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Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Mildred and Richard Loving (2016, written and directed by Jeff Nichols) — he enjoys watching cars race

Friends,

As many know, this is the story of the interracial marriage which led to a judgement by the supreme court which included the assertion that the marriage is a fundamental human right. Before this decision, states could and did outlaw marriage between people of different races. Over the course of the two hour movie I found myself deeply respectful of Mildred and Richard Loving: we see how they love one another, how they marry in DC, are arrested in the dead of night in Virginia, thrown in jail, treated with bullying disrespect and anathema by a succession of disdainful white male authorities. The story moves slowly and symbolically, rather like an outline where after an initial attempt to return home while Mildred has her baby, and re-arrest, with a dire threat of many years in prison, they live in DC (or risk imprisonment) for several years. Mildred finds the city demoralizing and streets dangerous for their children so they brave going back to a hidden place in Virginia. Terrified, hounded, she writes to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General, and he suggests to an ACLU lawyer and civil rights expert that they take on their case. We follow them over several years and risky behaviors until the case reaches the supreme court where they win.

What I liked best about the film was its quietness. I feared I would be subjected to another ratcheted up melodrama, complete with thriller moments, high crisis scene and speechifying denouement. We are spared this. I did recognize that this was still another of these so-called art-films, which, as if in order to appeal broadly, be commercial, is produced with a super-solemn stance or tone, pompous and somehow (even with the poverty presented) over-produced (glorious colors, very close closeups). So I agree with Richard Brody’s New Yorker review which finds a much earlier TV movie, Mr and Mrs Loving, much more realistically human, comic at moments, entertaining, bringing out the very messy issues and petty and important bad harassment this couple experienced for years much than Jeff Nichols’ still super-dignified treatment. Yet this film is apparently more accurate and based on an intermediary documentary, The Loving Story, by Nancy Buiriski for HBO (2012).

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The actual Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving

Maybe real people aren’t comic. We hear from both sides of their families (black and white) individuals who lash out against the couple for marrying as a betrayal, a selfish indulgence (!), even a crime. There is a lovely rhythm to the presentation of years, birth of children, everyday life going on. Richard spends his existence building buildings as well as caring for his wife and family. A photographer comes to give the couple more presence in the media and he takes a photo of the couple enjoying themselves in front of the TV. (The credits include a real photo of the real couple at just such a moment.) We worry Mildred and Richard’s children are at risk from authorities, and are told that at the supreme court the argument was made that “mixed race” children are unacceptable, but I felt we could have been given more information about the issues the case rested on. Nonetheless I was much moved, especially by Ruth Negga’s performance, and here and there actors playing individuals in the family: Richard’s black brother-in-law, Virgil (Will Dalton) who is a genuine considerate friend to the couple is one that comes to mind.

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Films do not occur in a vacuum. So in this wretched moment of US politics where a white supremacist racist has been appointed by an overtly racist president as his chief strategist, where a man noted for his cruelty and draconian tactics running a police force in NYC (Giuliani) is said to be under consideration for Attorney General, where what is promised includes registration of people based on ethnic origin, rounding up and deportation in huge numbers of others, and outright mockery of #blacklivesmatter (not to omit disabled people), and doubling down on harsh prison sentences, such a presentation is not out of place. The film shows it matters who is attorney general. It showed how dependent an average person is on the supreme court to enunciate as law genuinely principled enlightened assumptions. As triumph of good came into view, I felt heartsick. You can go in the same spirit as you go on a march, sign a petition, phone your congressman. Here is the case as outlined in wikipedia: look at who were the judges. Do you think the same favorable decision would be the result today?

It’s also an absorbing quietly suspenseful (anxious) two hours. Anne Thompson in Indiefilms covering different aspects than I have calls it Oscar Worthy. The movie itself is also is a gentle depiction of a kind of marriage: the wife so careful of her working class and inarticulate husband’s feelings, his attempt to do all he can within his nature and character. Thompson says the film dramatizes how love is an inalienable right — for all the characters, children to grandparents.
Ellen

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) nursing an abandoned neonate (called a changeling), 1 Outlander 10 (By the Pricking of My Thumb)

Jamie: Been looking all over for ye.
Claire: I met Geillis Duncan on the road.
Jamie. She told me where ye were. It’s dangerous to be out here alone, Sassenach.
Claire: Don’t tell me you believe in fairies and changelings and all that.
Jamie: It’s not about what I believe. These people, they’ve never been more than a day’s walk from the place they were born.
They hear no more of the world than what Father Bain tells them in the kirk on a Sunday. And for the parents of that child, it might comfort them a bit to think it’s the changeling that died. And think of their own child, healthy and well, living forever with the fairies.
Claire: Take me home.

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Claire explaining her small pox vaccination scar before she goes on to tell she is “from the future,” 1 Outlander 11 (The Devil’s Mark)

Claire: I was born on October the 20th in the year 1918. That’s 200 years from now. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?
Jamie: I hear you.
Claire: You think I’m raving mad, don’t you?
Jamie: No. No, I believe ye, Sassenach. So I dinna understand it a bit, not yet. But I trust you. I trust your word, your heart. And I trust there is a truth between us. So whatever you tell me I will believe ye. Can you tell me more?
Claire: I was a combat nurse in the British army.
Claire over-voice: Before we left the church, she [Geillis] said to me, “1968.” I told him everything. The whole story came pouring out of me like a cataract of water over a broken dam.
Jamie: Tell me again about the, uh the stones.
Claire over-voice: I didn’t realize how badly I needed to tell someone, anyone, until that moment.
Claire back to Jamie: The Scots never had a chance.
Claire over-voice: He listened.
Claire to Jamie: Thousands were killed at Culloden.
Claire over-voice: He didn’t understand it all, but he listened.

Friends and readers,

Among the few pleasant and unresolved escape pleasures of this past two (politically potentially disastrous) weeks, I’ve carried on reading Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, Sarah Waters’s The Daphne DuMaurier Companion, an essay by (with me) a favorite woman poet, Anne Stevenson, on Gabaldon, and best of all both watching the series yet more and listening to an unabridged Gabaldon’s Outlander text read aloud by Davina Porter.. It may not seem to the reader or viewer of the mini-series and books the most urgent question is, What genre do this text and film belong to? and yet this question is the one that most intrigues me, for if I could answer it, I would know what to look for as central to what I am reading and watching.

The book seems to me to fall into the historical romance category. It is woman’s erotica; the density, accuracy, and centrality of historical events which are the groundwork of the historical novel are not here. There is no political vision. At the same time we are seduced into a seemingly densely realized historical period, regional setting, tribal identities through an identification worked up between us and Claire, the heroine, and (as we are allowed inside his mind, the POV is often his) or us and Jamie Fraser. The mini-series reaches out through the fantasy of the time-traveling motif, and continual time-shifts and parallel and contrasting characters now and then to offer (as these two episodes do) an ahistorical gothic exploring psychoanalytically innate experiences of female life presented as cultural regional curiosities and how societies have based their continuities on these while savagely punishing (hating) women for their power. Individuals caught up in an individual woman’s fate — be it husband, lover, child, sister, friend, patient — are driven to protect, control, and rely and bond — with the heroines. As part of interludes in the book we are invited to delight in historically particulars of the past presented as sensual, fascinating, delightful, or just strange on the one hand (picturesque) and terrifying on the other, especially the brutal violence accepted it seems by all. I know from reading Wallace’s Digging the Dirt how earlier fossils and skeletons from medieval times often show frightening harsh physical treatments wreaked on bodies (the corpse of Richard III is not unusual in this regard).

The two episodes have complicated plot-designs. In episode 10 Claire and Jamie are each, partly apart from one another, trying to manipulate Black Jack Randall’s Jacobite patron and protector, to write a letter which will exonerate Jamie from a charge of murdering a British officer; this involves Jamie in a dangerous duel with members of other Highland clans. At the same time, Claire finds herself thrown in with Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), another “healer” whose own husband Geillis poisons to death. Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish), brother to the Laird, and she are in love, she is pregnant with his child, and his wife has died. A seemingly unrelated sub-plot turn is Claire’s finding out about rituals used with pre-mature, non-thriving, disabled infants: they are abandoned to die using the asserted illusion that the faeries have taken away the beautiful normal baby to live forever in paradise and left this faery changeling to die in its place.

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The mother watching, one of Claire’s accusers

Now having read the book I am aware that when married to Frank who in Dragonfly in Amber we learn could not sire a child Claire not knowing this longed to have a biological child; barring that, to adopt. Claire’s attempt to nurse the baby back to life give Laoghaire the opportunity to include her in an accusation that Geillis is a witch, and since Jamie has been commanded to accompany Dougal to his ancestral estates (it does not feel as pat as this in the telling, reading or viewing of the mini-series), when appointed witch-hunters come to take Geillis to prison, there is no one to stop them also taking Claire.

Episode 11 is the more quickly told though it is core material, what the previous episode exists to bring us to, and the very gothic historical romance drives towards again and again. Geillis and Claire endure a trial for witchcraft, as each charge is made by another half-hysterical female witness, bribed underling, or woman-hating priest Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson), the gentle-hearted but intelligent lawyer defends them.

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Much shrouded in darkness

However, since the population and jury are throbbingly eager to whip and then “burn the bitch” (reminding me of the crowds salivating around Trump), Ned eventually loses the argument. Another in the nick of time rescue by Jamie, too late to prevent any flogging, and helped along by Geillis providing distraction with her small pox vaccination site:

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and sudden confession (prompted by Ned in a conference before) that she seduced Claire and is herself pregnant with some devil’s child. She is hauled out with her belly heaving (she may not be burnt as we are told pregnancy precludes burning), but with at least a quarter of the over an hour episode is left for Claire to tell Jamie at long last where she has come from, how, who she is. The sequence where Claire attempts to account for her experience to Jamie is riveting, all the more so as most of what she says is off-stage implied (as it would be repetitious for us to be told what we have been experiencing for 11 episodes.) In terms of time in the episode, the telling needs little (as there is simply an indication through montage she has told what we have witnessed for 11 episodes); the emphasis is on Jamie’s reaction: at first shocked, he does believe her makes him an intensely sympathetic male.

