Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

Illustration from the original 1933 edition

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the last sentiment. We are hearing Woolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Biography considered as a science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A modern biography …

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bean is that movement under blue cloth

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

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

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

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

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

One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

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

Scofield in pain but controlling himself

Anna giving up her son

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

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

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

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

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


One of the older Penguins

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliver us from swords & curs — The Twisted Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas dinner at Trenwith (2015 Poldark, episode 4)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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John Prebble, Culloden


I sometimes think that nothing I write anymore comes from an singular me, but it’s all somehow coming out of shared experiences, sometimes with one or two people, sometimes a larger group, maybe as much as 20, itself a group part of a larger group, sometimes here in cyberspace and sometimes in real physical space. That’s probably a pardonable exaggeration as even now or still the initial experience of the text or movie by me whether chosen as a result of relationship, or project, or lingering effects of an experience is the motivation or inspiration to carry on sincerely. And I don’t carry on without real engagement.

So a friend told a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies@yahoogroups.com, aka Trollope and his Contemporaries at Yahoo of a book of brief essays she read, Light into Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler, one of which by Mary Gaitskill is a meditation on the two selves of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“I don’t know you any more”). Reading this made me realize that yes Tolstoy (and after him also) Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright (in their 2012 move) help make sense of Anna’s experience by attending to her idea she is now following a deeper truer self than the one who married Karenin and obeyed her society conventions. I bought the book (easy thing to do since the Internet), and discovered that what Fassler asked his contributors to do initially was write about a text that inspired him or her to write about something passionately, or to work on some project of writing for years.

St. Peter’s in Rome from a bridge across the Tiber River, copyright Vittorio F. DiMeglio

Well that was easy for me to answer. When I read a group of French translations by a mid-20th century scholar, Suzanne Therault of Vittoria Colonna’s mostly sonnets to her husband (mostly after his death, some 600 poems), I was so moved and agitated I couldn’t sit in my seat and had to get up and walk about to calm down; I determined to teach myself to read Italian so I could study and translate these sonnets. I spent at least 15 years of my life on this, and while a few have been published individually, and they have been used by graduate students doing theses on Colonna and read aloud at festivals, the way to read them is on my website. This led to my discovery of her contemporary Veronica Gambara, who I related personally to much better, whose letters I enjoyed, and whose 90 odd poems (she wrote far more than is usually attributed to her) I also translated and then wrote a short life of Gambara, Under the Sign of Dido, and a first chapter of a biography of Colonna, The Dark Voyage.

But my friend took the assignment (so to speak) differently, as asking the writers what passage or work meant a great deal to them as readers and people (and so writers, though more indirectly), or what kinds of texts he or she was deeply drawn to. As I read on into Light the Dark, I found many of the writers there took the task this way. for myself I agree with her that passages of compelling deeply-felt talk between two characters thoroughly realized pull me in, domestic interiors, indeed long chapters on ways of home life between daily intimately connected characters, I cannot do without realism, without being led to believe in what I am reading as occurring really in front of me or what I immersed in order to care; long reverie-like description that’s philosophical and aesthetic and personal, and to come down to more concrete, literary biographies, books by women which fall into the type called l’ecriture-femme, ghost stories (about loss and grief and attempts at restoration, presences in our lives).

All this to say I know that last year’s list of books and movies (read for the first time and re-read) conformed to this set of criteria and so did many of this (watched for the first time, or re-watched and re-watched). It was strongly biography, women’s memoirs and fictions, travel books. I didn’t do what my friend, Diane Reynolds, did this year and divide by genre or her experience of them (best letter and essay collections; best fiction and biography; and best rereads), but only set out a list. My excuse for mostly doing this again is it’s hard enough to remember what was most meaningful inside the year; but I will talk more of a few because this year I found my most meaningful books, which of course I must want to recommend, are histories, books often by men, literary criticism (and then after that) my usual diet of brilliant literary biography, memoirs, letters, novels by women. My movies also differed and I expect that was the result of joining Netflix streaming, Amazon prime streaming and taking a course in “classic films” (it turned out all by men, and about men centrally all the time). They are books that led to other books, and books that are ultimately political, post-colonial, anti-war. Some I am still moving through.

