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The Emperor Overall and Death

Last year this opera company staged Mozart’s Idomeneo to mirror how inhumanely refugees who come to the US for asylum were being treated. It’s been less than a year that we’ve known about the separation of children from parents (a violation of a basic human right), and less than a few months that it has emerged they are in concentration camps run by the private prison companies of the US — and being treated so deeply abusively that they are dying. This includes for children as drink kool-aide three times a day, and once when a group lost their one lice-comb being forced to sleep on concrete floors with nothing else to comfort them.

So this year the company staged an opera written and first rehearsed by a group of people living in a Nazi ghetto. When the authorities got hold of what this group of people were rehearsing, they shipped them out to Auschwitz and killed them all forthwith. The story of this opera is that death is refusing to kill anyone any more because the life they are leading is death and death would be a release ….

This blog is inadequate, but I felt I had to say something — however hot and tired I feel from this super-hot day and night …

Friends and readers,

This afternoon, Izzy and I went to a stunning masque-like opera written by Viktor Ullmann while he and Peter Kien, poet and painter, were prisoners in a Nazi ghetto, Terezin. It’s an allegory of death (that’s what life is) in Nazi-like regimes. The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. Death refuses to kill anyone any more. It was paired with an unfortunately non-witty allegorical opera by Gluck, Merlin’s Island, which reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s Enchanted Island (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest), only much more inconsistent, inane. Go by all means and endure the first hour to get to the second.

It seems to me the opera by Ullmann is insufficently well known, so I here record and (if there is still time or you get another opportunity) urge all who read this to attend the composer Viktor Ullmann‘s one-act masque-like nightmare opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. The speeches and lyrics are by Peter Kien, who happened to be there, and the whole practiced by an amateur community. Written between 1943 and 1944, in a Nazi prison ghetto, Terezin, it is an astonishingly courageous allegory of Nazi thinking, norms, roles people are given in regimes. The characters are all allegorical figures: the Emperor Overall, Death, the Loudspeaker, a Soldier, a Girl with Bobbed Hair, Harlequin, a Drummer. They live in a world where the living no longer laugh, and the dying cannot die; where life is a slow death, no one follows the usual roles of social life. The action (such as it is) is a declaration of war to end all wars, and we watch the characters respond individually and as pairs to this and one another.


The soldier and the girl evoke memories of a cabaret

The girl and soldier soften towards one another, and end up in bed; there is a battlefield, after which Harlekin sweeps up the blood. Other characters are pained by memories, and panic because they cannot die. There is a young woman dressed as a Nazi boyscout who keeps coming down a slide. At the close death regrets the suffering he has caused, and returns to offer relief to the characters. There are numerous vignettes, which as I watched, resonated for me with parallels from the contemporary US political worlds; the impersonal powerful characters tyrannize, others mock; some are outraged, others destroy their weapons. The costumes are a mix of cabaret, medieval allegory, German imagery taken over from operas, technology, cheap vaudeville shows. The music seemed to my ears mid-20th century.

The notes to the program told us that when the Nazi authorities got hold of the script, all the artists and people involved in the camp were sent to Auschwitz to die. As I watched I felt a cry from the soul of people reaching out. Death had not succeeded in keeping to its refusal and the real people had been done away with cruelly, senselessly.

The audience was stunned and then applauded strongly. One man broke out with a “bravi!” I have read the papers and documents left to us from the Lodz Ghetto and I felt like I was entering the mind-set of people forced to live in such regimes. This is what we are threatened by again today.

Last year the company did Mozart’s Idomeneo Kim Pensinger (now retired) readily turned this opera with its beautiful music into a play about a tyrant doing all he could to destroy refugees, whose cruel state he was partly responsible for. The staging was minimal, she allowed the figures of the fleeing, the victims, the war scenes their full plain predominance.

There is a problem: Death’s Refusal runs but 55 minutes. So, the Wolf Trap opera company felt they had to fill out the time and you will have to sit through a rather inane allegorical comedy by Christoph Willibald Gluck (he of Orfeo e Eurydice and Iphigenia fame), Merlin’s Island.


Pierrot and Scapin, Argentine and Diamantine

L’Ile de Merlin reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s re-write of Shakespeare’s Tempest as The Enchanted Island. Two young men are shipwrecked on an island, fall in love with Merlin’s nieces (who live there); it’s a place where some patriarchal values and norms are reversed, and the two young men have to learn how to cherish the nieces, and overcome the violence of their rivals. They are taught wry inconsistent lessons. At its best moments, its musical feel and sense of gendered allegories reminded me of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, but the allegory didn’t make sense, and the characters too without personality. It was based on a vaudeville kind of comedy, composed by Jean Gilliers, (premiered at a Paris fair in 1718). The French libretto is by Louis Anseaume, as corrected by Favart. One does not expect Arthurian characters from an 18th century opera, but out of a vaudeville show suggests just how the Arthurian matter had been degraded by this time. (It was just then about to undergo remarkable renewal.) A man played the accordion from the side of the stage as the action began. I can say the costumes were fun:


Conor McDonald as Merlin – all glittery, he looks like a gas station attendant

Everyone sung beautifully, acted as best they could with the material, and the idea was to present another opera debating ideas; but here they were non-serious (wealth is presented as non-desirable) seemed in inappropriate match for the dark story of Atlantis. After all Gluck wrote so many operas; the lecturer said he lived on another 50 years; 40 years later he composed Orfeo, another ten, Iphigenia. There is nothing in the history or context of the operas or composer’s aims beyond allegoresis to unite the two operas.

The umbrella title for the pair, The world Upside Down, did not join the two; they seemed a dislocated juxtaposition to me, though Annette Midgett does what she can to show the parallels.

Merlin is historically revealing; I didn’t know an opera like this one (a kind of left-over from wild god-goddesses baroque) could be written and staged 3/4s of the way through the century — I thought it was all opera buffa or opera serieux. There is nothing offensive, and 75 minutes is not too much time. But you are going to have to sit through it in order to have the privilege, important in this year 2019 when the Enlightenment’s achievements in thought, feeling, governance, family life, romance are being so undermined, of seeing Death’s Refusal.

Last year July 4th, at Wolf Trap we experienced a staging about the way the US gov’t was treating refugees, now we have an opera to show how we are threatened.

Need I remind my readers who is staging a mass celebration of himself on the mall of the capitol this year?

Ellen

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Lily Collins as Fantine sometime after she sells her hair and teeth


Dominic West as Jean Valjean on the barricades


Joseph Quinn as Enjolras, the serious revolutionary

Bishop: Myriel: God tells us to love our fellow men.
Jean Valjean: How can I love my fellow man when he treats me worse than a dog?

Andrew Davies produces video masterpieces as regularly as other people simply go out to a movie, and in the last few years or so, the only material that (it seems) will do are the kind of literary masterpieces considered crucial and extraordinary works politically as well as socially. On top of this he has a penchant for choosing among such books precisely those where a previous film has been made with super-popular actors or some super-respected film-maker and seen by so many people and accepted as “unsurpassable.” Usually he has been polite about the previous (clearly to him inadequate and dated effort), as in the cases of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, the earlier BBC Bleak House (1985 Arthur Hopcraft), War and Peace (1972, Jack Pulman), but he revels in using them while inventing a new conception and in just about all the previous films he’s redone, correcting (Lean turned Pasternak’s book into anti-communist propaganda) or simply superseding them. What’s special about this new Les Miserables is Davies frankness in accurately describing the musical as “a travesty” (the 2012 film is frequently awful), and how watching it brings home to most viewers they didn’t know or understand Fantine’s story at all, hadn’t realized how crucial Waterloo and an honest depiction of street fighting against a ruthless gov’t is to Hugo’s anti-war reformist book (the 1998 film presents what it does of the complicated stories incoherently).


Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar)


Madame Thenardier (Olivia Colman)

But this is a movie which makes us want to read the book; since Davies got only 6 hours (as opposed to the more than 9 he had for War and Peace, 2016), he makes us aware we are watching a suggestive and quick-moving surface. As the novel very early on includes Waterloo and has a long historical meditation on the significance of this battle and the lost war, Davies opens on Waterloo (he is apparently the only of the many movies made from this book even to include the battle) and brings Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar) to the fore as the first active character we see: he is stealing from corpses and near dead men, not rescuing anyone as he later on claims. David Bellos (in The Novel of the Century, indispensable) says (rightly) the Thenardiers are not funny figures in Hugo. These characters represent people who are key obstacles to political progress. Bellos asks what makes them hate, resent and fleece others so. They are the kind of people who loathe the poor when they are themselves part of this class. And it’s not just greed, but a passion, they bear “grudges,” “deep furnaces of hate.” and resentful revengeful grief. Like the woman supervisor in Valjean’s factory, they want to “get back” at anyone living more easily, or anyone who rouses their considerable repertoire of hurt. We so want Fantine to return and take her child back. Olivia Colman plays Madame Thenardier as an accomplice, complicit in anger and harm of others as the most convenient rout of survival.


The Thenardier family evicted — Colman’s face registers one origin of brooding resentment that emerges as jeering abuse of others

Bellos suggests that Hugo asks, what can be done to stop such people from undermining any compassionate law, rule, institution. Davies adds that they are punished as decisively and ruthlessly as those they resent and take it out on: Thenardier beats his wife casually, her daughters too, and when last seen Madame Thenardier has been parted from her daughters and left in miserable prison.

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It opens brilliantly with shots in black-and-white of innocent animals killed (especially horses in extremis,in agons, in black silhouette), animals and trees used symbolically (crows), the exquisitely dark and dream like atmosphere is kept up in the first half — that is until we meet a grown up Cosette, and her demand that she be placed in a bourgeois environment where she can “learn about life,” catapults Jean Valjean (Dominic West) into a fiercely guarded island of an apartment in Paris. This reminds us of the Pontmercy home with the ancient grandfather (David Bradley) fiercely rejecting his son and bringing his grandson up to become an aristocratic of the now defunct ancien regime.

Church to one side, naturally, police headquarters prominently there. The wild landscape of white clay, rock, brick, the wretched prison quarters, the chains and whips everywhere are to the fore. In episode 2 The people Fantine meets are costumed like nightmare circus figures (Ron Cook as the man who cuts off Fantine’s hair and cruelly wrenches her teeth out is heavily made up) and the low budget set of streets is like the bleak corner or marketplace of a slum. So in contrast, Father Myriel’s (Derek Jacobi) hospitable table, deep gentle kindness, determination to do and be good, and the Mother superior’s convent are experienced as intense relief.


Lily Collins as Fantine, holding Mallow Defoy as the child Cosette (Episode 2) seeking work and a place to keep her child

Fantine meets Madame Thenardier: I’m on my way to Montreuil.
I’ve heard there’s some good work to be had there.
Where’s hubby? Erm He’s He’s dead.
Oh, dear.
So you’ve had a hard time of it, I dare say.
Yes, I have.
But once I get into a steady job, I’ll soon be on my feet again.
Yeah, of course you will.

The set in the second half expands outward from the provincial towns of the first, the wood where Valjean hides his treasures and earned money, and we find ourselves in Parisian gardens, then in the streets as people pour out and set up barricades, and when the fierce killing is over, in the sewers some have escaped to. The contrast is now the countryside to which Jean Valjean finds another refuge before dying. The whole ambiance is far more symbolic and artificial than Davies usually is as he tries to cover so much swiftly. For example, Jean Valjean and Cosette sitting in the snow:

Typically in all his films Davies brings new insight into the book he is realizing, and here importantly he provides further explanation for Javert’s obsession: his feeling goes beyond the homoerotic, his rage is the rage of frustrated, the man who cannot understand the humane emotions and behavior of Valjean and loathes the man as a threat. The two men are photographed in close proximity again and again:

It takes considerable skill to convey this kind of hidden and criss-crossing emotionalism (for as portrayed by West, Jean Valjean does not participate in this) and the brilliant David Oyelowo is pitch perfect, down to an intense nervousness and sense of someone at the ready for an insult from his subordinates; he is perpetually on the edge. He is fascinated by Jean Valjean (“you astonish me”) and his eyes and body convey deep attraction. This throws light on other pairs of pursuer and pursuit from Frankenstein and his creature, to Caleb Williams and Falkland — to modern doppelgangers. But he is still a police officer:

Javert upon meeting Thenardier when he is in search of ValJean:

Did he say what he wanted the girl for? No, but we’re men of the world, Inspector.
Not hard to guess.
Doesn’t bear imagining.
Y All right.
That’s all.
– That’s all? But look here – What? What are you going to do for me? Nothing.
You should think yourself lucky that I don’t charge you.

