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Archive for the ‘novels of sensibility’ Category


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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway coming down the stairs (opening of film)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve carried on reading Virginia Woolf, and feel I am moving more deeply into what is valuable in her, and seeing what does not quite come up to high excellence: though all she writes has integrity, she can seem to nod. She mirrrors her class, her era, is not sufficiently widely read in women’s writing because they were not available to her, or to most of us, until the 1970s — and then many do not avail themselves of earlier women’s art and books. That’s what I have my Austen Reveries blog for — to call attention to great art by women whose work is not sufficiently known (as well as Austen and 18th century art).

So the last 4 weeks I’ve reread her Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse & (after a long hiatus) A Room of One’s Own. I’ve watched the 1997 film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway, directed by Marleen Gorris, scripted by Eileen Atkins (who used to enact a one woman virtuoso couple of hours of Virginia Woolf for an evening’s theater); the (to me misogynist) very bad 2002 The Hours film (based on Michael Cunningham’s post-text to Mrs Dalloway, directed by Stephen Haldry, screenplay David Hare), and now the 1983 TV film (as it’s called) To the Lighthouse (screenplay Hugh Stoddart, directed by Colin Gregg). Only in Mrs Dalloway had any major roles in the making of the film been taken by women. As I watched To the Lighthouse, I found myself remembering my childhood watching the film To the Lighthouse:when I was young my family had a house on Long Island where we’d spend long weekends on a beach. Alas I don’t know that now nor will probably again — I’d be the grandmother …

I’ve been taking my first course as a student or class member at the OLLI at AU, where we are called “fearless readers” for studying Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, and essays from The Common Readers and a few other places. It’s been an enjoyable and stimulating experience (not least because the professor doing it is such a confident relaxed and serious teacher (all at once) and I’m learning how to teach better too. The central themes of her mature fiction are feminist, deeply empathetic towards what is not institutionalized, individual liberty, how we are caught up in time, history, the spaces we find ourselves in. At least in these early works.

Mrs Dalloway was not “covered” on our group reading of Woolf (as just too well-known, as already read by all of us), nor A Room of One’s Own (ditto). Despite or maybe because of the surface conventionality of Clarissa’s day, Mrs Dalloway questions the bases of that conventional life, filled with much despair, injustice loneliness, so many people as puzzled wanderers on the earth going about routines. It’s an artfully controlled counterpart to Joyce’s Ulysses a day in the life and world of Clarissa, which takes in remembered past time, deep time before that (before Clarissa was a possibility), such an array of imagery capturing life’s smallest and biggest things. Mostly upper class people: the snobbery of the characters is seen in everyone’s apologizing to a vicar’s wife, so Woolf does see that. The question of the novel is how to take Clarissa: is it as ironic as Austen’s Emma, or are we to enter truly empathetically into Clarissa’s consciousness. Probably we are to see Clarissa’s limitations and yet bond with her. The central idea uniting the story of the traumatized (permanently shattered) Septimus Smith and the self-sheltered Mrs Dalloway is that (as she thinks) you must not “force the soul.” Septimus killed himself to save his soul from the unscrupulous morally moronic Dr Bradshaw.


In the film Septimus and Rezia (Amelia Bullmore) cornered as the doctor and his “aides” demand entrance — his crime, he said he wanted to kill himself

Life is made “intolerable” for those inner lives demand, need individual liberty in their outer ones. The professor took us through a lesbian reading of Mrs D which brings us a parallel underlying structure. Sally and Clariss’s kiss is a rare depiction of lesbian orgasm (and therefore famous):

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush, which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come close, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cacks and sores. Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus: an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over — in a moment.

She suggested that Georgia O’Keefe’s art is a visual equivalent. The imagery of the crocus, the inner soft vulnerable part of the flower occurs repeatedly in the novel in erotic places. Here is O’Keefe’s Autumn Trees: The Maple:

Atkins and Gorris’s Merchant-Ivory Mrs Dalloway carries itself so lightly and yet reaches down to the depths of distraught terror (Rupert Graves is superb as Septimus); the use of younger actors and switching back and forth brought out how layers of time are woven into the book’s angles of narration.


The young Clarissa and Peter — in the novel Clarissa continually remembers a love courtship many years ago

The film feels fluid, unforcedly symbolic. The iron gates are everywhere and they are what Septimus falls upon. The haunted nature of everyone’s experience through pained and joyful memory creates the tone of piece which is meditative — and comic because of the asinity of Lady Bexborough (Margaret Tysack) and Hugh Whitbread (Oliver Ford Davies). Michael Kitchener managed to convey Peter Walsh as someone who had his heart genuinely broken. Yet at the end resigned with Sally (Sarah Badel as the aging lesbian love, now respectabily Lady Rossiter):

Redgrave plays Woolf as someone who embraces life, not fragile, keeps people from intruding. Dropped is her detestation of Miss Killman in the book. Miss Killman resented far more fiercely than Austen’s Emma resents Miss Bates because Miss Killman shows up Clarissa’s privileged existence and seems to be stealing her daughter, Elizabeth; this parallel between the two books shows how closely Mrs Dalloway also “comes out of” Austen’s art (as did Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out).


Laura Knight, Lamorna Cove, or On the Cliffs

On Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I now wonder how much Woolf had in mind Johnson and Boswell in the Hebrides, Skye as a refuge (from Culloden literally), shifting is the mode — mostly deeply recognizably Cornwall, St Ives, but what are we to do with the Scottish sublimity of the Antiquary (read by Mr Ramsay), the sea in which William Cowper “perishes all alone,” the dark memories of Westmorland (where Wm Bankes and Mr Ramsay once walked), the killing fields of WW1 (written about by the quietly gay poet of the piece, Mr Carmichael). The sounds of the sea, the moon, the lighthouse itself, geology back in time, replace the music, contemporary green parks and flowers and killing fields of Mrs Dalloway’s everyday life. The middle section of Time Passes is stream of consciousness detached from any recognizable character: the time of aeons for the 10 years between Mrs Ramsay’s death and the longed-for reaching of the Lighthouse. It is a work of mourning, griefstruck meditation using stretched out time in the way of Proust, while Woolf is killing Mrs Ramsay as the angel in the house preventing her from living the life of a writer. I recommend Su Reid’s memories of her many summers in Cornwall applied to To The Lighthouse (in Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, ed Ella Westland).

I’ve been watching the film To the Lighthouse this evening. Again, it put me in mind of when I was young and my parents and family had a summer house on Long Island and we did have joy on the beach. And now I have no chance for such experiences,as no ties to such a family group. To the Lighthouse is nostalgic (like the Dalloway film). I didn’t cry just thought of what once was — as the screenplay, the words are astonishing. They are an amalgam of passages from other works by Woolf which suggest connections between the sea of To the Lighthouse, and the “waves” of all her other works. Rosemary Harris delivers a contemplative monologue about the nature of Woolf’s verbal creativity in effect.


