Archive for the ‘political novels/films’ Category

Dear friends,

It’s not quite been like a UHaul, but it has taken a couple of weeks since I needed instruction and help and the actual transition was done by a remarkably generous digital expert at groups.io. I have been busy this last few days moving three lists from the continually deteriorating Yahoo groups social platform, to groups.io. In the last three years and accelerating when Verizon bought Yahoo, all the software on the social platform of yahoo groups has been debased and then increasingly ignored so that outages, glitches and endless individual problems go unfixed. Sometimes the whole group site vanishes for a time. And not even a boilerplate message explaining what has happened and if anything is being done. There is nowhere to ask a question or for a live individual to help. As the demise of net neutrality sinks in and brings changes based on commercial considerations of the largest profit, at any time Verizon could leave the yahoo groups vanished.

So rather than wait when it will be too late to retrieve archives, like others with communities at Yahoo who care about one another and their shared experiences, we’ve moved to groups.io. This is a new social platform run by Mark Fletcher, who invented the original ONElist, morphed it into egroups, sold it to Yahoo, come back to rescue this specific kind of experience. Among the astonishing attractions of groups.io is you can have its basic services for free, and they transferred the archives, all postings, all photos, all files (essays and whatever). A group’s identity is centered in its memory, which means its history. This the new site preserves.

Email groups are not obsolete. They still offer a kind of closed community interaction, which allows for longer messages, and encourages replies and relationships among the people posting much more frequent and much stronger than is found on blogs, face-book and other large anonymously-directed venues.

So very satisfied by what has happened, as I gather are many other Yahoo groups who moved there (I don’t have firm statistics for how many), this evening I thought I’d tell all the readers of this blog who are interested in Trollope and (a liberally defined) Nineteenth Century (1815-1914); Long Eighteenth Century studies, which I now expanded from just the terrain of the Enlightenment itself to historical fiction, romance and film (1660-1815); and women writers, artists of all kinds in all countries, all ages, and women’s issues; that the three lists I moderate have moved to this new version of the original site and have slightly new titles.

for Trollope and His Contemporaries, which now has the nifty abbreviation (I didn’t think of it) Trollope&Peers


New Banner: George Hicks, At the Post Office

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Donald Pleasence as Mr Harding playing his violoncello (1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater)

for WomenWriters:


New Banner: a collage of several paintings by Maud Lewis

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Anonymous depiction of Christine de Pizan writing

for 18thCWorlds

Antonio Canaletto, Northumberland House


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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza Poldark, singing as she brings a basket of food to the coal mine owned and run by her husband

The first two have retained the same goal as they’ve had.

Trollope and His Contemporaries — a group of people who behave as friends and read and discuss Anthony Trollope, any 19th texts by other authors and 20th century one relevant to Trollope, by authors as supremely good as he is as a writer People are invited to discuss other books they are reading at the same time, and any movies or art seen and music heard …

Women Writers — a community of women readers. We discuss issues of interest to women as well as their art, writing, music, crafts and lives. We are much more a literary than political list, but it is assumed you are a feminist and progressive in outlook … Men are welcome but we stay with art by or (in the case of film) made with women in mind. We do sometimes have group readings and discussions

I’ve changed the last to encourage people reading historical fiction, romance and watching historical films (and adaptations) to join us and hope to start group reading and discussion of contemporary favorites. The older version only went for texts written in the 18th century (Boswell & Johnson, Fanny Burney, novels, poetry, educational treatises):

18th Century Worlds — for people who are interested in all things in the long 18th century (1660-1830): politics, history, literature, arts, music, society and culture. I also welcome readers and viewers of historical fiction and romance and films set in the 18th century … Books written in the 19th through 21st centuries about or set in the 18th century, or time-traveling tales are part of our terrain.

Sylvia Plath


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Albert Finney as Churchill (Jim Broadbent as Desmond Morton, The Gathering Storm)

Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)


Another rather shorter blog where I depart from our usual fare, this time in content. Since this summer, without intending this (in a “fit of absence of mind”), I’ve been watching and reading about a sub-genre of movie I hadn’t realized existed: films centering on Winston Churchill as a piquantly fascinating and admirable older hero. In one he seems hardly to figure, Dunkirk; in another, he is sideshow for a season, The Crown (superb performance by John Lithgow — I hope to blog soon on this extraordinarily well-done serial drama); in a third, he is sort of warped Trump twin, The Darkest Hour (very worrying film). Then after reading Geoffrey Wheatcoft’s superb essay in the NYRB, “A Star is Born” (January 18, 2018), the most touching and insightful of biographical sketches, Rosemary Dinnage’s “Holding the Baby: Clementine Churchill” (under “Partners and Muses” in Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women), and Joan Hardwick’s Clementine Churchill: The Private Life of a Public Figure, I consciously set out to watch two against type: 2001 The Gathering Storm, and 2016 Churchill’s Secret.

A statue on the Chartwell grounds

This is a departure because I avoid books and movies about supposedly great men, often, as Thomas More had it, the pests of humanity. I dislike and find such films dangerous most of the time (exceptions include anti-war films Danger USB, Piece of Cake, Kilo Two Bravo). I slipped into this for the reason I want to talk about two against type: we find ourselves in a culture and unacknowledged coup lurching towards war. The cult has been and continues to be heavily American, a profoundly militarist state where violence is close to the surface, and macho male norms prevail. What can attract them? What’s worth noticing is the Churchill films (until The Darkest Hour) have been anti-fascist because Churchill’s intelligence, words, behaviors help undermine the hero fantasy, and he is not himself an action-adventure icon. The list of actors playing the various parts in these films show something worth while glimpsed in the legend: Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Robert Shaw; even the self-deprecating ever self-conscious Bob Hoskins (in World War Two: When Lions Roared, in split screens, with Michael Caine as Stalin, John Lithgow as Churchill, with much war documentary footage).

Gathering Storm and Churchill’s Secret place Clementine equally at the center

Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine who Churchill calls Mrs Pussycat and she Churchill Mr Pug (Gathering Storm)

Lindsay Duncan as Clementine, with Romola Garadi as Nurse Millie (the myth has come to include a young woman working for Churchill whose life he changes)

These two against type also feature Clementine as central, a role when written with insight offers remarkable moments for a great actress: in The Crown, when Harriet Walter as Clementine burns Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband because Sutherland captured his aging and dense characteristics and she cares about how she remembers him, it’s one of the finest intense sequences of the first season.

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have the vote?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’… We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitivity … and … later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up … May we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented and immortal species which has infested the world for so long … Clementine Churchill, a letter to The Times, published 1912)


Chartwell in both films played an important role.

In both we are being let into the life of the house and watch the characters wander about the grounds. In Gathering Storm, Churchill is fixing his pond, draining it, saving ducks; in Churchill’s Secret, it is a ambiguous haven for all.

I was much moved by The Gathering Storm. I felt as a widow what I’ve lost was enacted by Redgrave and Finney’s relationship: deep companionship and support. It gave over some 2/3s perhaps to private daily life whose values are not militaristic, not aggressive (anything but), nurturing, home-making. The movie has Churchill show Clementine on behalf of what he is acting: what preserving — good quiet lives lived in liberty. The center was the same as Spielberg’s The Post: a defense of whistle-blowers.