His suicide as Javert is given time– the writing of his resignation,

JAVERT: I beg, Monsieur Le Prefet, to consider these proposals for improvements to the service.
First, that we end the practice of prisoners returning from interrogations being made to remove their shoes while they await transport back to the prison.
Many are coughing when they return to their cells.
This leads to hospital experiences.
Second, a prisoner who drops a thread in the weaving room loses 10 sous.
This is an abuse of HIS RECOMMENDATIONS OVERLAP: Third, special regulation of the Fourth, surveillance is generally Fifth, gendarmes Prisoners coming back from the –

Writing this he is pictured and writes as an elegant man. Davies gives him time for a silent agon when he cannot bear to jump into that dark waters but does. He lived his life in darkness and amid filth and cruelty and hatred inflicted on others, now he ends in the dark filth. Davies’s Les Miserables includes Javert as among the wretched of the earth even if it’s he who is a relentless punisher of the wretched.

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Master crook (Ron Cook)

I can single out only a few scenes, performances, themes. In Episode 2 Lily Collins astonishingly powerful-pathetic as Fantine — without hair, without teeth, laughed at, her mouth filled with blood, spurned and finally dying, crying crying crying because she has lost her beloved daughter and is afflicted with the idea this is God’s punishment. Only if the child arrives on time, can she feel she is forgiven. This is Davies’s overlay of interpretation on the effect of religion on those like Fantine whom society condemns. Ron Cook is a nightmare masquerade figure with his dolls for sale using the human hair and teeth he has wrenched out of the vulnerable.


Josh O’Connor as Marius

Episode 3: a riveting and unexpected theme brought out is the danger of being innocent. Innocence and ignorance helps the vicious, ruthless. Davies presents Marius and Cosette as utterly innocent and ignorant. In Marius’ case the cause is a reactionary hateful embittered rich grandfather; in Cosette’s a deeply humane loving victim of the society, once a life convict, our Jean Valjean. The result is the same: show Cosette a group of prisoners being treated like animals you mean to murder shortly except put on top of this is vicious cruelty and she says what bad men they must be — and I know in Davies’ version will be automatically horrified when Valjean tries to tell her his story. Showing her these men is his first step and see the result: she rejects him. Show Marius Thenadier and have him listen or remember his own innocent father’s gratitude to Thenadier and Marius assumes he is a “great hero” of war (as was his father — without ever thinking what the war was about and what killing is); Marius goes to the police (!) to tell them of how an older man (fully described by Marius) is about to visit Thenadier and Javert suspects this Is Valjean and is there to re-capture him. It’s like informing the FBI that some good black people are in trouble from criminals: the FBI would come in in the 1970s and murder all the black people.


Eponine (Erin Kellyman)


Gavroche (Reece Yates)

Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter) — a poor man who works at the church Marius’s grandfather’s woman servant takes him to each Sunday

The one innocent who hurts no one is Eponine: she seems so without any partisan or protector. Similarly, her younger brother (or step-brother, in the novel he is only semi-adopted, Gavroche (Reece Yates) who thinks what is happening is a game, tries to protect his younger brothers, and dies senselessly. The old man, Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter), his one revolutionary gesture in a spirit of fine hope is killed by sniper fire


The revolutionary young men: Enjolras (Joseph Quinn), Courfeyrac (Archie Madekwe), Grantaire (Turlough Convery)

Parts 5 and 6: the street fighting. In this version the revolutionaries are not presented as frivolous students, but genuinely aroused revolutionaries; yes some of them drink, they make bad decisions, but they are serious about demanding a better life for all. Marius is an outsider. With all the talk about street fighting that I have come across (the one book I know is Tariq Ali’s) this is the very first attempt I’ve come acrosss to show how terrifying it is to revolt against a govt, and really give a feel of the what it’s like to know a bunch of paid human beings are there to murder you, and see it happen all around you. Davies’s switches points of view, partly as individuals go down, but the most frequent is Enjolas. The episode even had a warning for viewers that the violence here is exceptional: it’s not; what’s rare is to show how paid police and militia will kill citizens. During the Obama era only glimpses were seen of what was done to the Occupy Wall Street people when some prominent person’s son or daughter’s body was destroyed — not all die when they are horrifically maimed nowadays. It was very moving when Grantaire (Turlough Convery) chooses to die standing with Enjolras. I’d say Joseph Quinn had a major role in this film


The death scene

The death scene of Valjean collapsing and put to bed with Cosette next to him put me in mind of Andrei’s death in Davies’s War and Peace. Davies had more time in War and Peace (9 episodes of differing length) so he showed the process of dying (and James Norton is a virtuoso actor) — but we may ask, Is it enough for this man that Cosette loved him? There is a bit too much poetic justice perhaps: Thenardier tells us in his losing scene that he is ending in shit. Hugo’s Les Miserables is not Shakespeare’s Lear

ValJean dying with Cosette by his side:

WEAKLY: Are you still there? Yes, Papa.
I had things to tell you.
Never mind.

Somewhat differently conceived a narrator and over-voice would have helped. Davies has rightly conceived of the piece as an epic but is driven down to individual metonymy too often. Is it though right to feel that Jean Valjean has let us down? Had he made it an educational opportunity for Cosette from all we have seen I doubt she could have understood.

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Father Myriel


Sister Simplice

Bellos mentions as another flaw in Hugo’s book the long sequence about the convent. In a book overtly anti-clerical, rightly critical of the church’s role in repression, to make two of the characters, Myriel at the opening and now the mother superior (Georgie Glenn) as well as Sister Simplice (Natalie Simpson) near saints does more than tend to mute the radical point of view on life. Bellos suggests that like many authors, Hugo is ambivalent; his politics are also partly conservative at times — as would be understandable given his background


We must have the upper class couple: Ellie Bamber as Cosette grown up; Josh O’Connor as Marius

Davies counters this: in each of his adaptations, while it is Davies’s spirit and presence that unites them all (and there are remarkable parallels among the actors he chooses for his heroes), in each he is reacting to and producing a content which is partly a recreated version of his author’s so he is reacting to the author. In Les Miserables Davies turns a sentimentality towards Catholicism at times into a humane secularism, and convent and moral life become symbols for finding peace and safety amid the evils of human nature and the society this nature creates. Davies pulls out of Hugo’s retreat narratives what a good person wants in life is peace and safety. His good people are rarely ambitious; they may want to work hard for the meaning of this, to help others, but they most of them do not seek high position. The bad people are those who value others for their high rank irrespective of anything else. What Jean Valjean seeks for Cosette and himself as the best that can be gotten generally is a framework, a place apart from the world that allows each individual to know individual private happiness in whatever way he or she can achieve – play music, read, whatever.

The priest, the mother superior and the nun who cared for Fantine, were seeking and created peace and safety for all under their protection. That more than any religious belief is the point; it’s the respect the state pays to religious space and offices that allows them to do this for Jean Valjean. We see in the revolutionaries that although Enjolras is a good man and well meaning, all the men surrounding him are too vain, follow their appetites, and simply haven’t the firepower to achieve what this man is after — some other mode of achieving more for “mankind” is needed. So in the meantime we make do.

Voltaire’s famous ending of Candide throws scepticism on the ability of Candide and his friends to protect their garden, and the sense is how tenuous and fragile their space is, it can be invaded at any time.

Another important original move is to genuinely hire as many black as white actors: this is a thoroughly color-blind and integrated cast, from Thenardier, from Arab backgrounds to many black and white actors and actresses, not omitting the usual blonde princess Cosette. There was a black population in France from the 18th century on, but this casting mirrors an ideal for our own times.

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Douglas Hodges as the unbowed Lydgate with whom the film adaptation begins (the book begins with Dorothea)


Juliette Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on her plans for workers’ cottages, which are never built

To conclude, I have been watching Davies’s films as a kind of year-long marathon, and much as the originality and relevance of Les Miserables to today, makes it the one to see now, I suggest that his finest art, the ones beyond those I cited in my opening paragraph, the finest of his film adaptations occurred in the 1990s; I’m thinking of film adaptations like Moll Flanders (1996), Vanity Fair (1998), and early 2000s The Way We Live Now (2001), Daniel Deronda (2002), and especially Middlemarch (1994, the narrator’s voice is Judi Dench and by the end I find myself weeping uncontrollably as the destinies of each play out). This Les Miserables is another of the better recently dumbed-down serial dramas: the language is simple, crude, not much given over to subtlety of thought such as we find in his mid-career films.

Enjolras and Marius in front of the other revolutionaries:

I have to say, first, I’m not royalist any more.
What are you now then? I’m a Bonapartist and a Democrat.
Now, that’s a step in the right direction.
Napoleon was a defender of the Republic before he made himself Emperor.
Well, have a drink.
Yes, have a lot of drinks.
[THEY SING AND CHANT] I say down with all nations and down with all kings.
What about emperors? An emperor is just a king by another name, only worse.
I won’t have it.
Napoleon made this country great.
He brought reforms through his conquests.
What a joy to serve under such a man as that.
What could be greater? To be free.
I want to be a citizen of the Republic, not a subject of a king or an emperor.
One day we’ll all be fighting to the death about that, on one side or another.

Ironic and satiric comedy is closer to Davies’s own spirit (and can be just glimpsed abovve), and deep musing grief for the price we all pay for our failures in life and society’s control, punishment and thwarting of our dreams and innate selves, but also a buoyant enough spirit for self-examination to find strength to play out the roles that are offered us as ethically as we can. Davies does not despair. He offers deep filmic pleasures and humane liberal content still, and has created a wealth of video libraries from books — early on more in his own right individually (education and daily ordinary life his theme), then from popular romance and sentimental novels (Delderfield), from the 1990s on the very entertaining and relevant (House of Cards) as well as some of the greatest novels ever written.

Fingers crossed his star is rising again, and he has the years left to do a new The Pallisers.

Ellen

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Tape Recorder used by Malcolm X. Wollensak Stereo-tape magnetic recorder, Model T-1515

Revolution is not a one-time event — Audre Lorde

Friends and readers,

People, if you’re in any doubt, go. It’s not only worth it, it is not as upsetting as you might imagine it will be, nor is it aggressively mournful, angry, or even celebratory. I think attempts have been made to make sure that an African-American coming to this museum, will leave with a sense of a strong determined identity confirmed in such a way as to make him or her feel proud and good.


Traditional European-style history painting of the Revolutionary war in the museum


The opening remarks of Barbara Jordan giving her keynote speech in 1976 is on the top floor, “Culture galleries”

Since my day at the African-American Museum, I have found myself having different and much more aware reactions to things I see and words I hear daily than I had had before I went; I filled out gaps in knowledge I didn’t know I didn’t have; I came away with explanations for phenomena I didn’t realize needed more explanation; I understand the source or origin for familiar images; I understand why Marcus Garvey said that African-Americans must build their own separate community or state on land outside white American society, that African-Americans remain a captive people.

I didn’t know that in the later part of the 19th century African-Americans did attempt to build their own communities, and these were destroyed by envious or resentful groups of whites. I didn’t know that just after World War I when African-Americans began to leave the south in droves, having had an experience of liberty, confirmed self-esteem, and education in an armed force, a new active lynching movement sprang up in the north and west, and there were riots against their new presence; I did not know that lynching was followed by mutilation of the person’s hanging corpse and then cutting off the head — every desecration that could be piled on. I saw this in the remarkably few photographs of lynching the museum displays. I found I am particularly ignorant of the history of African-Americans immediately after the civil war was over — the brief period where they were treated decently, began to vote, sat in representative assemblies; of their history again at the turn of the 20th century (devastating cruelty inflicted on them, in effect re-enslavement through laws forbidding them to leave the south, to leave a job where they owed money perpetually; the prison system; and again in the 1920s, and 1940s apart from the war.

I was impressed by the self-control and moderation of tone with which the history of African-Americans in the United States was presented. Inside the memorial for Emmett Till I began to cry.