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

John Prebble, Culloden; The Highland Clearances.
Alongside these John Lister-Kaye’s spiritual nature writing, Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: this one alone as it’s such crucial reading for today I’ll send along a summary:

Zinn is simply telling all the history left out of most history books, and what’s vital about it is it explains and is analogous to what happens today. As I read the chapter on how slavery was instituted and how a whole people were subdued (worked to death, exploited to the nth degree, cowed utterly) I felt I was reading a series of events parallel to those we see today. What’s striking is that Arpaio’s behavior is not some subtler version of what was done to keep slavery central to the system, but is closely that of what was done in a daily way to black people.

It’s far more explanatory of daily experience than the ideals we are taught motivated any of the founders. In “persons of a mean and vile condition” we see the wealthy of the era take over vast amounts of land and wealth; their fear of middling whites combining with poor whites, blacks, Indians not through his thesis, but through the actual deeds, acts, and rhetoric — which uncannily echoes that of today’s renewed attempt to make a small group of whites superwealthy with what might be called fringe people supporting them. I was struck by the way power was quickly monopolized; Zinn quotes a lot of people and describes many acts and wars and rebellion; he has a lot of statistics. Poor houses are forms of prison; mechanisms of control the way outright prisons are today. The stories of how middling whites rose to be prosperous turn out to be rare. Colonial society was not democratic at all, not egalitarian and in the next chapter when he goes on to discuss the formation of this new gov’t under a constitution the oligarchy that was set up makes sense.

I don’t know if I’m depressed so much as appalled — it seems there was a period in the 20th century where real progress was made for the 80% and now this is fiercely being destroyed. The election of Obama terrified these white rulers — they must stop the country going further into progressivism and becoming multiracial, cultural and tolerant. Probably, Tyler, I never believed the US gov’t had any different aims from any other. Especially as a woman I have thought (hoped) that we were “modern” contemporary with socially enlightened ideas because of our meritocracy but I see that if a huge number of people are on the side of genuine progress for all, liberty for women, it’s a weak reed and they can be turned readily to losing out as each family is so individual and each person thinks in utterly immediate terms when it comes to living their lives. I didn’t think we could go backwards inside the US and we are and have for a few decades now — oddly the Trump triumph makes this all so much more public.

Tyranny is tyranny

I carry on however slowly. This chapter gives the full — or real — background of the US revolution. Zinn tells us what I’ve read only in a few places, though he has a group of books to cite: that the actual numbers of people who fought against the British in the US army were small, that it was a time of rebellion, not against the British per se, but by the average person (often indentured servant) and lower people and artisans against unfair conditions of all sorts. Zinn describes and names the people who led the revolution: all upper middle, all seeking to free themselves of control from the British and to (successfully) set up power structures for themselves. Land hungry farmers, in Philadelphia a full-scale attack by artisans, tradesmen and laborers found themselves stymied by laws set up and rebelled, mechanics demanding real democracy, people angry at the destruction of individual lives from impressment, in North Caroline (once again, showing southerners not naturally reactionary), white farmers organized against wealthy and corrupt officials. The conflict was bitter with insurrections, “small” massacres; people organized to prevent the collection of taxes. The point of these founding fathers was to try to organize all this against a perceived enemy: blacks weren’t it then, but the British, and to invent a rhetoric appropriate for the discourse of the time. Indians were a perpetual easy target as they were fighting back themselves. Not as bad as our own time, tax rolls in one study show that 5% of Boston’s taxpayers owned 49% of the wealth. Paine’s pamphlet appealed to the a cross section of people; he himself came from the lower orders but as time went on he was not for action from these lower orders and himself became patronized by wealthy colonists — for a time. Locke one of the bases of the constitution spoke for property.

how it explains how it is and has been so easily possible for a small group of wealthy people to take the reins of US gov’t and military might and direct it to profit themselves ruthlessly and punish and oppress 90% of others so that they submit to small wages, debt no educational opportunity. I had thought, assumed, he would not be a feminist but no chapter 6 is one of the best feminist accounts of how women are still coopted today. His description of how women are manipulated into accepting the position of cherished object to be used as he wills is closely reminiscent to the idealized relationship of Claire and Jamie in Outlander. Uncannily like.

