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RobinEllis1975
Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark (1977)

AidanTurner2015
Aiden Turner as Ross Poldark (2015)

Dear friends and readers,

With the re-airing of the 1975-78 Poldark mini-series, the imminent airing of a new one in March on British TV and in June on PBS, and my own coming course on the Poldark novels I’ve begun rereading Graham’s life-writing, travel books and mysteries. That Graham wrote powerful mystery-thrillers often turned into film noir or Hitchcock type movies shows a vein of emotion that also feeds into the Poldark series.

So, first up among the latter, his Forgotten Story, also set in Cornwall (1898), written just before Ross Poldark, so a historical regional novel as well as mystery.

AngharadRees
Angharad Rees played the role of the heroine of The Forgotten Story (1983, the mini-series apparently wiped out)

I’ve given a thorough account of its relationship to the Poldark novels, Graham’s own repeated treatment of marital rape, and historical fiction; what I did not look into was its relationship to mystery-thrillers as a genre. This probably because until recently I never made any particular effort to view this sub-genre; that changed with watching Prime Suspect, and the recent spate of this genre as matter for film adaptations on PBS as well as my study of the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley (itself a post-text romance as well as mystery, but that belongs on my Austen Reveries blog).

Since I know few people will click onto my previous blog on The Forgotten Story and read it, no matter how many clicks I offer, allow me briefly to discuss The Forgotten Story once again. I hope yet another edition will follow from the success of the coming new Poldark mini-series.

What I’m most impressed by is the opening and closing meditation about the records he used about the actual incident underlying this fiction distort and marginalize and make uncertain precisely what happened — not just deliberately (though that’s part of this) but because not enough real concern is felt for literal truth. The epilogue to another historical novel not Poldarkian, and also set in Cornwall, The Grove of Eagles, shows an unusual display of exasperation at his public: he was attacked for not sticking to literal truth. In fact the attack was a stalking horse for attacking his attack on hierarchy and respect for privilege and rank. As he says at its opening and closing what drew his to the events he chose partly to fictionalize (as above) and dramatize accurately enough with a point of view is that we can’t tell precisely what was the truth. The Poldark novels return to meditations about the nature of historical fiction now and again, though they never become post-modern self-reflexively — another reason he was not “lifted” to the sphere of consideration for prizes like the Booker.

The Forgotten Story is at heart a dark one, the story of a woman who has been murdering her relatives for a long time, gradually poisoning them, a woman it emerges with a twisted psychology of personal anger, spite, revulsion against others who were put off by her ugliness. Graham delves the psychological complexity of all his characters — their pathologies as well as peculiar configurations of socially derived behaviors; he is a proto-feminist in the way he presents his heroine, Patricia Veal, as unable to get a good job and finally returning to live with the (good enough) hero, Tom Harris, because she needs him and taking with her, her cousin, Anthony, the boy at the center of the fiction (though whose consciousness we see most of the action — creating suspense); more controversially, our hero rapes our heroine — it’s slid over and (as in Warleggan) we are led to interpret this rape (if we chose) as one where she gave in and was ever after somehow connected to this man (more than from the sex she had had with him before). We are led on in a kind of terror for her as her world collapses after the death of her father, and then in fear lest she or Anthony slowly die too.

It’s about a certain kind of business too — shipping in the later 1890s, carefully recreated, tavern life in Cornwall and how it functions, but more than that the seascape of Cornwall, its lands and towns — it’s about shipwreck and the dangers of the coast, clearly mirroring Graham’s experience as a coast guard during World War Two. The feel of modernity and the liberal point of view is so unfamiliar to us now we can miss it’s an Edwardian story, Edwardian society, a different group than is usually shown us. I recommend it — melancholy and dark yet with hope because there are a few good enough people (in just the way of his Poldark novels).

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David Tennant as The Escape Artist (much touted, over-rated on PBS this past spring) — see Bloody Murders and Country Houses

Well, the power of Graham’s mystery-thriller and that of some few others I’ve read over the years (Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men left me anxious and tense each time I’d pick it up, and I remember it still), as well as the mystery-detective fiction LeCarre transformed into a serious political genre made me again wonder if this genre had any serious merit. I’d read a fine biography of Dashiell Hammet this summer (by Diana Johnson) as well as his screenplay for Lilian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. My wondering comes from the reality that most of the time I’ve tried to read a detective fiction, I’ve found it boring, myself unable to process the next step in prose, not caring about what happened before the book opened, or offstage. From reading P.D. James’s The Maul and the Pear Tree and this summer Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, I gathered the “fun” I was supposed to be having was to outwit the author and discover the secrets he or she was leaving clues about. The formulaic nature of its competitive puzzle is beyond me as most of the time I can’t get myself to do crossword puzzles nor care which team wins in a game match.

I threw the topic out for discussion on my listservs and tonight Yvette and I discussed some of our favorite Dorothy Sayers’s novels — for these we both love, e.g., Unnatural Death, Strong Poison, Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night. She has recently been rereading Sayers.