Emmett Till’s casket when it was still in the old garage

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A corner of the corona building — with that delicate design work in iron seen in golden light

I finally made it a week ago Tuesday, and spent some 5 hours there. I left when I did because I felt my feet and legs had just enough strength to take me the trek back home. I had been wanting to go there since I saw Gwen Ifill’s first segment on it on PBS (and she’s been dead some years). Pondering the obstacles of early on getting tickets, and then when someone like me could, the distance (drive to train, train, walk it was said 15 minutes from a subway stop), so finding the place after having bought timed-tickets on a wekbsite and/or waiting outside on lines, I had begun to give up hope. Still I told myself if I could just plan a day, pull myself together, and go, I should probably manage it. Then at OLLI at Mason this January, a woman came from the museum to deliver a 2 hour lecture on the history, architecture, exhibits, doings of the place, and said you didn’t need any ticket at all ahead for this January and February. So now or never. Three weeks ago I was un-surprized to be thwarted because an inch of snow closed the place down, but two weeks ago all clear.

I found it by going to the Smithsonian stop (so glad I had wit enough to chose that one of the three cited on the website), and with the help of a man who works in the Metro. I had fallen and a man in the booth came over. I said I wanted to find the African-American museum. I told him there was no map on the website, and was seeking Constitution Avenue, he nodded and said that was not necessary. He said go up the escalator and turn left. I said, no that cannot be as that is the park. So he came up the escalator with me and walked into the Mall park and pointed to the building. It’s distinctive; it stands out. So I had to turn left in the park and walk in the direction of that building and it took about 7 minutes or so.

You first enter a grand concourse, all sparkling glamour with a bronze chariot hanging from the ceiling (“Swing low, sweet chariot … “). Like many recent museums, there is so much space wasted — super high ceilings, large desks with not much information, a cafeteria to the side, an auditorium for cultural events (Oprah Winfrey), and glass doors leading to different corridors. One takes you to a large elevator where you go down some three flights at least and then coming out walk through history set up as exhibits of all sorts in a large maze with inner rooms and outer, gradually rising to the concourse again. There were places you could sit and watch films. Places you could sit and read the plaques explaining what you were seeing. Like the American Museum of Natural History in NYC big glass cases set in walls with exhibits.

You begin with the period where the practice of enslavement of (eventually) thousands and thousands of people. I thought about the period where they were captured, manacles with horrifying hooks put about their necks, stripped to nakedness, and then forced aboard ships. What few remnants and relics survive are surrounded by modern pictures, explanations of the economics of this capture and deportations; the (to me) familiar mappings of these hellhole ships. Then the exhibit divides into four localities to show enslavement in Chesapeake area, the Carolinas, Louisiana, and up north. You look at decrees, see artifacts, read of the many rebellions, horrific loss of life, all dignity and comfort to those alive – and evidence also of people trying to hold onto their original beliefs, form family groups.


A reproduction of a mural, “The Old Plantation” circa 1785-1795, watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia

In the middle sections — after the Revolutionary War and leading up to the civil war — you can try to observe how enslaved black people lived among white people who were by law backed up by guns and horrific punishments their owners or also all the other people all around them. How everyone accommodated movement. Their houses in the fields. Their working conditions. Tools. I remarked there were few whips — there was in this museum an attempt to downplay the misery of such an existence. A few people managed to buy themselves out of enslavement; a few learn to read, learn trades. We see the papers they were required to carry (and danger they could be snatched back into enslavement and their papers destroyed). For my taste there were too many statues of famous white American males. There was an ancient beat up square piece of stone about one foot high: an auction block. Much about resistance, about attempts at some semblance of life outside body-killing work and continual subjugation. Not nearly enough on the horrors women would have experienced (rape, pregnancy, exhibition, beating, babies and children taken from you &c) — the museum has what photos have lasted — mostly groups of African-Americans around shacks and in the fields.


Clara Brown — one of my favorite statues — her story is both sad and courageous

Born enslaved in Virginia, Clara Brown married at age 18, and had to endure all four children being taken from her and sold; after the Civil War she moved to Colorado and worked as a cook, laundress and midwife; she invested her money in mines and land, and used it to help support community organizations. All her life she searched for her four children. When very old she finally was united (the plaque said) with one daughter.

Much on the civil war — because more and more photos, artefacts, relics, documents and here occasionally books mentioned.

Very educational were the rooms for the turn of the 20th century because an attempt was made to show how African-Americans were building their own institutions, creating their own associations (NAACP), were developing a genuine middle class, with a small elite business community. I did know how these groups reached out to one another and to more isolated people to do what they could to educate one another, get decent jobs. Each time (I must add) there is a cruel push-back — no, they cannot get into unions (so the history of Pullman Porters); there seems to be always some group ready and able to re-impose isolation, poverty. But you see a black press, and very important the development of talented people in the arts, music, literature, and then doctors, lawyers, teachers. The early minstrel shows (with black face) have one wall. This section before and during the push for civil rights after World War Two (this began in the 1950s) had films of individuals, and was dependent to a large extent on African-American people supplying their own saved relics — like a parlor organ from 1911 (a room with books and rugs is built around it). Famous African-American people have separate glass cases, from Ida Wells and Booker T. Washington.

In the middle of the higher level is a Southern Railway train. Now what’s remarkable about this is the section reserved for “coloreds” is so much more comfortable, suggesting aspects of the treatment of colored people during this segregated era on trains much much better than passengers on planes in economy seats today.

I went in and saw the colored people’s chairs had armrests. What airplane gives a passenger a comfortable armrest? There was plenty of room in the aisles and people faced one another. The whites had bigger seats, bathrooms at both ends of the cars, more accommodation for food, but no one was treated (as far as the construction of the car lets you see) in the abusive manner airlines do today. You have room for your body to sleep, eat, be comfortable.

This was not the only place in the 20th century part of the history that I observed poorer and ordinary (not people part of some exclusive “club” where they pay extra) people today are treated as badly and worse than segregated African-Americans in public places they shared with whites. And see forms of enslavement today for millions of black men in prisons.

Once I moved into the 1960s, I was on familiar ground. There was a long cafeteria like counter with seats in front of which are perpetual films. Some of the more troubling things is that the Angola Prison exhibit is about a prison still going whose treatment of prisoners is still deeply inhumane. But also in these various modules of the 20th century an exhibit about the Hope School, a fine school for African-American children where those lucky enough to go there probably received a much better education than they did when they entered an integrated public school at first. There were uniforms worn by African-American nurses (at first black women couldn’t enter this profession) and a touching photo of an AFrican-American midwife taking care of a new born.

Again in the 1980s and 90s, no where near enough about the roles of the FBI in destroying the Black Panther movement. The frankest parts of the museum heritage galleries were the films and histories of events of the 1960s. There is a set of film clips ending on Johnson signing the civil rights act. As others have said before me, I was disappointed to see so little of Martin Luther King, to be told so little of other leaders who were most of them killed in their 30s (Medgar Evers comes to mind) – let us not forget (see Muhiyyidin D’baha, this past February, another potential black male leader shot dead in the streets).

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Upstairs

What one has also to remember is this is not a museum intended to show high cultural art; like other Smithsonian museums the core idea is to reflect the history of a culture.

The lower floor with its community galleries continues the story of how difficult it has been for African-American people to achieve fulfillment in the US. One exhibit called the “power of place” shows how important to people are the places they grow up in but also how these function to segregate people. You see slow hard climbs of individuals and how they are helped by black groups to become successful this way or that: including making beautiful hats (Mae Reeves’s Millinery shop, for church and then selling these more widely).

I know nothing about most sports and can’t get myself to care who wins prizes so I skipped a whole section of the middle floor. Another section of this floor was about military service and how African-American men (& women nowadays) fought in both wars (I and II), and how ambivalent the experience originally was, but how once integrated the armed services has been a place African-Americans can have and have had fulfilling success and gained respect and power.

Then the highest floor where you can look out to the park too: I had expected to be more amused by the movie and music industry part of the museum than I was. Here I do have a mild criticism: instead of letting the viewer watch say the whole of Barbara Jordan’s speech say one day and then Martin Luther King another, we have ten clips each lasting less than 5 minutes. Or we have clips from famous movies one after another lasting less than 5 minutes. Everything is there then as a sort of celebratory symbol; Chuck Berry’s 1950s Cadillac (with a spotlight) took a good deal of room. Several different groups singing and songs played all at once even if a few yards apart do not allow you to appreciate the music. Little attempt is made to show the slow progress of black people in films or TV. I was surprised to find how painful I found the comic routines of male African-American performers: several were making routines out of the ironies and miseries of their condition, out of the color of their skin, as a source of humor. I didn’t find it so but it does teach you what was acceptable to do to black people in the 1950s and early 60s. And as for today, too much celebrity glamour.

It also seemed to me the finest African-American women singers, actresses and other creative people were not there. No Lena Horne for example. Instead young black sexy icon-types, the huge money-makers, politicians, and silent videos with lots of neon. The most disappointing section was the arts. A truly tiny section of painting, sculpture. I have said that’s not the purpose of the museum. But the lack of interest was startling — again one can go to the other Smithsonian museums to see exhibits of fine African-American photographers. Perhaps the competition is too keen. But the truth while women were equally represented every where but sports and the military, famous women’s dresses are there (Rosa Parks) and typical working outfits for women as well as men’s and women were obviously organizers, active as volunteers and paid heads of organizations, and also part of the elite black world, when it came to the arts, individual good women artists (singers, young actresses, painters, sculptors, performers) were nowhere to be found.

I don’t want to end on a “down” or sour note. It took a very long time from the initial daring proposal (1916, black veterans from World War One) to actual plans, provisions (2003) and finally funding and hiring an architectural firm (2009, thank John Lewis among other people) to this magnificent place. It will be here a long time and there is (as I said) lots of empty space.

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Back on the concourse: the cafeteria specializes in soul food, southern black cookery and is expensive, but you can buy small plates of the food as side dishes and there is coffee, each day a different soup, and sodas and some decent juice. I got a small plate of spinach and a bottle of genuine orange juice.

Then I went into your usual museum shop: lots of jewelry, scarves, T-shirts, commemorative objects. I bought two good books, one a Vintage collection of African-American poetry, and an anthology of “slave narratives” edited by Henry Gates. The two people at the register were friendly and thanked me for supporting the museum. Entry is free. There were also serious books about African-American history and culture and individuals as well as your usual popular stuff, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming in many copies.

I’ll end on this highly intelligent capable woman who had some luck and has been able to live a good life with a man worth of her. Michelle Obama fits into the super-respect given to women politicians and the women who run organizations and are part of the black elite (Hilary Clinton is part of this in her white world and it was these black women who voted for her):


Read this thoughtful review by Isabel Wilkerson (NYTimes Book Review)


As a college student

What’s it like to be an outsider? How can a museum represent the inside world of a particular person? This one didn’t do that enough. It was about black people breaking into the inside of the white world, and about black people who formed their own inside black worlds.

When I look at Michelle Obama at Harvard, and read about the family life she knew, the communities she was part of, and listen to her quoted, I feel she doesn’t know any more for real what it is, though she carries on trying to help those (as they say) “less fortunate.”  I don’t begrudge her her luck, and am glad for her that she has not been excluded because she is an African-American. In Michelle Obama’s case, being a woman hurt her possibilities much more. After all she did not become president, though out of school and into a job, she was Barack’s mentor.

Oprah Winfrey can make huge amounts of money appealing to whites too and build an auditorium; a extraordinarily good older woman actress, she can help Barack Obama centrally by declaring “he black!”, but she knows better than to run for president.