The film’s other hero, Linus Roache as Ralph Wigam is a Deep Throat, a Daniel Ellsberg, is supplying documents and evidence to Winston so he can have ballast in his speeches that they must prepare for and fight the insanely tyrannical socio-pathic Hitler. Wigam and his wife love dearly their disabled child, a Downs Syndrome son, caring for him tenderly. The emphasis was also on how Wigam was not supported by his colleagues (as is Ellsberg in The Post). In a Laura Poitras film the hero is a victim, and in The Gathering Storm Wigam’s colleagues, e.g., Hugh Bonneville as Pettifer. threaten Wigam by saying they will place him where he and his wife cannot attend properly to their child’s needs. Wigam cracks under the pressure of doing what he has been trained not to do.

Ronnie Barker returns as an the argumentative faithful comic Butler. Vulnerability is to the fore, mutual tolerance, comradeship.

The original title for Churchill’s Secret was KBO (said to be Churchill’s motto: Keep Buggering On). Here we have a man who with the help of a working class nurse who would never have voted for him, brings himself back from near death; the courage to be is at the film’s center. He’s weak, sick, and yet aware of others. No pious family, bickering bitter snarky adult children (especially good are Tara Fitzgerald and the inimitable Matthew Macfayden as egregious snob Randolph and desperate Diana. Rachel Stirling as the daughter deprived of a man because her father despised him), yet everyone gathers together to watch a film and walk in the garden.

In Churchill’s Secret, there was a disturbing intrusion of our contemporary insanities: the way Garai was introduced. A hard-working nurse, she is commanded by silent men to “come” with no explanation, then threatened if she spills some vital secret she will regret it forever. This is appalling — it seems to be presented as part of life. Garai is about to go to Australia to live a life as a man’s wife when she really would prefer to stay in London because her job is more satisfying. She does not long to spend her life as this man’s wife. And watching Clementine crying and the family’s lack of identity outside this man gives her courage to say no. She seems to lose her labor identification and allow her father’s earnest reading to be made fun of (just a bit, as Churchill reads the same poet).


A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

What is valued in these two films are relationships between people, reasonableness, strength as staying true to an inner self, kindness and real equity. No misogyny, no ritual humiliation for anyone. Touching individualizations. In Dunkirk it’s a sheer will to survive that governs the evacuation whose hero is Mark Rylance.

When you come to the quiet end of these two films, you might think as I did: how unfathomable and crazy can we be in the US to have large numbers of people supporting a manic malevolent man who promotes violence, anti-social behavior at every turn, says carelessly he’ll kill 12 million, and no one acts seriously consistently to remove him.

This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

Izzy tells me she has read Churchill’s war correspondence and it is very worth reading. The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is valuable. That last word is significant: he made himself into a theatrical figure in public, a possible clue to the cult. Like Martin Luther King he was a master rhetorician, but since he was not philosophically deep, we have to look elsewhere to understand. A recent book by Barry Gough extends our sense of Churchill as head of the Navy together with John Arbuthnot Fisher in World War I.

In Joan Hardwick we see the aristocratic culture of the later 19th and early 20th century: Clementine was the child by a man who was not her mother’s legal husband; the same man fathered her older sister. Her twin brothers had a different father. She was sent away to and pulled out of schools on whims, for lack of money. Maybe she clung to Winston because he was rock-like, a kind of Tolstoy’s Levin & Karenin with cigar and liquor.

As Sir Winston and Lady Churchill much older; Harriet Walter as Clementine burning the false portrait


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Anthony Trollope in old age, photograph by Julia Cameron


An interlude. I interrupt our regularly scheduled programming about books, movies, cultural events. I promise not to go on for too long …

I’ve written about Trollope as a semi-epistolary novelist (many times) and how the way he maps his imagined communities structures the working bones of his fiction (and his characters’ lived lives) into social, political, and psychological relationships.

Trollope’s map of Barsetshire

I may have talked about how both connect back to his 37 years as a post office official, but tonight, as a result of recent political developments in the US (and elsewhere) I thought I’d commemorate and mourn what is happening to his non-literary work, what he accomplished in his day job for the post office and liberty of communication among ordinary people.

I thought of Trollope two days ago as I made my confident way to my local postbox (pillar in British English) around the corner from me, fully confident that the bunch of bills (which I do still write checks for and mail) would get where they are supposed to go with no interference, no surveillance, no need for a bribe. I had spent a number of hours at this work, plus began the stressful arduous task of thinking about my tax forms. This year I plan to go to AARP which offers tax services for someone like me (over 65, under a certain income) for free. And my daughter too. On the Trollope face-book page — undaunted by the Pizer court, fascistic Patriot’s Act, recently whose extensive surveillance powers over people’s private correspondence the US congress re-affirmed by a large majority here tonight — I raise a metaphorical glass of wine to him on this account. Joyce in Finnegans Wake (so I’m told, having not been able to read that one) does tribute to St Anthony for his work in the post office.

We had had brief thread on my small (272 members) Trollope yahoo list, Trollope19thCstudies@yahoogroups.com (about to to move to groups.io as TrollopeandHisContemporary@groups.io or [Trolloper&Peers]) as we are reading The American Senator now – where the ethnography, mapping of social and economic, psychological and political is pretty thick too (see postings from reading and discussion in 1999). On how Trollope’s task to map the areas he was making sure were also honest partly led to his visual mapping (in exquisite diagram in the case of Barsetshire) of many of his novels’ politically, economically socially arranged space. A member wrote that Trollope had gotten used to thinking about this from his postal work.

Trollope says in his Autobiography that he feared (predicted) the “angelic nature of his mission” to leave around southwest England and various areas in Ireland working freely-operating secure postal routes “was insufficiently appreciated.” People today talk of his contribution to the postal box (pillar), as if he were solely responsible: not at all. He was important in facilitating its practical implementation — which seems to me so in character. As important was how he made sure the mails were delivered without corruption (sans privatization to commit a Franglais phrase). Trollope’s travels to Egypt and the US and elsewhere also included post office work. He negotiated for treatises; he looked into the working of the local post offices where he traveled to (Washington, DC was one such place recorded in his North America). I remember how appalled he was appalled at wastage, inefficiency and indifference to ordinary people’s needs, their supposed mission, the patronage system in the US caused: every four years a huge number of people were fired; before the present civil service (previous I should say because the post office is no longer quite a federal agency) system. What kind of experience could be built upon for constructive work and employees this way? Trollope asked.

He thought the business of government agencies was to serve its people.

Someone made mild fun of me on the Trollope face-book page — based on my spelling of the word check (an Americanism); the subtext was to hit out at my whole attitude against gov’t surveillance and make fun.

I’m stubborn and admit to not caring for teasing, so said check is an American spelling and that “in the US banks issue checks. I spent much of yesterday writing checks. I still pay by check for some things. I order books of checks from my banks.”

And I went on to be more explicit, and in case the comment is lost or vanishes (for whatever reason, sinister or otherwise) I put it here as it is important perspective on Trollope’s ironically politics in his novels. He is guarded; he wants a larger readership. He never admits publicly when he attacks individuals or systems, which he does.