On my Women Writers through the Ages listserv @Yahoo, Fran linked in a stimulating essay defending detective and mystery fiction by Raymond Chandler, on Trollope19thCStudies @Yahoo, Tyler suggested the puzzle was the central attraction: the unravelling of the secret plots going on off-stage. Trollope is astute in his mockery of the Wilkie Collins school of detective fiction (The Moonstone with its Sergeant Cuff is sometimes said to be the first detective fiction in English)

The author seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone” (An Autobiography, 1980 Oxford Paperback, p 257).

and Trollope can’t be bothered to see this sort of thing as tremendously significant; doubtless Trollope would laugh at the literal kinds of minute anachronisms found by some readers and viewers, hurled at historical fiction/films to attack them as absurd. Well, this explanation is always there, and often at length at the end of the fiction/film.

I then read P.D. James on why she thought the invented story of Cordelia Gray (not her own) on PBS was so poor: “Cordelia never sees the body; the body murder scene must be detailed centrally, crucial to all detective crime stories is this key scene and it’s best that the detective examine it. That makes the story serious. it’s best that the detective examine the corpse. That makes the story serious.” And Julian Symonds in his excellent concise Bloody Murder on the centrality of crime to the best and recent books in the genre; he says there is sensationalist literature, and some subsets of these feature detection, crime and bloody murder; these he (and Chandler) say are superior to the “Golden Age of Fiction” by women writers (gentlewomen, disdainfully called). (The same kinds of dismissals of women writers of the 1930s in general in comparison to male writers is accounted for by Alison Light as anti-feminism in her Forever England.)

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Sophie Rundle as Lucy making herself the bait for the murderer (“Cracking the Killer Code,” Bletchley Circle, season 1)

First the usual defense is that of Chandler who has an enormous chip on his shoulder) and James (in her Talking of Detective Fiction): that there is no difference between sheer entertainment and great art, and one genre no better than another. Then they drop that as it’s obviously not so as the formulaic and thin nature of so much detective fiction, the reality that so much detective or mystery fiction is poor, yet sells widely. No need to drag in the greatness of tragedy as a genre, of dark comedy, film noir and a host of other genres where when it’s well done, its superb. And the sad truth that these mystery-thrillers are preferred to serious realistic fiction by writers like George Eliot to Anthony Powell and William Styron. Their tenacious popularity may be seen on the US PBS channels: now that they’ve lost Mobil (their big funder for decades) they are going all mystery-thriller because they think that this brings in more eyeballs and thus more advertisers — for that’s what their sponsors are.

Then there are two schools of thought. The first argues that at the core of detective and mystery fiction is this explanation, this puzzle, these minute secrets and deductions to be solved. Chandler makes fun of it, but it is always there, however attenuated or done skillfully. In James’s Death comes to Pemberley it’s done at length and boringly at the end of the book — boring to me. Gosford Park cannot avoid it. Winston Graham has his explanations skillfully woven in, but in the end clarification is needed. It seems to me the tendency of those who talk about the puzzle as central is to downgrade the form.

Gosford Park_stephen fry
Stephen Fry as the detective who does not want to find the murderer so plays incompetent (Altman’s parodic Gosford Park)

The second argues the core is the bloody murder at the center; for Symons the mood is sensationalist and a crime central; Chandler is muddled and has both murder and detection at the center, but the best books rise about the puzzle for something more important, a story of say who has state power. For P.D. James that (to quote myself in my summary of A Time to Be Earnest): there must be an absolute convincing delineation of the body, the death, and how this event occurred and how it has affected all the events and people closely and not so closely concerned with the dead person. In Death Comes to Pemberley the return to the crime scene in the film is obsessive; in the book Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, the magistrate watches Dr McFee thoroughly examine how death occurred and listens to all he says and we really get a sense of the mood the man must’ve had just as he died, of the body as containing this previous person frozen. It made me remember gazing on my father’s dead face and seeing the grim endurance he was meeting death with; Jim, my beloved was trembling all over as it occurred. Death in fact is a defining final experience. Its etched on the corpse. In Bernard Benstock’s essay on James in Twentieth Century Novelist he goes on about her clinical approach to death. While the people writing on LeCarre always talk of his political fables and how we see ruined lives, they don’t neglect the deaths. Symons calls his book, Bloody Murder.

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Denny’s blood skull (Death comes to Pemberley)

I found The Forgotten Story to be serious because its center was death taken very seriously; it sickened the accomplice and he killed himself fleeing from having to do more murders; Susan Hill’s Various Haunts of Men is about a murderer who stalks victims (women); The Bletchley Circle grabs me because its crimes are those characteristically aimed at women, what is done to them before and during death (rape and humiliating physical torture). I’ll give this to Death Comes to Pemberley James also makes the point the death of Denny is senseless, meaningless, ironic. Cancer stories can’t become real until they begin to admit how unpatterned, senseless and meaningless is the disease’s (we feel) malevolence.

Death counts, it matters a lot, shapes our lives utterly each time one happens close to us, obviously to the person dying, and this brings detective, mystery books right into the tragic vein of art … Not Lear but it can partake.