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He all nobility and self-sacrifice (as males in certain kinds of women’s romance often are) curses himself for having beaten her when she was just trying to get back to her husband. All magnanimity he leads her to the head stone to travel back; she almost does it in front of us (as we hear the wind rise), but he pulls her back. He then says he “wasna ready.” He will go further off by himself and wait all night. If she does not return to him, he will know she returned to her time-home. We watch as she almost does go to the stone, but now she draws back suddenly. As dawn emerges and we see his fire, we are not sure the POV is her, but it turns out to be. It takes all night for her to decide (but decide she does) her home is no longer England anywhere 1945 but Lallybroch 1743. Her first words are those she used as a nurse after she had taken care of a WW2 man: “On your feet, soldier.”

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Paratext for each episode

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone Say, could that lass be I? Merry of soul she sailed on a day, Over the sea to Skye. Billow and breeze, Islands and seas, Mountains of rain and sun. All that was good, All that was fair, All that was me is gone. Sing me a song of a lass that is gone Say, could that lass be I? Merry of soul, she sailed on a day. Over the sea To Skye

What I stress for this evening are the “fantasias” projected during the thread Geillis appears in. Outlander, the book, opens with a Claire whose tone reminded me of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights: supercilious, half-ready to quietly mock her scholarly husband with his interest in antiquarian archeaology, Claire’s tone is transformed to one of emotional engagement with that very past she didn’t want to hear about. The poetics and dramaturgies of slow juxtaposition and doppelgangers come in to play in the film episodes. The film version drops all this, and makes each venture into the past, each juxtaposition earnest and serious and magical.

Bowden seems to feel the writer’s apprehension of the unknowability of the past is central to all these linked genres, and I’m trying to see if it’s the core here too. In her book Claire is ever sceptical and utterly uninterested in books unless they concern her immediately. She seems to have no ambition beyond the female immanent. So she would have no drive to make her adventure public; she would not want to shame Frank over bringing up Jamie’s daughter. Bowden says the finest historical fictions undermine their own bases: that may be true of the Booker Prize kinds of fictions. I know the unknowability of what is being reported is central to Graham’s The Forgotten Story (a Cornish tale set in 1898) and Graham Swift’s Waterlands (what should be reported as history of all that occurs or is said to?). It is at times in Gabaldon’s novel almost a ghost story where the narrative takes comfort in the stone and flesh and physical reality of the people around her.

Bowden says also the all three types make the historical period and/or setting a character in the book. The historical fiction drives to recreate, the historical romance to exploit, gothic to undermine. I love periods embedded in periods, utterly different takes on what has happened from different narrators. Again and again the historians of recent historical fiction, historical romance, gothic, science fiction confound their types. I want in the reviews and blogs I write and teaching I do to distinguish in order to vindicate historical romance, a woman’s genre (except when of the action-adventure chivalric hero type in Lorna Doone for example), with feminized heroes, and distinguish the types to understand the function they play in people’s lives. Why do I love the Poldark novels so and am so engaged by the realization in films?

Bowden’s idea seems to be we can unlock and understand the power of historical fictions and romance by seeing them as part of a literary and imaginative community continuum. I know there are neolithic stones all over the British Isles. Still standing today are 1,500 castles in Scotland (History Today, 66:11 [Nov 2016], 35. I feel the power of the writing that gets all this down and responds to it is what’s important and we can unlock the power, unpack the sources by acknowledging the drive in these fictions into verisimilitude, probability, enough complex inwardness in the characters and a mystical longing to get back into the past

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Frank (Tobias Menzies) and Claire among the stones

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Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) walking away along the Cornish beach at the conclusin of Poldark‘s first season (1976)

So, the question is, according to Bowden, not whether the Outlander series of books is historical romance, and the Poldark series, historical fictions, but “what kind of world is brought into being here, what thematic topoi,” what (I add) the situation of the speaker? More largely, what our historical situation today and how does it relate to what is presented? how we do feel about history today? Gabaldon’s book is frivolous, the narrator uses a supercilious faux cheerful tone, but she is drawn into erotic historical romance (unsurprisingly) with modern candour and (surprisingly) a post-colonial stance in the history part of her formula.

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From the film adaptation of The English Patient

I’m now set to teach three Booker Prize historical fiction at the OLLI at Mason this fall (J.L. Carr’s Month in the Country, Ondjaatje’s English Patient) and am thinking of “doing” “The World of Daphne Dumaurier” there in the summer (including King’s General). Tonight I was reading in the third Book of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and should reread Rose Tremaine’s Restoration and re-watched the last two episode of Andrew Davies’s 2016 too-thin film adaptation of War and Peace. It’s all about death, the past in the present, and as I listen to Davina Porter reading Outlander aloud and hear Claire rejoicing to feel she is surrounded by hard stones, and the people around her thick flesh-and-blood, I find myself wondering if Outlander and its predecessors are ghost-stories, and Waverley and its progeny politicized history.

Ellen

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Frank (Tobias Menzies) listening to Rev Wakefield (James Fleet) arguing he must give up Claire and go on to Oxford (Both Sides Now)

Wakefield: It’s fashionable in this modern age to dismiss the idea of good and evil, but there is evil, and it finds purchase in good men by giving sin the sweet taste of ecstasy. The Nazis drank from that poisoned cup, thinking all the while they were slaking their thirst with the sweetest wine.
Frank: Are you suggesting that I have been drinking from the same cup?
Wakefield: Evil has but one cup. They drank long and deep. Yours was but a sip.Make it your last. Turn away from the darkness that beckons you, and go back into the light.
Frank; You mean leave Inverness.
Wakefield: Aye. Go back to Oxford. You start your life over.
Frank: And what of Claire?
Wakefield: Let her go, just as she has let you go.
Frank: So you believe that she left with the highlander of her own volition?
Wakefield: Have you ever read Sherlock Holmes, Frank? Marvelous books. One point he makes, when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

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Jamie in a favorite spot since boyhood, over-voice mediation for episode begins (The Reckoning)

But the truth is, I’d forgiven everything she’d done and everything she could do long before that day. For me, that was no choice. That was falling in love … I should have been happy that the MacKenzie clan wasna about to tear itself apart and that I’d repaired my relationship with Colum and Dougal. But I wasn’t. The rift with Claire was an open wound that would not heal. I needed to do something, make a decision, choose a course of action. But what? (a meditation there from the middle and 3/4s of the way through the episode)

Dear friends and readers,

In her book on the Descendents of Waverley, Martha Bowden writes that modern historical fiction fuses romance, fantasy, and embodies history through novelistic elements; it’s an intersection of past with present or realism which enables the reader to experience the past as if we were there. It invites us also to think we could have been actor in the past, bringing the future into existence, and are rooted in the past through our ancestors too.

Amy Elias (Sublime Desire) and Martha Bowden (Descendants of Waverley) reveal a paradigm for the kind of historical romance Outlander draws upon (whether book or film): modern historical fiction and/or romance is written with an awareness of the essential unknowability of the past at the same time as there is this intense desire to go back to the past and experience it intimately. Even in such a plainly realistic and conventional historical fiction, Winston Graham makes this point central to his Forgotten Story (set in Cornwall, 1898), The Grove of Eagles (Cornwall, 1580s) and The Four Swans (Cornwall, 1790s). Post-modern historical fiction does this with its embedded histories in the past, its ironic self-reflexivities. This too is what time-traveling permits. It’s a spiritual questing to reach the irretrievable: “There is a yearning that resembles the yearning for mystical knowledge.”

This desire for some grand experience is centered in an event that erupts unspeakably and re-erupts; it’s a reaction formation against the trauma of history; it is continually deferred, it is awesome, strange, beyond comprehension, with an emphasis on the irretrievable for all involved. Is this not the way Outlander works? At the close of the first season we were on a boat with Jamie (Sam Heughan), Claire and Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) bound for France, for Claire, to try to stop the battle of Culloden as ever taking place:

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As the second season begins (“Through a Glass Darkly”), Claire is sudden groaning with despairing trauma; she has been lifted from the time of Culloden to 1948, and cannot know who won. We have skipped Culloden — and so has she. Her questioning and research into learned tomes cannot reach the names of the individuals who played such a large fole (fictionalized); she agrees to become Frank’s wife once again with the vow not to try to know what happened, to give up her connection to the Scots rebellion:

clairegroaning (Through a Glass Darkly, Season 2, Episode 1)

whathappened (ditto)

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Claire groaning at the center of her return to the stones, circa 1948; demanding frantically of the 20th century man who won Culloden; researching the Reverend Wakefield’s library with Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson) by her side (ditto)

By the end of the second season (Episode 13, “Dragonfly in Amber”), we have still not yet been at the battle; we move to 20 years on, meet Jamie and Claire’s grown daughter who is told but at first disbelieves who her father was, but no Culloden. According to Martha Bowden and Amy Elias and others the mother of all these can be found in the later eighteenth century women’s gothic history/romance by Sophie Lee (The Recess) and of course Ann Radcliffe. I see Daphne DuMaurier’s dark vision as everywhere in Outlander as I see Walter Scott’s invention of a new self-conscious controlled genre.

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I return to Episode 8 and go on to 9 of Season 1 of Outlander in our journey through this mini-series, and these turn out to be an an extraordinary pair of episodes of Outlander, from this Bowden and Elias perspective. Both are (I now see) pivotal to the whole series, which project just this sort of romancing and playing with sublimity. Season 1, Episode 8, Both Sides Now continually moves back-and-forth between 1945 when Frank Randall is persistent in seeking for an explanation from the police and anyone else as to where his wife, Claire (Caitrionia Balfe) has vanished; and 1743 when Claire, after the shock of the violence she finds she must not only endure, but watch “her” side (the British armed forces and some renegade Scots), murder as ruthlessly, tries to reach her own century with where her status as a woman is so immeasurably raised that she can as a matter of course feel safe, something not true in the middle 18th century.