Ellen

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Plantagenet and Lady Glencora Palliser (Philip Latham and Susan Hampshire) on their honeymoon, hotel desk registration …. (1974 Pallisers, scripted Simon Raven)


Burgo Fitzgerald buying some food and drink for a beggar girl, street walker (Hablôt Browne (Phiz), one of the original illustrations for the novel)

A Syllabus

Online at: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2019/02/17/a-spring-syllabus-for-reading-anthony-trollopes-can-you-forgive-her-or-palliser-1/

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Tuesday afternoons, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
March 5 to May 7
4801 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20016
Dr Ellen Moody


Alice meets important politicians (Caroline Mortimer, Roger Livesey as Duke of St Bungay and Moray Watson as Barrington Erle) at Matching Priory


Aunt Greenow with her suitors (Phiz again) on the sands at Yarmouth

Description of Course

In this course we will begin a journey through Trollope’s famous roman fleuve: the six Palliser novels over several spring/fall terms. The series mirrors and delves many many levels of society and central issues of life in 19th century Europe. It contains a cast of brilliantly conceived recurring characters in a realistic thoroughly imagined landscape. CYFH? initiates central linked themes of coerced marriage, class & parliamentary politics & contains extraordinary psychological portraiture. As we move through the books, we’ll watch segments of the 1970s film adaptation dramatizing this material in original modern ways

Required Text:

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her, ed., introd. Stephen Wall. 1972 rpt. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
There are two (!) relatively inexpensive MP3s of Can You Forgive Her?, one read aloud wonderfully well by Simon Vance (Blackstone audio); and the other read even more brilliantly by Timothy West (Audiobooks). I’m listening to Vance and it would be fine if people wanted to listen to Vance or West (who is my favorite reader of Trollope).

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

Mar 5: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; the state of the law and customs surrounding marriage, sexual relationships in the upper classes of mid-19th century England; the political situation in the 1860s.

Mar 12: 2nd: read for this week, CYFH?, we cover Chapters 1-10. Read for next week: read also Robert Hughes’s “Trollope and Fox-Hunting,” Essays in Literature, 12:1 (1984):75-84

Mar 19: 3rd: CYFH?, we cover Chapters 11-20. Read for next week George Levine’s “Can You Forgive Him?” Trollope’s CYFH? and the Myth of Realism,” Victorian Studies 18:1 (1974):5-30.

Mar 26: 4th: CYFH?,  we cover Chapters 21-30. I’ll send URLS to my own essays and blogs on the 1974 film adaptation, The Pallisers; also my essay “Partly Told in Letters,” from my website.

Apr 2: 5th: CYFH?, we cover Chapters 31-40 I sent Mary Poovey’s “The Financial System in 19th Century Britain and “Bills of Exchange,” as well as George Watson on Trollope and Tolstoy; I advised them to look at John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women.

Apr 9: 6th: CYFH?, we cover Chapters 41-50   Trollope as an original political novelists and discuss other political novelists of the era:, Elizabeth Gaskell’sMary Barton; Disraeli’sSybil, or the Two Nations; George Meredith, Beauchamp’s Career. I also went over Mill’s Subjection of Women. For next week I sent URLS to my blogs and essay on The Pallisers; to on-line pieces by Watson, Tricia Aryton, one on socialism in the 19th century novel.; also Nancy Henry’s Rushing into Eternity:  Finance and Suicide in the Victorian Novel from Victorian Investments (a collection of essays); URL to my blog on Mill’s Subjection of women.

Apr 16: 7th: CYFH?, we cover Chapters 51-60. If I can I will show clips from Parts 1-4 of the film adaptation.  For next week send I send Sharon Marcus, “Contracting Female Marriage in Can You Forgive Her?, Nineteenth-Century Literature 60:3 (2005):291-395; also a thesis by Arlene Rodriguez: Self-Sacrifice as Desire: Eleanor Bold and Alice Vavasour

Apr 23: 8th: CYFH?, we cover Chapters 61-70.  I send for the next week (penultimate) Bill Overton, “An Interior View,” Modern Language Notes 71 (1976):489-99; “Self and Society in Trollope,” ELH 45978):258-302

Apr 30: 9th: CYFH?, we cover Chapters 71-80. La commedia e finita.  For next week I will try to find an essay on travel and travel stories in Victorian novels; and we will discuss Trollope and the Male Career (Nicholas Dames’s essay on the place of career trajectories in Trollope’s novels?) and I will show clips.

May 7: 10th: Last thoughts on CYFH?; Clips from Parts 5-6 of the film adaptation.  the problem of Trollope’s reputation. Looking forward to Phineas Finn (Palliser 2)


George Vavasour and Scruby, his campaign manager (Gary Watson and Gordon Gostelow) looking over a check to cover costs of election


Phineas Finn and Laurence Fitzgibbon (Donal McCann and Neil Stacy), two Irishmen entering Parliament (not insiders, last episode of CYFH?)

The interlocking stories and characters of the Pallisers or as it once was called the Parliamentary novels actually gets its start in the 5th Barsetshire novel. The story of Lady Glencora McClusky and Burgo Fitzgerald’s passionate love, clandestine engagement and its abrupt ending and her & Plantagenet Palliser’s coerced marriage is begun in Chapters 23 (“Mr Plantagenet Palliser”), 43 (“Fie, fie!”) and 55 (“Not very fie fie after all”) of The Small House of Allington. You can find them online

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/allington/

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/allington/chapter43.html

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/allington/chapter55.html

And you can watch the first episode of The Pallisers, which covers this early episode from The Small House; it comprises the first 45 minutes of what appears to be a vast YouTube of the whole of the Pallisers (but somewhat abridged). Search on the YouTube site for The Pallisers, Can You Forgive Her, Part 1.


The coerced engagement of Lady Glencora McClusky and Plantagenet Palliser realized symbolically in a park walk (Episode 1 of the Pallisers, from chapters in The Small House at Allington):

Suggested supplementary reading & film for Trollope and Can You Forgive Her?

Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Knopf, 1993. Lively and filled to the brim with a sense of Trollope’s life.
Halperin, John. Trollope & Politics: A study of the Pallisers and Others. University of So. California, 1977. Informative invigorating study.
MacDonald, Susan Peck. Anthony Trollope. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Excellent concise study of the man and his novels.
Mill, John Stuart, “Anthony Trollopee Subjection of Women.” Broadview Press, 2000. Online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645s/
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: So. Illinois UP, 1989. Balanced, and insightful.
Pallisers. Dir. Hugh David, Ronald Wilson. Screenplay by Simon Raven. Perf: Susan Hampshire, Philip Latham, Donal McCann, Barbara Murray, Anna Massey and Donald Pickering (among others). BBC, 1974, DVD. Available in a newly digitalized version.
Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Standford University Press, 1988.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. NY: New Amsterdam, 1975. A pleasure to read.
Terry, R. C. Anthony Trollope: The Artist in Hiding. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. About how artful the novels are.
Wall, Stephen. Trollope: Living with Characters. NY: Holt, 1988.

Three good general books on the era:

A.N. Wilson, The Victorians. Entertaining, a bit dense, lots of little biographies.
Susie Steinbach, Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th century Britain. She may look less entertaining but she writes clearly and reads easily — and about larger issues from an angle that enables the reader to see the larger political struggles in terms of the daily lives, experiences, and attitudes of ordinary Victorians, and thus manages to get at the important difficult terrain of inward mentalities and the actual experience of particular milieus in the Victorian era.
Simon Heffner’s High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. He is a conservative paternalist Tory writer for the Spectator, Telegraph, New Statesman, sometimes the Guardian and his book, fat as it is, gives real insight into what is commonly thought of as politics. A lot about parliament and progressive legislation and how these laws came about. A section on the Great Exhibition.


George and Alice quarrel violently at the fells, Cumberland


Kate Vavasour with broken arm (Miss E Taylor, one of the original illustrations for Trollope’s novel)

Ellen

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Miss Temple looking at Jane Eyre (many many films have this icon)

Friends,

My first book for the new year:


A virago re-publication — keeping the book in print

Vicinus’s study remains as important and relevant today as when it was written 50 years ago, about crucial failures 50 years before that. Her title tells us the matter of her book, the details of her story line; she only slowly reveals that this is a study which explains why now nearly 100 years ago when women began to vote as a group, they have not achieved needed power for themselves as a group and as individuals when they comprise one-half of the human race.

Where real power resides that effectively can change the structures and conditions of our lives is in society’s central agencies and institutions and she studies those institutions women were allowed to join and try to rise to top shaping positions in, or were allowed to make institutions of their own. She shows that repeatedly women were thwarted from taking shaping power (church, military, high gov’t, medicine), within the lower echelons how class and the psychologies of their own natures interfered with creating successfully run places, because it was demanded of them that they behave like capitalist men, and their needs as women (to run families, to have friends) were disciplined out of existence; how the institution was allowed only to be an interlude (women’s colleges); or what they won was nullified (the vote).

Thus women failed to influence the organizations of industry, military, schools, gov’t to bend to respond to women’s issues, needs, and help women (crucially needed) to counter male sexual and familial tyrannies. Where women have had gains is where they have mitigated the impact of a male-dominated society upon the friendless and vulnerable, where it met an immediate need of the woman herself (intermittent child care, freedom from beating) and her children (school meals — still contested in the US, humane treatment of elderly). The age of indecent assault was moved from 13 to 16, a pension scheme for widows ….


This is the whole of the cover photograph: Westfield College — for women, June 1889

The book begins (Chapter one) with her talking of how women at first tried for general power outside rich and well-connected family groups. She has to omit the working class woman because she could not try; she also omits widows. The first work for powerful people and only achieved power after 1930 when they formed their first women’s union (garment workers); they were excluded from men’s unions until very recently. Widows are a special case and just don’t fit (!) into her story unless they drop this identity. The problem Woolf saw in 1928 (A Room of Your Own) was to explain how the vote seemed to have made little difference. Yes, you could have custody of your children, couldn’t be legally beaten, could get a separation, could not be legally forced to return to a husband, but how minimal these protections and rights, how unaccompanied by anything else.

She then discusses the importance of the norm which denied any rightness or value to the life of an unmarried women. Your life was not useful or respected unless you married and had children, and that immediately put women into the power of compulsory heterosexuality of marriage. So Vicinus begins with the campaign against “redundant” women in the 19th century. Her argument is that unmarried or single women were not an anomaly, not a rarity or uncommon at all. Given death, sterile women whom men abandoned or simply disliked and discarded, unmarried woman forced to care for aged parents, seen as not attractive, quiet lesbians were noticed only to be stigmatized and punished by denying them any ability to make a living which would give them independent or a dignified life. As soon as the punishments became less — because of the increase of industrialization, capitalism, the substitution of money as the basis for society rather than male violence, and so the life of a single woman became more viable and thus more visible, they were to be fiercely denied and erased and worried about, deported (to colonies to find husbands).

So this made-up category of redundant women didn’t go away, instead gradually a world of institutions from which women could exercise the needed power to change norms, make real money, and create spaces in which single women could live independently and freely in safety for the first time began to emerge — all the while society remained hostile to unmarried women and women given power. She turns women attempting to run prestigious institutions while keeping socially acceptable behavior. Gregg who wrote the famous essay introducing this concept wrote that women unattached to men or not in households run by men must be forced back into male control. His scheme was to deport the redundant women, which did not include servants or anyone not middle class and above.

One of the most telling parts of the book is about the ferocious and physical assaults wreaked on women demanding the vote. This reaction apparently astonished the suffragettes at first, then dismayed and horrified them. They were seeing for the first time the men and society they had thought still fundamentally on their side, were not, would dispense with them all as individuals until those “making trouble” were dead or crippled.


Christchurch hospital nurses

So how under this assault can we discover where women can find power, were managing to find it for the first time in the UK and ended up still controlled by men.

How did upper class women become important members of come to almost look for truly high positions of authority in religious organizations and prestigious hospitals comprise Chapters two and three. Religious belief and a place in churches were important parts of women’s lives outside the family and in public space, and then taking care of, nursing people were accepted areas of women’s activities in the public world. Gaining change had to be done first by strong-willed well connected very upper class women in socially acceptable ways and the first positions filled by upper class women — and it’s not a matter of education so much as status, and respect they got and expected. Only such women would be obeyed by others and gained primary respect. Thus some women reached medium and relatively high positions who were not truly qualified in medicine. You had to be a type who obeyed, who conformed because very quickly men and other women who could asserted control.

She describes in detail areas of life and work where women could for the first time in groups enter public life and find or create power and she shows how in effect they failed. For religion, they were never respected enough, nor did they respect themselves enough. They turned to men as the figures who must have these positions, and churches decreed and supported this. When it came to the nursing profession, the women building the profession wanted upper class women to be in positions of authority and chose women based on status and rank not abilities. Then in the context what happened is they demanded of the women they hired absolute obedience and didn’t pay them well and gave them hard tasks. Some women stayed and took the punishment — as escape from home, or something worse — or just did. The women who couldn’t stand this went to work in less prestigious hospitals; as a group they also failed to enforce education standards so anyone could be a nurse.