I should probably have given the larger context than contemporary (21st century corruption and surveillance) in my mind: I have also published in early modern to 18th century literature, and the women’s letters I’ve read (a specialty in publishing I once had, and still my truly favorite reading are women’s memoirs, letters, and poetry), women’s letters, I say, are intensely guarded and worried. Letters were routinely opened and read by gov’t agents; you could write one and it never get where you wanted it to because it was simply taken by someone who could use it against your family. That would include Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara in the 16th century in Italy whose letters I’ve read. The wealthy hired their own couriers. Anne Finch, the wife of a non-juror aristocrat (later 17th to 18th century) left very few letters.

The first era to show some compunction and sense that people had a right to privacy was the later 17th century in parts of Europe; the first reforms in the UK occur in the 18th; these are associated with Ralph Allen, a wealthy philanthropist and man of integrity. You begin gradually to see larger routine delivery of correspondence, postal rates settled (the person who received the letter paid); even so in the 1790s with Pitt’s crackdown on ordinary people and established extensive spy system, letters were used as evidence against people in trials (see Kenneth Johnston’s Pitt’s Reign of Alarm). Coleridge’s letters show he knew his were read, and feared pressure, hounding, loss of an ability to rent a place in the Lake District. John Thelwall, a friend, was refused accommodation by Coleridge and Wordsworth when he came north looking for a place to stay. Against Thelwall the state acted directly by arrest, interrogation, imprisonment, trial, conviction, punishment and later also unusual suspect; he found how difficult it was to get out of political catchment, how the distinction between personal and political is non-existent. William Godwin had to turn to anonymity, become a non-person to survive in his later years. Thelwall was arrested as one of the 12 and Godwin’s Cursory Strictures laid out argument defense counsel used. While Godwin supported Thelwall in the treason trial, later he wrote arguments which gave some ammunition to gov’t bills of gagging and no assembly.

The Interior of the New York Post Office (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, II, June 11, 1856)

The coming of the train figures in a modernization and spread of communication to lower rank people. some of the liberalization was the result of capitalism: capitalists and industrialists needed to use mail to communicate, to facilitate transactions, to move goods. The use of a stamp on an envelope and envelopes too were important innovations. So when in Trollope’s era he and others in the UK (there is an equivalent history in France) are working so hard to set up and ensure a system that gives everyone privacy, everyone paying the same rate, routes that can be depended upon, and even pillar boxes you can trust, this is a tremendous stride forward. What an astonishing thing it would have been to someone in the later 17th century say in the UK: walk out and put a letter or check into am iron box in public and assume it will get there; it’s said to be safe!

Thus in our own time we are seeing a disastrous turning in the opposite direction again (I hope I need not detail this but if someone asks, what do you mean? I’ll link in essay) and thus I imagine Trollope who worked so hard for this liberty, for efficiency, and people’s ability to communicate with one another with impunity turning in his grave.

The privatization going must ache his very bones.

Seeing him in this light also provides an enlightening perspective on his politics in his novels and non-fiction, which I’m about to have a paper published on in Antipodes (“‘On Inventing a New Country:’ Trollope’s Depiction of Settler Colonialism”) and have written much about online. To place him with analogous novels and novelists of his period: obviously Thackeray, but also Disraeli, also inventing the political novel. Mr Monk bring Phineas Finn a copy of Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career to read while Phineas is in prison: if you read Phineas Redux alongside Beauchamp’s Career you see close parallels. Gissing is a direct heir, so too Margaret Oliphant. In quiet plain style and realism he resembles Gaskell. His concerns ad topics are parallel to Dickens’s in politics and class and law and justice. A woman’s novel of the 1890s that bears comparison is Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert. Fast forward modern analogues are Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.


Am early 20th woman who delivered mail (women working in the post office)

Originally I was going to end here. But my good friend, Diane Reynolds, on our Yahoo lists, which include WomenwritersAcrossTheAges@yahoogroups.com (also moving to become WomenWriters@groups.io [WomenWriters]) rightly qualified my happy progressive narrative. She linked in an essay from the London Review of Books where Bee Wilson brings up an exception, which is worrying as it show how easy it is for local communities and certainly more powerful people at the center of gov’t to intervene and read people’s mails. Wilson reviews The Littlehampton Libels: A Miscarriage of Justice and a Mystery about Words in 1920s Englandby Christopher Hilliard (Oxford, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 879965), LRB, 40:3 (February 2008): “Merely a Warning that a Noun is Coming:”

Bee Wilson writes of how in a local post office and community at the opening of the 20th century people could simply snatch a woman’s letters, open and read them to see if she uses curse words, then leap from that to accuse her of anonymous poisonous letters and put her on trial to go to jail. Wilson means the essays as an example of the profanity males practice in a daily way, which we now know are (in the service of hateful bigotry) characteristic of the Trump White House. My reaction was this kind of language is found in many all male environments: my husband, Jim, a Division Chief in the federal gov’t and long-term IT engineer and then professor, told me this kind of language prevails in the 95% IT world — most of the profanity likens things in the software environment to parts of women’s bodies, which are themselves referred to in distressingly crude terms. If a woman is there and protests, she soon finds herself ostracized and/or severely punished.

Wilson’s essay is also about how women are not safe in their correspondence, but in the context of a narrative showing how your correspondence is protected, it’s a further demonstration of how from time immemorial men automatically have rights that women do not. From time immemorial communities think they have the right to invade women. Women have not got the same right to privacy as a man. A pregnant woman’s body, especially if she is unmarried, is fair game. For centuries before such women were accused of baby-killing. This is in the context of communities who put women who got pregnant outside marriage into ritual humiliation in church and then either took the child from her, or refused to support her or the child, thus driving her into street prostitution.

I’ve written reviews after studying this history. In the 21st century laws in the US have made so that doctors have the right to invade your body if you ask for an abortion; a case exists where a pregnant woman was taken off a plane to check if she was trying to abort the child (baby kill). Women used to be murdered for centuries on the charge of baby-killing; now they are imprisoned and chained if they want an abortion. They were guilty if the child was born dead, and had to prove it was dead upon birth to be exonerated.

So if you were a working class woman who wrote letters in the 1920s in Britain, your letters could be snatched and used against you based on what curse words you use. So relentless has been the gendered repression.


Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine Churchill (2002)

Up next “The Winston Churchill films”: I will discuss The Gathering Storm, featuring Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Linus Roache and Celia Imrie; and Churchill’s Secret (2016), with Michael Gambon, Lindsay Duncan and Romola Garai. After that we’ll return to Anna Karenina films (1985 and 1997).


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A photograph from a New York City production


This is my second blog honoring or remembering what Martin Luther King told us. I went to see The Humans last week at the Kennedy Center, and I saw The Gabriels last early January at the Kennedy Center. Both brought over from NYC, with somewhat changed casts. These two plays expose what has happened to the middle class in the US since the values and norms King stood for, the kinds of laws and social and racial and economic programs he would have passed have not been passed or have been rescinded, and what there was of social progress is now being further corroded –the realistic stories of Stephen Karam’s The Humans and Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels (see my review) are true to US life and measure the deterioration and impoverishment inflicted on the US population at large by its wealthy masters (corporations, individual very wealthy people and their obedient politicians).