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PetherbridgeVane
Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (Sayers’s Strong Poison)

A few last tentative thoughts: Now maybe one of the reasons I’ve not liked mysteries and thrillers and detective stories is I don’t like violence; I usually stay away from films that are violent — Breaking Bad was an exception, but as I think about it each death was presented individually and taken seriously. Still the citing of this brilliant mini-series and Yvette and my talk this evening makes me unsatisfied with this as a full explanation for the core of the genre when serious. What we found we liked in Sayers was the intriguing psychological analysis and examination of people’s social identities as what is the deep explanation for the murder. In another blog I’ll try to deal with Marion Frank’s essay on “The Transformation of a Genre: the Feminist Mystery Genre” (in Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon, ed. Susan Fendler). Are these stories not parables about the relationship of power and justice? Sayers read against the grain exposes her society.

Again and again people have said they read mysteries and detective stories because they are a comforting escape. I was thinking that this comfort came from what I took to be the usual ending of such stories until recently: the detective discovered who did it, tidied up the world, restored order, and delved out justice. Is it inherently a deeply conservative genre; can a genre be inherently part of a political vision. Gothic has been shown to be radical and questioning and at the same time absolutely upholding traditional and establishment values. The Policeman is the Hero in Foyle’s War. Now I’m not sure real justice was meted out most of the time (especially when the murderer was lower class, of a non-white ethnicity and had good reason for having gone mad), and have decided the use of these terms is unthinking, a kind of hum-and-buzz cant the person uses without examination. In a sense all art is a form of escape, its ordering gives us a sense of meaning and comfort, aesthetic satisfaction. The very real connection of mystery-thrillers with the gothic and in film, film noir, shows its coterminus lien on a genre anything but comforting. That Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) could really have murdered Mr Green and his first wife, and Anna, his loving wife (Joanne Froggart) can believe this and still love him devotedly makes them far more interesting than they would otherwise be …

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Dreaming of a future to come, he tells her he will keep her safe (Downton Abbey 5:5)

Ellen

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VivienLeigh
Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois (1951 Kazan/Williams Streetcar Named Desire)

Dear friends and readers,

Another announcement of a publication. (Rest assured very soon this will stop and I will return to our regularly scheduled programming mostly about films and books.) I’m happy to say my review of Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films and the Benefits of Censorship is now published on-line in Cercles: Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone

Better Left Unsaid, reviewed by Ellen Moody

Those who read this blog more than occasionally may recognize a few of the films I’ve written blog reviews of: Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Street, Cukor’s Philadelphia Story and Gaslight, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve been enjoying myself mightily watching (and re-watching) a selection of the films covered by this book and also reading for the first time (Thackeray’s Catherine: A Story) and rereading (Bronte’s Villette) a selection of its Victorian novels, not to omit material on actresses and other people centrally involved in film-making.

The book is significant because aspects of its thesis, its assumptions may be found in many recent and older publications. Perhaps among the more interesting of the secondary books I read was the collection by Kucich and Sadoff called Victorian Afterlife (about historical fiction too), and some of the individual screenplays and books on these films; also James Chandler’s The Archeaology of Sympathy comparing 18th century sentimental novels with (among other film-makers) Capra.

I would not have thought comparable Austen’s Mansfield Park with Cukor’s Gaslight:

BergmanGaslight
Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist readying herself virtuously for bed (1944 Cukor/John Van Druten Gaslight).

I also liked following trails away from the main movies and books under consideration; one of these I’ve seen before included a commentary on the famous scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront where in the make-believe cab seat we and Charlie Malloy (Steiger) are made to feel Charlie’s terrible betrayal of Terry Malloy (Brando)

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(Kazan/Schulberg, 1954 On the Waterfront)

I wish I had made more time to develop separate blogs on these books and films but do urge my readers to read and to watch or re-watch these books & films.

itsaWonderfulifeforblog
See some Christmas commentary coming out of It’s a Wonderful Life this year – Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey pleading with the inexorable banker to give him more time (it’s the banker who has been able to steal the money George had been saving to pay his debt).

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

If you are into historical films, costume dramas, mini-series, TV films, 19th to early 20th century classic and serious novels as adapted by British TV, this book should be just your thing.

Cover

I, for one, find Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Lady Grantham’s outfit irresistible: that soft blue color, the light velvety texture of the dress, the pearls, the long white gloves, not to omit the pearls peeking out of her bun matching her long strand and her tiara and that worried consulting look on her face as she talks to Jim Carter as the eternal butler-steward, solver of all problems, Mr Carson — perfectly poised as epitomizing costume drama.