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— Frank by the stones, desolate, following Mrs Graham’s story, calls “Claire!” (opening stills of Both Sides Now, Season 1, episode 1)

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She unnerved, frantic rushes up, presumably hearing his voice, and calls to him, only to be captured by the British, (ditto)

It’s this movement back-and-forth, with history across times becoming one, not so much as a continuum, as the two specific times occurring at the same time, and in both cases the characters cannot know what has happened to them, they cannot explain what will happen, and they try to at the same reach and stave off the eruption of the sublime.

For the mini-series self-conscious fitting into modern historiography in fiction, we have in Both Sides Now a continual paralleling so that the doppelganger is not just Tobias Menzies as Frank and Black Jack Randall. The young woman in 1945 who lures Frank to a dark alley in Inverness where he is set upon by thugs, and nearly murders them is a type of Claire who unknowingly lures redcoats to ambush Claire and Jamie twice in the same episode and is taught to arm herself and murder others attempting to murder her.

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Or (another parallel) as Frank learns of the legends of the stones from Mrs Graham, so Claire distraught is taught to use a hidden dagger to protect herself.

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Mrs Graham telling Frank

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Claire listening to Jamie

The world of Inverness in 1945 grows out of the world of the Highlands in 1743. Both are historical periods, for World War Two fits Scott’s criteria of 60 years since. Both nightmares of death and destruction.

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Jamie telling Claire he must punish her because it’s expected and she will therefore not forget next time that the lives of everyone depend on her conforming — note that in this scene we see them through a gird of bars (The Reckoning)

Season 1, Episode 9, “The Reckoning,” the quiet reversal of gender roles undergirding the romancing of the series is brought out explicitly: so rare as to be nearly unique for at least the last couple of decades, the over-voice and narrator of this episode, thoughtful, inward, self-reproaching, self-exploring is not that of the female, but of the central male of the series: Jamie. As 9th episode opens he is meditating in just the same way Claire did at the opening of Episode 1 (Outlander):

Strange, the things you remember. The people, the places, the moments in time burned into your heart forever while others fade in the mist. I’ve always known I’ve lived a life different from other men. When I was a lad, I saw no path before me. I simply took a step and then another, ever forward, ever onward, rushing toward someplace, I knew not where. And one day I turned around and looked back and saw that each step I’d taken was a choice. To go left, to go right, to go forward, or even not go at all. Every day, every man has a choice between right and wrong, between love and hate, sometimes between life and death. And the sum of those choices becomes your life. The day I realized that is the day I became a man

One cannot over-emphasize how unusual it is to find a man speaking this kind of meditation, providing melancholy retrospective assessments and confiding plans. In the first episode of the second season Jamie is experiencing terrifying nightmares about Black Jack Randall who had whipped, raped, sodomized, almost destroy Jamie’s hand, branded him, broke his spirit in the two concluding episodes of the first season. It’s not a coincidence that this is the (for many women readers) infamous episode where Jamie beats Claire, spanks her hard with whip. What is happening is Gabaldon and her team of film-makers are moving between gender behaviors for both Jamie and Claire

So, at the same time as Jamie is our thoughtful semi-depressed narrator and meditator, as in many of the episodes where Claire narrates, is melancholy, questing and presides (so to speak), it is here Jamie who concocts the plan to rescue Claire, Jamie who tries to “clear the air” with Claire, almost (not quite) with no avail

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He tells her she is at fault for the British capture of her and danger to the men because she disobeyed him

Claire: Christ, Jamie, I went for a walk!
Jamie: I ordered you to stay put.
Claire: I don’t have to do what you tell me to.
Jamie: Aye, you do. You are my wife.
Claire: Oh, your wife. Your wife. Oh, you think I’m your property, don’t you? You think I belong to you, and you can’t stand for someone to have something else that belongs to you.
Jamie: You do belong to me, and you are my wife whether you like it or not.
Claire: Well, I don’t like it! I don’t like it one bit! But that doesn’t matter to you either, does it? As long as I’m there to warm your bed, you don’t care what I think or how I feel. That’s all a wife is to you, something to stick your cock into whenever you feel the urge. Let go of me, you you fucking bastard!
Jamie: You foulmouthed bitch! You’ll no speak to me that way! I went to ye at Fort William armed with an empty pistol and my bare hands. When you screamed … Ye’re tearing my guts out, Claire.
Claire: I’m sorry. Jamie Forgive me.
Jamie: Forgiven.

It is Jamie Frazer (to give him his clan name) who persuades Column to return the gold that Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish) and Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson) have been gathering along with the rents to fund the Scots rebellion. In his Jacobites, Frank McLynn tells us the Mackenzies were a clan who held out against Culloden; that their clan leaders were cautious and remained led by ties to lower Scottish landlords. (It is also true that there were quiet “traitors” to the Hanoverian cause among the British nobility, or people with Jacobite and French and catholic leanings, so the Duke of Sandringham as characterized in the series is within the realm of historical probability.)

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Colum Mackenzie (Gary Lewis) incensed against the gathering of funds for a rebellion by

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Dougal Mackenzie, Ned Gowan, Jamie Frazer

In Both Sides Now, the triangles of Jamie-Claire-Black Jack/Frank where Black Jack desires Jamie, Jamie and Frank desire Claire and she both of them begins to take on the nightmarish pairing of Black Jack and Claire in Jamie’s mind so that when in the 16th episode of the 1st season (“To Ransom a Man’s Soul”) Jamie sees Claire coming to nurse or make love to him, she turns into the lurid violent sadistic Black Jack. When the second season opens, “Through a Glass Darkly,” and Claire has landed in 1748, for her Frank turns into Black Jack. In the last third of the episode, when Frank’s hand turns into Jamie’s and Claire stepping off a plane to come live in Boston as Frank’s faculty wife becomes Claire stepping off a ship on the Normandy coast, Jamie is having nightmares where Claire turns into Black Jack.

As to the adumbration of explicit gender reversals, and romancing, in the penultimate scene of The Reckoning, upon returning to Castle Leoch, Jamie is confronted by Laoghaire with whom he had an understanding. She loves and expected him to marry her, and demands an explanation in the very glade that she seems to know he has loved and spent much time in since a boy.

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Laoghaire Mackenzie (Nell Hudson) accosting Jamie

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Jamie left in his glade-landscape after Laoghaire leaves

She is the aggressor offering her body to him, swearing he and he alone will be her lover, and he must tell a truth that he married Claire not just because Dougal told him to, but because he wanted Claire and now loves and will remain faithful to her. This will bring on her attempt to have Claire branded a witch and burnt. The last scene of the episode ends with Jamie swearing he will forgo tradition and never “chastise” Claire again, her saying yes to having sex with him again, and another of these (to me) alluring love-making scenes during which she threatens to cut his heart out if he does hit her and he demands she nonetheless call him master:

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The strong eroticism of romance

But then they find — uneasily — Laoghaire’s “ill-wish” (a set of hard twigs and branches tied together with thongs) under their bed.

History fused with romancing, at the center a historically sublime (horrifying crucial event of war) whose enactment is ceaselessly deferred.

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Modern photograph of Culloden battlefield

Ellen

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WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Geoffrey Charles and Francis.  Geoffrey Charles, Francis (KYLE SOLLER) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
Kyle Soller as Francis Poldark returned from Bodmin, with his son, Geoffrey Charles

[Note: this blog assumes the reader has read all twelve of Graham’s novels, viewed the 1970s mini-series, and is interested in the content and art of the books and this older and the new 2015-16 mini-series]

Ross: “Have I told you what I feel about a disobedient wife?”
Demelza: “Have I told you what I feel about a reckless husband?” (Horsfield, end of new episode 10)

Dear friends and readers,

I had been holding off on writing about the second season of Poldark while watching the first two episodes of the BBC Broadcast on a BBC iplayer, but have given up trying to cover both airings. This week PBS put off for another week their first double-hour program. I have been told that the PBS production will eliminate 8 minutes of and blend (mash is the term) together the first two 60 minute hours of the BBC productions. And since by the third episode of this season, something genuinely interesting and worthwhile is beginning to emerge, I wanted to record it. For all I know it won’t be apparent in the PBS version for quite some time.

The second season, building on the first, is developing a different emotional temperature, a different mood for the story and characters of Horsfield. In a phrase, I’d call the mood an intersection between Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb (as interpreted by their wider readership and in the Hardy and one Webb film adaptations that have been made), contemporary edginess (it’s called), and a contained version of smoldering Lawrence (seen recently at its best in Joe Wright’s films). Quite a number of blogs by now and some comments on two of mine (“disconcerting news,” the “Horsfield scripts”) have been saying that the events to come are going to crucially change the characters and meaning of the series from that of the original books as well as the 1970s films (which except for the opening and closing episodes of the first season mostly stayed with Graham), but while I can see how these changes have been prepared for from the beginning of the first season (especially in the characters of Kyle Soller as Francis and Heidi Reed as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark and Jack Farthing George Warleggan), thus far the hinge-points of the book have been held to.