An iconic moment: Rosemary Harris as Mrs Ramsay, holding James’s hand, catering to him

As to actors, there’s a very young Kenneth Branagh playing Charles Tansley, the serious student, Suzanne Bertish a wise Lily Briscoe. Each of the Ramsay children is given a moment of characterization and individualized actor. In the film Mrs Ramsay’s death come on slowly, not the sudden collapse of the book (suggesting the world drained the life out of the woman)


Rosemary Harris is the angel on the beach, in the house, Michael Gough the rough well-meaning Mr Ramsay (having Oedipal struggles with James)

I’ve gained a couple of new rich source books: A small neglected superb book for its rich assortment of suggestive black-and-white photos of Woolf and Leonard, their houses, streets, the Hogarth Press, countryside around Monk House, Cornwall, and concise intelligent readings of her novels is Monique Nathan’s Virginia Woolf, and there is now a Mrs Dalloway Reader, ed Francine Prose, filled with relevant writings on the Dalloways by Woolf herself (including her sections on the couple in Voyage Out and Between the Acts), wonderful letters, brief appreciations.

A Room of One’s Own is problematic: There is too much exaggeration for lack of knowledge of women’s literature. Woolf will say there is no writing about mothers and children until the 20th century. Not true. We now know there were many women writers around Shakespeare’s time: most of the learned lady kind, but they wrote thoughtful political treatises, poetry, translations. She also diminishes and lambasts earlier women’s achievement far too much: in the last 100 years we have found a tradition of women’s writing in all spheres of life, not all their novels were dreadful (except of course those by the in this treatise paragon Jane Austen), her demand for an “incandescendant approach to writing is unreal. Woolf is writing several decades earlier than the 1970/80s when women’s literature before the 19th century came back in print and the writing of women in the 19th multiplied dramatically. She also makes such a paragon of Austen: it’s absurd the way she attributes to Austen perfection; there is the idea that Bronte (Charlotte) had the greater genius, but Woolf never explains what she means by this. It does feel like nagging at moments too. I have an idea why it is no longer read. Three Guineas is preferable, the much more mature work.

That said, it’s startlingly a propos at the moment: it explains to you why Trump, a cunning corrupt moron was preferred to Hillary Clinton, utterly reputable, highly intelligent and capable. So much she asserts is true of most women until the 19th century, still true of women in traditional cultures today. There for men to have sex with, give babies to, and obey authorities. Stay indoors much of their lives, or kept away from larger public world for long stretches. The brother and heir comes first. Deep shame over sex inculcated. Reading A Room of One’s Own makes me so sorrowful for those women and books, whose art is still thwarted, stymied, stigmatized, and rejoice for those who have stuck it out and achieved a measure of self-fulfillment. Clarissa chose the safe kindly Richard Dalloway; many women today can choose the daring career, but the treatise demonstrates amid much push back and at crucial points lack of empathy. A Room of One’s Own does end very well: Mary Carmichael can at long last try a novel, and she does; she has around her so much pressure not to, and what we can do for her is work for her so she shall have space, money, time, self-esteem and liberty even if it means to do this in the present circumstances for most of us means working in obscurity and poverty.

I will jump to the later Woolf soon, and read Between the Acts next ….

LES INSOUMISES
(photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt)


A photo from a French staged play reading of Virginia Woolf’s writings

Ellen

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

A Syllabus

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

Description of Course

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested supplementary reading & films:

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


The sea and the desert …

Ellen

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Virginia Woolf, photo by Barbara Strachey (1938)

Friends and readers,

The second part of Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf takes us through the first years of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s rocky adjustment, her career as a teacher, writer, publisher (with Leonard Woolf, and a lot of help from John Lehman); what was very valuable about Hogarth Press texts; Virginia’s love-affair friendships (from Vita Sackville-West to Ethel Smyth (composer, pianist); her achievements in novel art (The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, The Waves); and then, under the onslaught of bombs and terror at what a Nazi state were at a distance and would close-up inflict on her, Leonard, their friends, her feeling of the fragility of her calm about to erupt, she killed herself. No more imposed regimes, no more wretched distress of worrying, no imposed medical regimes which prevented her from writing, her great solace and strength it seems. What is remarkable is how much she accomplished, how much she produced, how she lived as best she could with integrity.

The Hogarth Press

Virginia and Leonard bought, learned to use, and then built a worthy business in the Hogarth Press. They did quarrel sometimes, but mostly they had the same ideals for their press, and they published a remarkable group of books (Forster, TS Eliot, also Vita Sackville-West whose novels sold well). While how this was an absorbing occupation for her to use to remain calm and convalesce when she needed to, obviously it was her way of getting into print too. Lee point out they sold a minuscule number of copies of The Voyage Out the first two years. That they published their friends is par for the course. Until I read Lee’s disapproval (she’s like some tenured person saying your article doesn’t count because it didn’t appear in these journals and so why did you publish there?), I never imagined anyone could criticize this venture. But just not acceptable. Lee says this is after all a vanity press. “Her reputation has been affected by this “in her life-time” and “after it” — says the academic biographer.

Virginia and her circle were attacked virulently by critics on many grounds: Wyndham Lewis was a bully macho male, and what he was doing was simply squashing by sneering and deriding l’ecriture-femme: you can see that in the language he choose. And then like Henry James deriding (to name three on my mind from the other listserv still going) Alcott, Woolson and Oliphant, Constance Fennimore Woolson, Wyndham is listened to — and has been influential: she is neurotic, too feminine, elitist (the pot calling the kettle black there). Virginia became upset because she recognized this hegemonic point of view could and would kill readership, and yet she finds the novel itself a deeply problematic genre which gets in her way. Stael in her one analysis of fiction as such says that the demands of the audience stop her from writing what she wants in her novel: Woolf goes more deeply; it’s the structures and stories that are demanded.

One of publications that emerged just from the existence of the press: The Hogarth Letters: I don’t know how long this book has been on one of my shelves. Introduced by Hermione Lee, it consists of its contemporary introduction by E.M. Forster and then about 11 or 12 “letters:” essays really addressed to an imagined or real interlocutor in which the writer explores some topic of concern, large and small, political and not, social, cultural. They read to me like an oasis of sanity, the “language of rational humanism, deployed on behalf of intellectual tolerance, in opposition to forms of tyranny and reaction” (to quote Lee). Some are snobbish and condescending (advocating a suburban housewife put down her knitting and teaching her to appreciate Poussin) but others have beauty, liberal thought, ideals that are fine and good. Some do sniff out an ominous haunting future not so far off. They were published between 1931 and 33 when the world order (such as it was) was breaking down. It was very much a Lehmann project to begin with and then Virginia joined in.