Here is The Table of Contents:

Yes mine is among the essays — on Andrew Davies’s adaptations of Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now — but note this is a collection that begins in the 1960s, covers costume drama, British TV and thematic British issues generally across the second half of the 20th century; and the Edwardian and post World War I novel. It’s not just Poldark to Downton Abbey:

Foreword
Jerome de Groot
Acknowledgments
Introduction
James Leggott and Julie Anne Taddeo

Part I: Approaches to the Costume Drama

1 Pageantry and Populism, Democratization and Dissent: The Forgotten 1970s — Claire Monk
2 History’s Drama: Narrative Space in “Golden Age” British Television Drama — Tom Bragg
3 “It’s not clever, it’s not funny, and it’s not period!”: Costume Comedy and British Television — James Leggott
4 “It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion”: British Costume Drama, Dickens, and Serialization — Marc Napolitano
5 Never-Ending Stories?: The Paradise and the Period Drama Series — Benjamin Poore
6 Epistolarity and Masculinity in Andrew Davies’s Trollope Adaptations — Ellen Moody
7 “What Are We Going to Do with Uncle Arthur?”: Music in the British Serialized Period Drama — Karen Beth Strovas and Scott M Strovas

Part II: The Costume Drama, History, and Heritage

8 British Historical Drama and the Middle Ages — Andrew B. R. Elliott
9 Desacralizing the Icon: Elizabeth I on Television — Sabrina Alcorn Baron
10 “It’s not the navy-we don’t stand back to stand upwards”: The
Onedin Line and the Changing Waters of British Maritime Identity —
Mark Fryers
11 Good-Bye to All That: Piece of Cake, Danger UXB, and the Second World War — A. Bowdoin Van Riper
12 Upstairs, Downstairs (2010-2012) and Narratives of Domestic and Foreign Appeasement — Giselle Bastin
13 New Developments in Heritage: The Recent Dark Side of Downton “Downer” Abbey — Katherine Byrne
14 Experimentation and Postheritage in Contemporary TV Drama:
Parade’s End — Stella Hockenhull

Part III: The Costume Drama, Sexual Politics, and Fandom

15 “Why don’t you take her?”: Rape in the Poldark Narrative — Julie Anne Taddeo
16 The Imaginative Power of Downton Abbey Fan Fiction — Andrea Schmidt
17 This Wonderful Commercial Machine: Gender, Class, and the Pleasures and Spectacle of Shopping in The Paradise and Mr. Selfridge — Andrea Wright
18 Taking a Pregnant Pause: Interrogating the Feminist Potential of
Call the Midwife — Louise FitzGerald
19 Homosexual Lives: Representation and Reinterpretation in Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey — Lucy Brown
20 Troubled by Violence: Transnational Complexity and the Critique of Masculinity in Ripper Street –Elke Weissmann

Index
About the Editors and Contributors

I could wish there were more here, more on the intermediary stages, the important film adaptations of the 1980s (Brideshead was typical of that decade), and the movement into TV at the time of serious cinema film-makers (e.g., My Beautiful Laundrette), but the way to read more books on this area, is by buying and or reviewing this one. I can’t as an interested party. But as I did for my essay on “Intertexuality in Simon Raven’s The Pallisers and other Trollope films” in Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation, edd. Abigail Burnham Bloom and Mary Sanders Pollock, I’ll keep an eye out for reviews and link them in as well as myself read this collection and report back anything which seems to call out for special attention.

Ellen

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Lear-tate

Dear friends and readers,

On Friday night, November 7th, most of the participants (or so it seemed from the crowded church pews) of EC/ASECS were privileged to see and hear a marvelously acted performance of Shakespeare Restor’d, a new play (mostly by Jane Wessel, directed by Sandy Ernst, co-directed Sayna O’Neill)) whose central characters, William Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys, debated the relative merits of five of Shakespeare’s original plays against various 17th to 18th century improvements, revised texts, by conjuring up a group of actors to enact parallel scenes: we had

The death scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet against the death scene (very close even if they wake up) in Otway’s Caius Marius;

A first scene of Caliban encountering Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest against a parallel scene (with a second daughter, and a Hippolytus, an innocent good creature added to Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban) from Dryden’s Tempest;

Scene of the young Plantagenet princes having died and it mentioned and the dying murdered Princes in Shakespeare’s and Cibber’s Richard IIIs, respectively;

Sleepwalking and despairing soliloquies, the killing of Lady Macduff and her children, from Shakespeare’s and Davenant’s Macbeths;

The tragic and triumphant conclusions of Shakespeare’s and Nahum Tate’s Tempest respectively.

What was most striking was how well some of the “improved” scenes played when they were done as seriously as Shakespeare’s. I’ve seen some of these “improvements” in opera: an early 19th century Italian Romeo and Juliet where our lovers wake up, sing desperate arias to one another for quite a time, and then die; parts of the HD Met’s Enchanted Island, bits of Cibber stuck into a Shakespearean text.

After the performance the actors sat on the stage and discussed their experience with one another and the audience; Resident Ensemble players included Joshua L. Browns, Paul Hurley, Maggie Kettering, Erin Partin, Benjamin Reigel; producing artistic director, Sandford Robbins. There was a rehearsal and another performance on Saturday evening.

