moscow immediately. He reports on Anatole’s death as Pierre’s brother-in-law; when that doesn’t hurt he tells of Andrei’s supposed death and Pierre begins to cry. This is not Tolstoy’s man who is utterly incompetent most of the time. Never so focused. But it works. A scene of Pierre coming home, given the countess letter and growing incensed, repeating her shallow words and planning to kill Napoleon.

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The Rostovs attempting to pack

The second half are the semi-comi scenes of the Rostov’s incompetence – only Sonya is packing and trying to get the others to work with her. Finally Petya arrives, angry he has been brought back.Then the mother will leave; when Natasha feels for the men and wants to unload the carts, and the father agrees on a few,the countess goes into a rage. It’s his fault they have lost most of their fortune and are leaving so late. The latter is hers we know (reinforced by Petya’s return in this episode so we don’t forget). He then says oh Nikolai will come and fix everything and she agrees. We are supposed to understand the hopelessness of this. Finally just before they get off Pierre is seen going by from the window and says he is staying but won’t say why.

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This encounter is repeated in all four of the W&P films I’ve watched

Sonya tells the countess Andrei is among the wounded. They are disturbed: the countess forbids Sonya to tell Andrei, in her obtuse way trying again to keep them apart. The scene ends with countess wandering through the empty rooms hurrying to carts loaded with viciously bleeding wounded men.

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Filmed slowly so we feel a way of life is ending

The 1970s mini-series did the books they did with care and attention to really reflecting the meaning of their texts. There’s enough time to character Napoleon from his standpoint and yet show what a monster he functioned as and was. Kutusov refusing to kill men uselessly for a symbol is strong and memorable. Paul Dano has nothing to work with in comparison to Hopkins: the family of the Rostovs and how the countess carries on caring only about prestige, objects, her children insofar as the situation will permit; she will not budge an iota in views as the world tumbles about her body.

Episodes 15: Moscow; 16: Two Meetings

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Pierre wandering through the fire-filled streets

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The woman hysterical over her baby burning to death in the building

15: Filled with memorable moments and beautifully structured within as well. The marching French soldiers, marching marching, camera angle on their feet, implied growing tired, Napoleon surviving, so proud, sidekick about there’s Moscow. He anticipates the great meetings he will have, how good he will be to all, and insists this was not his doing, he didn’t want this but now all shall be in good order under him. (Tolstoy would agree he alone did not do this – -and the point has been made too by dramatized dialogues in previous episodes.) More marching, then Napoleon in one of these vast cathedral types building, pacing waiting but all the officers can find are “riff-raff.” They try to tell Napoleon, but he is not listening; they bring these peasants in, and Napoleon indignant, wrathful kicks them out. Insists still he will set up there.

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The degraded drinking

After Pierre’s meeting with Rastopchin, the despairing exhausted Pierre home again. Real relationship with servant, amazed to see him, you must leave Sir. Hopkins rueful smile. Then the French officer Ramballe enters the house, self-satisfied, taking over — perfectly enacted — a peasant in the household lunges to shoot him, Pierre intervenes, the French man so grateful insists on the meal and in parallel with Napoleon his batman or equivalent to bring up all the wine. The drunken scene not that well done — they don’t let loose enough, but both sodden, Pierre deeply ashamed. Long center. Hopkins ends up drunk with a French officer where we see the frivolity of the latter and despair of the former, both pass out, and Hopkins ends up taken as a murderous aristocrat once he goes down into the streets. Napoleon set up in that space of the Kremlin, an officer to him and he begins to realize no one is coming.

Pierre in the streets, the street scenes, and then the saving of the little girl, he is captured as an incendiary, partly because he is seen to be upper class — so this is what everyone wants (ironic). Finally Kutusov once again stubbornly holding out, bitter now; a last shot of Pierre looking out dungeon window: parallel made of Pierre and Kutusov. Moscow ends up burnt down; we see Napoleon refusing to see what has happened to his plans, that the Russian generals have beat him because of the terrain and insisting on his rigorous rules and strategy which he cannot enforce.