The Humans and The Gabriels hold up mirrors to the destruction of the lower and middle middle class white family that has been let to happen in the past quarter of a century; The Humans shows the process at our later stage, the results of the Trump regime’s past year re-enforcement and acceleration. The Humans is a sort of speeded-up imitation of The Gabriels, shorter, one play with no intermission rather than three plays over three nights. The Humans are on the edge of bankruptcy and a need for welfare that no longer exists, for supplemental benefits and unemployment insurance; they have not fallen off as yet, but only two have jobs. The Gabriels are in better shape, all but the aging mother have jobs, no matter how menial, or an income, widow’s pension; they can afford to keep an tangential extra relative, a single woman (a stray type familiar to most older women in our society); the first wife of the widow’s husband (she the daughter of the one older couple) rents the widow’s attic. This single woman is very nervous waiting for a male date to show up; he never does. The Gabriels have lost the larger family home but still own the cottage we find them in. The Humans will soon all be in small apartments; the Gabriels (it’s the family name) come from such summer people made permanent and people once the servants of the super-rich. The Gabriels are probably better off because of this previous history of stability.

The set of The Humans

Taking Karam’s family, the Blakes, to be a sort of continuation of Nelson’s Gabriels, we might say the situation has become much more desperate, though both sets of people are grim as they face a bleak, opportunity-less future. In The Humans, there is a young heterosexual couple living together (not married) in an apartment which has been put together from the first floor of a broken down pair of rooms, one turned into a kitchen (not meant to be) and a make-shift iron stairwell down to a basement room. The couple invite the young woman’s family there for Thanksgiving dinner. The young woman is one of two daughters; the other comes too, and it emerges she’s a lesbian whose partner has left her and whom she phones at least once (perhaps more than that as she keep running out of sight, upstairs, into the bathroom). She has been abandoned and hurt emotionally and since she was economically partly dependent on her partner, she has had to move back with her parents very temporarily.

Kasam’s Blake parents are near retirement age (the central couple was just this age group in The Gabriels) and the Blakes bring an older woman who is the mother of the husband and demented, but they can’t afford to put her in a assisted living where she’d be treated terribly anyway. Probably die. She has a violent fit at one point and he has to subdue her. Nelson’s Gabriels also includes an Aged female P, but there is money to put her in better assisted living though not truly decent and at a very high cost which is stretching her son and his wife’ resources. In the case of The Gabriels, the family house has been lost, because the older woman fell for a deceptive scheme which seemed to promise her endless money and that she would never lose the house; she become a life-tenant in it, but the fine print allowed the new owner to throw her out. And he has. It was a bank-engineered scam she grabbed at because she couldn’t make her house payments. In neither case does the society help at all. In the US society allows such egregious theft to happen with impunity.

Yet another production where you can see how a situation comedy can be emerging

I felt that The Humans is not as good a play, though it got some very high praise in some reviews. At moments it edged towards situation comedy, obvious eliciting of laughter at mainstream predicaments. The use of cell phones signaled this. The laughter might have been the audience: I found myself not in the Theater Lab (where Izzy and I saw Twisted Dickens two weeks ago was as well as me The Gabriels last January), but the big Eisenhower theater, and while not every seat was taken, many were, and I was in the 2nd balcony. (I sometimes can’t tell where I’ve bought a seat — I don’t focus my mind on practicalities.)

So you had an audience who wanted to laugh comfortably; somehow the average person sniffs out mediocrity and then reinforces it by inane reactions. The Gabriels did take more effort to understand (there is much more there); you really should go all three times, though like Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests decades ago, you don’t have to see them in the correct order.

The subtitle of The Gabriels is Election Year during the Life of One Family. Interwoven were comments about the election where Clinton was running against Trump. That meant naturally they debated some of the issues; and that included health care for older people, and (surprisingly) foreign policy because so much of their high tax bill went to pay for wars. Why are there no young men in the Gabriel set? because one man has left his wife for a younger woman and to avoid the pressures of a bigger family to answer to; others connected to the family have died or been destroyed by drugs. In The Humans outside politics is never brought up nor is there an attempt at explanation as to why most of the characters they talk of and all of them are women but two.

Public Theatre
Written and Directed by Richard Nelson
Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren
Sets & Costumes Susan Hilferty
Lighting Jennifer Tipton

The humor of the Gabriels results from the character’s deep talk to one another, not superficial guffaws

The art of The Humans needs improvement too. The desperation of the individuals in The Humans and each of their stories is not brought out slowly over many hours (as in Nelson’s 3 plays worth of time) but suddenly in the second half of the second act the calamities were admitted to and piled on towards the end — a series of sudden revelations, that felt like distress upon distress. The Blake father has lost his long-time job just before he was eligible for his pension; the excuse was a one-time affair with a fellow teacher. I should say this is nothing new: my father’s mother in the 1980s was 2 years away from retirement from many years as a cleaning and forced out so deprived of her pension; my uncle (my mother’s sister’s husband) had to endure 10 years of deliberate very hard work than he’d had before to hold on to actually get that pension; he just managed it. So these retired parents are selling their house in Pennsylvania, which they bought because it was inexpensive but now they can get less for it than they paid. The Blake daughter making the Thanksgiving has no job. They are living in a slum like street, in an apartment somehow to the back of a store. The mother works (glad to get out of the house).

The Gabriels’ table, dishes

You might say we can measure the distance the middle class has declined since last year in furniture, dishes, and appliances. The characters in The Humans sit on plastic and metal folding tables; their meal is half-ass stuff, much of it fast food, not cooked much as their stove is minimal. Their dishes are plastic cups and they use rubber as central places to put the food out on. The Gabriels had a leftover lovely round wooden table and ate decent food decently cooked in a good stove on set of real dishes. The Humans are dependent on cab services to go all the way to Pennsylvania from NYC. The Gabriels have two cars — their immediate area is one without much public transportation — as is true of much of the US.

The Humans can be cheated some more at the close because instead of a small car, which they ordered, a van comes. The Gabriels live in an ex-summer middle class community; now the people who used to come are fewer, and the super-rich taking all back. Outside the young Blake couple’s apartment they see a cement area, called an “interior courtyard.” The Blakes have bars on the windows.

It should be said that what The Humans had was much more open anguish. The Gabriels are still committed to decorum, and The Gabriels had sub-theme: the suffering of widows, of women left single alone. If The Humans meant to defend an older man accused of sexual transgression, it never did; the father-older husband told his story, apologized profusedly to all in the room (his wife is not there) and that’s all there was to that. What was hurting or mattered was he now had no pension. His wife does keep nagging her daughter to marry her partner but nowhere it is said she should do this to be marginally economically safer. It was apparently just this parroted-prejudice.

My older daughter tweeted the other day all her friends are worse off this year than last; some have lost their jobs. She did not say she is worse off because I gather she is making as much money literally as she did one year ago (but not two years before that where she made twice a much), but she has no pension, no health care except through ACA and is paid by the hour week-by-week in the supposed secure job she works at.

It is now commonplace in the US for people working full time to have no pension, no health, and no paid vacation leave. Fewer people going to college. Who can have a dream of joyful fulfillment now? Least of all those about to be deported to nowhere at all after building a world for themselves and families for decades.