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Henry Fuseli’s reaction to whatever Romeo and Juliet (Garrick wrote one where they woke up) he saw

I’ll take this opportunity to recommend a 21st century Shakespeare I’ve been mesmerized by this past few weeks: I’ve described briefly Jonathan Bate’s remarkable series of on-line lectures Weeks 1-3 from Future Learn in the form of MOOC, Shakespeare and His World, for Warwick University and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Weeks 4-7 have been as well-informed, thoughtful, frank, original in perspective, and eloquent as the first three. The plays read and discussed for themselves and jumping off platforms were

(for week 4) Henry V, allowing Bate to discuss a world then at war too, with sections projecting the soldiers’ experience, the nature of the conflicts, how patriotism was used; (for week 5) The Merchant of Venice, used to depict Shakespeare as a businessman. I’ve heard so many times he was a cagey careful businessman and if you followed his career you’d see him rent and land empire building, not to omit getting his father a rank. This was the first time I saw it detailed. That’s what I’m liking about these videos: new insights now and again genuinely and then backed up by content. So ingeniously Bate says Shakespeare reflects himself in Antonio and Shylock. He did de-emphasize the homosexuality or homoeroticism of Bassanio and Antonio; he didn’t say it was not there but he gave a weasel way of avoiding it “as not important; then (for week 6) Macbeth and the attitudes towards witches and superstitious beliefs of all sorts, and towards medicine in Shakespeare and his contemporaries; and finally for now (for week 7), as embodied in Othello, the world of the Ottoman empire, the Mediterranean as a centre of war, commerce, different ethnic groups in conflict (including a remarkably explicit drawing of a white slave market). I say for now as there is more coming.

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Judi Dench and Ian McKellen as a middle-aged utterly co-dependent couple, an undervalued version (Bate recommends filmed versions of the plays each week)

Bate compared Othello to Shylock as an outsider on the one hand, and to Macbeth as a seduced murderer on the other. He brings back and intertwines weeks: so the outsider in Shylock is also seen in Othello. I’ve bought myself his The Biography of Shakespeare’s Mind; I read and was irritated by Bate’s book on John Clare (Bate has written on the romantic poets and Shakespeare too) as excusing the wife for putting the man in an asylum and as critical of Clare as not socially performative in the middle class way and instead resentful of exclusion, but perhaps I misread …

11/18 Update: Week 8:

The play this week was Antony and Cleopatra and the subject the Elizabethan view and uses of Rome and Greece, as well as what we can ascertain was Shakespeare’s. He said he didn’t choose Julius Caesar because it was so much better known, and chose A&C because it had a woman centrally in the play and a powerful fascinating pyschological portrait of this pair of people. A lot of the lectures consisted of Bate telling about North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives (from a French intermediary copy), showing us the book, describing it, and then comparing the text of Antony and Cleopatra to the passages in Plutarch to tease out the differences. That is to say, this one was not as generally informative as the previous weeks have been: no discussion of what boys (and girls in the Renaissance too when of upper class homes) were put to read of the Romans and Greeks, no talk of how they were educated in these languaqes, of what specifically was thought true of the two cultures, and how reflected elsewhere than Plutarch. Previous weeks gave far more general talk, but this time Bate really went into the poetry and showed Shakespeare’s mind changing perspective, adding depth, eroticism into his text. Central to the pleasure of all these week is Bate’s mesmerizing voice itself, like some inspired sybil, and particular utterances he makes here and there …

11/26/14:

The play for this week is The Tempest and as in previous weeks Bate uses it to discuss Elizabethan and Shakespeare’s attitudes (as we see in the play) towards the “new” World (western hemisphere), towards magic. Maybe I was unfair last week in saying he did not discuss attitudes towards the ancient world because he did go over Plutarch; this week he had other texts and maps of the time. I begin to notice flaws though: Bate himself is careful to say nothing politically even if he goes on about how Caliban stands for a native of these islands; Shakespeare does comment on colonialism and coups. After all Bate is careful not to offend too over the course of these weeks.

He is very good on the poetry of the play — its use of sounds, music, the sea. He points out that the play is the first in the folio and speculates that it was so chosen because it is a culmination. He does dismiss with derision (so frank there) the idea the man Wm Shakespeare did not write these plays (though he does not go on to say how class prejudice leads to this).

Next week he’s going to get yet more fashionable: I was writing/chatting with a member of our listservs offlist: Bate’s approach is very contemporary, the way he pulls from the plays Shakespeare’s attitudes, his way of doing history; next week he’s going to give us a history of the criticism that led to idolatry and today. I wonder how frank he’ll be about that.

Each week you are told during the week what have been the best filmed versions of the given play (according to Bate, ever modest saying this is his view of course).

Each week also (second video, 15 minutes) there is a round-up of the week before, with an “assistant” who has read through (so it seems) all the “learners'” comments and brings forward (made more coherent and useful) general questions and assertions and Bate goes over these, always saying what an interesting question or some such praise.

I don’t know what Jim would have thought of this or the other MOOCs I’ve watched, but he would have immensely enjoyed Shakespeare Restor’d. I have in this house in a couple of books some of the improved texts in facsimile reprints (from the Strand bookstore in NYC) and remember he read and talked of them once. I wish I could conjure up what he would have said of this performance.

Ellen

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The actual day dress and hat worn by Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey — rich heavy cloth

Described, who funds it, how the Duponts grew so (obscenely may I use the word) rich — gunpowder. The gardens, the exhibits, dwelling of course on Downton Abbey, the fetish dresses. How it functions as a social facility faute de mieux.