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Natasha and Andrei re-united — it’s like Romeo and Juliet get to wake up

16: Carefully structured as a unit as the others have been it opens with Andrei just coming into consciousness in the hut; his aide rushes to him to help and we see how much in pain he’s in emotionally as well as physically. The actor is superb: Alan Dobie. It closes with Natasha finally coming into the hut, and coming over and starting to weep uncontrollably, him waking, telling her he loves her, nothing to forgive, he was wrong and their hands clasped as they talk. Morag Hood shines here too. Inbetween the stage is held by socially powerful women – or so Tolstoy thinks. The “other” meeting is between Marya and Nikolai and as in the book it comes about indirectly. Nikolai is dancing and flirting away with a married woman at a dance, his hostess breaks this up with ease, and takes him to Marya’s aunt. He confesses his conflicts over Sonya to said saloniere who has little trouble arguing them away. I felt the scene between Angela Down (Marya as I’ve said) and Sylvester Morand (Nikolai) strongly persuasive, because it moved slowly and this time was based on genuine shared history – and yes values.

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High shot of Nikolai hugging Andrei’s son with Marya taking subordinate role

The Countess the voice of calculating prudence, no lie is too much for her: what’s in her interest financially and socially trumps (that’s a verb I have to stop using as it’s horrible so this will be the last use) everyone’s feelings, promises, history. She nags Sonya and never ceases to to get her to write a letter “freeing” Nikolai. The ugly conformist, refusing to acknowledge and thwarting everyone’s deep feelings and needs around her: she is after Sonia to break off with Nikolai so Nikolai can marry money. The ambiguity here is Nikolai emerges as no great man: after the battle he is flirting with a married woman, clearly after her; he is compatible in nature with Maria but not her religion, and the two are brought together by Maria’s aunt and other of these older woman presented by Tolstoy as the makers of personal misery. Tolstoy’s men’s responsibility for the workings of the world are only in the area of war it seems.

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The harassed beyond endurance Sonya

As opposed to the other films, Pulman really gives Sonya room and thoughts again and again and with the countess and again Natasha she is rightly bitter: she is to give up everything that will give her an individual of fulfillment or she is ungrateful and despicable but what do the others give up? Nothing. It is she who offhand tells Natasha Andrei is there. The weak father had tried to persuade the Countess to tell in the second scene of the episode, directly juxtaposed to the with Andrei so as to give most impact – negatively on the countess. Now Natasha does come to tell her mother that was unforgivable but the Countess is unfazed, unrepentant and Natasha does wait until her mother is asleep and hesitates at first to go to Andrei. How hard it is to overcome the hegemonic norms which violates our deepest better nature. The episode ends with Natasha finding out that Andrea was taken in by the family: the actor playing Andre is superb; he has been all along; he is outstarred by Hopkins but the voice-over of his waking and thoughts in the first half and the meeting in the second was deeply moving. We see he is dying while Nastaya thinks there is a good life ahead for him and her.

Episodes 17: Of life and death; 18: The Retreat

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The death of Andrei

17: It opens with Natasha’s loving nursing of Andrei, touching scene between them with two overvoices as he thinks to himself while she speak and her speech heard as from afar. Very effective. It ends with Marya coming just as there is this terrible changed signaled by his having asked for a New Testament at the end of the opening scene. In the close Dobie enacts a man come to terms with death and moving away and out. So Pulman stays with Tolstoy’s interpretation of the inner life of Andrei’s death. By contrast (as I saw it only a week or so ago), Davies’ has Andrei struggling throughout, not the religious gliding into death at all – that’s why I cried so and it seemed to me so real. But Pulman is discreet and so are the actors and this religiosity of presented in muted but there form. Between this we have Pierre dragged before Davout, and the whole scene is his accusation; in the scene (not in the book) Pierre defends himself with a cogent statement (taken from the narrator) that such a city as Moscow would burn and Davout’s argument doesn’t make sense; nonetheless he is marched with other men and we see the shooting of them by firing squad. The death of the boy is not as anguished (or played up) as in the 2016 (and as I recall the 1955 where the political context was anti-totalitarian anti-communist).