At the same time they themselves never gained power — as in religious institutions — men remained in charge. They ddidn’t think well enough of themselves no matter how high their position, finally they buy into their inferiority. Else why take on the drudgery and the way they cannot conceive having an institution where women are in charge, women the administrators and doctors. I am bothered by how Vicinus accepts the class and rank status as necessary to being in charge, to managing and just concedes it must be there to be successful. Maybe only such women have the self-esteem and training or attitude of mind from their family backgrounds. She tells the stories of individual women who bucked the system and how they came to grief. They tried to go too high or they succeeded for a while, and then were attacked and marginalized by male hegemonic values of various sorts and attacks on them as women.

There was an almost insane emphasis on discipline (far more than cleanliness) in hospital work, which made it so awful to do, so much like a prison camp, and made nursing a profession like being a governesses had been – who’d want to submit to that. This was partly an attempt to throw off the disrespect and unwillingness to believe women can have another sort of discipline to rise high, to have clean bodies (not sexy – I remember when to rise in academia it was de rigueur to dress dowdy). How can women become powerful on their own behalf in such an atmosphere. These impossibly long days, are in service to male doctors. I’ve known women who worked hard to be nurse and when it came to enduring the profession left; some of nurses’ tyranny over women patients (like breast-feeding) is these are areas where they have handles to be the important person.


Somerville College Boat Club — where the caption says how proud the college is of a tradition of ambition and competition

Chapter Four, Women’s Colleges. Vicinus moves to women wanting an independent intellectual life. This means going to university, ultimately getting the right to have a degree, so you can go out for professional work. But she is also — let’s hear a rousing hand — interested in women who come for this education and intellectual life where the prime motive is not a job but the intellectual life.

She argues that status or rank does not always play the abysmally awful part it did in nursing and religious communities. It’s not that it’s not there (think of Sayers’s Gaudy Night) but it’s not a fault-line for who stays on after the first year or so. These are usually unmarried women. This third institution offered as none other did an “unparalleled” opportunity for a women to have “private space” to herself, to find “shared interests” with others no where else to be found, the use of “public amenities” no where else. There was no time for such things in nursing, no raison d’etre for them but religious belief in church type institutions. And one of the barriers parents resisted most was not so much the degree or job eventuality, but they didn’t want the girl to live there: they lost control of her space and her body and who she could mingle with. They feared not being able to choose her partner through control of who she met and who supported her emotionally.

She discusses more individuals here, and the complications of university life which both allowed it to be place where women could know freedom, seek what their talents were good at, lead an independent life to some extent while they were there. Outside the college remained a strong disdain and dismissal of this intellectual life for women, distrust of it as dangerous or silly. In the details of relationships norms for women coming out different from norms for men which prevent women from gaining power in institutions. Women’s friendships and mentorships work differently, are more emotional she says. They had to develop different appropriate rituals — imitate family roles, like sisterhood. What emerged in many women’s colleges was the life there was an pleasant interlude instead of seeing what you did there as something to bring back into society.


A sketch from nature (Punch, 1884)

The fifth chapter is boarding schools and I wondered why that was a separate area until I realized she was determined to uncover the nature of emotional women’s friendships and mentorships as central glue to women combining in groups outside structures. This too is a basic source of power — the old girls’ network.

She first uncovers an emotional bath of coy adoration and cloying interdependence in the language (relationships called “raves”), and the kind of thing that later critics use to find lesbianism. But she neither seems to care if this kind of thing can become lesbianism or is superficial or just deep emotion — she rejects Carol Smith-Rosenberg’s famous article about female ritual staying ritual; Lilian Faderman’s equally famous insistence lesbian friendships did not include open sex and more recently Lisa Moore’s idea they all fucked as best they could.

No what’s important is this bonding and that it was a secret way of subverting the established order; she has lots of evidence on how the headmistresses’ disciplinary techniques were there to deal precisely with this — to stop secrets between girls, to stop secret friendship because there things like masturbation, and all sort of rebellions took place. At the same time the headmistresses and women in charge themselves saw this was a way of rewarding some girls, punishing others, picking favorites — and gaining power and authority over the girls who obey. Vicinus concedes this sort of thing was very unfair and victims (ostracized girls were also often lower class), but she sees it as important bonding. She talks of the rituals of these places including the headmistress kissing each girl before she goes to bed at night. Example after example from these schools.

Her idea is power came from this kind of exploitation of a level of women’s emotion, which was frustrated and stifled so they could not express it heterosexually going after boys. When they went home, there were chaperons. As such women grew older, they learned to have a severe demeanor or manners with outsiders and kept up their respectability. All this is a basis for power, and when it was student and teacher who went in for this kind of relationship — and it often was and allowed as mentoring — then the result could be a career of public service. Mutual religious belief was brought in to make all moral. I am seeing Miss Temple and Jane in a whole new light.

Bad side-effects was some girls ended up deranged, would have breakdowns in these places because they enforced long hours of work. For some girls this was a remembered paradise, for many more a kind of hell they got through. Vicinus does remark that too much was expected of a single relationship by naive or powerless girls and when they were dropped or it didn’t work out, there would be great hurt or anger. “Pent-up ambition, frustrated ambitions, and constrained sexuality” was behind all this. She is right that something subversive could happening beyond an individual pair of girls rebelling say politically can be seen by how — as she records — so much hostility to this pairing emerged too. Parents took home daughters. They wanted them to marry. I saw some of this in Sweet Briar: the girls were assigned older sisters among girls already there or younger ones and an attempt was made to encourage this kind of bonding to start. Any ostracizing or bullying or victimizing of a particular girl was noticed and put a stop to.

Vicinus seems to me too complacent about what she is showing. I suppose the price of bonding between boys in public schools is similarly ambiguous. What can happen is heterosexual boys are taken over by homosexual ones — and vice versa, for sex does enter into it there in the ugly ugly fagging system. There was no fagging system in the girls’ schools.

Vicinus then analyzes what are clearly lesbian relationships even if she never uses the word. The women lay in one another’s arms, call one another husband or wife, the strong insists on kissing others. These girls and women called their relationships marriages. With Freudianism and new psychoanalyses marginalized these relationships once again.

Eventually and today single sex institutions began to disappear; the claim is they are not needed or wanted. She says it began to be seen as strange by many who began to take notice that a poorly paid apparently celibate woman should have any power. A woman’s career should not be seen as something separate it’s claimed. Vocations don’t support the woman, and we are almost back to where we started.


Women outside a Settlement House (Blackfriars) — turn of the century — settlement houses were run by and often for women

Settlement houses: Chapter 6: community ideal for the poor

Another group of institutions that emerged that women tried to gain power from were settlement houses built among the poor and meant to help them find shelter, medical care, education, employment, what they needed: women’s names are remembered here: Mary Carpenter, Louisa Twinning, Octavia Hill (given money by John Ruskin to start houses he had ideas for), Jane Adams, Dorothy Day. Amid the horrors of industrialization, factories &c philanthropic organizations grew too – women were allowed to cross class lines for such purposes 211 armies of volunteers as middle class people’s income soared in the gilded age ….In the US such settlement houses partly political were run by women; in the UK often by men and were stepping stones to a career.

But problems arose. I am startled to have to say Vicinus is for means tests! She is for the Charity Organization Society which was against giving any help until people investigated and then if any other relative can help well then help is denied. Then it’s fine to interfere. There were women who joined who were socialists or pacifists but more Christian millennialism – working with children for the future. Now instead of military metaphors found in nursing we find language of colonialism: cleanliness, middle class deportment, cooking sewing – do-it-yourself self-respecting well doing &c&c. Some working class people found this appalling, but submitted to obtain help.

One ironic result the middle class suddenly can walk where she pleases alone but the working class is now spatially confined – put them in clubs, in service, &&c. Women did this work and lived in such places to be public leaders and have professional work, saw how fellowship and association gave them place and power. Women’s colleges got involved – they did help some people, disabled children for example. All made a point of linking with some other recognized institution (school, college church, political ones). Had long-time women running them as wardens, and they enabled women to keep up relationships with one another and make new relationships. You had privacy as a resident; indirect access to shaping of laws. They moved into places like school boards.

There was a problem of finding reliable volunteers – what brought people: curiosity, religious commitment, idealism, boredom, desire for adventure, self-education. You paid to be a resident and the working girls couldn’t understand what you were doing or why. Leaders of women’s settlements wanted to turn these into a paid profession. Then part-time volunteers outnumbers residents two to one – money needed for drains for upkeep of houses …. Small sums out of these women’s reach; only after WW! And take over by gov’t were social workers regularly paid.

So then we have women choosing settlement not based on which school connection but what the settlement’s speciality in caring was; class condescension can be replaced by “professional expertise” – communities divide all sorts of ways into committed and un committed. Some very devoted and high minded hard working women but mocked too.

What was benefit for working people: very small staffs, volunteers, huge numbers of people to service. Clubs for working girls were popular – emphasis on pleasure so most had dancing. One successful one moved into instruction too – skills and trade unionism. Baby care, housewifery and other skills to older women who were presumed to be mothers. A great disconnect between them and who they were serving. Resident teachers were most successful with young children in new formations of schools. Men against them – paradoxically most were unmarried women advising all these married women – week after week the real problems of women and children at home incapable of being addressed. What do you do about low self-image?

And then when their function was taken over by the state, the women were given subordinate jobs. They were not enfranchised …. A failure to cement connections between different kinds of settlement houses … Eleanor Rathbone a rare individual with larger social vision did move into parliament.

Chapter 7: Male space and women’s bodies: the suffragette movement.

I was again surprised – much – when she treated the suffragette movement not as economically based but as a spiritual one. She kept using that word “spirituality” whose meaning I have yet to make precise or understand fully because as far as I can see I have no “spirituality.” I gather she does not mean religious belief attached to a church but some undefined set of emotional needs somehow connected to religions.  Her argument, which I think she does demonstrate, is that the suffragettes got as far as they did because they were actuated by motives akin to religious belief that can overturn an old religious order and replace it with a new. She also thinks religious motivations are at the heart of women’s way of bonding – as well as unformulated erotic ones – let’s call them loosely indirect.

She makes a good case for her insights again and again and in this chapter as she goes through the familiar trajectory of being lied to, disappointed, ignored and then seeing that they must break the law and be utterly disruptive if they are to get anywhere, that they must be regarded seriously as a political force with the _right_ to work effectively in public political space, she again and again has recourse to “spirituality” as an actuating motive clinching the women’s behavior. Certainly at the beginning most women could not see what votes would get them. A failure of imagination is at the heart of this. Women did see some movement – no beating, custody of children, but not enough in their daily lives. Men did see the deep subversion of what these women were asking and the one thing they held out against was recognizing they were political prisoners for example. Churchill treated them like naughty children who needed to be treated more softly.

She agrees with others the movement was engendered by upper class women, and typical are sentences like this: “the fierce loyalty and strength of the movement sprang from a spiritual self-confidence that unleashed enormous energies not only for the vote, but also for a total reconsideration of the role of women.” Consider that the wretchedness of poor life was not a motive for these women, it was genuinely a desire to have liberty of choice in life for themselves and thus power. It is no coincidence that Bell (tomorrow we’ll have a loose schedule) and Cobbe came from very wealthy people; Florence Nightingale and filled with self-esteem.

She quotes Mary Gordon (a Catholic writer) that “such spiritual upheavals are always irrational and irrational human types are swept into them as high priests.” So the women’s movement for the vote is like the Protestant reformation.

The WSPU was extreme in its behavior out of desperation, and this is important: it frightened some women away but it got attention. Gradually more women saw also getting the vote was not asking a lot new and doing it was easy. That’s important. I’ll never canvass anyone but I can vote – and through votes you can perhaps get many different kinds of things. For others militancy was putting off “the slave spirit” – so it was like abolition. Women were beat and told they were to obey. The call was “Rise up Women!”