Dear friends and readers,

As my header and picture tell immediately, I have been to Winterthur Museum: this past Thursday afternoon and evening. I have decidedly mixed feelings about such places: I asked more questions of our guide than anyone else (note: she was grateful and wanted questions she could answer to fill out the time allotted to each of several rooms in the central house she showed us), especially who owned this house originally (the Duponts — they owned everything worth having at one time in Delaware), who’s funding it now: there’s an endowment by the Duponts substantially added to by philanthropists, selling memberships to local people for activities like lectures, evening receptions, tours. Winterthur Museum is one secular local social and cultural center; the university is the other. At each stop of this tour I noticed how the particular Dupont she was often talking of (a male born in the early 20th century who became a collector, connoisseur, sportsman, lover of art, builder of museum rooms and garden) spent enormously on each whim however art-oriented he might have: move whole ceilings, change contours to accommodate every detail of an 18th century wallpaper handed scenes around a room from China, have opera music piped in from miles away to where he was golfing. The guide picked up on my perspective (drift?) and became just a trifle defensive, regaling us with the two schools of art and conservation supported at the Winterthur (by fellowships? she didn’t say? or students loans?), to one of which she had been and gotten a degree in fine arts and is paid now for working there.

The gardens are beautiful and extensive; there are treasures of pottery, sculpture, home furnishings of all sorts, musical instruments, specific objects owned by this famous person and that; an indoor garden all bewindows; we were invited to look at the rooms the family once used and those originally built to be shown to the public. There is a research library — for American artefacts and architecture. I regret I didn’t buy at the gift shop a pair of exquisitely filligreed earrings in the Downton Abbey style, and a light weight woven jackets, lovely dark blue threads woven into this light lacey cloth, again a Downton Abbey style. Had Jim been alive, I probably would have, but don’t have the urge to treat myself the way I once did (indeed it feels somehow downright wrong), and told myself he’d have said I couldn’t wear it, as it was too delicate so I was getting a bogus relic. But when I noticed a colleague and friend had gotten herself an exquisitely embroidered scarf, Downton Abbey mode, I wished I had (they sell for $30 and up).

I had the same response which Jim and I shared when we were taken through a castle-like house, now a full-fledged week-long-trip place at Asheville, North Carolina, where a similarly super-gargantuan rich family filled a huge building and made a garden, Biltmore (a bus takes you) that ordinary people are invited to visit. The unexamined adulation of such places supports the present oligarchy and its past — and forgets that but for a brief time (1930s to 60s) there was in the US an attempt to make life more decent and share the goods, fulfilling occupations, enjoyment, and security with the average person. We did not have to be grateful for the crumbs off the table of the 1%.

What I enjoyed most of the museum itself was the most foolish thing probably: the rooms given over to the actual costumes worn by the actors and actresses of Downton Abbey. I felt my heart-strings tug as I heard the familiar strains of the music coming from the corridor as I climbed the marble stairwell. The museum knows the draw of this place and it is advertised everywhere in the museum. The information about what we were seeing was accurate: the Grantham family dresses and some of the suits are a mix of style then with style today. The staff had rebuilt the bell system — that is the sort of thing that grates. Are we to celebrate this? Here and there perpetual films were going of this or that episode where a costume we were viewing could be seen. Of course this was a tiny percentage of the stock the program costumer and her assistants have made but it was sufficiently wide that you could see each of the main characters’ sort of dress (two each for each of the daughters for example, a couple each for each of the older upper class family women). Unfortunately, I was taking photos with my cell phone and even with a real camera I am not exactly competent so while I tried to get some of the hats, I seem only to have captured two (the above and this one below):

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Summer dress and hat worn by Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley — light cotton (muslin?)

I had predicted and indeed found the “creations” for the married Lady of the house (Cora) stood out for the work, material, expense, lavishness over all the other females.

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One of Cora’s evening dresses: my photo doesn’t capture the heavy and delicate working of the embroidery up and down the front of Cora’s dress — the varied textile dress is expensive

I have favorite characters so I am glad I managed to photograph Mr Bates’s working clothes as worn by Brendan Coyle and his bench, even if smudged:

Bates

I like Joanne Froggart as Anne Smith but must agree with her (as she’s hinted) that her outfits are so dull (and there is but one of Sophia McShera as Daisy’s and one of Leslie Nicol’s as Mrs Patmore), and in this exhibit none from the time of her being a lady’s maid — to tell the truth I have better photos to share from the books I’ve bought. Who makes a fetish of a servant’s outfit?

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Remember Rose Leslie as Gwen, the housemaid, whom the Winterthur people are aware was a popular favorite once —

I note that the choice of fetish items show a class perspective and emphasis at work — minimal for the servants and several for the family each time. There is the one typical housemaid outfit we first see her in, one for Siobhan Finneran as Miss O’Brien, the lady’s maid; here is but one the glitter and richness of Phyllis Logan’s layered dress as housekeeper: an expensive set of sewn varied textiles and chains:

PhyllisLoganHousekeeper

In the physical place, you can see the stiffness of Rob James-Collier’s outfit as a footman:

footman

The costumes did seem to be almost all from the first season. Winterthur did not go to this expense for more than one and the beginning of another (to get in Shirley MacLaine’s garments doubtless). All of them looked remarkably comfortable as styles (they simple hang on the body)

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Post World War One coat and hat – this kind of semi-sexy outfit was there, the fur expensive, rich velvet gold cloth

— as long as you didn’t remember the women wore corsets underneath to provide the form of body that the dress was to wrap round and cling to.