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Then back again with the long dialogue with Platon (Harry Locke), the peasant who sees good everywhere, accepts everything, the dog, Pierre does more than listen; he says he feels more himself in this place than he’s felt for ever so long. Now that’s Pulman’s 1970s view of Pierre and of society: it does work in terms of this film. We are not quite convinced though (and I think we are meant to be); Pierre is so articulate, who would want to be Platon.

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Pierre meets Platon who extends his hand

Then back to the countess nagging Sonya who becomes cold and hard on the surface but gives in. A bitter moment. The Pulman film does give Sonya an inner life, one which critiques the world around her – as Pierre’s speech does. Then the coming of Marya with the boy and death of Andrei.

How quiet Episode 17 is. I had thought Danger UXB so unusual for ending quietly, not overstated at all despite central matter of defusing bombs with several of our heroes killed or maimed; this 1972 War and Peace shows a similar avoidance of ratcheted up melodramas.

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Pierre helping Platon — all four films have this sequence

18: All 45 plus minutes cover the retreat (about 6 chapters in Tolstoy’s book). The episode opens with Napoleon squabbling with his top men (Davout, and two others I recognize) where one is urging him to leave Moscow after they hear a report about no food, no hay, the place a shambles, riot. Napoleon says how else can he “make peace” if he leaves: he is told Alexander will not answer his letters. When he is warned Paris is without someone ruling it and to carry on like this risks revolt, he gives in. Switch to the rest of the time: a long duration of us watching phases of the prisoners kicked out to march, the people bullied, kicked and when one dies, he is pulled off, or himself drops and cries not to leave him, and then we hear a shot. Pierre does all he can to keep Platon going and meditates (flashbacks remembering Borodino as they come there and feeling horror as the montage goes on) but (as in the book) when he begin to feel Platon die, he distances himself: we feel a sense of grief in Platon but he gives over in the way of Andrei, and as they march on we hear the shot. The dog disappears.

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Denisov grieving for the life of Petya whom he had not been able to keep safe

Finally we switch to Denisov Gary Watson) and Dolokhov (Donald Burton): they are not presented as marauding quite, but it’s clear they are stealing and Dolokhov just loves it. After Petyra arrives, the scene of the young ensign is dramatized so that Dolokhov goes to have him shot, and Denisov stops him, is sneered at. Back to the retreat, voice over of Pierre walking off by himself (not quite realistic) and meditating darkly (from the book), and suddenly the Russians are upon them, the prisons realize they are saved. Much murder, mayhem, killing of Petya all the while Pierre stands about dazed. (Davies found this too hard and in his 2016 film has Dololkov joyous to save Pierre).

Last scene Napoleon getting into his fine sleigh, he says he does not want to desert his army (which he said I nthe first scene) but there is apparently nothing for it. He slides off in comfort, the pack of officers (now including Murat) wave in the snow.

The last two episodes (19: The Road to Life; 20: Epilogue) and a coda on the last words of all four W&P films I’ll cover here) are placed in the comments. This mini-series is the longest and fullest of the W&P movies thus far: 900 minutes.

Ellen

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[Note: this blog assumes knowledge Graham’s novels at least as far as Book 8 (The Angry Tide) and the final Book 12 (Bella), and is also interested the older 1975-78 and new 2015-16 mini-series as art]

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) after collapse of mine and death of Ted, a workman (Episode 8) — this proceeds the famous scene between Ross and Elizabeth where he forces sexual intercourse on her; its dialogue is close to the book:

ROSS (cont’d) Perhaps you could clarify something for me? George Warleggan —
ELIZABETH Yes?
ROSS A man I consider my greatest enemy. You — I’ve long considered my greatest friend. In which particular am I most adrift?
ELIZABETH It’s not as simple as that, Ross — you must understand my position — of course I’m happy and proud to think of you as my greatest friend —
ROSS Well, it was more than that, as I recall. Did you not tell me, barely twelve months ago, that you’d made a mistake in marrying Francis? That you realized quite soon? That it was always I you had loved?
ELIZABETH And do you think I would ever have said those words if I’d known what would happen to Francis?
ROSS And yet they cannot be unsaid. (Horsfield’s script, p 479; taken from Graham’s Warleggan, Bk 3, Ch 5, p 310-11)

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Ross and Demelza fiercely quarreling on the beach (Episode 9) — this follows a scene where Captain MacNeil (Herny Garrett) declines to force sexual intercourse on Demelza with these words (from Graham’s Warleggan)

Of course he [MacNeil] could still have his way if he chose. It was simple enough: you hit her [Demelza] just once on her obstinate little chin. But he was not that sort of a man. He slowly rolled the sleeve of the gown into a ball and mopped his hand. Then he dropped the material to the floor.
‘I like to think of myself as civilized,’ he said; ‘so I give you best, Mrs Poldark. I hope your husband appreciates such fidelity. In the peculiar circumstances I do not. I like a woman who makes up her mind and has the courage and grace to stick to it. I thought you were such a one. My mistake … ‘ He walked slowly to the door and gave her a last glance. ‘When admiration turns to contempt, it is time to go’ (Bk 3, Ch 8, p 346; Horsfield doesn’t have the nerve to have MacNeil go this far or have Tomlinson voice Demelza’s crying to die when MacNeil walks out the door)

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From the 1975-76 rendition: as will be seen, it’s done comically (Angharad Rees has hit Donald Douglas as MacNeil over the head) and in the light, thus the original mood is lost

Dear friends and readers,

These episodes include the second season’s two climactic episodes. Ross’s mine collapses and he begins to despair over a failing business (which kills people), and upon receiving Elizabeth’s letter declaring her intent to marry Warleggan, in a kind of half-mad state once again, Ross remorsely intrudes himself upon her and after a fierce quarrel forces sex on her. There is a kind of parallels: in a scene often overlooked when talking of the perhaps rape scene, when after having determined to take a revenge on Ross after he has hurt her so after all her hard work and devotion, Demelza decides to be sexually unfaithful with MacNeil, but finds she cannot get herself to act on such a motive. Both Ross and Demelza are very bleak in mood in these scenes. Horsfield follows the second of Demelza and MacNeil, with a scene on the beach as a setting (for a much later dialogue in Warleggan) where Ross and Demelza are again quarreling to the point of breaking up their marriage.

As those familiar with the books, the 1975-76 iteration with Robin Ellis and Jill Townsend as Ross and Elizabeth know, Ross’s aggressive assault on Elizabeth is one of the most debated scenes in all the Poldark novels. Did he rape her? if he forced himself on her, did she then give in? (thus to some making it not-rape) as after all he seems to have spent the night. In the second season, Horsfield adds what is in the book, afterwards for a time, Elizabeth (Heida Reed) is waiting for him to return to her and enable her to displace Demelza. It’s important because how we understand what happens shapes how we under the end of The Angry Tide, Elizabeth’s tragic childbirth (this time the child is Warleggan’s, a daughter); and it also shapes how we understand the very final scenes of the last book of the series (Bella), an almost confrontation (in dreams) of Ross with his son by Elizabeth, Valentine.

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One of the repeated images of Episode 9 is Elizabeth standing by the window, staring out, looking straight at the camera in mute intense desire, nearby Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) interjects truths Elizabeth finds grating

I thought a way out of this crucial impasse is provided by looking at the whole context of the debated scene, which includes a parallel scene, the ending of Warleggan, and the remarkable fact that for twenty years after Graham closed the book, he did not return to Demelza and Ross, but left them hanging there in an unresolved situation. I’m going to suggest Graham broke off, because he had gotten so deeply and realistically into a marriage he was wedded to emotionally (a version of his own, as he said more than once that Demelza resembled his wife) that was on the rocks. In the final scene of the book, although Demelza has taken Ross’s present, agreed not to leave him, they have not resolved the issue: how far does he love Elizabeth still? he says not at all, but she is not sure of this and feels she cannot forgive him or herself (that’s what she says, Warleggan, Bk 4, the last chapter 7, p 468). For what? not really for her attempted betrayal of him, but her betrayal of herself first in being abject before him, and then in struggling against the terms of the marriage while staying in it.