What’s been strikingly altered is the presentation of story and characters: I don’t mean the substitution of a stage for a pictorial presentation. That goes without saying for most films since the mid-1990s (not all, Wolf Hall and surprisingly some The Hollow Crown dared to return to theatrical-like direction), but the order of the events and dialogue content (so, e.g., in Graham’s book and the 1970s films Demelza tries to win Judge Lister over by discussing high cultural music and now Eleanor Tomlinson introduces however opaquely the issue of perjury). We have seen George Warleggan made into a personally injured villain (in the book and in the 1970s he is more simply a ruthless capitalist) and presented as persistently trying to corrupt Aidan Tuner as the fiercely fair-dealing, sincere and egalitarian Poldark to become his follower; more worrying (for those who are attached to the older conception of Ross and Demelza as founding their very identities in their relationship with one another) are the jarring sudden hostilities in apparently unprepared-for or unexplained scenes in Episode 3 between Demelza and Ross. She accuses him of coldness, withdrawal, indifference to her, and he ignores her at first. I say apparently because in reading the complete scripts for the first season I discovered that many brief character-rich scenes and suggestive dialogues were cut, creating just the same effect in the film realization as we see in the second season.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Demelza.  Demelza ((ELEANOR TOMLINSON) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
Not only has Demelza’s hair been smoothed out and made far thicker, her outfits given somber soft blues and greens, but Tomlinson is directed to look out at the world with a narrow eye when she is seen standing alone

The second and third episodes of this season were much better than the first which attempted (as was done in some of the episodes of the first season) to pile too much in, use continual rapid juxtapositions of too many story-lines at once. Here my comparing this Poldark with the precisely contemporary mini-series Outlander was useful: Gabaldon’s series is historical romance: while the films try to frame the story as a post-colonial critique of the British oppressions of the Scots, there is little exact history, and only a generalized version of crucial customs dramatized (such as the role of rents in controlling members of a clan). Graham’s books (and the 1970s films kept this up) genuinely attempts to convey specifics about the poaching and game laws, prison conditions, mining, banking, the customs of scavenging (and later smuggling, and county politics) and what Horsfield is trying to do is get some of this in. She has to struggle more than the 1970s films because she is so determined to personalize through George Warleggan, add scenes projecting a group identity to which all right-minded people will want to belong.

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Robin Ellis as a bitter Ross (the older episode 9)

I cannot deny that I continue to love the 1970s mini-series: I have been re-watching them in tandem and they stand up beautifully. For those interested, you can click on links next to the new series and read about the older comparable episodes.

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Episode 1 (or 9): for comparison, commentary on the 1975 Episode 9 and Graham’s book.

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Aidan Turner as Ross in the first episode of this second season (he is rightly made thinner by episode 3 as in Jeremy Poldark he and Demelza and their household have not enough to eat; throughout all 3 episodes he needs a shave) at a moment of intense guarded suspicion

The structuring and explicitness of the episode make it quite different from the equivalent episode in the 1970s and Graham’s book. Horsfield has re-conceived of the prologue to the trial (so to speak) as a group of parallel stories running alongside one another, each of which is ratcheted up into a row of climaxes against one another.

In the book and in the 1975 film the story moves naturally forward, with different characters taking part as the chronology (or so it feels) calls for it. In the 1970s 50 minute hour each scene is allowed to develop on its own: so it opens say with the menacing threat-determination of Tankard and his men to bribe Jud into giving evidence against Ross. We then move to Demelza’s visit to Penvennen. There is no paralleling. Nor is there this explicitness. When in this 2016 episode Demelza heads off to see Penvennen it is made explicit she is going there to try to influence the man.

Four stories are ratcheted up and paralleled and contrasted: Ross’s with Demelza, Francis’s with (as it were) the bad devil on one side tormenting him), George, and the good person, on the other, Elizabeth, equally tormenting him. Francis is slowly despairing, and we see the steps he takes as he sees what is happening, finds himself unable to do anything useful, and driven wild with the life he feels has been imposed on him, attempts to get rid of it as a burden he cannot endure. There is Dwight Enys’s preparation for his testimony, his talk with Ross, his worries at what will ensue, his riding along and then the call to take care of her dog, by the new rich young heiress character, Caroline Penvennen: Gabriella Wilde, for most of the three episodes presently every bit as hostilely as the promiscuous “slut” Keren: she is ostentatiously supercilious and disdainful:

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Caroline Penvehen.  Caroline Penvenen (GABRIELLA WILDE) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jon Hall
The choice of red, the hats, the way she holds her body and head makes her stand out as not part of this group identity

George at the beginning and again at the end of the episode wants Ross to ask for help and to offer to be a kind of partner (none of these exchanges between Ross and George occur in Grahm’s books or the earlier mini-series); upon being refused the first time he makes up these ugly pamphlets and spreads them. (This is what I’ve seen happen in films that mean to be popular: you have to account specifically and personally for something happening. In the book and first film George’s hatred is more generalized, and he is not so focused on Ross. We see him prevent Demelza from getting into the assembly by implying she’s a prostitute based on her obvious lower class status.

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Promotional shot of Eleanor Tomlinson for season 2

I was to Bodmin jail two weeks ago and can confirm that Ross’s entry into that tunnel hall is inside Bodmin jail, but again it’s odd how artifical the direction makes the settings feels. Why must so many of the characters be on cliffs at the height of emotion – it’s not persuasive that Ross and Demelza, Francis and Elizabeth should have out their intimate conflicts against pretty blues skies and cliffs. The photography sometimes made the hour seem unreal again. I don’t say everything: George is seen inside his house, Dwight and Ross, Pascoe and Ross, and later Clymer and Ross, Elizabeth and the aunt, Francis and Verity are all face-to-face head on encounters inside. But the parallels are overdone. Francis is writing while Ross is writing, and back and forth the camera goes to Elizabeth’s face, then Demelza’s. It’s an overdone, over anxious (lest we be bored) episode.

Among other unrealities of this first episode is this unreal focus on Ross: all the characters are made to have Ross on their minds almost all the time (except Caroline, absurdly over her dog and indifferent say to the people who are to elect her fiance, Unwin Trevaunance). That Ross explicitly refuses to help himself, insults and insists, and says what he knows will put him in jail is a way of ratcheting up the action, making it more suspenseful since obviously such behavior (we think, with his lawyer, Jeffrey Clymer [William Mannering] will surely lead to him being hanged. In Graham’s book and 1970s film Robin Ellis as Ross will not lie or act without integrity but by no means does he do all he can to ruin his case. The book and 1970s’s character’s first statement is unacceptable, but he does not defend it strongly in the counterproductive manner Aidan is directed to do. Filling the hour up this way, with this back and forth movement, has a stasis effect. They are all acting it very well but it’s so artificial, like puppets on display.

The only character I was able to come close to was Francis Poldark: he is prepared for very well; each of the scenes is designed to show us his aching self-hatred and despair; the scene with Verity is not as sharp as the one between Norma Streader and Clive Francis in the 1970s simply because it is not given enough time for his bitterness and her concern for him to be voiced, but that final moment before the letter, his cocking his pistol and thinking are pitch perfect in Graham and in both series. Perhaps Horsfield overdid it by making us believe the pistol went off; in the 1970s we “merely” see Clive Francis put the gun in his mouth.

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Episode 2 or 10 (this does follow the matter of the second quarter of Jeremy Poldark up until the moment of non-conviction; for comparison, see outline and quotations from 1975 Poldark Episode 10)

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 30/08/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: Generic (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Verity **EMBARGOED UNTIL TUESDAY 30TH AUGUST** Verity (RUBY BENTALL) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Ellis Parrinder
Ruby Bentall as the satisfied matron of the second season (her hair has been smoothed out too) – as in the book and the 1970s films she shares a room in the Bodmin hotel with Demelza (promotional shot)

The dramaturgy of this episode is much better than the first: the action is allowed to flow forward naturally. This is an good effective episode. While there is juxtaposition, the central story of Ross’s coming trial and the swirl of events around it is kept to. I’ll follow the trajectory as it is possible to do this: We hear alluring minor music and watch a blurred flashback of Ross and Demelza happy on the beach together: this a parallel of the opening of the series where we saw Heidi Reed as a young Elizabeth on the beach with a young Ross, also soft focus. Switch to Turner’s face in the darkness with a candle by his side: he is remembering back. Now a side shot of him at the desk; slow moving, very well done. We see the corridor, hear the keys as the door is opened, Clymer comes in, the long list of people prepared to testify against Ross, including Jud (his potential testimony a “nail in the coffin”).

Camera on the streets, as yet peaceful, but we see how these wandering tough hard men with their torches could easil be turned into an actively violent mob. Demelza walks among them in the streets, determined to get into the assembly this time and talk with, persuade people who could help Ross. Now she slips in and meets with the kindley Penvenen (Caroline’s uncle is given her name in this iteration) and a superficial tactless Caroline: oh your husband is on trial, what did he do? Penvenen warns her she can only make things worse (as she is warned in the book and in the 1970s), but searching about, she spots Judge Lister, and makes for him. Caroline offers to go out with Unwin to the balcony; says she enjoys a baying mob.

Elizabeth pacing in a darkened Trenwith; reproaches Agatha for ever predicting the worst outcome; the old woman defends herself saying she is playing “snap” to entertain herself, “go to Bodmin, Elizabeth” she urges then, and Elizabeth is off to the coach.

Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 1 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Aunt Agatha.  Aunt Agatha (CAROLINE BLAKISTON) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha, nonetheless brooding over her win

Back in Bodmin, a crowded tavern, Jud seen morose with drink, all listening to talk of the election (as unjust, as a joke, as giving the ordinary person nothing), Luke Norris as Dwight is POV and he overhears talk about hunger, France, the revolution, ideas coming over to England, this world a power keg, Dwight speaks to Jud, surely all of us are for Ross

It is here that the group identity comes to the fore, presented complexly but as what people live in as in some soup. Thus the juxtapositions have some depth of apprehension, some larger context.