E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, 1920 (he was one of Hogarth Press’s authors, the Woolf’s friend

Woolf’s objected to the novel form as such. We talk and critics write about how Woolf overturned novel conventions with the implication that she was not anti-novel in doing this, only stretching the form. Now it is difficult to define novels in any way that limits the form beyond a very long fictional story in prose. But that in itself demands a certain coherence for the story, and the definition ignores expectations even for fantasy books. In the quotations from Woolf about the novel and those Lee has discussed throughout it seems to me in effect Woolf regarded much of the novel conventions as getting in the way of saying deep worthwhile things, especially the novel’s (even in fantasy) concentration on individuals interacting with others in social situations to bring about some resolution. There are novels where the resolution or conclusion can be private and inward; there are forms of the novel which allow the breakdown of chronological coherence and probability, especially the epistolary and journal forms and what’s called magic realism. Women have broken away from probability because that often depends on what is, and what is is what’s allowed and woman want to show we can live another way, have other options. But if you look at what Woolf writes, once she tries to leave conventional novels, she’s not writing to propose other social solutions or individuals finding themselves or tragically failing to.

She prefers the essay, life-writing and prose poems.

From “The Docks of London,”in the London Scene: book of sketches. They are all at most 5-7 pages or so; since Lee tells us how Woolf’s reputation and the way we know much of her work comes from posthumous publication of the non-fiction as staggered/staged in time and packed by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. The one that differs is The Essays of Virginia Woolf, set up relentlessly by year (not theme, or subject or perspective as the varied others), with dates, only it leaves off the mid 1920s. They seem different laid out this way instead of say The common Reader. Some of the slender volumes were overseen by Virginia or Lehmann. This is book history.
The London scene is different. It is first published in 1975, limited agreement by another press and Hogarth coming in a little later in the year, editors Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law. These are bright and this first one at least seemingly cheerful excursions – -the sort of thing one sees in a mazagine. I say seeming because the undercurrent is a lighter melancholy than the Waves. Time is here and all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)
What strikes me as I’m reading The Waves, and remember The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women.
Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatigible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager replaces this with these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed. I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books.
Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – she imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults –Cask after cask .Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first wide police effort.
The phrase use produces beauty as a bye-product could sum up all jane Austen on the picturesque …
Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things andanimals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say
And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf

But money and popularity come with telling stories, especially outward social stories – and these two things bring respect.

Monk’s House (where they chose to live) is seen by Lee as a “retreat, a monastery, a monk’s house, and, in that sense, a monastic abode reinforced by separate bedrooms … before buying Monk’s House, Woolf had purchased a small windmill turned into a house that she was afterwards able to sell at a small profit. Interestingly too, it was acceptable in 1919 to buy a house without indoor plumbing, a bath, hot water. This coincides with the practices of Americans buying summer homes in the US in this period” (Diane Reynolds). How Leonard loved to garden.

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I took detours


Just released from copyright, new editions with introductions, notes, new pictures are coming out

The Voyage Out

It appears to be focused on a young woman growing up: she is 24 but she is kept as innocent of the world as a 13 year old. She has no close friend nor many friends; belongs only with family which consists of father and aunts. Being on a ship isolates her further. I can see Woolf building up characters for other novels: we have Mr and Mrs Dalloway using their prestige, influence, connections to board the ship at Lisbon. It is very much a novel and a successful one: the social comedy is apt, it makes me smile, and creates the usual conflicts and insights of novels …. this one so comforting right now because it is redolent of a world of decency and intelligence. Our narrator knows this group of people is dependent on vast cruelty to the colonialized peoples of the world. This comes out from the narrator’s comments because this is a boat, a ship which globe-trots for the British, carries natural resources to Britain to be used in factories. The Dalloways can come on “by special arrangement” because he’s this pampered privileged MP — they too are “visiting” parts of the empire or have been.

To the Lighthouse as a sort of ghost story.

In To The Lighthouse house, your mother does not have to give up her house,. is that novel oppositions ail …. “profoundly autobiographical” and a form of therapy for VW, a way to cope with the past. Lee quotes Vanessa noting that in Mrs. Ramsey, VW “raised” the mother “from the dead.” It was, wrote Vanessa, ” a portrait of mother more like her than anything I could ever have conceived possible. … You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do.” Vanessa also praised Mr. Ramsey as a clear portrait of their father. Lee shows us here the generous, giving side of Vanessa: she calls her sister’s book “a great work of art.”

Behind the Ramsey family, says Lee, is imperialism, particularly Indian imperialism, which she calls “the history of the Stephen family,” another nod to how this family profited from India. But Lee says no more.
More cryptic are the statements about Woolf’s concept for the book, which Lee quotes but doesn’t explain. What, for example, does Woolf mean by Mrs. Ramsay “feels the glow of sensation–and how they are made up of all different things–(what she has just done) and wishes for some bell to strike and say this is it. It does strike. She guards her moment.” Is this Mrs. Ramsay/Julia Stephens or Virginia Woolf? What does she mean by “fluid translucence” and “central transparency?”

On one level it’s an ode to Mrs Ramsay, to mother. The lead-in to the central section is Mr and Mrs Ramsay in bed, he reading The Antiquary to reassure himself his kind of writing and his hegemony with Scott not superseded, but the emphasis is on the death of Steenie – a very moving chapter indeed, many one of the most in Scott, and the sonnet by Shakespeare that Mrs Ramsay quotes is also haunted, as with your shadows I did play – the lover is absent, has gone, and you are left darkling and deeply at a loss. Mr Ramsay apparently doesn’t approve of his wife’s pessimism and it is true that the style Stephens wrote in (as many of his era) is this rotound graceful sure one and no one would go near saying suicide is a good option or anything truly overturning explicitly.
 
There is something overturning in To the Lighthouse —  not just the feminism about the men as tyrants and fools. There is a luxuriating in death as release at last. And we catalogue the dead (for Mr Ramsay goes too) – there’s a futility in all human beings do is one part of the feel.

The Waves

It took listening to the text read brilliantly allowed (by Frances Jeater): I became hooked into it. Lee says The Waves is six monologues but I think it’s there. They are all a projection of Woolf and in that overt feel this is a more candid novel than most for in all novels most of the characters are on some level as projection of the novelist put together by literary decorums and conventions. It may still be read as her deepest thoughts when “out of her” social mind and into her deep self – rather like Proust only puts this self into long sinuous sentences.

What then paradoxically grips me is identification. She still captures a sense of what it is to be child, adolescent and especially (thus far) have new experiences you’ve never had before. How we grow middle-aged, old, and watch others die (you wouldn’t carry on if I’m in world of semi-stranger neighbors. You were in this cocoon of subjectivity with a nuclear family (at most siblings and one or two servants beyond the father, mother, aunt say, grandmother). I have never forgotten my amazement (the right word) when I first went to kindergarten. There was a small girl my size called Maryann crying as if her heart would break. She couldn’t bear it seemed to leave her mother. I couldn’t get over that, I was so startled by this it has stayed with me all these years – well Woolf would not have been surprised. She here records intense distress on the part of the boy in boys’ school and the girls with their governess. Not going home. How unbelievable, how terrible. How different Woolfs’ home life was from mine. I was cheerful and glad to go. But I’ve cousins who came from a home like mine who tell me they cried.
But I did look askance or in this alienated way at teachers. Woolf captures how children look so coolly at these new beings in charge of them.