What most people don’t discuss is that just as at the end of her scene with MacNeil Demelza cries that she wants to die, so as Ross throws himself on Elizabeth he talks in a despairing way that suggests he sees a shadow of death near them (“There’s no tomorrow. It doesn’t come. Life is an illusion. Didn’t you know? Let us make the most of the shadows”). These are sex scenes suffused with bitter disappointment at life as well as themselves and what their marriage feels like under the grind of trying to lift themselves out of poverty.

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Turner’s expression is quite different when he looks down from his horse down, much less sure of himself

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Demelza on the other hand is able to think better of herself, hold her head up

It’s the great merit of these two episodes from the new Poldark that Horsfield stays so much closer to the book than the previous adaptation (scriptwriter was Jack Russell) so that a much harder look at the love and marriage of both Demelza and Ross, and a more frank appraisal of Elizabeth’s motives in marrying Warleggan and his too, as seen in Graham’s book, are possible. The plot points of the previous two episodes (6-7, Mourning for Francis; Fierce Struggle to Survive, Ambushed by an Informer, the Prevention Men and Scots soldiers) are that Elizabeth has shown herself to be unable to survive as a widow on her own; that while Wheal Grace has still not yielded copper to pay for the venture much less a profit, a mysterious benefactor (Caroline Penvenen) has covered Ross and Demelza’s debt so that Ross can carry on if he goes deeper into smuggling; and they are rescued from ambush by Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) setting a fire high on a cliff overlooking the bay, which persuades Caroline Dwight prefers his life, friends and work in Cornwall to new life in Bath among a rich clientele with her.

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Episode 8 (the equivalent for 8 and 9 is 15 in the 1975-76 series)

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Robin Ellis is now Judge Rev Dr Halse, gratified to see Ross hauled before him again until

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Ross produces an alibi concocted by Trencrom

The courtroom scene is part of a melange of quick juxtaposition and montage. We see George (Jack Farthing) repeatedly sending Tankard To Elizabeth at Trenwith with news that makes her anxious, creating situations she feels helpless against (sending workers to dig up her land to see if she has tin, and telling her they have the right to do that, pressuring her with visits, presents, and quiet menace that he is not calling in bills she owes him. (These are all additions to the book; in the book Elizabeth doesn’t need these prompts, and Jill Townsend in the part is not as vulnerable as Heida Reed; Townsend is presented as calculating as George, which mirrors Graham’s characters. We still watch George on and off with his boxing and sword-partner. Again this repeating scee not in the book; it’s filmic. Elizabeth repeatedly sends messages to Ross which either don’t get to him (Beatty Ednie as Prudie pockets them) or he too caught up with his mining, Agatha by her side reminding her the man she loves (Ross) has another family, another life, asking why George doesn’t help. These are matched by repeated scenes of Ross riding past Trenwith, stopping, looking in, but deciding against going to her:

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Elizabeth and Demelza have a couple of tense confrontations, where what is most memorable and repeated is Demelza’s taut white face doing chores

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and as she faces the woman she feels is waiting for her husband, wants to take him from her. And she expresses herself bitterly. More successful is the visit to her by Captain MacNeil.

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Garnett plays his part more quietly and intimately than Donald Douglas (where the part was conceived more broadly):

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I like both variants. It enriches the characters and fits or could predict Demelza’s later romance in The Four Swans.

The mining scenes of intense hard work are more desperate as Ross no longer has a delusions of copper but there is now hope of tin, and they decide to go forward without building proper scaffolds (too expensive), which all culminates (as in the book) the mine collapse and death of a newly invented character, Ted (replacing Jim).