It was an exhibit of textiles the rich could use as imagined by the ITV costume workshop. it might have been interesting to see information about the dress designer, materials, who made the dresses (how much paid?). There were also objects the Grantleys used (beyond the re-built bell system):

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Gloves worn by the actresses — kid is the slang

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Crockery used — the same kind as Jim and I used to see at Landmark Trust houses

I did go into other parts of the museum — found an 18th century sack dress and noticed that a couple of the later 19th century ones did resemble aspects of the Downton Abbey costumes.

sack

Of course if this man and his family of Duponts had not wanted to spend their money this way, we the public could not have this functioning funded social facility and pretty space. But it testifies to the continued domination of private property and huge fortunes as the controlling factors in US society that we owe such places to private foundations: of course the discourses they will support will not be those that undermine their positions; we see everything from a limited perspective of the privileged. The guide mentioned in passing that the basis of the Dupont money was gunpowder. All that slaughter and destruction of the Civil War enriched the Duponts, modern uses of chemistry in industry (and one of its results the spread of cancer) are the bedrock of this dream place.

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Michelle Dockery’s silk layers Christmas ball dress from the first season; this is next to Dan Steevens’s tux (rather like a needed Ken doll) behind which is played over and over his proposal on bended knees to her in the snow

The museum several years ago allowed EC/ASECS to have its banquet in the museum (I’m not sure where); this year we were allowed to use a beautiful area for a reception for snacks, sweets and drinks and enjoyable talk, and then for another hour to wax exhilarated reading 18th century poetry and verse playlets aloud to one another. Peter Staffel, our master of ceremonies, chose to end these on Gray’s brilliant “Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” which for me nowadays especially evokes an ambivalent response too to conclude the festivities.

’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
  The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
  Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
  The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
  She saw; and purred applause.

Still had she gazed; but ’midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
  The genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
  With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
  What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
  Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
  She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
  Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
  A Favourite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
  And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
  Nor all that glisters, gold.

Ellen

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Jonny Lee Miller as the creature desperately trying to bring an exhausted Bernard Cumberbatch as Frankenstein back to life on the ice

Dear friends and readers,

Yes, I’ve just returned from watching the version of Nick Dear and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein where Miller is the creature and Cumberbatch Frankenstein. The moviehouse had the version where Cumberbatch is the creature and Miller Frankenstein on Monday night. I didn’t know. Next year if my local HD theater repeats this duo, I’ll be sure and see Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Dr Frankenstein.

Not that I was at all disappointed: I have known since watching Miller in an episode of Prime Suspect (and in the difficult roles of Edmund Bertram in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 MP and Mr Knightley in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma) what a versatile, effective, deeply feeling compelling actor he is. In this intelligent adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel (and the novel is kept in mind throughout), the creature is far more central to the action and consciousness of the play than his creator. We see his birth from his point of view,

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Jonny Lee Miller as the monster being born

how he moves bewilder through a landscape of powerful machines and cruel people, to happening on the French family escaped from injustice and the kindness of the blind old scholar, De Lacey (Karl Johnson gets some comedy out of this role) to him, in succouring him, teaching him,

blindscholar

so (except for Frankenstein’s horrified rejection of his creature and abandonment of him) it is a long time before before Cumberbatch returns to the stage. And Frankenstein is the far less astonishing presence, even if central to the emotional action-reaction at play’s center

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein pushing away from him what he has done

I’d just like to see how different would be the feel and meaning in the reversal; according to Michael Billington of The Guardian, considerable.

What Dear and Boyle did was pare down the novel to its doppelganger, and in their characters, their talk, their relationship all the themes of Mary Shelley are drawn out. Some of the matter is lost: the depiction of larger social injustice is not there and so the instinctive fears and savagery of human beings to one another is not outweighed; much of Frankenstein’s life and relationships: the depiction of education (critiqued), how Frankenstein began to try to recreate life partly in reaction to his mother’s death; his arrogance and lack of responsible behavior to others, the intense distrust of science. Frankenstein is someone not social (of course a no no), going off on his own. The emphasis of this twist is so 21st century. The role of Elizabeth is made to enact socialableness (a new word), responsibility, an attempt at kindness towards the creature, and that natural ways trump egoistic artifice. Naomi Harris is effective in the hard role in both versions (a side note, she played the black heroine to Cumberbatch’s white anti-hero in Small Island). ElizabethCreature

I suppose what is so compelling is the dialogue between the two, what’s said, but one is exhilarated even in a movie version by the staging, the use of machinery, the pivotal stage, the symbolic way each phase of the story is presented — matching the fantasy aspects of the story (for it is fantasy). I’ve been to the National Theater in London (with Jim) and seen a number of these creative productions: Aeschylus trilogy comes to mind, Henry IV part 2 (Michael Gambon as Falstaff), and at home on Bravo, the Yorkshire Mystery Plays. The material from Shelley is gothic, but the conventions here eschew anything like film noir or horror/slash movies. it’s really an intimate one-on-one play (not so different in this from say the Fly episode of Breaking Bad where we get a similar intense interaction for an hour between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Mr White and Jesse respectively, with bodies entangled eventually too).