When I’ve finished the chapters on the 19th century (many), I’ll report back again.

Nicholas Dodman (Dr) Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats (the pathos and cruelty of how human beings misunderstand and abuse cats when they have them as pets!).
Saunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation

Taylor’s Beasts of Burden (part of animal liberation course)

All five have altered my thinking and behavior and even eating habits.

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte (magnificent)
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Bronte (touching and persuasive)
Francis Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life (uplifting)
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (deep psychological portrait supporting philosophical aesthetics)
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the 20th century Surreal Movement (importantly dismaying)
Josephine Ross, The Winter Queen (on Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald and Essays on Biography

Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights — you do not read it for the cover

Literary criticism and book history:

Martha Bowden, The Descendants of Waverley
Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship and Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Bowden altered my thinking on historical fiction and romance. Clarke made me understand and read more empathetically women writers of the 19th century; Todd taught me about the fiction industry in the last part of the 20th century. I realize why women artists went into a deep counter-productive era and produced so little of worth in the years from the 1930s from Chadwick

Susan Sontag (Photograph 199 Lynn Gilbert) — I took it as an occasion to read other of her essays

Novels and poetry for the first time:

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Patricia Fargnoli, Hallowed
Caryl Philips, Cambridge
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Daphne DuMaurier, The King’s General
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber

Caitriona Balfe, opening over-voice for series (“people disappear all the time”) in the autumnal Inverness, gazing into a glass

I cannot speak too highly of Tolstoy, Fargnoli and Sontag. The Volcano Lover is the outstanding novel I read this year. I admired Cambridge for its deep insights into racism, slavery, empire. Diane’s citation of “spectral texts” help explain (not wholly) how irresistible I’m finding these Outlander texts thus far, despite their pernicious valuing of violence, essential frivolity (superficial on war): it’s the bringing back of the ghostly deeply loved presence, the past come to life, and 1950s style feminocentric dream over-voice over and over that rivets me.

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage
Paul Scott, Staying On
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I seemed to be reading them for the first time. Holmes has yet to fail me.

As to movies, five of the Anna Karenina films (of which more and Tolstoy anon), The Handmaid’s Tale (very hard to watch and alas truer than people will admit) and (as a result of Culloden, going to Scottish highlands) the spectacularly well-made Outlander (into its third season); The Crown (I admit it), several films I saw as a result of my summer film club; Kedi (documentary on the cats of Istanbul); and now a few extraordinary films from a course in the history and aesthetics of film, so see I had better post separately on movies.

The second season started today and I look forward to what Emily Nussbaum has to say: Claire Foy has become another favorite actress for me


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Roger Fry — typical painting

Dear friends and readers,

Some notes on behalf of two qualities I find draws me into books — and movies too, though this inward source is less obvious. A still center of quiet, of thoughtfulness out of which the fiction or biography (I’ve been reading a number of these lately) grows. In a book say good for other reasons (vision, form, richness of knowledge) such moments in a dialogue here or description there, and when I find myself immersed in reading, I know I’m in a thing of value. Accurate rendering of what is, acutely faithfully attended to provides a foundation for such moments.

I’ve experienced both lately in books I find myself liking so much. Virginia Woolf’s meditative biography, Roger Fry, and Frances Spalding’s companion (as it were) art historian biography of Fry, due I think to the criticism and pictures by this remarkable man.