No film I’ve seen in theaters comes near the truthfulness of The Humans or the subtlety of The Gabriels. Real family life in the US today. I ordered the stage plays of The Gabriels the night I came home from The Humans. Nelson’s play seems to be the kind of fertile pool of art that other plays can build upon — the way Tennesse Williams and Arthur Miller’s plays at mid-century were.


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John Prebble, Culloden


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

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

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

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

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

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

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

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

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

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

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

Tyranny is tyranny

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

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

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

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

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

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

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

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

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

Literary criticism and book history:

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

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

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

Novels and poetry for the first time:

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

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

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

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

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

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

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

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


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Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma (Vincenzo Bellini, 1831)

Ensemble scene from Exterminating Angel (Thomas Ades, Tom Cairns, 2016, from Bunuel’s 1962 film)

Friends and readers,

Along with blogging less, I’ve been going to the opera less this year. Thus far I’ve gone twice for wildly different experiences. In the first case, Bellini’s Norma in October, I loved some of the music, but thought the drama potentially so meaningful, thrown away, and just so dull in the second half. In the second case, Ades’s Exterminating Angel this past Saturday, I couldn’t stand the music, to me it was so much noise, sounds that made no sense (though I could hear the singers had themselves resonant voices capable of making beautiful melodies), felt the first half excruciatingly boring, contentless; while in the second half I found myself watching an rare opera commenting directly and cogently, bitterly on the political powerlessness of much of the world today.

I want to write about these to mourn for Norma how the Met simply out of cowardice (I suppose) worry the audience will be offended, refuses to modernize operas when the themes break taboos for real — this one having women’s subjectivity and love for one another as the driving force of a story. And for Exterminating Angel, express astonished exasperation that no one on the stage in the intervals where they are supposed to have explanatory talk (but of course they rarely do, just have silly hype or ridiculous questions about how the singer enacts the characters as if operas were novels), no one offered the least explanation. From the introducer, to Thomas Ades, to Gelb, they all professed themselves unable to comprehend the mystery.

I’ll begin by offering an explanation, one easily derived from reading Bunuel’s and various critics’ comments about his film.

The dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed (Roger Ebert).

My task is made easy because Anthony Tommassini (The New York Times) also understood it

The opera has discomforting timeliness at a time when many Americans feel trapped in partisan battles over elites, economic justice and borders; yet the will to change things is somehow lacking. The willpower of the ruling classes, or lack thereof, has become an especially pressing topic in Washington, as elected officials debate how forcefully to stand up to President Trump on policy and governing.

In a way, this production dares to confront audience members in the moment. Are we somehow complicit when we encounter art in a safe, gilded house? Or, in fact, can grappling with the arts, including this powerful opera, be a way to take action and exert will?

The principles are of course us. They and we are the sheep. We are being and have been for the last 50 years, with some breaks, Obama the most obvious but kept weak by virtue partly of his race, being slowly devoured, destroyed and we do nothing. It need not be Trump particularly, but the intuitive con-artist, ruthless moral moron, managed it and is kept in power. Ades is British and they have had Thatcher, then Cameron and now Teresa May. Brexit (well-meant by those who wanted to overthrow the pro-bank neo-liberal austerity stance of the EU) is counterproductive because the upper class and those in charge of Parliament will not break with neo-liberal oligarchic reactionary policies Bunuel and Ades blame us.

That’s unfair in part because the average person is trying to make a living while the powerful hire lawyers, teams of people to elect patsies, invent legislation for them to enact, do all they can to defund all social programs and stop any new ones from being enacted or effected. No wholly as the democratic party refuses to go left, liberal humane, return to the New Deal of FDR and Keynesian economics. And now we have invisible walls, doors, and if you say demonstrate, protest, with unions destroyed and the leaders of those left also centrists, long prison sentences.

I have wondered before this what Bunuel’s Petit Charm of the Bourgeoisie was about. Now I know: it’s the superficial surface the rearranging of the chair on the Titanic; The Exterminating Angel is the Titanic itself sinking.

You can see the sister (the singer with the blonde hair) with her brother just behind her

Only one of the individual stories were moving. The brother, Francesco, who has ulcers, his dependency on and love for his sister, Silvia, his mother-and-lover figure, her love for her child. I could make out a decent doctor with a deep base voice, the well-meaning host and his wife but could figure out nothing about them. I was even unsure who was the host. For the most part, the characters were not particularized, so the piece remained impersonal. This lack of characterization is responsible for the harshly critical reviews of the opera as “dead on arrival.” There is nowhere for us to know anything about these people and it’s only the peculiarity of the brother and sister (he with ulcers), she caring for him like a lover that made them stand out. All of the characters we get to see a bit of but the butler were the “upstairs” set, the 1%, the staff having fled. I had no Anna (as in Downton Abbey) to feel for.

The opera can be seen as a black comedy trying to be gothic. Wilbur Hampton took it as about trauma. My caveat on those reviews which understood the piece is they objected to its pessimism; they wanted uplift. There is none. The directors seem to want to make it scary, a gothic, a ghost story, but I suggest only film can project the uncanny hallucinatory feel necessary. On the screen and dressed up in a costume, one man enacted a huge fierce bear looming over all. Perhaps they were thinking of Goya.

A huge backdrop scene was used to project film images; there real sheep on stage at first

You might say of course the audience understood. As I walking out of the theater I heard three different groups of people puzzling about it, genuinely puzzled. When I offered my explanation, one couple, possibly Trumpites looked offended but then saw one could generalize out, and then “get it.” A review by Walls and Kenny astonishingly regards the whole thing as so much fun. The fell back on talking of technique and marveling over the transfer from film to stage.


Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, a temple virgin, loving friend of Norma

As to Norma, at the core of the opera is deep good true human feeling and in a contemporary opera would be permitted to come out directly.

Again if you listened to the talk during the interviews, you see the opera was framed as if it’s pro-macho male, with the two women betraying one another for this hunk of a male:

They went on as if this was a romance opera. Seriously. Jokes about how thrilling — Joseph Calleja as Pollione is heavy, unattractive. They talked of Norma’s threat to kill her children by Pollione — there is a Medea subplot which doesn’t come off. Mild misogyny here. A production might have emphasized how perverse this is; tried to understand Medea. As Alex Ross says, they could have changed the era and costumes, and made the anti-colonialist faultline clear. They didn’t. I was waiting for talk of druids but they didn’t go that far. I can imagine someone today making costumes emphasizing the women as a pair in a country taken over by a militaristic tyrannical state — the opera could have been in dialogue with The Exterminating Angel. None of this.

In our time it’s so important for women’s depths and needs and outlooks to come out and this opera was doing that; it is equally good to see an attempt to make motherhood, children and decent emotions surrounding children — not made saintly not twisted by repressive institutions or macho maleness. The Oedipus-Jocasta story is often seen solely from the male point of view when it is a woman driven to madness, a woman who in earlier cultures had to give up culture to kill them for sects. I grant the scenery and atmosphere of beautiful peace fit that first famous aria, Casta Diva, but what the opera also projects is a deep wish for oblivion (a death wish Freud called it). This essay on the opera’s complexity is worth reading. It’s “between two women.” The Met also provided program notes about Bellini and the opera.