First juxtaposition from lawyer and Ross in jail to assembly. Clymer says Ross’s defense is proving difficult; and he takes out the will Ross had made. He has left all he can to Demelza. At assembly Penvenen is telling her “influence, I don’t have that sort. Tomlinson very good here: quietly, “I’m a little despairing;” as Lister is pointed out: he’s “somewhat severe.” “Does he like his port? “Resolutely sober. Ross telling the lawyer to “bequeath Wheal Grace and my other debts and liabilities; I really have left her nothing.” He is despairing too. She approaches Lister and it seems to go well. A nasty exchange of Caroline with Dwight: she is bored, not entertained; Dwight tells her he’s thankful not she’s not his business. In the elction names called are now tied in second place and Warleggan says to Trevaunance “Get up on chair and claim it: men irritated by Trevaunance begin to throw eggs and rocks. “Get me back inside. In the prison the man who is going to die for simply being aggressive at the election pushed into jail. “I’m a free man, [with] a right to speak.” He is punched in face, thrown down, jail shut, Ross watches. It seems he has no such right.

Warleggan to Penvenen: “See he’s established.” “Almost at expense of his life” inbetween Caroline’s supercilious remarks to Dwight who holds his own: “You’re mistaken madame, I neither solicit nor despise … Caroline sees people as rable. Penvenen glimpses Demelza talking to Lister, “oh my god you will hang your husband,” and now George is on the alert, goes over, interrupts her awkwardness, says who she is and judge becomes indignant; on the way out with Lister, George thinks he’s clinched it against “those who stir up disorder” (It is George who made the guy get on a chair, and he is indirectly responsible for the hanging of the man in the cell next to Ross’s). George does count his chickens before they hatch.

The great scene between Dwight and Francis: opening the door and there is Francis. Horsfield omits the plangent language and sorrow Clive Francis manifested but the scene is still effective.

Back to lawyer and Ross, are you going to die on a point of principle? There is a parallel with Francis who hates himself on a point of principle. Asks Enys the question in the book, “Are you a fatalist? or do you believe we are masters of our own destiny (again the 1970s sticks closer to Graham’s words, masters of the dance). Horsfield’s Francis: “Well the thing’s not done so for the moment you have a talkative companion instead of a silent one.” There is something artificial and arch in the 1970s version; this feels realer, truer, quieter.

Demelza accosts Warleggan: “Why do you hate him?”; and they clash over class status: “You will always be a miner’s daughter” while he is now a gentleman; she is a gentleman’s wife …

Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 2 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: George Warleggan.  George Warleggan (JACK FARTHING) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
A promotional shot of Jack Farthing as the proud seething Warleggan of the second season

In the prison: lawyer to Ross: case against you is too strong, not a question of whether you’ll be found guilty but whether and what that sentence will be …perhahps you will reconsider before you sleep tonight …

Demelza now in the room with Verity: “if anything I made it worse Verity I lost my child how can I bear it if I lost Ross, too.” (She is seen in all three episodes going to the empty bed.” Camera on Ross considering in the prison. Effective juxtaposition

Elizabeth on her way in the coach, switch to Francis fixing the gun. Quicker now: Jud watched by Tankard, accosted by Prudie. Tankard reassuring Warleggan: he has augmented the crowd by people paid to share our views; George boasts he has convinced his Lordshiop without a penny changing hands

Dialogue of Ross and fellow prisoner: I wish you justice ..

Then the voice of the remorseless judge: as ringleader and instigator; for what happened that night – you will be hangd by neck until you die. Demelza, behind her Verity looking on. Ross coming out of jail. Horsfield is determined to make us disbelieve that Ross can get off so she adds Demelza’s father coming in to accuse Ross of lack of respect for law, custom, other men: “this man did think himself about the low. The whole long scene of trial very well done. so many against him, but if jury believes him. Camera on Francis, Dwight, Elizabeth … Turner does look handsome.

Prosecution: all the people lying (not in book), the paid witnesses – the audience is on Ross’s side, calling the witnesses liar, that’s a lie. One man says he saw Ross assault a customs officer, “aye sir assault’s a terrible thing sir.” Close up of all faces, POV Demelza, she goes outside cannot breath and now we learn she is pregnant when Elizabeth comes to her and senses it: “I never thanked you for nursing me … at such a cost how can you bear it .. I’m with child again.” Then Jud’s great moment: not as highly theatrical as 1970s; but in this version he says Ross didn’t help (when he did), claims Ross said “there’s women and children aboard who need saving from watery grave.” He did not say this, not in the book which is careful to keep to or skirt the truth. Now George turns bitter at Tankard.

Then Captain bray’s fair testimony – flashbacks to give concrete experience (not in previous episodes of 1st season); it was like a Dante’s inferno. Ross asks him, what did I do: “You came and offered me shelter.” Lawyer catches Bray on the issue of not knowing what Ross did afterward. We see Francis watching Ross

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Prosecutor far more explicit about RP as revolutionary, chief perpetrator – repeats strong testimony Ross gave at indictment; “I did not consider it a riot, do you approve of food to keep them alive … did you have anything to do with Sanson’s death …regrettably nothing whatsoever/.

Dwight Enys is made chief witness for defense mental breakdown; he alone speaks for him in this version. He insists on his degree, his knowledge, and on the strangeness of Ross’s actions. A strong response on the court, and judge orders people for Poldark removed.

Tankard and George talking: the mane cannot bear for Ross to have anything, even a worthless mine left to his wife. Francis and Elizabeth meet: Francis feels she came for Ross; very awkward, stressed conversation. “Ross will be gratified” [to see her]. She: “Are you?”

Lawyer urges him; “you must grovel – do so now or you will not live to see the sun rise tomorrow. He starts but he cannot go on; it’s George’s scornful face he cannot bear. He is eloquent and says values all agree with on scavanging, starving, who should get flotsam and jetsam on beach and why. Judge unmoved and informs jury if they think Ross not guilty of three counts, if he participated he is still guilty. But they go out and back quickly and it’s not guilty. In this film this seems astounding; but it the book it’s prepared for by telling us of custom (juries loathe to convict) and in the 1970s trial not so stacked against Ross, Ellis as Ross not so angry, more witnesses for him. Francis cannot accept Verity’s husband he says: people do not change. Ross, Dwight (or is it Henshawe) on the horses, the workers on the beach waiting.

Francis and Elizabeth home to Agatha, and there is a getting along suddenly, a light in Soller’s eyes, and Demelza and Ross in their house. She says this is all I want, this private life together (true to book here) and a child in the crib, but he demurs.

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Episode 3 (or 11): Book 2, opening of Jeremy Poldark (for comparison see outline and quotations from 1975 Poldark Episode 11).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Captain McNeil.  Captain McNeil (HENRY GARRETT) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jon Hall
Henry Garrett as Captain MacNeil — his complacent normalized self provides a coda of prosaic pro-life emotion distinct from the surrounding intensities

This is equally good as Episode 2 (10) and for the same reasons: the story is allowed to flow naturally; the actors given room and time to develop a scene; it stays yet closer to the events Graham whose book is very good, but it is here that the mood becomes drenched in a sense of the west country culture as providing meaning and purpose and community and that is what gives satisfaction.

Ross, now thin, leading horse with hay, longing look at two mines. We move into the Warleggan palatial house, inside George practicing boxing with Tankard looking on. Ross studying Wheal Grace maps –- back to unnecessary threats of Jud, Pascoe’s voice, saying loan shortly due. Now we get this inexplicable jarring outbursts: Demelza: “She’s scarcely seen him?, he “Would you have me neglect …” This is true to the book only Demelza is not angry over it. Ross: “We’ll talk soon I promise. Dwight chopping wood (has Horsfield been watching any Andrew Davies’s films lately?), Caroline passes, Demelza on the beach …

Meeting of Wheal Leisure group, what’s left of it, a woman shareholder sold to Coke, Tankard comes in as representing Coke. They know he’s a Warleggan mole. Juxtapose to Francis and Elizabeth declining invitation to Penvenen luxury county party where Warleggan will be and then (truly good feeling conveyed by Killer), Francis’s delight in son in taking him to fields. Better than chasing money and prestige and whatever else is admired. Demelza still on the beach, picking things up, MacNeil watching

The Wheal Leisure meeting ends. Henshawe they are going in direction of Trevorgie (from Wheal Grace) to see what they can find: All but Tankard and one wary man carry motion. MacNeil gains romantic entry to Demelza’s house –- he is there serving Trevaunance; brings a request for Demelza from Brodrugan about the cow, now Ross interrupts and he offers sudden jarring suspicions: Why the sudden sarcasm about Demelza liking Bodrugan? it comes from nowhere. It is prepared for in the book and is unmerited. We see
women washing at pond, the carriage with Caroline –- she is attracted to Enys as he moves about the village

Really very appealing moments of Francis and son in fields, POV Elizabeth to Agatha. Francis after having escaped death valuing life in a way that is consonant with his personality. Not asking of himself what he does not want, cannot do, does not care about.

Warleggan reading a letter; Tankard come to tell of meeting; we get another exaggerated dialogue (not credible) juxtaposed to Jud’s boasting.

Demelza angry at Ross’s suspicions: “Did you mislay manners, leaving me alone to deal with guest?” Ross says he not there for cow. She: “You give me cold shoulder and despise everything not at your high and mighty standard –- this is a jump without intermediary feeling. Perhaps it was there in the script, but not in this realization. Prudie: “What you saying to upset maid?

Demelza meets Elizabeth in wood; she is looks for Garrick, Ross hasn’t the heart for another child and she’s not told him, Elizabeth: “We’re to blame, discord not lightly set aside by Ross at least

Jud fleeing Warleggan’s men

Demelza in bed at night; Ross intently working hard at mine; back to Demelza in bed; Ross home to breakfast and then out to Truro. He comes home and she is staring at empty crib bed. He wants to talk, she looks encouraged but then it is money; he is working to find a new lead but the pressing concern is the debt. They must sell much that they have to make 400 pounds – ride to Truro, see if loan extended; the more he works better their chances, he tells her, “see what you can bear to part with and then look again.” She visits Brodrugan and cow with MacNeil looking on. Pascoe has secured his loan to be extended – 400 tomorrow – Demelza selling Emma their cow, Brodrugan gets aggressive (harassing her) and MacNeil interrupts to protect her. She is grateful.