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Dwight looking up and telling Ross Ted is gone

Another skein involves Dwight Enys too: Ted’s wife had given birth. Dwight and Verity (Ruby Bentall) are intended to offer a softer notes of melancholy. We also see Dwight practicing his profession — and at a loss emotionally, remembering Caroline in flashbacks. Verity visits; she attempts by her presence to alleviate Elizabeth and Agatha’s desperation, and brings her stepson (not entirely successful as the character is absurdly artificial in his brightness, patriotism and generosity to all) to Ross and Demelza. More moving is (in Episode 9 when Demelza tells Verity she no longer will do housework, no longer believes her marriage is based on love, is willing herself out. When one last attempt by Elizabeth does not produce Ross, she yields to Warleggan, with a combination of intense reluctance and relief, and the half-mad driven response of Ross (one very akin to the behavior he manifested the night baby Julia died when he did incite a riot) and Demelza’s fury.

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Demelza hanging out wash before she turns round to hit Ross with all her might when he returns from his night with Elizabeth. It’s important to read Horsfield’s explanation of Demelza’s sudden violence:

Demelza is hanging out linens to dry. All of them hers, including the new bodice – none of them Ross’s. Her face is open but impassive. It’s impossible to know what she’s thinking. She hears the sound of approaching hoof beats. Imperceptibly she stiffens. Presently Ross rides into the courtyard. His face is suffused with guilt. He dismounts. He walks over to Demelza. She looks him in the eye – and in that moment she knows – and fie knows she knows – what has happened between him and Elizabeth. He’s struggling now. Faced with this woman who has loved him unequivocally and unconditionally for so long, the enormity of what he s done begins to dawn on him.
ROSS Demelza — what can I say? It was something — I cannot explain — it had to be done — you must see I had no choice —
DEMELZA (calmly) Nor I.
Suddenly, and without warning, she socks him in the face, so violently that he is knocked off balance and staggers backward (p. 484)

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Episode 9

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Aunt Agatha ever there comes to stand for an older Poldark honor and when at the close of this episode George comes to take over Trenwith, she gathers Francis’s son, Geoffrey Charles to her, we know that there are forces who will not give in to him

This is culmination — except for Dwight and Caroline: he is seen early and mid-way in the episode yearning for her; she is glimpsed towards the end in London, accepting the honeymoon visit of George and Elizabeth Warleggan. Demelza decides to behave like a lady, do no work, stay with her child, Jeremy and go to the assembly ball at Sir Hugh Bodrugan’s. There are effective dance and courting and flirting scenes. There is nothing George will not stoop to: he now pushes Tankard to attract Demelza’s attention, find her room and rape her (another blackening addition to the book). We have the complex scene where MacNeil arrives and Demelza finds she cannot allow herself to have sex with anyone but Ross. There is comedy: after MacNeil leaves outside her door Brodrugan and Tankard toss a coin to see who will charge in, but (as in 1975) when they burst the door, she is gone. She is next seen down by the beach allowing her beautiful dress to soak and while seeming perhaps to look to drown, she stays by the edge of the waters. Ross accosts her but she will is too distrustful of herself, of him, deeply shaken by now. Before George makes his offer of a splendid school for Geoffrey Charles, London, beautiful clothes and Elizabeth succumbs, Elizabeth is shown in bed, with Dwight as a visitor recommending to Verity how to care for her.

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I suggest this is the first hint we have of Elizabeth’s pregnancy by Ross. She is not aware of it, as she tries to delay the marriage to George, but he will not hear of more than a month and he insists on a big wedding.

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The screen is suddenly flooded with light as she leans on him

She begins to experience his bullying slowly, and seems first aware of it when he takes her to Trenwith instead of Cardew.