With no understanding, again one finds complaints of boredom and flatness. The Observer critic thought the lead two women just had no support. The production was “lazy and senseless.” That’s not fair; they just stayed with the Druids originally chosen to obscure any political meaning. And the set was a lovely dark fairy tale natural withered landscape:

On the other hand, with a new production of Puccini’s Tosca to come, the Met might have seemed almost too much on point. All three choices are linked, and brought together seem to be a response to today’s dark violent world. Police are outside the open door in the Exterminating Angel, and a violent presence in Tosca too.


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She will have a headstone (Ross and Demelza, Aidan Turner, Elinor Tomlinson, Poldark 2017, Episode 8)

Warleggan harassing, destroying Drake’s business (Sam telling Ross, David Delve, Robin Ellis, Poldark 1977, Episode 8)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been too long since I lasted posted on the 3rd season of the new Poldark compared to its source book, The Four Swans, and the previous film adaptation: 3 Poldark 6 & 7: Coerced and reluctant Relationships. I was away for at least two weeks of the intervening month but but something more stopped me.

These last two episodes took to an extreme a tendency seen through this season and the first and second. Both are made up of the shortest scenes, sometimes lasting a couple of seconds interwoven or blended into another. Sometimes the scene itself is a pantomime or has one epitomizing line; but often it’s cut up into several independent shots interspersed with other scenes where this is done. In both episodes there is also much repetition: Ross refuses offers of position first by Sir Francis Bassett (John Hopkins) and then by Lord Falmouth (James Wilby); which scenes are recurred to again and again, and half-repeated. We have Osborne Whitworth (Christina Bassington) forcing himself on Morwenna (Ellise Chappell), praying, at least three times indignant at Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) for telling him to desist demanding sex from Mowenna, and countless seductive moments from Rowella (Esme Coy) which become several scenes where Rowella and her librarian accomplice-betrothed, Arthur Solway (Will Merrick) demand slightly decreasing yet large sums. Repeatedly George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) is a cold bully to Elizabeth (Heida Reed); and when she finally rebels at his cruelty to Drake (Harry Richardson), their paired accusations and defenses are broken up and repeated. The men practice war and confront Ross; we have two rebellions. The women writhe.

Morwenna and Geoffrey Charles (Harry Marcus) when Elizabeth visits the Whitworths with her son

The effect on the mood and acting of the episodes is strong. It’s like a song, where language (the dialogues short) and repeating short scenes become like motifs. This dramaturgy is so consistent and so different (let’s say) from the previous mini-series, and even episodes 1-7 of this season that it must be deliberate. We almost don’t think about what’s happening at any particular time. In the 1970s episodes and in Graham’s book, we have reinforcement of explicit agenda: feminist. Insofar as the love and adultery stories go, and the ones on sexual discomfort and even impotence (in the book Dwight and Caroline, Gabriella Wilde, are not a “sane choral” couple but themselves are straining against Dwight’s deep disquiet and weakness), we are made to think realistically about them more. In 1977 the themes was a frank presentation of women’s sexual experiences and feelings as they emerge or are impinged on by their communities (some forced to marry, others stopped); the individual stories are kept original, the scenes given much more time and we get exploration of angles that emphasize anger and hatred and despair prompted by the disloyalties and human jealousies and ravaging demands of others.

In 2017 I didn’t feel individual decisions made by the women. The blending of the four stories of love (Demelza’s, Elizabeth’s, Emma’s, Morwenna’s) and marriage leaves an impression against marriage. That it is a troubled condition for most. Rowella’s actions reinforce this. Were the 2017 to have been true to Dwight and Caroline in the book (incompatible in values, he half-impotent in bed), the inference would have been stronger.

Ross (Aidan Turner) realizing

In 2017 the other political or male-centered theme is, when will Ross realize he has to engage himself deeply in his community according to his rank and capabilities, to try to bring justice and a decent way of life for himself and his neighbors. George (and others) will just continue to gouge everyone unless he (and they) are stopped. This trajectory of taking responsibility and compromising while it’s there in the book does not control it; it’s not the shaping force in the 1977 film; in the 2017 it seems the climax of the two episodes is Ross realizing he is now working for Warleggan to hurt people starving for bread, seeing he has almost been pressured into gunning these people down, and realizing he must define his own role and its function and can only do that with power. All Ross’s friends, Demelza and Tholly (Sean Gilder) and Bassett, have been trying to get him to see this.

The modern adaptation is melodramatic in the original meaning of the word and it’s fitting the episode 8 almost ends on Demelza’s song, and episode 9 begins with Prudie’s (Beatie Edny), and across them Hugh Armitage’s (Josh Whitehouse)’s poetry to Demelza (from the book) is over-voiced either by Demelza or Hugh, with their respective presences overlapping. The older one is theatrical and the psychology of the scenes subtly nuanced (as in the book). To offer an outline of the modern one is monomaniacal, so for this last blog of this season I’ll switch my procedure and offer a summary and evaluation of the 1977 episodes on the blog itself, with the 2017 sing-song in the comments.


1977, Episode 8 (click for 2017 Episode 8). In order not to be too mono-maniacal, I’ve made the 2017 concise.

It’s a second (the 7th was the first) where the screenplay is by John Wiles, Richard Beynon producer, directed by Roger Jenkins. (There were hardly any women directors, producers or screenplay writers in the BBC in the 1980s.)

Drake and Emma in Drake’s forge, he working, she talking ….

The episode shows how these one hour programs do fit together thematically. The material taken for it is in different places in Graham’s Four Swans. The haggling over money between Whitworth (Christopher Biggins) is just one scene, but here it’s juxtaposed to the increasing dissension and anger and even dislike between the married couples. The 1977 program has it that Rowella (Julie Dawn Cole) may not be pregnant by Solway (Stephen Reynolds) and she and he hatched her pregnancy to threaten Whitworth with; the book only brings Solway in as a deluded man and is mum on what happened to the pregnancy (it is never mentioned in next book, The Angry Tide). Doing it this way enables the 1970s film-makers to de-emphasize the sexual angle and emphasize the give-and-take conflict which parallels Warleggan’s (Ralph Bates) destruction of Drake (Kevin McNally) out of sheer spite. It is bold of the 1977 team to show and emphasize Demelza (Angharad Rees) committing adultery, which done highly romantically of the pair of lovers with a long tracking shot along the beach. The full context prevents us from taking it romantically though.

Several people threaten to kill someone — their rage against life is so strong: Warleggan would kill his brother-in-law, Drake who his step-son Geoffrey (Stefan Gates) prefers; Whitworth keeps saying he’ll kill Rowella who threatens to expose him as having made her pregnant, Morwenna (Jane Wymark) will kill her child by Whitworth if Whitworth tries to rape her again. Warleggan’s men beat Drake and throw him in the water; he could have died. Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) finally turns on Warleggan and lets him know her life with him is a hell on earth if all that is said about him is so.

It opens with George Warleggan’s mad ride across the countryside with his chief henchman, ruthless bully, gamekeeper, Sid Rowse (Michael Cox), who points to Drake’s forge just outside Warleggan property. George nods. The plot to wreck all that Drake has thus far built is signalled.