Then we see Ross and Demelza walking, talking about what they can sell. They joke about Garrick and then we see them taking money for selling Emma, on the farm, pigs cock furniture. Caroline going to market too. Wareleggan smoldering at them. Dwight and Caroline encounters end in his curing her “hurt throat.” We see Ross and Demelza selling off their precious objects and a bitter encounter with Warleggan. They pay an amazed Pascoe: Ross: “we sold pretty much everything we own.”

Francis with child, real horse better, no more Uncle George, Uncle Ross in time will be our friend – these moments of hope and joy projected by this actor. They are part of the new emotional temperature of the series. (Not found in book or 1975 films.)

Mrs Tabb prefers Dr Enys to Dr Choake; and tells him Francis in better spirits these days; Elizabeth: “Hhe’s changed, did he intend to kill himself? Enys: “Whatever occurred, be glad of it, a broken man returned like that, and now playing with son.

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Promotional shot of Heidi Reed as Elizabeth for the second season

Jud set upon very hard. Dwight agrees to carry invitation to harvest supper to Ross and Demelza. A modest meal, Francis: “Admiring our harvest, I hope to augment it; later that night Ross and Demelza discuss invitation that Dwight brought: he will not go, George is a still friend there. Demelza: “she is not sure, but she is not in haste to go to Trenwith” either.

Prudie with apparent death of Jud, impossible idealization of Prudie – the guineas – Martin thinks it’s from the trade … Ross knew him since he was a child, useless but he taught me. This material was comic in the 1970s but it is not comic now. Just puzzling. Ross: “George has played us all – perhaps we should accept invitation and maybe some things can be mended.” He wants to “connect to Francis again.”

Happy harvest scene — Soller has sweetest of smiles – cousin tis an unexpected pleasure – all shaking hands. Harvest ritual in the fields, hurrah hurrah hurrah – wonderful dancing. (None of this in book or 1975 film.)

Warleggan to Tankard: “I ordered you to scare not murder. Idiot Unwin at party with Caroline intensely frustrated.

Francis with Ross and Dwight: Francis says he now knows George a complee utter blaggard, Dwight called away at Killwarren. Tremendously elegant luxurious meal at Penvennen. “Last night a murder” we hear MacNeil saying.

The funeral meal – so three levels of characters — Prudie’s ludicrous speech – the slab empty. Demelza outside escaping nasty mother of Elizabeth: Prudie thinks it body snatchers

Dwight’s scene pulling fishbone from Caroline’s throat; at luxury party Warleggan exerts pressure on the Wheal Leisure man who sided with Tankard and he faints.

Francis offers to go in with Ross – “hole in the ground,” he has money, few hundred, and they propose to try final attempt

Fish bone out. Francis must go to bed, Dwight comes in – thank you Cousin. Prudie the shame of it – Jud without explanation. George is exulting over his successful bullying. Jud now appears as a ghost, and tells how it was It’s there as a left-over of condescending humor to the “lower orders” (on Graham’s part first.

Elizabeth with Ross left downstairs, he looks to help her, she thanks him. Demelza walking back from Prudie will overhear. She: “The money came from George to pay for false gaming loss.” Ross: “I remember a time you were perfect – today in the fields you looked like a girl of 16 your age when I first knew you.” He is half flirting, “Cannot love overcome such obstacles. She: “I cannot imagine how” Ross says she “has brought light back into Frances eyes,” but we know that’s not the source of Francis’s gladness. She tells him you should go to bed Ross, Demelza will be thinking you’re gone astray … he looks down disappointed rueful. This is a justified extrapolation from a scene in the book not filmed before.

This too: Demelza gone to bed crying, she in bed awake when he comes in. She tells of Jud’s alive, and blurts out, “First Christmas you told me you loved me.” He: “First days of love different then.” This reminded me of Joyce’s The Dead: the story’s ending in crying and hurt. Ross picks up she’s pregnant; he says it is different a child is not a thought and if she can risk he heart again, so can he …

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Robin Ellis and Anghared Rees as Ross and Demelza making love the night before he must leave for Bodmin and the trial (1975 Poldark Episode 9)

To conclude, I’ve loved the books and still do, have taught Ross Poldark several times, Demelza twice, and Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan once. If Horsfield wants to soften the progressive politics of the books and 1970s films, eliminate the feminism, but not lose the inner life of the books which are so pro-egalitarian, decent in humanity, it seems to me to turn to a Hardyesque atmosphere is a good option. As yet there is no hint in these episodes that the series will take the crucial changes that people have been discussing elsewhere. Time (or next week on the BBC) will tell. I’ve commented enough on how much I valued the original emotional relationships and themes of the books and when they were kept to in the 1970s films.

Ellen

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Tom (Albert Finney) drinking among the military men on the road; A rare flashback in the two films: Bridget Allworthy (Tessa Peake-Jones) when young, waving goodbye to Mr Allworthy as he sets off for three months in Bath: she is pregnant, the man who impregnated her dead, and she will have his baby, our hero while Mr Allworthy is gone — a stealth female character (Tom Jones, 1963/1997)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday later morning into afternoons, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
but over 9 weeks: Sept 21 to Nov 16, with October 19 cancelled
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

For ten weeks the class will read and study Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones together. We will read essays on Fielding in the context of his age and several careers (dramatist, attorney-magistrate, journalist, novelist). Why was the book was called “immoral” then and how does it emerge from and today belong to strong satiric and erotic schools of art (from Swift and Hogarth to Richardson and Sade). Why in the 20th century it was adapted into oddly innocent films first filled with wild hilarity and sexual salaciousness, when it’s a deeply subversive and disquieting book. We will see clips from the two very good films: 1963 Tom Jones (Tony Richardson/John Osborne) and 1997 The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, a BBC mini-series. We’ll focus on the slippery narrator, the evasive nature of the text, and discuss themes like where power, sex and commerce; and the masks of social and psychological life. Can you imagine a world without novels? This is one of the books that established the genre

Required Text: Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, ed., introd., notes Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely. London: Penguin, 2005 (975 pages). An alternative recommended edition: The History of Tom Jones, ed. R. P. C. Mutter. NY: Penguin, 1983 (911 pages)

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Tom’s Journey Across England (click on map, will make image much much larger, and allow clear comprehension)

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

Sept 14: 1st week: No class but read for the first week: TJ, Bk 1, Ch 1 to Bk 2, Ch 5, pp 35-90. If possible, please also watch on your own one of the films, recommended one is the 1997 The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, the four part BBC mini-series and have come to the end by Sept 28. Or read the wikipedia article on Tom Jones so you know how the novel ends by Sept 28.

Sept 21: 2nd week: In class: An introduction: Fielding’s life, learning up to the censorship of his plays. Read for next time: Bk 2, Ch 6 – Bk 4, ch 12, pp 91-178.

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John Sessions as Fielding come to life to direct his story as film (1997)

Sept 28: 3rd week: In class: the narrator, how to read an 18th century ironic amoral salacious novel. Read for next time: Bk 4, Ch 13 – Bk 6, Ch 7, pp. 179-265; Stevenson’s “Black George and the Gaming Laws.”

Oct 5: 4th week: In class: crime (mostly poaching, game laws), punishment & injustice, class. Read for next time: Bk 6, Ch 8 – Bk 7, Ch 15, pp. 266-352; read for next time Thompson on Personal Property and Money in Tom Jones, Eighteenth Century Fiction, 3:1 (1990):21-42; from Laura Rosenthal’s Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in 18th century Literature and Culture (Tom as prostitute).

Oct 12: 5th week: In class: ethics, money & sex, politics & history of realistic novel. For next time read Bk 8, ch 1 -Bk 9. Ch 4, pp 353-442; read also Stevenson’s “Stuart Ghosts.”

Oct 19: 6th week: Class cancelled. Read Bk 9, Ch 5 – Bk 11, Ch 7, pp. 443-530. If you have not yet re-watched the 1966 Tom Jones (most people have seen it), re-watch it.

Oct 26: 7th week: In class: Jacobitism, the theater, puppet shows. Read for next time Bk 11, Ch 8 – Bk 13, Ch 4. pp. 531-614; Read also J. Lee Green, “Fielding’s Gypsy Episode and Sancho Panza’s governorship,” Atlantic Bulletin, 39:2 (1974):117-21. Fielding himself, “The Case of Elizabeth Canning.”

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Joan Greenfield as Lady Bellaston with Tom at the masquerade (1963)

Nov 2: 8th week: In class: masquerades, the real life of London, Patridge watching Hamlet. Read for next time Bk 13, ch 5 – Bk 15, Ch 5, pp 615-706. Read also Earla Willaputte, “Women Buried:” Henry Fielding and Feminine Absence,” Modern Language Review, 95:2 (2000)324-35. Also Anthony Simpson, “The Blackmail Myth and the Prosecution of Rape and Its Attempt in 18th Century London: the creation of a tradition,” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 77: 1 (1986): 101-150 (read just half this week and half for next).

Nov 9: 9th week: In class: when the novel becomes parable-like; epistolary narratives. Read for next time: Bk 15, Ch 6 – Ch 17, ch 4, pp 707-792. Ira Konisberg, “Review of 1966 Richardson/Osborne Tom Jones,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 4:4 (1992):353-355.

Nov 16: 10th week: Bk 17, ch 5 – Bk 18, ch 13 (the last) pp 793-887. Fairy tale and reality; Fielding’s later life & prose. We watch clips from the two movies.