The impersonal narrator keeps returning to time across a day, dawn, morning, mid-morning, noon, early afternoon … At each point the natural world returns to record where we are. A larger clock situates through what they saw their stories over the years. Three die before the book closes.

Between the Acts .

With the bombing of her and Leonard’s two houses, the Woolfs are driven to live wholly in the country and Monk’s House. Now she can no longer put barriers between herself and the local people. Written at the end of her life, a time of despair over the war) her experimental historical novel, Between the Acts. The bombing had driven her and Leonard into the country and Woolf tells of a self-reflexive pageant set in three eras, put on by local people. History is conceived as fragments of historical experience recorded in books, scattered relics, local memories and graves within a continuum of time. One detail: she writes about Coleridge in a spirit where she re-engages with her ambivalence over her savage violent bullying and yet ever so civilized father. It’s 21st century like that it should be a group of people putting on a pageant. Themselves all lost, bewildered, often unhappy. Highly original self-reflexive historical novel. Orlando had been her historical romance (time-traveling lesbian classic that it is).

We also see the great troubles she is having with Pargiters trying for a combination of political milieu and family narrative tale (based on her own), rather Tolstoyan. Part of the reason VW killed herself was how she felt she would not stay sane and be a burden; she wouldn’t stay sane because she would not be able to cope — she hates (as I would) the reaction of fellow semi-Nazi citizens around her.

I have read The Years which is almost my favorite, but not this time round.

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Roger Frye, a self-portrait

Her biography of Roger Fry

Vanessa liked Woolf’s Roger Fry – Fry was her ex-lover, her artistic mentor, she was much moved and became affectionate towards Virginia for a time. Virginia gave a lecture in Brighton to 200 women, among them Elizabeth Robins, Octavia Wilberforce. Leonard said Angelica should be let to live her own life (Garnett had been Duncan’s Angelica’s father’s lover). It was pretty widely reviewed: Fry was seen as important and he was a kind of symbol of high culture. It was hypocritical of those who hit at him for his background because most of the writers of reviews in England at the same time came from that background, maybe not quite so literary or art-y. Or they personally chose not to become so.

At first silence greeted Roger Fry and then a bitter debate: some praised, EMForster said it was a defence of civilization; Herbert Read (an arch conservative, a fact Lee doesn’t mention) attacked as elitist super-sensitivity – has elitism come to be synonymous with civilized educated behavior? She responded telling of Frye’s social commitment, that her books reach a wider circle than his, and offered to debate “between air raids.”

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Kati Horna: Retreat with Wounded Soldier

The war:

One could hear the drone of the German planes flying over the channel to drop their bombs, the bombs dropping, the people killed, everything destroyed. As they lay flat on the ground they hear guns overhead

Kent harder hit than Sussex; then Hitler switches to nightly raids on London. I have read some of these moving depictions of the destruction of London – by Elizabeth Bowen in Heat of the Day remains with me – shocked, ragged, rapid, raw – people in shelters killed. Horrifying messes. Mecklenberg smashed – uninhabitable. Leonard: “well really possessions are such a nuisance, perhaps it will be a good thing to start clear again: (the joke that tries for perspective …)

Bomb drops near Vanessa and Duncan’s workshop so Virginia; there were fierce quarrels.


Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant (during the war years)

Where she had written so much, where they had sat so many nights, given so many parties. Loss of possessions they worked so hard to get. 24 volumes of her diaries were salvaged! – but huge destruction of masses of papers and her and other houses – -and deaths. They end up moving what was left to Monks House – grimy, hopelessly jumbled heaps. They acquire a new kitten – from kitten she says “I can’t make a warm hollow for myself”

She did have an English identity, in the culture of that city, Churchill on “our majestic city” Woolf reduced to “a crushed match box”. In the country they began to know many people; watched the ways all sorts of people reacted to the bombing, killing ,and Germans. Leonard and Virginia speak horribly about disabled people but they try to help them. She had the hardest time with local gentry. Bomb explodes on river bank: beautiful looks, deeply destructive literally of countryside.

Walks, writes family memories, and black sardonic story (The Legacy): dark side of her own marriage; husband wrapped up, absorbed in his work, she regrets not having had children; and now that Hogarth Press is gone, she can’t get it published. Another story about suicide, “The Symbol”

Stuck for paper, she uses local library, cheap notebook for diary and she begins to plan for third common reader, Reading at Random, not focused on author or text but cultural. What it meant to be a writer “thwarted by our society:interruptions: conditions.” First chapter begins with “Anon.” Communal pre-audience world. Was to include Goldsmith (very much constrained by literary marketplace), Sevigne (not), Henry James. She writes two more essays: Ellen Terry, Hester Thrale Piozzi. She has to write in same room as Leonard and can’t take it. She accidentally (ha) nearly drowns.

I wonder could they get liquor? Meaning wine, beer, or alcohol, Lee doesn’t cite these as rationed. Sigh. She doesn’t think of it. One article on-line says liquor was not rationed and another it was rationed, that industrial alcohol needed for war effort; whiskey production stopped. What you might get was very expensive and you had to know the grocer, be favored. Pubs carried on (limited how many drinks you might have?). You could make alcohol but then you had to get grain.

Bitterly cold; using bikes, cut off from friends. Painfully thin, it makes you afraid to see her. The war was not being won; invasion thought imminent. She can’t write – ironically she complains of a lack of public, no printer. She goes to London to see ruined city. She writes about sexual shame and sexual abuse in her childhood to Ethel. She argues with Desmond she can speak for workers; some visits but she cannot trust the people to be endurable

She is disgusted by the conversations of women. (All tarts says Virginia: US about to have a whore as First Lady and Trump threatens to sue anyone who says so in public; the inauguration coming up: ought to be deeply shameful spectacle, but is it? An actual whore with the Rockettes in front of them.) She finished Pointz Hall as Between the Acts – surely Leonard now sees. Olivia Wilberforce visits her and she says she’s desperately depressed, Village will not permit her to do fire-watching as Leonard does. Haunted by memories of father. They go to London and lunch with John Lehman and he sees how tense she is

Another attempt at suicide called an accident on Tuesday ,the 18th, her letter dated “Tuesday” Leonard sees her coming and begins to worry yet more. But it seems to me does not recognize this as a second suicide attempt – a signal to him to help her. But he cannot let himself see what is in front of him. It’s probably too much for him. What was he enduring? A jewish man, deeply liberal, his life’s work in politics for nothing.

Lee goes on about how Virginia’s suicide not an act of fear. She is a schmuck here. Yes I agree her suicide not an act of fear – why should people worry that suicide be seen as an act of fear? If some see it so automatically, they are fools. So she overstates and says the act was rational. No it was not. And it was not deliberate in the sense that she could not throw off the depression but wanted to.