We switch to the forge to find Emma (Trudie Styler) talking to Drake complimenting him on what he’s done. Drake asks how’s it going with his religious brother, Sam, and she says “comic” and she’d “poison Sam’s godly life honest I would.” “Do you love him?” “I don’t know what love be, but I can’t be free the way I used to be.” “People say I’m a whore. What is a whore. A woman that’d sell her body. I never selled nothing to nobody.” “Since I’ve seen him … I’ve lost the pleasure of things … I wish to God I’d never met him.” They hear a neighing horse and they rush out to see his place set on fire.

As in Graham’s books there is real sympathy for the promiscuous woman; she helps both Drake and Sam in this episode — the action we see her in is not in the book but the thrust of the presentation is the same.

Switch to Nampara: now Sam is telling Ross at Nampara of all the wrecking and terrorizing that has happened since. A messenger scene in effect: “since then there’s been more trouble, they’ve broken his fences & his streams run dry. Last night someone dropped a dead dog down his well … Water well is poisoned too. Drake losing custom because locals told not to go . it’s Sid Rowse. Under Ross’s question the story of how Geoffrey Charles had spent all his time at Pallys shop emerges, “Mr Warleggan put a stop to it boy went on with his visits just the same …”

Then interthreaded are a series of scenes where Rowella and her apparent off-screen lover, a librarian (a little joke of Graham’s own — he seems aware of how librarians are ridiculously despised) gradually negotiate and bully Whitworth into paying a substantial sum to them. In the book there is a scene of bargaining, but it’s not threaded in in this dramatic way. The emphasis in the book is the sex, particularly the sadistic sex between Whitworth and Rowella. This the films avoid and erase altogether — we’ve no idea what sex between Whitworth and Rowella could be. It seems hard to imagine they could manage with her hypocrisy and his crudity.

So we see Vicarage Whitworth in satin yellow reading, Morwenna in green. She says it’s time for Rowella to go home, she seems to spend most of her time with you. She’s just 16, that is why I feel she needs companions of her own age .. Rowella appears. She will go immediately; but both say no. Morwenna says will resume some of her duties … meantime go to her bed. Whitworh doesn’t mind as he has Rowella. Rowella “She knows” .. she tells him “I am pregnant” and he looks appalled.

Back to Nampara, Demelza working on her flowers, Ross talking of what George Warleggan is doing to Drake: “intolerable .. he’s trying to ruin the boy …” Demelza clearly angry about something and it’s not Drake. She refuses to talk, and says going out “Don’t ask me … ask his wife” (Elizabeth).

Back to scene of Whitworth now horrified “go away do you hear … do not touch me.” Rowella offers to take “nostrum’ and he agrees eagerly, she “sometimes they are dangerous to the mother … loud quarrel ..shall I see you later … after blustering, he says yes. Whitworth cries — yet we do not feel for him.

Nampara, Ross reading something; Demelza comes in late, she had a disturbed night out-of-doors (with Hugh? Brian Stirner), he is riding over to Drake. It’s an acceptance from Sir Francis Basset (Mike Hall) to come to dinner. Demelza “I am no society hostess,” Ross says ask “Caroline (Judy Leeson) to advice you, I’m sorry my dear we are committed to receive them … tells her Hugh Armitage is returning to his squadron … I thought you’d like to know .. ” (quiet sarcasm).

Ross rides to Drake’s place and it’s all in ruins. Drake tied up, “who did this to you?” Drake lying to protect Ross himself: “I don’t know twas the middle of the night .. “I’ll turn the other cheek.” Ross at first rejects Drake’s response: “Well then Christ be a fool for twas his advice,” to which Drake replies: ” Ross, oh spare me” Drake determined to hold out, you put me here, tis my place well.” So Ross plunges in to work with him.

Osborne Whitworth bothered — in suit with book, knock, it’s Rowella who tells of her librarian (who we saw briefly in Part 7), Mr Arthur Solway from county library; he may expect something of a dowry … how much how much…”

Then the dinner party — a fine gay and witty scene. Bassetts, Caroline and Enys (Michael Cadman); the rebuilding of the library. Caroline very witty, and gay, how is it Hugh Armitage has not returned to sea again; he has returned to lodge with Lord Falmouth (Hugh Manning); Caroline to Demelza: “strange Demelza I thought you would have heard ..” Ross’s jealousy clearly aroused: “why should she have heard …:

Now bargaining scenes are threaded in: the librarian obsequious but determined … Whitworth offers the sum of 20 guineas .. “you see Vicar there is just one thing” … Solway knows she’s pregnant and he has no money but a tiny salary as a librarian.

Switch to Nampara with Demelza and Bessy Martin polishing the table. Bassett comes in, he wishes Ross had accepted and stood for parliament … Bassett asks what is the cause of bad blood between Warleggan and Poldark … they are all courtesy to one another.

The bargaining between Whitworth, Rowella and Solway continues: Whitworth is heard shouting “Out I say out out.” Whitworth says that Rowella is a penniliess girl pregnant without hope or prospects,” how can Solway dream of “1000 pounds!” Rowella comes in, and says she thought “at least 100 pounds.” “Oh you thought that. did you?”

Nighttime storm, Nampara; Demelza and Ross. He: “damn the weather.” She: “I said jealousy and bad feelings shouldn’t be between people … but he’s a man” and then she turns the conversation “Look why shouldn’t I have heard that Hugh Armitage is back … why shouldn’t he write to me why shouldn’t anyone write to me?” Ross stalks out and she sits over fire; a voice-over of Armitage reading his poem to her aloud

Demanding money

Another bargaining scene: shot of Solway and we hear “30 pounds” “a thousand” “40 pounds” “a thousand” “45 pounds” The librarian seen shaking his head, a thousand .. there 100 pounds that it’s …shakes head “a thousand”

Now vicar and Rowella are talking in attic, and she cites the miserable conditions of Solway’s large family. “100 pounds that”s what I’ve gone to try him once mor. “Oh Osborne do

Librarian “My final word: 120 pounds, 900, I cannot go below 900” Vicar: “Are you mad?” We now see Rowella nods to Solway: we can see, they are in cohoots. Solway: “it will take us all of 700 to support ward and child, then there’s the question of a cottage.” She mouths to him and he says “and the furniture” Now Whitworth goes up to 200 pounds; Rowella signals to Solway and he turns and says 850. Whitworth: 210 He: “800 not a penny less”

Morwenna upstairs in bed listening

Drake tries to pass gate to get to Mrs Warleggan and is beat up badly It begins with him saying to the gamekeeper and his bullies “I”ve come to ask a favor or Mrs Warleggan that maybe she’ll see me for five minutes.” They accuse him of poaching; beat him badly, then they throw him in river to drown and die. We see only the water

Rowella now writing, and she finds and reads aloud a letter about a vicar suspended for 3 years for getting young girl with child. Whitworth comes in as she’s reading : “I shall kill you” Rowella now says he may be persuaded to take a somewhat lower figure of — 600 pounds! Whitworth’s reply: “I’ll see you dead first,” to which she replies “I should think it quite likely Morwenna heard too …”

Now we are in Drake’s forge and Emma and Sam comforting and nursing him. “They could have killed thee.” “Course” he knows. He’s now determiend to go to Truro and speak with Misstress Warleggan. He feels she would be fair. (She is pro-hierarchy but fair).