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A contemporary print of Ralph Allen’s Prior Park just outside Bath (click to enlarge)

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The Hogarth print Fielding directs us to if we want to visualize Bridget Allworthy

Suggested supplementary reading and films (articles cited in calendar above sent by attachment):

Bertelsen, Lance. Henry Fielding At Work: Magistrate, Business and Writer. NY: Palgave Macmillan, 2000. Full of real interest: he connects the real life legal cases Fielding worked on and how his career in the employment cases and reveals fresh and persuasive ethical ways of reading Fielding’s fiction in context.
Campbell, Jill. Natural Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding’s Plays and Novels. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995. Heavy-going but persuasive on Fielding’s sympathetic attitudes towards women across his work and life.
Hume, Robert D., “Fielding at 300: Elusive, Confusing, Misappropriated, or (Perhaps) Obvious?”, Modern Philology, 108:2 (2010):224-262
McLynn, Frank. The Jacobites. 1985; rpt. NY & London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988. Best single readable book.
Thomas, Donald. Henry Fielding. NY: St Martin’s Press, 1990. Much better on the life and Fielding’s basic attitudes than the reviews have been willing to concede. Very readable.
Stevenson, John Allen. The Real History of Tom Jones. London: Macmillan Palgrave, 2008 All the articles by him are chapters in this book; while he’s repetitive, and overreads, he’s so rich in insight and information, it’s one of those books on Tom Jones which can transform our understanding of it, and make it into a truly realistic, autobiographical, political and sociologically accurate novel.
Vickery, Amana. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. Yale UP, 2010. Enjoyable reading and astute about women’s position, how marriage and home life was experienced in this era. Very relevant to Tom Jones.
Tom Jones. Dr. Tony Richardson. Writer John Osborne. Perf. Albert Finney, Susannah York, Edith Evans. MGM/1963.
Tom Jones. Dr. Meteyin Husein. Writer Simon Burke. Perf. John Sessions, Max Beasley, Samantha Morton, Ron Cook, Brian Blessed, Frances de la Tour, Benjamin Whitgrow, BBC/A&E/1997.

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A bust of Fielding carved after his death (click to see beauty of the piece)

Relevant blogs on movies:

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon & Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones: compared
Affectionately Dedicated to Mr Fielding: the 1997 BBC/A&E Tom Jones
La Nuit de Varennes: serendipitous life, 18th century style

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Partridge (Ron Cook) kisses and hugs Tom (Max Beasley upon learning who the stranger is (one of my favorite moments from the 1997 TJ)

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Sophie (Samantha Morton) and Honor (Kathy Burke) setting for on the road (fathers and sons, and women’s friendships will provide some of our themes ….)

Ellen

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The Studio, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex

Dear friends and readers,

I know I told of how on one of my listservs, we are reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a group with each of us reading different other related works or watching films; on the other, WWta (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) we’ve started a similar project (far few people alas) around Virginia Woolf. Our central focus is a slow read through another massive volume: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and have talked at length about the art of biography, Woolf’s own life writings and writing about biography (her Memoirs of a Novelist, her “Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being). One of us read To the Lighthouse; we’ve discussed Gaston Bachelard’s perhaps now-dated Poetics of Space; I’ve watched the remarkably complex )(novel-like? biography-like) Carrington and am now determined to make Dora Carrington my next woman artist in that blog series.

First impression:

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From Christopher Hampton’s Carrington: this is based on an actual photo of the house (Emma Thompson who is made to look like Carrington as Jonathan Pryce looks like Strachey in the photos of him)

Strachey asked Woolf to marry him at one point; they were close. Strachey was much older than Carrington and I was thinking about the extraordinary convoluted tortured sexual and marital relationships in this wider group. Leonard and Virginia look conventional from the outside, but look in and you see her several deep lesbian relationships.

Jonathan Pryce who was such a wonderful Wolsey, is perfect for Strachey, and Emma Thompson takes on her stout boyish persona to play Carrington. I’ve only got half-way through: it’s a very long movie. What I wanted to say is that in a way it’s lacking:  Hampton wrote and directed it, and he is following Holroyd’s book and therein is the problem. Carrington is such a painful spectacle. The whole menagerie at her and Lytton’s home are wholly outside the mainstream. She loved Strachey because his homosexuality took the form of no sexual intercourse with a woman, so he was not aggressive at all. For someone who wants safety I am now puzzled (not rereading Holroyd) why she ever went to Mark Gertler (played by the then spectacularly handsome Rufus Sewell) who demanded rough sex as central to the relationship (not painful but agressive) and Sewell plays him as a man driven wild by her. The audience is allowed to see this clearly and Gertler’s attack on Lytton when it becomes obvious Carrington loves Lytton. But to keep Lytton she had to allow this reactionary hulk, Reginald Patridge (renamed Rafe by Strachey) to live with them and to keep him she had to have sex with him; in turn he’d have sex with Strachey.  This is not shown clearly in the film. Gerald Brennan (the young excellent actor Samuel West) who left for Spain and wrote two wonderful travel-memoirs of his life in Spain is brought in; but as I’ve not read Holroyd in a while I forget the bargain, but think Carrington was also required to have sex with Brennan to please someone.

Thompson says over and over this is an abject love. Hampton together with these remarkable actors conveyed something different than I’ve read before. Hitherto it was see how abject this woman was, what a mystery but it was Lytton’s kindness, gentleness and their shared love of art that made her invest her very life in his life.

This film shows him a cool egoist who uses her; he may not admit it to himself but he does. All the sex scenes after Mark are her degenerating, allowing her body to be used by man after man to get them for Strachey. That is what the film shows. She goes so far even to marry Partridge who in the film she sees as a macho male reactionary horror though fun as a man to dance with, handsome to draw. She endures his ugly jealousy and infidelities. She leads Gerald Brennan to lie in ways that violate his character — all for this Lytton. It gets to the point she wants to validate her body and gets involved with a man (Jeremy Northam turns up to do it) who just takes her cruelly for sex, getting pregnant by him she gets an abortion. Thee’s a dialogue where Lytton says why not have the baby.I think the film suggests had she, she might have had something else to live for. But she only wants his baby and he never fucks her it seems.

Pryce plays Strachey as realizing how he is using her, but being unable to resist it and enjoying her company, now and again guilty — as when he will advise her to leave off a man, or have a baby, or makes his will to leave her a pension. A very young Alex Kingston as Patridge’s partner after he tires of Carrington plus Strachey. A younger Penelope Wilton does Ottoline so well. The men in the film do seem attached to Carrington and enduring Strachey for the sake of Carrington except the stud last played by Northam. Thompson and Pryce impeccably involving. I grieved over Carrington’s death yet understood. It ends with a series of images of those of her paintings she did not destroy.

It’s a deeply searing portrait of a on the surface beautiful love but just below deeply destructive of her. We are told nothing of her family or childhood. She turns up sui generis and all film long she is without any group but this Bloomsbury one attached to Strachey and her art school. She goes off to London where she finds characters like Patridge and brings him back as a trophy or fodder for Lytton. Was she promiscuous in London somewhere. Patridge’s questioning of her in fact is understandable.

I want to read the screenplay, watch again and have now bought a book (natch) recent, Gerzina’s Carrington (who wrote on FrancesHodgson Burnett if I’m not mistaken).

As a result of the debate on the art of biography and novels (peel them off and you have an autobiography), we debated (a bit) Tim Parks’s iconoclastic theses about novel writing and reading in yet another thinking book from him, The Novel: A Survival Skill on both listservs.

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Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Kutusov after defying everyone and ordering a retreat so as to save as many men and as much of Moscow as he can (1966)

Let me say upfront there is no woman author in Parks’s universe in this book who counts, who he discusses at length. He might mention a woman now and again. He focuses on five males and when he has any examples they are all males. He has a history of Italian literature organized by great authors. Apparently in Italy since the Renaissance there has been but one woman writer of note. Something like 25 authors, one is a woman.

I wonder what women do with themselves when I read Parks. It’s important to the man’s outlook, tells us what he reads, how he reads. So by no means is he a guru when he leaves out half the human race; women do write differently, they make art differently — from social life and from innate elements.

Parks’s idea that novels threaten us has some powerful explanatory force; this is why people talk (and perhaps) think consciously about novels so moralistically. They inveigh against characters who do not obey social norms because they don’t want to articulate why those who don’t don’t, nor admit to identification. He follows this up with the iconoclastic idea we love books which are substitutes for the presence and sense of real person they contain, stand for. This a complete refutation of the “biographical fallacy.” Kraggsby says she becomes so emotional when she has to write or feel about Woolf after a bout with a book. This helps explain that. I so agree with it.

With Parks I really feel a mind thinking, not just putting together the platitudes and nouns referring to theoretical positions which the author then aligns him or herself with. He offers this possible description of what’s meant by creativity: “the ability to produce …. The emotional tone and the play of forces in whch the narrator lives, the particular mental world in which he moves …. “ Parks doesn’t need to have Coetzee in front of him, in fact the Coetzee we meet (as Proust would say) is the partial social man, not the man who counts. The greatness of such works, the triumph “we find their work drenched with their personalities, supreme expressionof theirmanner and character and behavior, each absolutely recognizable, triumphantly unmistakable … He does cite Woolf a little way down; her understanding is just so to the point, and what she does. Paradoxically l’ecriture-femme (women’s texts) exemplify much more centrally than men’s what he begins with.

When you say that a novel threatens the reader, and that therefore we need to learn actually how to survive them (really taken into consciousness what they can show) and that the author’s identity (I’ll call it) is everywhere there in different ways, you are set on a very different road than most books on the novel. I just love how he does not repeat cant and situate himself next to it or with it — not that a great books don’t do this: Jerome de Troot’s two books on historical fiction do it, but he examines these theories often to show their fallacies, not always.

Tim Parks is consistent with his view that the great writer conveys an authentic specific self across his or her work, asks about the writer’s tension when he or she thinks of who is reading this text. Parks says the novel is “officially addressed to everyone,but in reality they are not thinking of today’s Ph D student in say Korea addressing scholarly conversations in 2016; the actual circumstances the writer writes in frames his or her perception of what is being written; relatives do often complain and are hurt, as well as friends; t often he or she is thinking of some subgroup of readers alive at the time, “the implicit reader”. He proposes we think of ourselves as overhearing the author’s address to his or her audience at the time. Park then goes over specific details in a Becket text and they come so much more alive when you nail who specific savage ironies are aimed at. Lee quotes Woolf’s life-writing a lot and Woolf assumes her readership knows what the life of the upper class at the time was; her tales of childhood assume familiarity.