Vanessa comes and writes her a letter which is in effect bullying. She must not get sick again. It’s the letter of someone imposing herself on Woolf, yes she thanks Virginia for “saving her,” but it is a she and Leonard know better than Virginia. She needed this like a hole in her head.

She is told by Lehman he has advertised her book (The Years) and its publication cannot be reversed. So now she’s between a rock and a hard place: do not get sick but endure the publication of this book. She did visit a villager, she got letters of praise from Forster on Jacob’s room and Lehman on Between the acts. Leonard tries to tell her she needs a rest cure, tells Octavia how worried he is. Told by them rest not work the only cure. Right.

Leonard can’t be with her every minute and she drowns herself on Friday March 28th. River running fast and high, she puts a large stone in her pocket and lets herself drown.

**************************

Aftermath:

Close friends told; by April 1 the body had not been found. The Times carried article on 3 April, begins to be reported, River Ouse dragged. Tributes begin. Leonard received over 200 letters, replied to each, to himself. Body found 18 April. Distasteful music; he came alone to her cremation; he hated the pretentious casket. He used quote from Waves; Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!

Leonard carries on business of papers one has to cope with 753. He says he is better off coping alone. The year of 1943 as described in this book and VW’s almost understandable (now to me) suicide. Not quite: as I don’t quite get why Carrington couldn’t live on who had such friends, such worlds to belong to; so why Woolf couldn’t manage with Leonard there. What if she hadn’t had him. I get that. I did read somewhere (maybe this book) that in 1943 Mark Gertler killed himself. He was Jewish.

Leonard was rightly irritated when his choice of “Cavatina” for Virginia’s cremation was replaced by “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo. I remember how I had to be alert to every reference to Jim’s actual death: he went to his rest the video had on it at the end; I protested angrily each time. How dare they? And Leonard had no one there with him so no need to worry (for those who do) others will be offended. I am not sure one should make a wild joke about one’s death so when it was said the other day Carrie Fisher chose for her urn a pill box for Prozac I can see the mockery of pretension, and Leonard had only pretentious choices. He did make a plain tablet to put above where he buried the urn.

Some jackass wrote a letter printed by the Times excoriating anyone who kills themselves; we “all take our part nobly in this fight against the devil.” For once Leonard doesn’t heed his own advice and answers the jerk, trying to explain. Carrington better off not having anyone to take her as a symbol.


From their middle years together

For the next 28 years Leonard kept up a campaign to keep Virginia Woolf in the public eye as important, respected, he would bring out the vast amount of unpublished material (not novels you see) at carefully timed intervals. He husbanded the material, edited it (so cut sections of A Writer’s Diary), he controlled the way the texts were presented for better or worse.

From Moments of Being: Woolf repeatedly recurs to the real problems of writing a biography. In a way her real thrust totally undermines the social construction point of view (I use a different term but it was the Foucault argument we got into last fall — that far back): what she wants is to get into a biography the deep self, moments of being innate in use through what we remember. One problem here is to do this you’d have a million word first chapter. I particularly liked her worries about moments of “non-being,” left out by Lee. These are the hours we are alive that we do not remember, that if asked about we cannot account for the next day, when we are not fully there somehow or even much. For myself these occur especially at night ,and blogging is a way of overcoming “non-being,” so the next morning if I try to remember how I spent the night, there’s the blog showing that I did exist, and what I thought and how I lived my life that night. Readers might concentrate on the particular content in the two blogs not supposed to be about me, with other subjects, and even the Sylvia blog does not stress how I’m overcoming non-existence.

Diarist feel they get to exist by recording their intimate lives. With some important exception for women especially of recording sex lives (one’s homosexuality for example for a man), and maybe something they are determined to keep hidden (yet often let out — Toibin says diarists want to be “found out”), in fact they don’t worry about privacy for real except that until the Net when people can blog daily and without an editor, often diarists were much freer by deciding not to publish. This is risky as so often around you are relatives who don’t in the least sympathize with or understand you, especially those who regard writing as something that must be monitored lest it endanger their or a friend’s reputation in whatever way.

Lee says it was first in the 1960s she became an icon, a myth, a literary heroine, texts for feminists. She went on living and changing after her death.

Lee pulls away from the death itself. She is a woman who herself does not care for unpleasantness any more than true non-conformity in social life. But she has gone after Woolf like one would a ghost and re-created or found and presented her fully.

Ellen

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson)

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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Demelza confronting Elizabeth

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

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

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

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

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

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Demelza climbing up in front of Ross once more

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

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The two friends reunited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not a museum piece as Farthing said.

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

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The working mine the set-designers keep to

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

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

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Not quite the familiar kind of title. I’d been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maud, revised, edited by Amy Mandelker, with Elisabeth Guertik’s superb La Guerre at la Paix just beneath for comparison since July;

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and began to listen to David Case reading an unabridged text by Constance Garnett last May.

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Frederick Davidson (David Case) reading aloud Constance Garnet’s translation unabridged

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An appealing small photo of Garnett

I finished book and mini-series about a week before Christmas. So 9 months. Translated texts by four women. Mini-series by men.

But if you count that I began to watch (and fell in love with) Jack Pulman’s 20 part 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins as Pierre), last January and have gone through it at least 3 times; and then went on to watch Bondarchuk’s Russian 1966 War and Peace (it’s 5 disks lasting something like 9 hours, Bondarchuk himself is Pierre; and I’ve gone through the whole thing nearly twice); Andrew Davies’s 6 part 2016 BBC War and Peace (Paul Dano, Pierre; watching at least twice, the last time weeping throughout the whole of the sixth episode) with one time for the Vidor 1955 War and Peace (once, Henry Fonda, Pierre, John Mills as Platon, Audrey Hepburn Natasha) — this experience might count for two years perpetual engagement.

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Fonda as Pierre and Hepburn as Natasha

I probably proposed to the listserv at Trollope19thCStudies @ Yahoo to read Tolstoy together because I so loved the Pulman mini-series and wanted to understand it much better, see what depths it was drawing on, attempting faithfully to dramatize. Now I’d like to know so much more about Sophia as it was she was who copied out Tolstoy’s endless drafts and she who put together a final version of the book different from the one Tolstoy first published and the one translated and read today (except for those like Christian who read all the drafts). We have agreed that sometime next summer the group of us (whoever is there) will read and discuss Anna Karenina together.

You could say I immersed myself as I also read over the 9 months about 2/3s of A.N. Wilson’s biography, two old fashioned interpretive books (F. R. Christian and Rimvydas Silbajoris, close readers and real source students of the 1960s and 70s types), three of the chapters of John Bayley’s Tolstoy and the Novel, about one half of Alexandra Popoff’s book on the man who may be said to have preyed on Tolstoy in the last part of his life, his “false” disciple, Vladmir Chertkov, watched The Last Station and read Michael Hoffman’s shooting script (though not the book by Jay Parini), and now am one third into Alexandra Popoff’s life of Sophia Tolstoy.