I think we are all agreed that we mean by significant form something other than agreeable arrangements of form, harmonious patterns, and the like. We feel that a work which possesses it is the outcome of an endeavour to express an idea rather than to create a pleasing object … the effort on the part of the artist to bend to our emotional understanding by means of his passionate conviction some intractable material which is alien to our spirit (Fry, 232).

Claire Harman’s strongly written, mesmerizing biography of Charlotte Bronte (the best one on Charlotte alone thus far since Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life), and Richard Holmes’s perceptive biography of Samuel Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage. Holmes and Harman are great biographers, she for the books she’s written, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney, Jane’s Fame (somewhat lighter), he for understanding of the the form that informs his writing (Footsteps: The Confessions of a Biographer) and his Shelley. I was reading Harman all this summer past, in the early morning Charlotte, her and me, how I love her work.

I read a very long article in the New York Review of Books by Alice Spawls (39:2, 16 November 2017), deeply sceptical about of truths about another person that a biographer can offer, and her particular instance, Harman’s CharlotteBronte; I find Spawls unfair: you can pick anything apart if you’ve a mind to. My sense is the great core of such moments in art is the letter written by someone in the throes of a genuine reaching out reverie. Harman ends her biography with a letter from Heger (the man Charlotte loved in Belgium) to Charlotte (which she never saw):

In thinking it over you will have no difficulty in admitting that you yourself have experienced a hundred times that which I tell you about communication between two distant hearts, instantaneous, without paper, without pen, or words, or messenger, etc., a hundred times without noticing it, without its having attracted your attention, without anything extraordinary.

One novel too: Winston Graham’s The Stranger from the Sea (yes, the 8th Poldark book) — he describes a midsummer eve’s picnic in Cornwall by a beach, the exact Celtic customs, the sky. The talk between Ross and his son about an engine, a relationship the son has experienced afterward.

I sensed this contemplative order left over from the characterization in Graham’s books in this still of Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza picking apples with a small girl child:

confirmed by finding the paradigm in Mary Cassatt’s Modern Women

The movie, Agnes Varda’s Visages Villages (Englished Faces Places): truly respectful of people and their lives, their ordinary surroundings, sordid, ruined, anonymous manufacturing places, she put photographs of the people she met and their faces all over these buildings. We looked into their faces as they talked to her. Bachelard for our broken ugly 2017 worlds of docks, yards of plastic boxs, steel pipes, cement walls, and the blessed park space. I’s worth saying here too that Varda felt she needed a young male with her to hold an audience. Her subjects though are as often women as men.

This pair of qualities – quiet, order, realism — is what I value also in poems. The thing to remember is these harmonizing qualities far from precluding active, frenetic life, even agons, suprised joy, can encompass such, and this sense of deep order and truth provide stability for healing, as in Patricia Fargnoli’s Hallowed:

Winter Day in New York City, 1973

Just divorced, a crazy year, everyone sleeping with everyone,
friends becoming lovers and back again, all of us filled with need.

“That’s the way it was when Marty and I, in my Karmann Ghia,
drove down to New York City from Hartford.

Washington Square strangely hushed that January afternoon,
stunned quiet by the harsh cold, the weight of gray sky.

Marty played chess with a local on a stone table as I shivered
beside him for what seemed like hours.

Snow started to fall, millions of pieces of glitter
through which we drove uptown until he found the bar

from the movie he’d seen. There he wandered away from me
into the crowd to try his luck with the city women.

Later on a side street, I changed into disco clothes in the car
while a doorman walked in circles in front of an apartment building.

Under purple strobes ~ a club named Wednesdays
we danced together and apart until we were steamy and breathless.

When the place closed, Marty swiped one of their black balloons.
It floated us to Second Avenue where he tried to tell a homeless lady

how to find the Second Avenue bus, though at 2:00 a.m. there were no buses.
Back then, it seemed like magic, snowflakes lit by building lights,

Marty in his beard and Russian greatcoat, his arm sheltering my shoulder,
as we rushed downtown, uptown, the buzz and sparkle in the zero city air.