Whitworth in attic (we hear church bells). He now threatens to return Rowella to her mother: “I know nothing of any baby.” Rowella: “I shall accuse you Vicar I’m a dean’s daughter,” and she knows details about his anatomy “You have a scar on your belly made by a boy you were tormenting at school …” Whitworth again “I will see you dead before I pay a penny to you.” Now she says 500 pounds. He looks down defeated.

Church scene, the marriage and we see Solway and Rowella laughing together and we wonder if the baby is his after all. (In the book this is not so, it is Whitworth’s.)

Ross tells Jud to saddle my horse he has a list of addresses of people he must go to. Ross getting involved in politics slowly. The dinner was the first sign he sees he must.

Demelza with Drake in his forge: “What do you think she can do …:” Drake: “She can talk” Demelza says that Ross off with volunteers at Falmouth — so French politics impinging too.


Morwenna sewing, Whitmore reading. Now she is strong and bitter. (This is most unlike book where she remains abject until she finally flees to Drake.) She says she was conscious of the liaision every day every minute of every night. Then the startling threat (which is in the book): If he resumes his physical approaches to her, she will kill his son. “This is how it will be until the day death separates us.”

Now at Truro and the Warleggan mansion there (a set): we see Jill Townsend as an indignant Mrs Warleggan: “How dare you” It emerges Drake is there and he stays controlled, respectful: “Everyone has seen them.” When he cites as one of George’s motives “the business of Miss Morwena,” she jumps up “I don’t wish to hear about it.” She knows she did Morwenna wrong to marry her to Whitworth at least. George comes in, becomes an ugly bully to Drake, threatens to kill him. George turns round to demand she go to London with him, to which she replies: “to London … if what I Just heard is true, I would rather go to hell first ..”

Demelza and Armitage

Then the final very long sequence which ends in love-making between Armitage and Demelza: Armitage come to see Demelza (Ross gone from house) “I am begging you” to come with him to the islands of seals they spoke of. She says the seals are not there, “to lead you to something that doesn’t exist.” “To grant me a favor .. ” Then she yields “oh wait I’ll have my horse saddled — then series of long tracking shots, over the countryside, round the cliffs, then sea by coast. We hear a bit of conversation: the seals are several cliffs away, in a place that look like a cathedral beyond cove and cove .. (where all) booms and crashes. Flute music as they run amid the rocks. When he tells her he’s not on leave, he’s going blind, she finally yields and it ends on a passionate kiss …

Freeze frame.


1977, Episode 9 (click on comments to see 2017 Episode 9 tapestry). The 2017 kept shorter though material confrontations so fascinating.

I will keep this summary more compact too; merely saying the dramaturgy is as the eighth episode above. Much of real interest, and a good deal sheer transposition from the book. Ross is coerced by Bassett into putting into jail the leaders of the miners and agricultural workers who had attacked a granary and corn place and taken the corn. They were starving and the price never came down nor did the government provide a subsidy. Ross loathes having to do it, but he does obey this law. He is made to see that were he an MP he might have power to ameliorate — he could have pardoned the man whose body we see hanging and rotting on a gibbet as the community returns from a ritual Sawle Feast (3/4s through the Part).

Elizabeth trying and failing to reach George

Elizabeth now threatens to leave George. She will not live with him if he carries on his horrible behavior to Drake; he tries to deny what he is doing, trivialize it, but she is having none of it. He demands to know if she loves Ross and she laughs, then they finally confront one another over the issue of whose son Valentine is. She on the Bible swears she has never had sex willingly with any man but her first husband and George. George does not recognize the gap in the oat,h but in any case he gives in only because she would indeed leave him.

The role is very hard to play: Elizabeth is supposed an upper class woman taught repression and guardedness, also a kind of frail character unable to act out high emotional scenes; at the same time high self-esteem and adherence to hierarichal norms governs here. She is destroyed by these norms acted out by George and Ross over her pregnancies and children — she tries to make her third child appear to be 8 months by a dose which brings on a labor that kills her (the plan Ross hatched in the church meeting which in 1977 occurred in the 7th episode). She is also highly intelligent and realizes just how imprisoned she is, straining at the frustration, anger, itself partly at herself for having married George. She does refuse to go with him to London full-stop even if he wins the new election.

Sawle Feast done superlatively well. Like the Rudruth fair, done with real flair, not overproduced, the height a wrestling match between the bully henchman of George, Sid Rowse, and Sam Carne, egged on by Emma who offers to come to church for 3 months if he fight. Sam almost wins but at the last moment throws the hard struggle because he sees her wanting him to win and he actually fears she will pull him from his strong adherence to his God and faith which is central to his world view and self-esteem.

the 9th episode of 1977 takes us much further along in The Four Swans. As in soap opera aesthetics (which most of these mini-series costume dramas use) the fair is a place where we see all the characters come together and interact characteristically. Ross has bet George 100 guineas, but the guineas are to go to a fund for the starving — so when Sam loses, it matters not to Ross. Whitwoth is there with Morwenna now holding her own through her threat and having made her body off-limits; he has discovered Rowella was not pregnant and she is again making up to him (for his money). Demelza and Drake hover over Sam.

At Falmouth’s house where Demelza again meets Hugh

We have the visit to Falmouth’s house, an election where we understand the electors vote publicly and are under pressure from who they owe money to (Warleggans), vote by personal liking and other norms of admiration. Ross makes it by one vote.

Another thread of the series is the real love affair of Hugh Amitage and Demelza. Part 8 ended with them making love on the seals’ beach. IN this part as at the end of The Four Swans Armitage dies; his blindness a symptom of a larger disorder gotten in the prisons of France; Demelza called to his side. Threaded in are scenes where Ross is aware she is in love with this man and tolerant of it; in one he tells her of his continued affection for Elizabeth and how he can understand hers, but he cannot it seems when he discovers a compromising poem tolerate physical infidelity. The last scene has her having wandered out in the moor and come back to find Ross incensed. Where have you been? he angrily asks and so the episode comes to an end (the previous ended on her adultery).

The 1977 film most differs from the book by its presentation of Rowella and Whitworth and Solway, the librarian husband. The film softens this enormously: that Rowella and Whitworth enjoy nasty sex together is central to the book’s story, and not here (but it is so in the 2017), and Solway is a lower class innocent sensitive man who is quite unaware of the liaison between Whitworth and Rowella; and when he discovers this reality, that the vicar is giving Rowella money his love turns to rage and murder (another motif in Graham but more in evidence in his murder mysteries).


Touching moment (pun intended) as he reaches our to her and she slips into his arms: Demelza and Ross as 2017 season ends

It’s telling that the older series was much more interested in the fates of women, while this new one has imposed a new trajectory so the story of Ross gaining power and respect becomes the central interest. The final season of the new episode 9 centers on the inner life of Ross as much as the inner life of Demelza. Both mini-series, 40 years apart try for depictions of 18th century lives while mirroring analogous situations for the years they were made in: Marriage, customs and politics too.

In 1977 the next episode or The Angry Tide started the following week; this year we have to wait a whole year for the ending of The Four Swans and The Angry Tide.


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