Then they were horrified at the men’s reaction, stunned at the cruelty derision, hatred. That taught something important. And when they didn’t fill the roles they were supposed to and then considered fair predatory game they learned something else.

And then the beast comes out from behind the screen publicly: hitherto men beat women in private with impunity now they were willing to do it publicly, with the aid of subordinate women (nurses ironically).

Vicinus reveals how viciously the suffragettes were treated, not just indifferently badly but compare the treatment to the way white racists have treated black people — out right ugly humiliating attacks and bodily injury she would not recover from, both in the streets and prisons, but especially the prison. Force feeding was intended to maim the woman and it did and hundreds were subjected to this. Those in power were intensely enraged because they did see the demand for a vote as an attack direct on their masculinity and whole way of life. They detested the demand to use public space as an authority. What surprised me was the horror of the women — they did not expect this and Vicinus’s own attitude towards the hunger strikes. And many were physically and/or emotionally maimed for life. She says hunger strikes — or suicide as in Emily Davies just gets rid of pro-active effective women — and ultimately is liked by the powerful. They’re glad of it or indifferent. Given that she sees the suffragette movement as driven by an emotional “spirituality” these sacrifices bound women but also were so self-defeating. I know these hunger strikes reverse the age-old way of punishment of subversion: put the person in a hunger tower to starve but most writers are chary to say how useless – because it attracts attention. Vicinus doesn’t think attention per se is enough.

At the end of the chapter she says that when the movement was over some suffragettes felt they had won something – the right to be recognized or recognition, the idea they wanted liberty which desire even had been denied them. But Vicinus shows how the newspapers went against them, how other women betrayed them, and says what they are saying they achieved doesn’t click because the basic structures of society in 1920 remain the same. The vote has ameliorated conditions. Today many of ties that bound women today are as strongly in place and the vote does not come near these.

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I’ve already told the conclusion. This last coda is interesting for the examples she brings forth to once again make her argument, and how various norms thought to protect women were used against them; at the same time, some liberties women sought and thought they had gained from at first were seen only to favor men more when put into practice.

All women’s communities declined during and after WW1. One of most persuasive chapters is the short appendix where she shows men’s clubs continue to be supportive of them and fill needs all their lives; women’s clubs are an interlude just like women’s colleges. Women’s clubs interfere with her family obligations and she drops them. Women communities were successfully attacked for new reasons but one glimpses old ideas: they are restrictive psychologically and emotionally, silly places with old-fashioned dangerous behavior (ties to other women mocked. Paradoxically these communities often class bound become unsympathetic unfriendly places for many women.

Jobs were taken right back after WW1 and WW2. Men refused to work for women and refused to allow the workplace to reflect women’s ways.

As the idea women are not morally superior and pure were dropped because that was used to restrict them, they lost out again — not respected. She sees uses for those older ideas as they can empower men if transformed into valuing chastity, non marriage, friendships. But women ill prepared for Freud — who, Vicinus doesn’t say, is so misogynist so they rejected Freudian psychology and were left with what? A new kind of psychology emerged slowly in the 1970s first. What did the new sexual freedom of the 1970s finally achieve? ultimately gave men greater access to women and vulnerable men on their own terms. Women still do not do well when they report and go to court to punish men for raping them.

Then women fought within their own groups. There were those who wanted protective legislation (often turns out for families, for the breadwinner’s packet of money or state support should go to her and children not him as if he were the family) — these were contested bitterly but there were wins in welfare, but these seen as socialist, humanitarian. Those who wanted liberty to fulfill the demands of their own nature got nowhere; independent women accused of sex hatred, preferring women. She shows instances where the word “women” is removed; no this is a fund for citizens. It reminds me of the women’s review of books wanted to use the word “gender” and how “gender studies” replaces women. Far from identifying as a group they run from the group name is implied. Women didn’t or couldn’t invent a different language and set of terms to see themselves by –I think that was attempted in the 1970s to 1990s myself. – and they still haven’t.

The professions she goes over where power bases could have developed remain single-sex ghettos or when men come in, they take over. There had been an attempt at a richly nurturing subculture and the university is one place (all women’s college this can sometimes be seen), but once you leave you are outside the aggressively married heterosexual world.

She ends on a paragraph by Winifred Holtby where Holtby says we know where the aggressively male outlook leads women — to slave markets of all sorts, including marriage. Holtby is arguing that individual ability rather than social conditions should determine a woman’s fate – but Vicinus has shown that without institutions which provide a basis for power (certificates say, incomes) by refusing to change the class bias or sexual terms on which recognition is given out renders such demands moot.

Of course Vicinus is talking about women in general, the large majority not what particular individual women may luck into or be able to access by denying themselves some of the rewards of obeying successfully aggressive heterosexual male hegemonies (i.e., marrying). Many of the women writers I study are women who had talent enough to secure a living somewhere or other in the society and at least for a while and maybe much of their lives managed to escape this thwarting.

Vicinus book is written more softly and in academic style prose than I have and so the impact of what she is saying only slowly dawns on the reader, but once she does, her book has enormous explanatory power. My frontispiece for this blog suggests Vicinus’s whole new ironic and sad take on the stories of Miss Temple and Jane Eyre, how they ended up ….

Ellen

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Christmas at Noningsby

Friends and readers,

As is our wont for too many years than I like to count, Christmas week on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io (we have now resided on five different platforms) we took time out to read a few Christmas or ghost stories and watch a few Christmas or New Year’s movies. I realize I’ve hardly blogged about this, but from our discussion I thought I’d ask the question I posed in my previous blog on two Christmas movies of the 21st century, Is there any general difference between the Christmas story that emerged with the first commercialization of Christmas — in the 19th century, around the time of Dickens’s most famous tale, A Christmas Carol (but not caused by this story), and the type that has dominated the second half of the 20th century and is just dying now.

The simple answer is, Yes. The Victorians were much more into ghosts. Not that we don’t have ghost stories: we do. But I’d say we want our ghosts to be redemptive, to bring hope, cheer, and uplift while the Victorians tended to want generally to mirror as aspects of their society all the year round as seen through the lens of a Christmas ritual. And often as not darkly gothic. We are changing and our new traditional stories are beginning to be less insistent on faery joy and benevolence (It’s a Wonderful Life, engineered by an angel) and more inclined to accept the temporary rescue (as in this year’s Mary Poppins Returns or Love, Actually). I am in the position of having too much material to demonstrate this (from all the years I’ve saved what people wrote over different weeks’ choices, but thought this year’s stories were as able as any to register this. Two by Anton Chekhov, “Frost,” and “A Christmas Time,” and one by Margaret Oliphant, “A Christmas Story,” which I’ll follow up as a kind of coda, Trollope’s depiction of six very different experiences of Christmas in the same year and juxtaposed chapters in Orley Farm.


17th century Dutch: scene on the ice

Chekhov’s “Frost” shows us people attempting to have this joyous time on a vast frozen pond, and what happens is among the upper classes, one man complain how this is false and, far from a cheerful time for all, the winter imposes cold and misery for many, for the poor much deprivation and hard work in the bitter cold. Along comes a man whose appearance and story bears this idea out. The problem (I’d say) is that the complaining has destroyed what cheer there is, and other characters reiterate this idea. But somehow they cannot forget. There is that suffering man.


John Atkinson Grimshaw, Silence (late 19th century, English, probably Yorkshire in winter)

Cheknov’s “A Christmas Time” tells of two very old people who have not heard from their grown daughter for a long time, so long the wife goes to a person who can read and write. He asks her what she wants him to say, and Chekhov says she cannot get herself to say the (I’d call them) vulnerable open longing emotions she has or what has happened for real. She is too inhibited to speak the truth. So the notary produces the usual boilerplate rot of his upper class niche, which flatters him and would say nothing to this daughter. The letter arrives and we learn that there were letters written to the old couple but never delivered. The foolish poor people, the daughter especially trusted to others to deliver them. (Like the southerners who gave their ballots to people coming to the door; I wonder if in the modern case the people were intimidating and that’s not said in public) At any rate when the two grown children read the letters one cries with joy and remembrance. So the letters do serve as a minimum communication. But the pair do nothing about going to the aging couple so they cannot know if they have reached their daughter.

Bleak stories, indeed, but not unusual. And to show this I think I’ll follow up with a few blogs on previous year’s readings. For now have a look at a M.R. James Christmas tale.


John Millais, Christmas (ghost) story-telling

Our last short story for this round, Oliphant’s “Christmas Story:” Oliphant has a man who wants go somewhere Christmas and misses his train. He takes an old-fashioned coach and finds himself by an old broken down landscape where all is desolate and thence to an inn which fits this area. Bare. a dearth of objects. The food offered is bad, and an old gentleman comes and offers to take our narrator to his manor – all the while talking against modern ways. They get there through an uncanny landscape, and the old man tells our narrator that the sullen son he meets is going to replace the old man. According to the family will, each generation must make the oldest son the heir. The family has trouble having sons. A story is told where when the family attempted to get round this harsh treatment, to give the house to a daughter, and they almost lost the house. Our narrator is horrified to think what this means is the son will kill the father somehow or the father kill himself. He tries to stop this, but is somehow ejected from the house, and must return to the inn, deeply disquieted. Next day he goes back indignant determined to overcome the indifference of all around him to what is done in this family each generation but it is too late. And then he wakes up … Was it all a nightmare?

How to take this? The details and experience may leave people reacting very different ways to this gothic — without ghosts so it’s not reprinted in the ghost stories but my hunch is it is a story of the “unseen.” My reading: it’s about Oliphant herself. As Trollope’s Fixed Period is about his fear of death, his aging and misery, his sense the young would like him to die, with the awful Mrs Neverbend a version of Trollope’s wife, Oliphant’s is even more painfully about her. Her sons want to replace her — a number of her novels are metaphors for her painful relationships with her disappointing sons and her neglect of her sweet niece (“Lady Mary’s Story”).

My good friend, Fran, had another take very close to Victorian broad themes:

I found it an intriguing one, despite the unfortunately clichéd, ‘it may have been only a dream’ ending.

As you say, it was probably informed by her own distressing and disappointing experiences with the ne’er-do-well males in her family, who took and took, but didn’t respect,but it seems to go further than that and be an oblique critique of patriarchy, patrilineal inheritance rights and inheritance laws in general. She does it by taking the privileging of male inheritance ad (macabre and possibly murderous) absurdum. It isn’t that the family has difficulty having sons: due to the losses of a wastrel forebear, the family has made a conscious decision to have only one child, a son, in each generation in order to maintain patrilineal succession and prevent their land being cut up even further by multiple heirs or falling to another family if a female should succeed and marry. That son automatically accedes to the title upon marriage whilst the father dies, whether by his own hand or that of his son, remains unclear as you’ve already pointed out – a kind of precursor to the Highlander’s ‘there can be only one’ maxim:) The narrator stumbles upon the present incumbent of the title on the day this will come about and is shocked by his equanimity at the prospect of his loutish son succeeding him in this way. The only thing that seems to bother the father is that his son has insisted on marrying outside the preferred narrow gene pool and into a particularly fecund family, thus presumably increasing the danger of multiple heirs.

Women are of absolutely no importance in this family beyond the obligatory production of a male heir. The lady of the manor is a completely silent, passive and presumably accepting cypher who quite literally blends in with the furniture and her husband is positively gleeful when he recounts that the one time a female child was born first and in danger of inheriting both she and her mother met with an early demise – manner again unspecified – whilst the second wife performed her duty and produced the required son to continue the male line.

This stands in ironic and suggestive contrast to the legendary figure of Godiva referenced at the beginning of the tale, who took action and stood up against her despotic husband and caused harmful laws to be rescinded for the good of the people. The male who disrespected her, the first Peeping Tom, was summarily punished by a higher power. Wishful thinking perhaps…..


Mr Furnival greeting Lady Mason, to the right side sitting Mrs Furnival, to the left Lady Mason’s son, Lucius

And finally Christmas in Trollope’s Orley Farm (mostly contained in 21-24) as simply truthful. The truth is few people can be happy upon command. Some who are already cheerful in life can easily enter into the spirit of a festival; for others it is a form a work which brings its rewards; for still others, the social requirement just makes life harder to bear. We see all these types in the 6 Christmases Trollope shows us. But of course Trollope doesn’t present Christmas in all his books or because Christmas come every year; he presents it here because it fits into his exploration of law, custom, and now ritual in this particular novel.