Parks says it is not a retreat from the text to be interested in the author’s patterns of behavior, relationships at the time of a text writtten, but rather it can increase our engagement. He then goes on to Gregory Bateson who argues that personality differentation ,how we establish our identities to ourselves are in relation to others aroud us which often are binaries and are reactions against. he is not talking about one-on-one equivalencies but a general presence surrounded by particulars then transposed but often more transparently than we like to allow.

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Helen Mirren as Sonya in Jay Parini’s The Last Station (which is part of our Tolstoy matter)

Now to apply Parks’s thesis to The Last Station, for example, you have to know about Hoffman and his life and relationship to the film (which he does bring in in the feature to the film, also Parini, not to forget Tolstoy, Cherthov, the various actors who inhabit the roles.

It is a complex film and now I’ve got to find time to read the book. A good performance can make a character come alive: In the screenplay Hoffman worked to condense, make a coherent POV (Valentine, the most invented of the characters) and in general sort of gave more meaning to what’s in the book and made me wonder if a movie because of its form often does simplify. It’s hard to fight it as successful as Bergman did. He didn’t care if his films made money when he started out. I thought I’d mention that the train was to be much much more important: it was to open with Valentine on the train; the deleted scenes are of Tolstoy fleeing on the train, Sofya following. It now only ends with the train. Hoffman says he wanted it to be a symbol but as he proceeded he decided the characters and their relationships were what he should spend time on. More practically I have watched enough honest features to have heard directors say you have to cut and you have to choose, and many he saw this skein or thread one he could eliminate neatly — to make the movie marketable. This was to be an allusion to Anna Karenina, with Sofya as our Anna who survives. I suspect so.

Also from our Tolstoy group: I am finding A. N. Wilson’s biography on Tolstoy without bothering to argue this in effect bases his biography and assessment of Tolstoy’s novels on a perspective like Parks; Lee is more reticent but then we’ve hardly gotten Virginia born. Wilson thinks Tolstoy is addressing other Russian writers, how he conceives of the cultural and political situation in Russia, but deeply by the time of Anna Karenina moved inward and dealing with his own many layered psyche through her.

Lastly (since I’m going away for a week — to Cornwall, where Woolf spent summer holidays for years on end — and have little time) I thought I’d just briefly call attention to an excellent review essay in TLS by Francesca Wade on the rebuilding of all sorts of house space the various Bloomsbury people had in different sites and museusm: “Interior Designs, Interior Desires: examing the inside of Bloomsbury homes as a guide to their owners’ artistry and personality.”

Wade begins with Bachelard and then goes on to show how the Bloomsbury group utterly defied conventions not just in painting happy pictures of what they were doing on their walls, and but in scattering all the things they used over a day freely around the house, making rooms serve real and different functions peculiar to the people living there all at once. In the movie Carrington we see the house Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) and Carrington (Emma Thompson) live in have her paintings on the wall, and a couple of the rooms are clearly shown to be reflective of how they live. Outsiders thought the decorations were lascivious or salacious because of the unconventional sexual relationships people who came and lived there had, but not at all. Nudes were not sexy nudes — as in the film. They were gay (old use of word), defying the colors, atmosphere of the homes these people had been brought up in.

Most houses today and apartments too are set up in conventional ways with several rooms sometimes given over “to making a show.” More time and energy making the room a symbol of the expected social life and status than the comfort of people living in it. The purpose of the US family room is to have a place where people can do their own thing but even there I’ve seen status and money the criteria for decorations — how many Xs you did of this or that.

Jim and my house was and today mine alone with his presence as memory and filling the objects is not like that. There is no room for show, the rooms have — or had (he’s gone now) several functions. I have been told if I wanted to sell it and/or sell it for a high priceI would have to empty it out and make it a soulless display. So that’s what the average person wants: plus and a soulless display. No thank you I said. Either it’s sold the way it looks or not sold. So Bloomsbury space is still iconoclastic.

Ellen off for a week on holiday in Cornwall

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Charles Camoin, Cat before the Open Window — from Sixtine, one of the lights of my existence

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Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield when we first see him, cavalierly, knowingly, giving an inadequate rendition of one of Hamlet’s speeches before his wife comes on stage

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Meryl Streep as Florence singing ecstatically (2016, Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears, scripted by Nicolas Martin)

Dear friends and readers,

Just as I began to give up hoping for a truly good absorbing film for cinemas this summer, along came three: in July Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words urging us to give over unreal ethnicities; in early August Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople in rural impoverished worlds, and now the extraordinary Stephen Frears and Nicolas Turner’s Florence Foster Jenkins, with a little help from Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep.

At first the film seems to be about an over-dressed, naively happy, fatuously absurd Florence, a wealthy woman kept apart from most other people by her somewhat younger, carefully preserved coolly impossibly husband: since she is a philanthropist most institutions are prepared to indulge her in whatever she wants in the way of concerts, no matter how corny, creaking or badly done. St Clair has hired a voice coach and we watch him hire Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) a piano-player musician to play and give her voice lessons. When Florence is not around, St Clair’s face goes hard and asks brief cynical questions about what we’ve seen him smile pleasantly and coo over. We begin to suspect a pervasive underlying studied hypocrisy when at night St Clair wishes Florence a good night’s rest, and himself goes to a Greenwich village or lower Manhattan slum block where he finds his mistress a young beautiful Kathleen (Rebecca Fergusson) waiting for him. He lives another different life with this mistress: wild modern dancing, late night parties, strong drinking promiscuous sex going on around him. He is then just so sweetly affectionate to her, so controlled, hiding from her life’s unpleasant truths that it feels like a performance. Then we discover Florence cannot sing, her voice is reedy, awful, she can’t hold a tune.

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As the movie progresses we begin to see that this steely-performance of St Clair where he protects this wife of his from every adverse criticism made of her is not hollow. It cannot be as he gives over his whole being to it: he has to work very hard to prevent anyone who would laugh at or heckle her from coming to any of her performances. He does not have to do any of this to remain rich; she need not perform to be worshipped. Her singing lessons do keep the two of them busy, and her pre-occupied, seeing herself as endlessly working at something beautiful. To silence or get people to cooperate, he hand white envelopes stuffed with cash to people. Those who will not cooperate are excluded from performances and their drawing-room.

Their back story emerges as he, and then she, confide in McMoon: as a 19 year old she married a cad who had syphilus, the cad de-camped, died, and one day in an audience she spotted St Clair who she says had the kindest most generous smile she’d ever seen on a face. They abstained from sex lest he become diseased or she have a diseased child. There’s an intense pathos to the story as she tells it to Cosme whom she has visited on one of St Clair’s golf weekends (we know he has gone to the Hamptons with Kathleen). Cosme is continually on the edge of quitting lest he lose all respect as a serious musician, and when Florence comes up with the idea of playing at Carnegie Hall to thousands, balks; in response St Clair tells Cosme he must not obey the tyranny of ambition to be great, or respected as wonderful, or his art even understood — all egoistic delusions in probability: he found himself a failed stage actor when he met St Clair, and when she married him, he liberated himself from ambition to live this comfortable life.

But is it? is it comfortable? is he in a prison of performances to get his hands on her will (which she carries about her in a briefcase). The movie asks, how far is all life a performance? what are worthy goals?

If the mark of a summer movie is non-seriousness underlying the performance, Frears has never in all the films I’ve seen by him resorted to such obvious broad caricatures: the sexy blonde vulgar noisy young wife is just one. OTOH: when St Claire reads aloud to Florence Shakespeare’s cliched 116th sonnet (“Let me to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), the joke is Shakespeare was ironic (most readers seem not to know this), making fun. Anyhow Florence falls asleep before he’s finished the first eight lines. Late in the movie he reads aloud Keat’s “Bright Star” sonnet: same response from Florence, pathetically grateful but in actuality bored so falls asleep.

Streep and Grant deliver as exquisitely perfect performances as I remember Grant doing as a young man in Remains of the Day (where Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins were the pitch perfect people who missed out). Grant is underrated as an actor since he made his place in Hollywood films as a fine comic actor in Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and in beloved costume dramas like Sense and Sensibility or Maurice. I first saw him and Bob Hoskins in a filmed version of Thomas Middleton’s brilliant Jacobean play, The Changeling. Grant was corrupt weakling duke who nonetheless becomes a relentless murder out of sexual jealousy; Hoskins the hired thug killer who himself lives out seething resentments. I felt Grant saw some of his own choices in his role. He left the serious stage for Hollywood and has not looked back.

Streep’s role was harder to play” as Grant melts into tenderness, opens his face up to recognize “Bunny’s” dependency on him to her, she has to seem mostly obtuse and yet capable of the finest feeling, at once ridiculous and courageous. She is our American version of the British grand-dame actresses (e.g., Lindsay Duncan, Emma Thompson).

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Reviews have been generous, noting the sentimentality at the close: far too forgiving and benign, sliding over after pointing to the cruelty of crowds, the stupidity of audience mob-like reactions, how no one really cares what this music is. The New York Times reminds us these were a real couple in the 1940s and that Helberg stole the show with his shock, distress, and at the end sparkling identification with his two bosses. We are left in two minds about the principals: how far was she fooled? she has a wise desperate look on her worn face as she lies dying in her closing moments. Did or how far did St Clair Bayfield love her and his life as her tender protector? he seems never to hurt her which is way beyond probable if it was just the money. The credits afterward included photos of the real original people. Cosme never became a great musician; his reached his heights in venues at Carnegie hall with Florence. St Claire late in life looks utterly non-pretentious; after that last performance and her illness killed her, he never remarried.

To return to my first paragraph: there is something delightful in all three, Kind Words, Wilderpeople, Florence, and we are badly in need of delight this August.

Ellen

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