I drove us home as dawn was rising over skyscrapers and along the highways.
Marty slept. The radio played something I’ve long forgotten.

Jim and I lived in New York City in 1973; we were there that winter. We experienced this feeling world, which is no more.

I may here over-emphasize this quiet the calm at the sacrifice of realism, but this giving body to what is concretely there, experienced is crucial, to have life spring out at us. So a second movie, a New York Times reviewer almost rightly called perfection, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: it’s pungent

Admittedly a male coming of age in reverse, the story mirrored in the Sondheim musical they were acting out, “Merrily We Roll Along, bleak and bitter because it begins at story’s end when the hero has top success but dropped all his friends or betrayed them, his wife, ignored his children, hard and alone. Lady Bird (aka Christina, Saoirse Ronan) aggressive, driving, wants to be rich, with a super-prestigious house, the best fanciest dresses, not just a local college, but Ivy League on the East Coast, and she judges falsely — rejects the kind talented well-meaning young man who is gay, the girlfriend who is fat and lives in an apartment! But she has better impulses and doesn’t betray any one, helps her friend go to the prom, does not allow phony snobbery (like not going to the prom itself) to ruin a good time. She is in fact her mother (Laurie Metcalf’s) girl, for the mother wanted success and is bitter without it, taking her lack out on the daughter. she works two jobs; she will have to take out a second mortgage. Her idea of fun is on Sunday to go from super-rich house to house as if she and Lady Bird were in the market for buyning one.

I cannot overemphasize how wrong the actual crucial structure here is. This is how boys are told to see themselves, as the orde of their lives: the aggression, ambition, the seeking of the big opportunity, after which if you don’t have, you won’t live the same life. What is a girl’s actual trajectory as she grows up? far more embedded in friendships, not seizing opportunity and moving from one group to another. Sex would have been much more fraught, when all LadyBird endures is the brutal words of a boy she has (as if she were a boy) gone after. No one ever sexually harasses her; she never gets her feelings hurt over her body; if anything she is the aggressor. What a lie about women’s lives. The importance of mother-daughter was kept, but to do this Gerwig seemed to think she had to demote the father into a worldly failure and depressive. Chantal Thomas has a book on girlhood I unfortunately lost before I could finish it where she told of girlhood, much less outward, indirect (like Lady Bird’s true friend), about being in groups of girls. (Not that I was.) Vie Reelle Des Petites.

Most of the 1970s feminist studies follow Simone de Beauvoir with her admiration for the “transcendant” point of view, and dismissal of the “immanent.” Books by Lyn Mikel Brown, Michelle Fine, and Carole Gilligan are honorable exceptions, but these too are dismissed by the “constructionists:” there is no innate female psychology. There is definitely a typical girlhood; that is barely captured in individual books, e.g., Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood because sex, weight (your body maturing) are passed over in silence. Or the book presents the experience as illness, trauma, instead of natural reactions to intransigent conditions. Nicole Holofcener has tried to give us movies about women’s real trajectories — but none have been about girlhood. All about young women — like Walking and Talking. So this is genuinely original in what Gerwig aims at: the depiction of a girl growing up and her refusal to sentimentalize.

Mother and Daughter shopping

Leaving the movie together on Thanksgiving Day, Izzy and I understood Lady Bird and her mother spoke to us, about a version of our relationship. As I walked out I said, “I can’t even get you to join a choir” (she sings so beautifully, composes semi-originally and makes YouTubes of herself singing), and for once I got no glare.

More Bloomsbury, Omega Shop type object, Duncan Grant painting

I used to feel I met this central strong calm, quietude and adherence to realism in Trollope’s Dr Thorne, and it was Dr Thorne which sent me on my path of reading Trollope. This is in my introduction about how I came to Trollope:

My second introduction to Trollope occurred when I was around twenty-one and in my third year of college. I took a course in the nineteenth-century British novel, and one of ten novels assigned was Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne. I didn’t forget this one. The memory of some amused calm in Trollope’s voice remained vivid to me. It would make me smile to remember how he kept making all these excuses for himself because he was forced to take two long chapters to tell us the previous history of all the characters in Doctor Thorne before his book could officially begin. I reread the green-and-white 1959 Houghton Mifflin edition I bought for the course, and Elizabeth Bowen’s introduction to it, more than once.