There are six Christmases. The four obvious ones are: Harley Street, Noningsby, Groby Park, and Great St. Helens.

Christmas at Harley Street. The scene of the aon and accused mother, Lady Mason, late at night matches the scene of Mr and Mrs Furnival. Less is dramatized in the first but we are to understand Lady Mason feels a bitter agony at her son. He is driving his absolute right to a property too far and a court case will be the result. He, she feels, rightly is cruel. Trollope wants us to understand that Lucius cannot bear that his opponents do not answer all insults: his pride is his undoing. But we are shown that pride is necessary to win in the world. All the characters have it, but only the wiser use it with discretion. I feel we are to see Mr Furnival is cruel and mean, cold. We’ve been told enough to know he has women. He never comes home to supper one night in the year and is even out on this Christmas celebration. To those not in groups Christmas is a cruel time because (as Trollope shows) people without friends or celebration who have hearts are made to suffer and feel bitterly ashamed. But Mrs Furnivals handles Mr Furnival badly. Had she been skillful, he still would gone out, never be home. She cannot humble herself and admit to herself or him she speaks out of deep loneliness.

Trollope does “paint” the scenes of Christmas at Noningsby remarkably finely — he has wonderful description and psychological powers. And while showing us the enjoyment he does justice to all the pettty, cross and unsatisfied emotions of the various lovers and children and adults too. Unlike Dickens Trollope shows a variety of how people get through this day, does justice to all. This sequence of chapters is famous as well as the illustration of blind man’s bluff. Ironically appropriate _– the way to get through life is to bluff the blind men.

Christmas at Great St Helens’ shows Mr Moulder bullying everyone into appearing to be cheerful, and somehow they get through sll the insisted upon rituals with heavy food, much drink, and obedience.

But to this we should add Christmas at the cottage of the Greens, the Mason’s tenants in Groby Park, and Christmas at the Cleeves. What unites the Greens’ and Cleeves’s Christmas is they are simply an adorned moment in which all attempt to show good fellowship. Mr and Mrs Green come home from the long ordeal of ugly pretense and parody of hospitality that has been the Groby Park Christmas (everyone an utter miser), and Trollope writes: “‘And now, my dear, we’ll have a bit of bread and cheese and a glass of beer'” (1985 Oxford Classics ed. DSkilton, p. 237).

Christmas at the Cleeves also has a good moment:

“[Lady Mason] made an effort to be serene, and the effort was successful — as such efforts usually are. On the morning of Christmas-day they duly attended church, and Lady Mason was seen by all Hamworth sitting in the Cleeves’ pew. in no way could the baronet’s friendhship have been shown more plainly…”

In the evening Sir Peregrine proposes the toast. They drink to the health of the absent young men, he retires and Lady Mason is able to relieve her heart in conversation with Mrs Orme (p. 247). We may assume they drank something far more expensive than beer.

These 2 Christmases are overlooked because they only get a couple of paragraphs each and are very quiet. They also lack children. Children are what makes Christmas for some so happy, especially when they still believe in the pretty lie of Santa. Children are drunk on life of course. Finally these two seem to me the most modern of all the Christmases we see. Not everyone is near a divorce on Christmas day. But many people nowadays are cut off from large family groups — or single –and spend their day alone, quietly, or with one or two adult friends.

The 6 Christmases are presented in this novel this way too because they fit into what Halperin has identified as something Trollope dislikes wherever he sees it, and is a strong part of his animus towards political life: they avoid the ceremonies of falsifying rituals. I would say that this presentation of the ritual of Christmas as enacted in six places connects to the novel’s exploration of law and custom and what I’ll call the brutal politics of every day life: shall one bully? as Moulder does, or retreat into self-abnegation or controlled repeat or veneer ritual like Lady Mason?

In this connection what Trollope shows us is ritual at home doesn’t hide reality; rather it heightens it. In each of the Christmases we find everyone behaving in ways that epitomize the reality of their lives and natures at this point. The difference is the need to join in the ritual at the same time makes what is true about them more obvious; it turns life into a theater. Thus each of the six moments again reveals to us aspects of each character writ large, and carries the book’s stories and themes along strongly.

And there is a fun illustration by Millais for Christmas at Noningsby (which I used as the frontispiece to this blog) to which I add a picturesque one of companionship between Judge Staveley and his daughter later that spring.

Finishing this old year, let us hope, my friends, we may yet have a peaceful and stable one to come, be well and know and give kindness.

Ellen

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One of the many whole family scenes in Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008)


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

Over these few Christmas days I watched two new (to me) Christmas movies, read three Christmas stories I’ve never read before, and renewed my acquaintance with a series of Christmas chapters in a strong masterpiece of Victorian fiction. I most enjoyed the extraordinary creation of a several day Christmas time together by Arnaud Desplechin in his much-awarded A Christmas tale and was fully absorbed by six different households and their experience of Christmas in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. I’m with those reviewers who found that Mary Poppins Rebooted half-a-century later fails to enchant, and think anibundel comes closest to explaining why. The three stories I read, two by Anton Chekhov, and a third by Margaret Oliphant, suggest what was expected from a mainstream Christmas story in the 19th differs considerably from the 20th.

In this blog we’ll stay with movies, and in my next turn to stories.

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Sylvia’s children, Paul, grandfather and Sylvia doing a play of the children’s own device during the week (A Christmas Tale)

I can’t speak too highly of Desplechin’s film. It must may be the best or most mature Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many. Before this I would say John Huston’s The Dead (from Joyce’s story) and Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (an appropriation of Mansfield Park) were the finest, with the 1951 Christmas Carol archetypally old-fashioned, still delivering a depth of inward anguish, anger and redemption hard to match anywhere, partly because of the performance of Alistair Sim and partly the use of some film noir and fantafy techniques — and Dickens’s famous bitter and joyous lines. But they feel so limited in scope and what’s presented in comparison. Love Actually is vulgar in comparison (and finds sexual predation a bit too humorous with Bill Nighy’s impeccable parody dating just a bit); It’s a Wonderful Life — so meaningfully anti-capitalist for us today, with its angel Clarence seeking promotion and no one doing hysteria the way Jimmy Stewart can (I weep each time) — has problems — the depiction of the wife had she not married as this dried up spinster librarian afraid of her shadow is grating. There are none of these kinds of mistakes in Desplechin’s film.

I’d say if you are alone (like I fundamentally am now) and want to experience Christmas with other intelligent well-meaning real enough people sit for the full 2 and 1/2 slow-moving hours and then watch the 2 hours of features too. It’s the story of a large bourgeois family who all get together for the first time in several years because the mother, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a cancer which requires a bone-marrow transplant if she is to have any chance of living even for two years. Two of the family members have compatible blood types, one Paul (Emile Berling) the 15 year old troubled son of the eldest daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a gifted playwright, who loathes the other, her brother, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) to the point five years she demanded her father, Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) and her mother cut off all relationship with him in return for her paying the enormous debts Henri had racked up; if someone did not pay it, her parents would lose the family home.

A major character across the film is this large comfortable ramshackle home and its landscape, both of which frame and is a brooding and comforting presence throughout all the scenes which don’t take place specifically in Roubaix. Roubaix is the film’s subtitle, a small French city in which Desplechin grew up and which he photographs lovingly, realistically in small interludes of shots. The key characters are Abel (the father), Junon (the mother), Henri and Elizabeth (two of their grown children), with Amalric as Henri delivering a character of extraordinary complexity and interest, vulnerable, resentful, despairing, kind, insightful by turns.


Mathieu Amalric as Henri talking earnestly to his younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaid) as they decorate the family tree.

Back history (like a novel): Abel and Junon had four children, and the film opens with the death of the eldest, Joseph at age six as a flashback of memory in Abel’s mind — as he and his wife await the arrival of the family as it is today for Christmas.   Elizabeth and their youngest son, Ivan, have married. Elizabeth’s husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) leaves at one point, so incensed does he get against the tactless Henri, when he is having to deal with his son Paul having had a breakdown, and spent time in an asylum. Claude is preparing his mind for a coming interview with authorities to try to get the boy out of the asylum while Elizabeth wants to put him back there. By film’s end the boy will not return to the asylum but stay with his grandparents, Claude has returned, and Elizabeth been helped by talk with her father.

Ivan’s wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroiana, Deneuve’s actual daughter) while reacting with real affection to her two small boys whenever they are around, is essentially bored by them and her life, and during the course of the film discovers that Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a cousin who lives with Abel and Junon, and works in their dye factory (the source of the family income) is deeply in love with her, and gave her up to Ivan after he lost a bet. She apparently had preferred Simon to Ivan; he is one of several family members who absents himself from the group now and again — he drinks too heavily, maybe is bisexual, is doing nothing with his life. So Sylvia finds him alone in a bar on Christmas eve, and they spent a night in bed together, something accepted by Ivan, who himself lives unconventionally as a musician commanding large audiences in rock concerts, one of which we attend.

Henri’s first wife, died in a car accident a month after they married:


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

Henri has had several partners since, and the present woman, Jewish, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) finds herself feeling alien, Henri’s response is he wants to leave too; at one point she goes shopping with Junon, and without telling her, Junon leaves the shop, driving herself back, so Faunia has to get back herself. She does leave early.


Simon, Sylvia, Ivan, Junon in a corridor (left to right)

A complicated family you might say – but no more than many families. I assure you, you will not be bored; it’s funny, wry, quiet and peaceful (as they watch appalling movies), suddenly all is fraught emotion and then they calm down again and exchange presents.

The stories close with Elizabeth intoning the epilogue from Midsummer’s Night Dream, as she overlooks Roubaix.  This last literary quotation (of several) signals the underlying mood that holds it together: acceptance (except during eruptions) of one another, their fates, with barbed raillery mixed with profound thoughts, sometimes read aloud —


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

What helps hold everyone together: the house where they dwell together. All they do in and for it. The town they know. Even the cemetery close by where their baby brother was buried.  The father is the final authority all the while going off to clean up the table, the yard after fireworks were set up all over it; the mother is respected by all even if she had the disconcerting habit of telling this or that child she never cared for them. So a combination of tradition and concrete truth.  Things.  Prickly, messy and companionable (Henri goes walking in the snow with Paul and helps him), filled with shots of beautiful winter, ghastly streets, and the house and rooms every which way, this movie finally helps us to endure on. Chapter headings, days of the week also named by mood, characters who turn around and address us, hospital and bar scenes, it’s all there, Christmas time. The hope in the film that they do get together, help one another, share their memories, which is to say their deepest identities, has some fruition.

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Look at the look in Blunt’s eye — cold as ice

The Mary Poppins movie is not the most tedious Christmas film I’ve ever seen — I give that prize to the Muppet Scrooge story. But it can come close. It’s a child’s movie because the main action, the rescuing is precipitated by the children. I bring it up because Disney has such a prominent presence in our culture, as a girl I loved the books by P.L Travers (wildly disparate from the 1964 movie), which have yet to be done justice to by any of the movies (including Saving Mr Banks), two of which have been used as Christmas icons. Emily Blunt herself played the wife who dies, a central role in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which was another Christmas day extravaganza, and this gives us our clue to what goes wrong.


Emily Blunt as the despairing hysterically lost baker’s wife (2014)

Sondheim’s song was simply about how in life sometimes we end up walking alone: “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.” Paradoxically the film also tried to bring something of the original thwarted feelings of the book: each time an adventure is over, Mary Poppins denies it took place; she is all vanity, egoism, discusses nothing, orders everyone about (Blunt tried for a soupcon of this). Anibundel suggests the problem is the film took on “deep emotional themes” the Disneyfiction can’t include. Manohla Dargis agrees that it follows the trajectory of the old songs; and finds it uncanny that it never captures the original “delicacy of feeling” or bliss.