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A superb shooting script gives a reading on the very old Tolstoy and his wife: Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as Sophia

I posted about all this too (to a small Yahoo listserv called Trollope19thCStudies), at least twice a week, sometimes more.

Has Tolstoy changed my life? or view of the world? No. Did the texts and films out of his book affect my existence? Well if you look at time taken yes. I agree it’s one of the world’s great novels, though Tolstoy would not like to hear it called a novel, and its reach is even severely limited by Tolstoy’s aristocratic and masculinist outlook. It absorbed me; often the text felt packed vivid with life, provided such compelling reading — the exception is after a while his repetitive chapters on what real history is, how events in history come about, how to write about these, and attacks on historians for great writing as if history were the result of a handful of powerful individual’s choices at any given time. But because Tolstoy is alert to genre and other books, this book speaks to what is in others, and contextualizes these others with itself.

Probably for me what this book most taught me was about other books because of its conscious relationship to them, especially historical fiction, the more typical 19th century realistic novels. Since reading his book I’ve become aware how much his double-structure, of one half richly individual stories, and the other larger political (war is politics by other means) contexts, taught other historical novelists since him. They imitate him, from say (to cite two recent books I’ve read in the past) Adhaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun (individual Egyptian and British characters contextualized with the larger Arab-Israel conflicts since 1948) to Virginia Woolf’s The Years.

If this seems dry, it isn’t to me for whom books have meant so much.

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A significant book — it includes historical films and adaptations

I read books as deeply reflective of the author and his or her life so that the book may be read as a disguised family history gives it another sort of meaning as a site of memory.

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I hope to read this when we get to Anna Karenina

It’s easiest to fall back on the characters to grasp the book’s meaning in itself. Most of the characters are so convincing in terms of 19th century novels (the women less so than the men’ Tolstoy said early on he was imitating the English novel); what was happening in the “war” part of the novel and its politics so relevant. When I thought I would be bored say after a week’s hiatus (sometimes more), I’d fall back into the text and find myself engaged all over again. I felt that the characters could carry on almost without Tolstoy, and he ended where he did because one must end somewhere. 1317 pages (the Maud text) is enough. But this is absurd: the characters are given life by him, reflect and are shaped by his inner life, and the story comes to an end because what he wanted to say about them, where bring them to, has been accomplished. Silbajoris is particularly lucid on why the worlds of perceptions in War and Peace feel possessed by some real person (Chapter 5).

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Hopkins as Pierre in the Moscow burning episode

Since the male characters are those given most depth and reality, the females kept much more to stereotypes that males (Tolstoy specifically) see and understand, to enjoy War and Peace you must enter into a male-centered approach. At first this feels less gender- and class-driven (most of those we travel any time with are a tiny highly privileged group within larger Russia) because of the way Tolstoy shapes their conflicts as innate and generic to any private self. I bonded strongly with the central male character, Pierre Bezhukhov: the book is his journey from early adulthood as he gradually and with much emotional pain, and many divagations, decisions which hurt him, adjusts to living in and alongside his society in a way worthy of him, yet never gives scope to what his high intelligence and noble nature could do, were he given real room. I loved him for his kindness to others too.

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James Norton as Andrei dancing with Lily James as Natasha at her first ball (2016 W&P)

By contrast, the more secondary, normative, and higher ranking male, Andrei Bolkonsky, behaved in alienating ways, but I grieved for his self-deprivation and early death, brought on by his efforts to please conventional powerful authority figures whose corruption, blindness and narrow egoism he never fully comprehends. Nikolai Rostov, not quite tertiary, incapable of any self-examination or criticism of his society chance, yet so well-meaning, ends doing well from luck (though Tolstoy discounts chance repeatedly and his tenacious instinct for self-preservation.

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Thomas Arnold as Denisov entranced with Natasha at a home party (the same 2016 W&P)

A whole continuum of male characters contextualizes them, from their peers in years, the evil-committing pair, smart, effective and spiteful (he enjoys inflicting violence) Dolokhov and his mate (until he is killed) the utterly selfish, grasping, male animal Anatole Kuragin (apparently his rake-gambler type was in an original draft intended to be the central character) to the good-natured characters, the slightly obtuse (all the more survivable), Denisov (who I loved), the selfless conscientious yielder-soldier Tushin (who saves lives risking his own), and the half-mad uneducated pesant Platon Karataev (who his society throws away with his blessing). Then there are the older corrupted, the hollow-courtier of a man, Prince Vasily, the deeply humane (paradoxically) wise in experience general Kutusov. I could go on to add so many who come alive for one scene, one moment, one or a set of chapters, giving us this or that experience of life through their story-event.

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Frank Middlemass as General Kutusov (1972 BBC W&P)

For the men a group of issues emerges from the “le monde” chapters. The same public versus private, ethical (which has to do with doing right to others and to one’s gifts) versus amoral behavior (anti-social, inhumane). These feed into profoundly anti-killing, anti-war paradigms as senseless in the “war” chapters. Tolstoy’s answers are not satisfactory (sometimes perverse because of his religiosity), but he asks the candid questions without cant for his era and these questions and some of his answers are transferable. He says repeatedly that a war takes the willingness of thousands of men to spend huge amounts of time killing one another. The commanders care about their place in the organization first and their theories about how to plan for war show few consider its realities. People do not respond sensibly to crises, rarely acknowledge a coming disaster before it’s upon them.

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Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Part 3: 1812

With the women he does not ask the crucial questions but he shows them suffering from powerlessness, so circumscribed and hemmed in, and with an added strong sexual standard (they are judged according to their sexual chastity and obedience to norms of marriage), lack of agency (under the thumb of a parent or authority figure): the saving element is their relationships with one another are detailed so believably and movingly, that what lies outside this seems almost unimportant.

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Morag Hood as Natasha trying to explain to draw sympathy from Sonya (Joanna David) why she finds Anatole’s offer to flee so irresistible (1972 W&P, “Madness” episode)

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Sonya bitter at what has been demanded of her, tells Natasha (against the countess’ orders not to) that Andrei lies very sick in the convoy (1972 W&P, “Life and Death”)

The central women characters are the ingenue heroine, Natasha Rostov, said to be modeled in part by Tolstoy’s (mis-)perception of his wife (who wrote an autobiographical story under this name, which she burned). Bondarchuk believed in the existence of this type and took her story and made it the center of the second part of his family so it becomes a sentimental heroine’s text within a heroic yet damning story of war. There’s the family dependent, semi-servant, Sonya (whose last name we never learn) and Marya, the cruelly abused sister (by her father) of Andrei. Most important throughout is the Countess Rostov who (like Pierre’s cousin, Katische) whatever it has taken from her, whatever she may have to demand of others, stands tenaciously and resolutely for obeying hegemonic hierarchical norms so as to stay wealthy — while her husband, the hopelessly non-competitive lazy amiable Count Rostov cannot hold onto even a wagon during a siege.