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Claire at Culloden (Caitriona Balfe), third season –a 1950s costume seen through demure 2017 eyes

Dear friends and readers,

I am just now listening to Davina Porter read aloud dramatically (with nuance and appropriate tones) an unabridged text of Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber and engaged in rewatching Season 1 of the mini-series (every couple of nights another episode) and Season 3 (on Starz, through Comcast, which while it does not give me access to streaming, plays the weekly episode at least twice daily for some 6 days after a new one airs) and would like to report or record some significant changes from the books to the films, which I cannot find cited anywhere on the Internet or in Gabaldon’s first Outlandish Companion (there have now been two volumes, the first on Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager).

The opening episode (prologue in effect) to Season 2 comes from the third novel, Voyager: scenes in a hospital or recuperation place as Claire makes her transition from a bedraggled, filthy, semi-starved reluctant participant in the 18th century Scottish-Jacobite rebellion against the Hanoverian regime in England to a 20th century pregnant wife of a history professor. The opening (not a prologue but part of the matter proper) five episodes of the third season comes from the second book, Dragonfly in Amber: Claire and Brianna’s (Sophie Skelton) trip to Inverness twenty years after Claire left with Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) for Boston where he became a tenured published respected professor at Harvard and she a physician; they encounter Roger Wakefield, now also (like Frank Randall once was) a history professor at Oxford; there is no interruption of material from what Jamie is doing concurrently in Scotland in the 18th century (as there is in the mini-series which places this material from the later parts of Voyager into an interweave in the first half of the third season).

Claire, Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin), Brianna Randall reading through records, third season

Dragonfly in Amber then proceeds as the second season did — to France. There is a much longer extended dramatization of Claire’s time as a healer working with Mother Hildegarde (Frances de la Tour) in L’Hopital des Anges, a convent hospital in Paris preceding the catastrophe of the march into England by the Jacobite army under Prince Charles (Andrew Gower) and the Earl of Murray (Julian Wadham), and then its subsequent forced retreat (not enough people joined) to momentary victory at Prestonpans and then disaster at Culloden. And then the second season moves abruptly to American in 1967/68 or so, with Claire’s education as surgeon-physician, and Frank’s death in a car accident just as he is about to leave Claire for Oxford, taking Brianna with him; and the plunge into in medias res Claire and Brianna’s visit to Inverness and discovery that Jamie survived Culloden.

The point is to shift the emphasis: in the second book it’s strongly on Claire, her development of herself as a physician and mother, her return to deeply engaged imagined roots to equal or more time to Jamie. Scots clan politics, and the battlefields. In the third book, Voyager, we are reading a woman’s novel for five long superb chapters – and they are long — as Claire gets up the courage to tell her daughter the truth of her parentage and about Claire’s time in 18th century Scotland both at first in Boston, and then as they travel to deeply felt sites de memoires. The episode in the third season (five, “Freedom and Whiskey”) preceding Claire’s journey back reminded me of older classic women’s films like Now Voyager (starring Bette Davis, based on a Olive Prouty novel) and Stella Dallas (starring Barbara Stanwyck, a King Vidor film about a selfless mother devoting herself to a spoilt daughter who is not at fault as she hasn’t been told) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (starring Joan Fontaine, a Max Ophuls film).