One of the best reviews is that of Paul Taylor of the Independent, only he is wrong to say the play ends so differently from the novel. Yes at the close of Shelley’s novel it seems the creature immolates himself on a pyre on a slab of ice, while Frankenstein expires in Walton’s ship but it seems to me this dying is not what is important: it is the the pursuit and the insight (emphasized by Shelley in her text) that the two creatures to live on are forever intertwined in their hatred and (due to Frankenstein) thwarted love.

He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on

I haven’t any shots of Frankenstein pulling his sled after the creature (nor of Andrea Padurariu as the Female Creature Frankenstein is drawn to himself, but destroys), but I do of the creature’s desperation when he thinks Frankenstein may have died, and his loving attempt to bring Frankenstein back to life so they can up and move on again (see still at top). In this one the director had Michelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam in mind:

Michelangelgo

Ice is central to the gothic and among the additions to Shelley’s vision, is that of body snatchers: the uses of corpses, poor people’s remains is brought out in comic pragmaticism when in Scotland Dr Frankenstein pays two Scots peasants to bring him materials. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher.

Perhaps Dear congratulated himself too much on having given the creature back his voice, for Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 production of Frankenstein (screenplay Steph Lady, and Frank Darabout, producer Francis Ford Coppola) with Robert De Niro as the monster and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth and a bride-monster of Frankenstein, had an equally articulate poignant presence for the monster. Dear and Boyle learned from Branagh and De Niro.

It was a production and is now a film which shows how transcendent and variable the gothic can be. The New York Times critic made fun of it — a paradoxical measure of its transcendence (the monster is alive and peeved!) It’s very effective in this film production – – where they do intersperse some stills from the 1931 Whale Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff), but for once I will concede that I was aware how much more charged it must be to have been in the theater. I don’t often feel this in the HD operas which are directed for film; this is a play taking advantage of all the techniques and stagings possible nowadays of a theater in the round and live stage.

It’s worth while to listen to Dear’s description of a many year project and the book as providing a contemporary creation myth:

Ellen

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From the paratexts of Barchester Chronicles by Alan Pater (1982)

Dear friends and readers,

Despite some disillusion, I’ve sent in proposals to teach next spring (beginning sometime in late February) and summer (6 weeks June-July) to the Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason. What I’m enjoying most of all I’m doing is the return to Trollope: I had forgotten (it seems) how sustaining, intelligent, stimulating, ironic, moving, his texts are.

So when I’ve done Beyond Barsetshire (at the OLLI at American University), I shall reverse myself — or go backwards — and concentrate on the phase of his career in which he produced the famous six.

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Mr Harding (Donald Pleasence) plays his cello, 1982 BBC Barchester Chronicles

Course Proposal for Spring Term, 2015, OLLI at Mason

The first Barsetshire novels: Trollope conceived of his famed Barsetshire series while walking in the beautiful purlieus of Salisbury Cathedral in England, and of the writing of 2nd Barsetshire novel, Barchester Towers, an enormously wide-selling book at the time and never out of print since, Trollope wrote he took “great delight” and predicted Barchester Towers would be one of those by him which “live” on and are read for a long time to come. It has never been out of print. Nowadays some see it as the first academic and job market satire. By the 3rd, Dr Thorne Trollope knew he had created more a world for many characters to exist in, and by the 4th, Framley Parsonage, he was mapping his imaginary places, and its characters and sites spilling over into a real political England through railway lines. In an 8 week course we’ll read Barchester Towers and Dr Thorne, and see excerpts from the 1982 BBC The Barchester Chronicles, which begins with The Warden, the 1st Barchester book, a novella, which students may read on their own or see in the form of the 1st seven episodes of the series before the course begins.

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Sadleir’s redrawn version of Barsetshire from Trollope’s map after Framley Parsonage

Course Proposal for Summer 2015, OLLI at Mason

Framley Parsonage and the Cornhill. We will read Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, the crucial novel which transformed Trollope’s career and made him a central experience for Victorian middle-class readers. It describes the life of a country parson and the townspeople he interacts with, to the point that it was said to give “a strong impression of life as it was really lived at the time.” Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of Anthony Trollope’s th Barsetshire novel, Framley Parsonage, she wished Trollope would “go on writing it forever.” Framley Parsonage serialized made the Cornhill magazine the centrally read voice of the age. “How good this Cornhill Magazine is!” Elizabeth Barrett Browning exclaimed, “Anthony Trollope is really superb.” We will look at the illustrations to Barsetshire, by Pre-Raphaelite, idyllic and political illustrators, including such people as John Everett Millais. Finally, we will look at how Framley Parsonage is a political novel which anticipates elements in Trollope’s next famed series, the Pallisers. 6 weeks.

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John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral (1831) — Trollope wrote that it was while walking in its grounds he conceived his idea for The Warden.

Ellen

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