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Angela Downs as Marya crushed by her father’s jeering cruelty over a proposal of marriage for her money — Anatole cannot even be faithful or interested in her for two days (1972 W&P, “Two Proposals”)

Equally central to the story (though not gone into psychologically very much) are Pierre’s (to Tolstoy and in the book), vicious and corrupt wife, Helene Kuragin; the semi-mistress (or sexually used) dependent of the Bolkonskys and companion-maid to Marya, Mlle Bourienne, and the female equivalents of Prince Vassily, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, the hollow saloniere, the parrot of what it is socially acceptable to say and do, with whom the novel begins, and the mother of the trained-to-be heartless Boris Durbetskoy (ever rising in rank and wealth), Anna Mikhilaovna, sycophant extraordinaire.

I found the readings of Natasha found in Pulman and Davies of great help in coming to terms with Tolstoy’s central anticipatory Freudian account of the “enthrallment” of Natasha to the sadistic Anatole: after her engagement to Andrei, she is in considerable distress from how Andrei’s family has rejected, mortified her, her self-esteem badly wounded by Andrei’s leaving her, the very sheltered nature of her life a risk. About four of us felt similarly that we were not given anywhere near the insight into Sonya’s feelings her plight as lover (physcial too) of Nikolai and pillow-like confidante of Natasha when she is harassed into allowing herself to lose chance of personal fulfillment because she lacks sufficient money to make up for the Rostovs’ coming bankruptcy. Helene is a monster in the novel because she’s sexually promiscuous, has no understanding of what integrity or virtues might mean, in Tolstoy’s ms incestuous with her brother; as with Dolokhov Davies tries to humanize her as wanting pleasure, adulation, and independence at any price (many human beings are cool towards one another, use one another).

I particularly admired how Tolstoy could move from such large perspectives, vast battles made sense of so that they are de-mystified, seiges, how human beings behave so barbarically in mobs, and as particular individuals (the mayor of Moscow scapegoating a miserably abused once idealistic middle class young man so that he is torn to bits after weeks of mental and physical torture and abuse in the czar’s prisons) to paying attention and bringing to life the smallest details in a scene (Platon’s dog howling at his death but then trotting after someone else), the most seemingly unimportant creatures (down to insects), and how beautiful with acutely felt life he could make a landscape. This is compensation: the joy some human beings feel at a hunt (competition in killing, the thrill of this some feel) and how sometimes he seemed to break taboos over what one can show about human beings even today. The death scenes are startling: from the fights over who gets what once the agonized or nearly unconscious presence vanishes, to the process of death itself going on all that while.

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Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhailovna holding fiercely onto the will; Fenella Woolgar as Katische, Pierre’s cousin, has tried to steal in order to destroy it, Stephen Rea as Count Vassily looking on (2016 War and Peace)

Ellen

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Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitronia Balfe) singing & dancing gaily and wryly

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Murtagh Fraser (Duncan LaCroix) dancing stiffly and awkwardly (from Episode 14, “The Search”)

Claire: May I make a suggestion? Perhaps you could sing a song to jazz up the dance a bit.
Murtagh: Jazz?
Claire: To spice up, enliven. A song?
Murtagh: Yes.
Claire: Something toe-tapping, like

He was a famous trumpet man From out Chicago way He had a boogie style that no one else could play He was the top man at his craft But then his number came up And he was gone with the draft He’s in the army now A-blowing reveille. He’s the boogie woogie bugle boy of Company B

Murtagh: What?
Claire: It’s a bonnie tune.
Murtagh: But you need a Scottish song …
Claire (sometime later):

Here’s to all you lads and lasses That go out this way Be sure to tip her coggie When you take her out to play Lads and lasses toy a kiss The lads never think what they do is amiss Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie For every lad?! wander just to have his lass And when they see her pintle rise They’ll raise a glass And rowe about their wanton een They’ll dance the reels as the troopers go over the lea Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie He giggled, google me He was a banger He sought the prize between my thighs Became a hanger And there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie If you see a strapping redheaded fellow, let me know. There’s a big redheaded lad come through these parts. But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie And no there’s none as muckle as the wanton tune of strathabogie

Dear friends and readers,

In these last three episodes the first season concluded with moving from transitioning to a downright reversal of gender roles. This is taken to a level meant to astonish viewers: where else is a man broken in spirit and raped? The rescuers are all women or women-led. First, the two heroines (Jenny, his sister, Laura Donnelly, one, her breasts filled with milk), and then one, his wife, Claire, alone with her subaltern hero’s brother-mate, now discovered to be rather a replacement father, Murtagh, go on quest for said hero, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). They find him having escaped hanging, thrown into chains in a dungeon, having been humiliated to the point of robbing him of all pride, tortured (his right hand smashed with a hammer), raped, brought to want suicide by one half of the series doppelganger hero-villain, Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies).

He is rescued by the concerted repeated courageous efforts of said wife-heroine, and a band of his mates; then he is nursed, his hand re-structured by her (now we move back to usual gender roles), taken loving care of by all, including brothers, in a monastery. Finally, coaxed out of intense self-hatred, depression, nightmares, but not just recalled rather driven back to life by Claire (again he is the one worked upon) and simply taken into flight across the waters. The three episodes form a kind of climax and denouement trilogy to all that has gone before. Taken to another level.

What many viewers might not know or not realize (or forget) is, like the 12th and 13th episodes (“Lallybroch” and “The Watch”), these three seem to follow the outline of the book’s ending, but in fact depart radically.

In the book the quest, which takes all of Episode 14 (as “The Search”) and then some of 15 (Wentworth Prison), takes 5 paragraphs out of the first of a closing series of long chapters (Part Six, 8 to be precise). While the capture, beating, breaking of spirit and body and rape of Jamie, is there in the book, it takes only about 2/3s of one chapter (35, “Wentworth Prison”) and is not placed as climax. In the mini-series, the actual core scenes of Black Jack and Jamie where Jamie allows Black Jack to make love to him and responds are held off as a flashback (reminding me of Richardson’s Clarissa) until near the end of 16, the last episode (“To Ransom A Man’s Soul”) so they become the climax.

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Murtagh, Father Anselm (Ian Hanmore) and Claire discussing what seems the hopelessness of bringing Jamie out of his intense grief and loss

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Jamie responding, remembering, dreaming moving to the flashback (which I will not put stills from on my blog lest I attract the wrong kind of attention) (from Episode 16, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”)

As in the book’s versions of Episodes 12 & 13 a lingering depiction of a story about a tense return home ending unexpected disaster from treachery, so that the theme is rooted in characterization and as much about what is meant by home, and men’s relationships to women there, in the book’s versions of 14-16 we are given a luxuriating in woman’s romance:

a full emphasis on Claire’s attempts to save Jamie by negotiation, entering two different Scottish households, one the armed castle type run by Sir Fletcher, and the other, another old-fashioned country house farmstead of the McRannochs, where Claire meets the wife as well as husband. In the book, as heroines have done before her, she is successful because she enlists the aid of the non-violent home-y private knowledge of the MacRannochs, including their cattle. The cattle is just about all that is kept in the mini-series: a way to barge into the prison and during the fracas and violence, sluice Jamie out. In the book Claire, Jamie and Murtagh flee to France — across the waters — immediately, and are taken into a French monastery, recalling to his mind the one he fled to (and told Claire of) after his first nearly mortal encounter with Black Jack, which inflicted on him his criminal status and permanently scarred back.