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Geoffrey Charles is full grown, 21 in Stranger from the Sea, and if this series goes on, Horsfield will have prepared a basis for his character: dislike of George

One image was reversed; when in this new series Elizabeth accepts Warleggan he says, “let me take you out of your cage;” in Graham’s book when she accepts George and lets him push the marriage date up, it’s she who cries, not that she is out of a cage, but “God, I am in a cage! Lost for ever? why did Ross come? . . . God, I am in a cage. Lost for ever” (W III, 10, 367). I much prefer the book or Graham’s way of letting Elizabeth see her coming marriage. It’s not that Graham’s Elizabeth wants Ross especially but that she seeks liberty for herself and there is none, nor any security. In Graham’s book she already suspects she is pregnant. Where Graham’s Elizabeth is like Horsfield’s is in a growing hatred for Ross (for not having come to her after he trapped her with a baby). In Graham’s book, Jack Russell’s episode 15 and now this season it’s clear that Warleggan is marrying Elizabeth as much to triumph over and spite Ross far more than any love he might feel for Elizabeth: we have seen him exhibit little real affection: he’s abused, used, threatened, cajoled and now he will quietly bully.

I have always preferred to see Demelza as deeply in love with Ross and unable to distance herself or struggle against him. She does not strike him in the book or in the older mini-series. That’s probably anachronistic. But when she simply grieves I understood.

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In this earlier version Angharad Rees hid herself that night Ross went to Elizabeth, she grieves intensely, poignantly, crying that “it’s broken (that’s Mary Wimbush as Prudie, a warm loving Prudie, well-meaning, semi-comic figure)

But now having re-read some of Warleggan, Horsfield’s emphasis on the strained marriage near to breaking is truer to Graham’s book. They both still love but a great deal of hurt, of harm, has now been woven into their relationship and they are left with more disillusion to bear as they try to renew their love.

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She looks puzzled still, nervous as he tries to persuade her they can try again

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George and Elizabeth Warleggan on their way to London

I’ll conclude on how much I was moved by these two episodes. I found myself as and more fully absorbed than I used to be by the older Poldark series. Aidan Turner has now taken over the role of Ross: he is comfortable in it, and has his own perspective: that of the decent, eager, flawed, proud man, doing what he can, forced to compromise but holding onto his soul. Heis adamant about his values, a person apart. He made a terrible mistake going to Elizabeth after she wrote him her letter; we can almost blame her for writing it as provocative, but she too felt betrayed. No one has been a winner in their sad love affair, well no one with a valuable heart and mind. I don’t find Heida Reed as strong in her part: she seems unable to unbend to be the vulnerable susceptible woman Horsfield has conceived.

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From the new paratexts

Eleanor Tomlinson is a different Demelza from what I’ve envisaged: I can no longer identify my own experience of love and marriage with hers, but her stance is consistent, admirable, that of a woman who feels she has been trampled and whose advice and point of view Ross should take into account. I do identify when she says bitterly “proud,” to Ross’s accusation. She is as complex as Ross, and Tomlinson projects a depth we can’t get at quite. Not conventional (but then not brought up among the middle classes). She is defined by so many others she interacts with. The other actors contribute too, especially Luke Norris as Dwight Enys — wonderful as a deeply humane, emotional and intelligent man. Again I find Gabrielle Wilde not convincing as Caroline Penvenen, too supercilious, colder than Judy Geeson, though I realize she is supposed to be naive and narcissistic, young with much to learn, but probably I don’t see women the way Horsfield does.

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Some of the more minor roles are played pitch perfect: those which leap to mind: John Nettles as Ray Penvenen, Ruby Bentall as Verity (though my heart still stays with Norma Steader’s greater projection of the strength of generosity), Richard Hope as Pascoe, and of course Robin Ellis as Halse. Jack Farthing also plays the role of the vicious man convincingly. Such a person is not a monster; they are understandable and tolerated. He does love Elizabeth as she stands for the aristocracy in his eyes. This normalcy of his one of the bases of the way malicious people can operate with others.

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From the new paratexts

I can shut out the rest of the world as I watch: the music, the mise-en-scene, all of it has come together once again. The colors of the paratexts, pastoral without losing energy. I miss Kyle Soller.

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After all it is Graham’s idealized presences I love best.

Ellen

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