Claire pregnant serving Frank (Tobias Menzies), 3rd season

In the concluding features to the DVD for the second season, Ronald Moore, the real creator of this mini-series in the script, in the direction, in the filming, discusses what is changed from book to film. He keeps his discussion on a high level of generality: they cannot film the book because one sentence saying X was riding to Y can take hundreds of dollars and 20 minutes film time. He does tell of how each episode is a unit in itself with its own self-enclosed themes and structure. He conceded a great deal more dramatization of what Jamie was doing in Paris and the battlefields merely told or remembered in the novel occurs in the mini-series. Nonetheless or at the same time the driving inner force of the books is about Claire and through her women’s worlds and that provides framing (however switched), continuity (in say the voice-over) and many sequences in the book within the male action-adventure episodes, for example, to take from all three seasons thus far: the domestic world of Lallybroch, Claire’s quest to find and rescue Jamie working as a dancing gypsy with Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) (Season 1), the French saloniere’s libetine culture, Claire helping Jenny (Laura Donnelly) through childbirth, the coercion of Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day) to marry a much older distasteful man, a rape of her in the streets, and her murderous revenge, her pregnancy by Alexander Randall (younger gentle brother to Jonathan Wolverton), most of all the medical science worlds, Claire’s stillborn child. There is a female gaze, mother-and-daughter and women’s friendship-sisterhood caring narrative at work. The proportion is changed significantly in the mini-series so the woman’s novel is obscured.

All this is suppressed, not only the changes, but any discussion at all of differences between films and books on the Outlander sites on face-book and twitter — this is strange as such discussions occur regularly on the Poldark sites (and many others, Austen sites for example). It’s common on fan sites for people watching the films to talk of the differences in the books and some of the inferences they make. Much worse, I notice ads imposed on these Outlander sites (including the one not controlled by the makers of the films) which model female swoons at the male actors. It repeats over and over. This effectively silences any other approach to the candid sexuality of the women (and here the parallels are the swooning posters over Aidan Turner, only they are not so slickly done, though they use popular promotional material made for just this purpose). This is no surprise as every face-book or other site on the Net I have found (with one significant exception) seems to have been set up and is controlled by the film-makers or Gabaldon herself. But it makes for a great loss of understanding.

I do not deny the presence of a counter-force of the patriarchal macho-male culture across the culture in the books: for example, though Claire is having two lovers, two husbands, she is coerced into this, has not two selves but one (for Jamie as the “love of her life”); when serious politics or grim difficulties are to be endured she is told she must go back through the stones (in a scene between Jamie and Claire by the stones oddly reminiscent of the famous Casablanca where Rick teaches Ilsa she must retreat while he stays to endure the risk and serious business, with his deeper companion, the French officer played by Claude Rains – the equivalent figure is Murtagh). No doppelganger here. This is not a stealth woman’s film much like Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel the source) or The Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory) where a not-so-muted protest is made against the treatment of women in the terms of gorgeous costume drama.

Claire mannishly dressed in the 3rd season

As to what commentary my blogs have elicited and I have read in “official recaps” (there is one in the New York Times on-line), I have been startled to discover that the depiction of Claire’s relationship to her daughter, Brianna is seen by all of them as “dysfunctional” and “Claire’s fault.” It seems they “side” with Brianna that the mother lived in “a world of her own” (that is a charge the daughter made) and was somehow inattentive (?) and certainly gave Frank, her husband, a “bad deal.” I can see how her living with Frank can be seen that way: it must be he who paid for her physician’s education; all one can say is he choose this, she did all she could to be a good lover with him but she couldn’t forget the other man. To her daughter too she is all self-sacrifice: with Frank she lives except for the job an utterly 1950s housewife life — no one objects to her job as that’s not socially acceptable any more. To her daughter she is utterly abject; she gives every hour she could — Frank accuses her of “never being there,” reminding me of the implied accusations in The Divine Order: by going to vote, by getting a job our heroine must neglect her function as a mother, and (obedient) wife and sexual lover. And she apologizes to her daughter profusely again and again. To me the portrait was dripping with sentiment. I felt Claire would learn to dislike such a daughter, or just never behave that way. So it was false. In Dragonfly in Amber we see Frank being nasty, resentful, marital bickering; this is removed in the film so he looks put upon and not himself equally supporting against this as is marriage.