In the mini-series the monastery is in the highlands (and not safe, but hidden enough for a while) and,by contrast, the final scene is on the shore, a goodbye to Scotland for now, and the three principals sail away — rather like many a male-centered sea story.

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Beyond intrigue, comedy and action-adventure, what survives from the book is the agon of Jamie and Claire forced apart by Black Jack on threat of destroying another part of Jamie’s body (Episode 15, “Wentworth Prison”)

In the book after Claire has performed her physical and psychological re-fashioning of Jamie, they find this French monastery unsafe. Reminding me uncannily of Sophie Lee’s Recess now, they flee into a cave where they stay, make intense love, and then crawl out through the earth to reach the sky and build another future than is in the cards for themselves and others.

But there another political level to this drama (as pointed out by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker last year): the torturing of Jamie mirrors our own politics. Gabaldon wrote Outlander in 1995 well before 9/11, before systematic torture was practiced by the Bush administration, allowing it to spread and become acceptable elsewhere. It’s important to emphasize this political source for what we see, not only as demonstrating even women’s historical romances are about history and politics (as certainly historical fiction is), but because a newly elected US president has condoned torture and people he’s appointed condon it too. I believe the scenes are made emphatic and developed intutively as timely: there are two between Black Jack and Jamie, in the first Jack smashes Jame’s hand because it seems Jamie will not bend, not yield, in the second the intensely painful submission scene. It should be remembered that no information is being extracted. There are too many studies for me to cite showing that torture is useless for extracting truthful information; perhaps Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain is most pertinent here: she argues not force itself alone but the fear and infliction on someone of bodily pain lies behind powerful state gov’t’s successes. Here the English.

The mini-series might be said to be a (long-distance) descendant of Walter Scott, historical fiction, with a heap of fashionable post-colonialism; the book is a similar descendant of Ann Radcliffe (combining all three of her famous romances) by way of Daphne DuMaurier’s occasionally kinky eroticism, woman’s historical romance (often part fantasy).

Pace the book about these forms I’m reading just now, Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, the differences between these two genres is considerable. I’ve now gotten myself the British DVD set of the new 2016 Poldarks and the fat books of Complete Scripts, Series 2 by Deborah Horsfield, and will be leaving off writing about the Outlander mini-series for a while, but I’m also struck by how both mini-series (1970s and again now) albeit in very different ways, as they go on become more literally faithful to the books as well as actual 18th century history.

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Surface mining in the new Poldark (seen by the second episode of the 1st season)

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The opening scene at Inverness (1, “Sassenach”)

The World of Poldark by Emma Marriot, a companion volume to the 2016 TV series has many short essays on historical topics; The Making of Outlander by Tara Bennett, a companion volume to this one on-going TV series has almost none: history is only brought up as a detail to explain this facet of a costume or prop or why a particular ritual or song took a certain hybrid form. Winston’s Graham’s original book about Poldark’s Cornwall had much about Cornwall itself (for real), his relationship to it, and his characters to history, actual photos of real places, all set-up as life-writing.

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Cornish perpendicular gothic window, a photo from Graham’s edition of Poldark’s Cornwall

Gabaldon’s equivalent Outlandish Companion has much about Scottish history seen through a prism of fantasy, romance, with astrological tables, ancient Scottish symbols, words, drawings of ruins, playful illustrations, all set-up as a kind of substitute (almost) for reading four of the Outlander books. I began these blogs on Outlander by way of having some comparative and intertextual context for the new Poldark.

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Permutations of a bracelets from Outlandish Companion

*****************************

None of this is to stay this Outlander mini-series is not a marvel of good writing (especially the over-voice linking much), interesting human sequences, studies of gender, some post-colonial history, strong structure, effective music and effective scenery (beautiful when wanted), the cinematography breath-taking, the close-ups deeply moving, but to recognize what has happened to it in an adaptation meant to engage male as as well as female viewers. So I’ll conclude with just two elements I was struck by in these last three.

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Coming up to the monastery

The use of the past is not just a pretext. The unfamiliarity of the past is important as when Claire and Murtagh travel across northern Scotland to find Jamie in an era without maps, daily newspapers, telegraph, telephone, TV, internet, lots of published maps (no GPS, no cell-phone). We are comforted by their overcoming the lack of technology, and we delight in how eras can be brought together. So Claire entertains with jazzed up versions of Scottish songs, sounding like a radio program from the 1940s. She tells fortunes of women glad to hear their husbands will die young. She fights one imitator for (in effect) copyright — and he cheats and uses her materials. It’s fun to see Murtagh’s awkward dancing. The visualization and sounds of all this is in fact what the book cannot provide.

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Claire snacking inbetween performances (14, “The Search”)

Love and friendship are matters of affinity, companionship and then physical love are compensatory and crowning expressions of a valuing of one another’s individual qualities, rather than an end in itself. Black Jack is perverse because he wants to devour and punish, inflict pain to feel his power. The good features of any personality are the most solitary ones, the indwelling mind which keeps to its own integrity. So at the end of both book and this first series, we have the deeply gratifying coming together of loving affection between parting men and wedded men and women.

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Claire saying goodbye to Willie who has been the most loyal of all Jamie’s friends

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Fair is the wind for France

************************************

I have not mentioned the music of this series thus far. Let me end on that which begins and haunts most episodes: the theme of the Craig Na Dun stones and women’s dance.

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A header on one of the fan sites for this mini-series

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone …

The song is a re-working of a traditional Scots folk tune: The Skye-Boat Song, with words paraphrased from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Sing me a song of a lady that is gone.” Brian McGreary who composed it describes himself as “a Jacobite fanatic,” he did his thesis on the Jacobites and the music of the era. He used a “live orchestra and live soloists … live bagpipes, the live fiddle, the bodhran, which is the drum that can change pitch, [which we hear] predominantly in the main title … ” It was an attempt to be authentic Scots, using one of the great Scottish writers. It’s sung by Raya Yarborough and is part of the paratext opening for each episode.

There is a music or a theme associated with Frank, Claire’s tenderly loving husband from the 1940s and it’s classical, 20th century, what we associate with Vaughn Williams, English composers drawing on English folk song. There is a theme for Frank and Claire together, and there is a theme for Claire and Jamie together, heard in different permutations, bodhran, Scottish percussion, small string ensemble, a deeper more baritone setting with low strings or a viola da gamba when the focus is on Jamie (from The Making of Outlander, pp 22-27). But no theme for Claire. Ah well. She gets to do the over-voice, the perspective …

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he 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.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

ethereal

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years (the epigraph to Outlander, the first words heard in the series, spoken by Balfe).

Ellen

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