Claire had apologized to no one up to the time her daughter grew up and complained. “Self-absorption” is another no-no women face. I suspect I’d be seen as living in a world of my own. How dare you? who do you think you are?

Now I discover that the interpretation of all five of the first episodes of the third season have Claire as villain. I can’t quite see why she is a villain, but so they all assert. Only now in the sixth that she has crossed the stones and become Jamie’s wife in 18th century terms is she heroine again. Her villainy with her daughter and coming son-in-law is strange to me. What is it they resent? Frank has a mistress by this time — who reviles Claire for not “letting Frank go,” and making him have a miserable life when she could have given him great happiness.

The moralizing justification for watching this show meanwhile is its feminism, and the one academic paper I’ve heard emphasized its use of female narrator and over-voice. The speaker also claimed the mini-series satisfies the female gaze — though the NYTimes woman reminds us Claire is continually threatened by rape and there is much male violence, and Jamie takes Claire’s place as victim — I’d add from a sadistic homosexual (however this is denied) perspective thus damning homosexual men. Claire’s POV was dominant in the first season but (once again) Ronald Moore has admitted he has added (the way Davies did for Colin Firth as Darcy) much matching material to make Jamie’s point of view equal and one of the episodes this season was purely him in a fantasy of acceptance in a great country house where he provides the heir and the central woman-mother of this boy conveniently dies. But among these ordinary or common women readers, there are protests against this over-voice — a film studies book I have argues that over-voice is so rarely used because it’s seen as feminine.

As to the first Episodes six through eight of season three (her return, her defense of herself, her resuming her “career” as a physician), we could subtitle the sequence Claire Has Grown Up. A different kind of conflict emerges between Jamie and Claire: she is 20 years older, she is a physician, she is used to controlling her time, place and having a job. After she is (per usual) nearly raped and murdered at the close of episode 6 and opening of 7, she insists on trying to save the man’s life. She is told by Jamie were the body to be discovered no one would believe her story; living in brothel, she’d be at fault; she’d be put in prison or hung. So misogyny made plain. But against his advice she persists. To get the compounds she wants, she has to agree to see another patient — someone buying compounds who she frames as a patient. Going there she discovers they are crooks; the woman mentally deranged and used by her brother to make money — put on laudanum day and night. She can do nothing for her. Come back and she has ideas of moving out of the brothel, get a place of their own you see, from which she could set up her own business as a healer. Or from the printer’s shop. He looks bemused. Then Ian’s son is there and she meets (a moving scene) Ian (Steven Cree), her crippled brother-in-law for the first time in 20 years. She has to account for her absence and lies that she thought Jamie dead and lived in Boston, but lately finding out he was living (Promptly?) returned. Ian does not quite swallow this. Then she sees Jamie lie about Ian’s son and say he doesn’t know where the boy is; in fact he’s at the printing bedding a a very willing girl servant (yes — male wet dreams satisfied here). Claire is appalled: Ian is worried sick, and as a parent Ian should be told. She forgets that Jamie has a son and he begins to speak back about his lack of connection to Brianna and his jealousy of how he felt imagining her relationship with Frank.

She is wanting her own identity, has her own ideas. The new sidekick, Mr Willoughby (Gary Young, an Asian actor) has become her assistant; he refers to her as “honorable wife.” In fact her outfit, which is complained about as so “nurse-like” is right; the film-makers are trying to assert her as a separate identity — probably from the books. Then the thunderbolt in the last minutes of Episode 8 (“First Wife”). The young Ian and a servant girl from a tavern are having sex in the printing shop and come across a spy intent oon exposing Jamie’s seditious activities or smuggling and in the melee the print office is burnt down, with Jamie losing his business — after heroically saving the boy (reminding me of a scene in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton). (What happened to the girl? she doesn’t count?), years of effort and a legitimate profession gone. Now what?; what turn of history have they now? turning to pirates is admitting a lack of suitable organic material, a poverty of invention …

A promotional shot

That films are a key force in our cultural worlds is onereason I study and write about them.


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