Lin-Manuel Miranda imitating one of Van Dyke’s routines

I’m inclined to think the actors didn’t believe in it the way they did 50 years ago; Emily Mortimer was thrown away; Julie Walters was a stray from 19th century music hall; the occasional nervous plangency allowed Wishaw went nowhere, and Lin-Manuel seemed to be biking to no purpose, round and round. What seems to me important is capitalism won out; no subversion allowed. All the talk of the movie was money, certificates, and while Dick Van Dyke stepped in for a moment to dance a delicate shoe number and remind us trust in one another was the key to the first bank’s success, that was lost in the hard noise of triumph. The principals worked so hard because it was all counter-productive; the less true Christmas message they had, the more vigorous they became. When they went high up in balloons, they were not escaping from their world. The material as brought down not from Travers, not from her book:


Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers very irritated by what Disney did to her book (Saving Mr Banks, 2013)

But the previous naive travesty won’t work any more because we are cut off from social feeling.


Is the Mary Poppins in the center having any emotion with respect to anyone around her?

They wanted more than a Sondheim production, where rousing music and slow depth simple words convey significance. The movie lacked haunting music because it was not permitted the real melancholy of life’s existence (as caught in Abel’s words in the book he reads; another review by Jen Cheney this time of the DVD set). Streep’s song could have fitted the movie’s story: the Banks children and Michael Banks need to be righted. But one visit from MP will not do it. This was a ludicrously over-produced fantasy, a commercial for Disneyland, pictures of which opened and closed the movie itself.

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What should a Christmas story be? Trollope said “the savor of Christmas” was a story that instilled (in his language) “charity,” which translates literally into acts of giving. We’ll explore this next time. At the end of A Christmas Tale, Henri has given life’s blood, risked his life, on the chance he could save his mother’s. There has been no talk of money here; what tore the family apart was money.


The church scene repeats the arrangement of characters in the court scene only then it’s Abel next to Henri

I mentioned my DVD included two disks. As Cheney says, “Arnaud’s tale” is disappointing: we are told how central the house is to the film, and the city, and these connect back to Desplechin’s life and Almaric talks of how he understood and played Henri. But it’s the one hour documentary movie that illuminates why he chose to make a Christmas movie:

“L’Aimée,” on the other hand, immerses us completely in the tale of Desplachin’s relatives: his grandmother, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her 30s; his father, Robert, who was forced to live apart from his contagious mother, then grow up without her after her death; and the many relatives who played a role in nurturing Robert into adulthood. Like “A Christmas Tale,” a film that clearly was inspired by this documentary effort,” “L’Aimée” introduces us to all the heartbreak, joy and tucked-away memories that comprise one family’s history. And that, in its very French, thoughtful and occasionally somber way, is what Christmas is all about.

Into the Woods was not about charity but it was about heartbreak, memory and camaraderie as solace. A roll of the dice, chance moments, human obtuseness and self have caused much damage but by the end (as Philip Lopate says in the essay that accompanies the DVD — such a lot of stuff in this DVD case) even the depressed Elizabeth “gets her bearings.” And moments of grace no matter how odd (like when the nurse does not stop Henri from drinking and smoking the morning he is to do his part of the procedure) enable the people together to invent livable lives. No one altogether crushed, and everyone at some point smiles with some shared or individual enjoyment.


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen

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Emma Stone as Abigail Hill Masham — unfortunately the released promotional shots don’t begin to offer an accurate sense of the nature of the typical scene in this costume drama

Friends and readers,

For a third time this year I break a sort of rule with me which is not to write about a work of art that is awful on every level — the other two were the egregiously stupid and misogynistic opera, Marnie, commissioned by the Met, and a crude frantically violent caricature of the violence, cruelty and stupidity that may seem to characterize much of American public life, especially as reflected in westerns, Damsel. That’s a lot for half a year, but three times now a movie, opera, and many more books I don’t begin to read, and TV serial dramas (on channels like FX, Starz) have seemed genuinely to me to function perniciously in our culture, and especially at the present time. I have many friends who want nothing more than a great 18th century historical film or would be interested in a new take in “victim queens” especially the long 18th century variety. Folks, this is not it. This is derision.

It didn’t seem to me a matter for mild bemusement when Anthony Lane of the New Yorker can produce an anondyne (this is screwball comedy you see) amused praise of The Favourite, giving the impression this is still your regular costume drama (quintessential lately in Netflix’s The Crown) by virtue of his complacent tone. He does say it’s “very odd,” but then defends the film by the assertion its “lubricious scenes” are true. They are not; we are presented with wild exaggerations intended to disgust, excite, shock, and rivet us by a kind of fleshly horror. One scene has a very fat man naked with bruises all over him, with a huge fantastical wig being assaulted by projectiles and hosed by over-dressed aristocrats just hilarious with joy; another Abigail stamping to the point of crippling a rabbit for fun; I couldn’t count the number of scenes where Olivia Coleman as Anne is a grotesque embarrassment, a pile of ugly sores, screaming at the top of her lungs she wants or does not want this or that, with Rachel Weisz as a kind of gothic handmaiden dildo-ing the bored queen upon command, bullying her physically (as well as morally), looking like a caricature of a midnight nightmare of maleness in soldier-like courtier outfit.

A. O Scott (Critic’s pick!) of the New York Times is franker but writes in a dense prose which defeats visualization and often remains on an abstract level. How he comes up with how a mountain of self-indulgent flesh (as Coleman is presented) is a figure of “sincerity,” dependent on wheel chair, grim body brace head to toe to go riding, vacillating between okaying Lady Sarah’s desire for more war and higher taxes (from others) to pay for this, and just yelling “no” (knowing nothing about anything) is a “free spirit” is beyond me. His justification too is that all this is faithful to what humanity in the court of Queen Anne in England was:

The best — and also the most troubling — thing about “The Favourite” is its rigorously bleak assessment of human motivations and behavior. The palace is a petri dish aswarm with familiar pathogens of egoism, cruelty and greed. A sentimental soul might wish for a glimpse of something else, but at the same time it’s hard to say that anything is missing from this tableau, which is also a devastating, flattering and strangely faithful mirror.


The first close-up shot of Olivia Coleman as Anne, witheringly told by Lady Sarah she looks “like a badger”

It is true that in this film there is not one character who acts morally, who appears to have any sense that anyone ever acts morally, who shows any kindness, true courtesy or respect for anyone else. At every opportunity, spite, corruption, sensual gratification as a major motive in life with a complete lack of moderating reason is put before us. I am aware I will be told don’t I understand irony or satire. I reply:  I can recognize when a pretense of satire is used to as a cover for rottenness.

I have read a biography of Anne Stuart, Queen of England between 1702 and 1714; a volume of her letters to and from Sarah Churchill (they did address one another as Mrs Marley and Mrs Freeman) together with Abigail Masham’s letters. Also essays suggesting lesbian attachments, rivalry, and lately (as scholars love to elevate the view of the figures they study — it’s an identity thing, theirs) that Anne was by no means an ignoramus, and while Sarah, Lady Churchill bullied her badly to make political choices favoring the wealth of her husband, his career, their Blenheim palace, favoring war, the merchants in the UK, and the Whig establishment (represented by James Smith as Godolphin in the film), she, Anne, wanted these, was complicit, and when she changed course, and put the Tories (represented by Nicholas Hoult as Harley), it was not just that she was breaking free of Sarah at long last and plummeting herself into the arms of Abigail. When I left to see the film I felt good to think a new female icon would enter the “familiar queen” matter, one not attractive to men, one perhaps lesbian, with a sad frustrated life (tragic over the loss of so many pregnancies and the ruination of her body); when I left, I told myself if this is the way Anne Stuart is going to be dramatized, I hope this is the last movie about “her” I ever see.


Lady Sarah in a “fun” mud bath with Queen Anne, they both make themselves much moustaches — characters in this film are repeatedly thrown into the mud, into ditches, made filthy and humiliated by this

The movie is an argument no woman should ever be given power because they are hysterical, ignorant, easily debauched: by the end of the movie, Abigail Masham is not the virtuous downtrodden scullery maid, birched at will, any longer, but she has learnt very little and is herself involved with debauched grotesque sex scenes. She has achieved title, income and we see her jerk her husband’s penis off as a form of sex in payment. Sarah Churchill is a violent, cruel egoistic ruthless woman (a monstrous sort of Thatcher), who appears to hate Anne. And Anne is a helpless blimp. When Sarah is thrown out, and Abigail (this is the kind of detail the film uses to justify itself) doesn’t read the political documents, Anne bumbles through them, falling asleep as she cannot understand what they are about. The historical Anne may have had a stroke towards the end of her life. This is the most anti-feminist film I’ve seen in a long time and that’s going some.

Some of the images reminded me of the vilest ones I ever saw picturing Hilary Clinton, which a  group of articles on the defamation of Marie Antoinette by her contemporaries during her imprisonment and trial argued were in alignment as to what was to be inferred. Profoundly unnatural sexed-up hag.  There was no real tenderness in evidence in Anne or Abigail over the pathetic 17 rabbits the queen keeps in her bedchamber:  they were self-centered children at play with toys.

That the egregiously vulgar language (I don’t know how many times the word “fuck” is hurled around rooms), anachronistic high-jinks, and utterly distasteful interactions between the characters are not meant as satire but as substitutes for the high-action of a male movie with all its bloody corpses and seething action-intrigue that recent fantasy costume dramas have come to lead a thirties-to-forties audience to expect can be seen in the level of noise in this film. Each time a bird is killed we get a close up of the animal’s agony along with a deafening gun noise.

The women are repeatedly shown to be as violent and aggressive as men. They slap one another very hard; they thrown one another down — even Anne gets this treatment from Lady Sarah; all three major women and some of the men are seen vomiting into vases. We get exaggerated stylized versions of males dressed up in wild Restoration type garb; the worst wigs of the contemporary portraits on the men. All bowing and preening in high heels. Masquerade type make-up. The point of this is to entertain by startling you — as if the audience was a bunch of hens sitting in a yard and someone shoots off a gun. I used the word repulsion because I remembered back to Polanski’s unspeakably exploitative movie about depression in a repressed young woman, Repulsion, but really it was just nerve-wracking, continually deeply unpleasant and on the whole revolting. On Wikipedia we are told Repulsion is considered by some to be Polanski’s greatest film; surely something has gone deeply awry with any set of aesthetic or moral understanding that can come up with this judgement or say The Favourite is the treat of this season (women’s film it’s implied) to see.

There seems to be desire to transform the conventional “victim queen” movie — strength of character is in Mary Queen of Scots translated into woman as male warrior, possible lesbian, by no means “a loser” but trapped because she thought she had to stay married.


Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots is also addicted to in-your-face gunning other creatures down (she also affects a strong Scots accent).

The Favourite does use lines from Anne and other letters by Sarah but the screenplay has no sense at all of history, of what makes communicable good art, repetitious events.  This is specious travesty. Save your money and don’t throw away time for something from which you may emerge from with a headache from the noise, and anything but refreshment from the mean obscenity of many of the scenes.

Ellen

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Suzanne Simonin after harsh punishment thrown into a dungeon (2013 La Religieuse, Pauline Etienne)

Friends,

The second text I assigned as required reading for my The Enlightenment: At Risk? course has been Diderot’s The Nun (La Religieuse), which most people read in Leonard Tancock’s translation for Penguin. It is a superior translation to Russell Goulbourne’s for Oxford World’s Classics, but for the sake of the introduction (much fuller and more informative as well as having an insightful close reading), and the inclusion of the hoaxing “practical joke” letters which Diderot first sent a benevolent philanthropist-friend (left out by Tancock), next time I’ll assign the Oxford. From the class discussions, and responses to even a short clip of the 2013 film adaptation by Guillaume Nicloux, featuring Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Martha Gedeck, and François Négret (the truly powerful Jacques Rivette 1966 version has never been made into a DVD), I can state unequivocally that Diderot’s novella was far more effective in communicating what Diderot meant to than Voltaire in his Candide.

The reason is not far to seek. The Nun, however early in the development of the novel (like Defoe and Prevost, there are no separate chapters, there is much fuzziness when it comes to the relationships of time and place to the incidents, there are inconsistencies in the use of first-person narrator &c&c), has at its center a deeply felt psychologically compelling portrait. Her situation is complexly and realistically (in terms of the situation as set out) explored; each section where she is cruelly punished, scourged, emotionally and physically tortured for attempting to protest, to get out of the convent she is being imprisoned in, for attempting then to go to law to escape, is relentlessly, persuasively and exquisitely realized. I can’t say the people in the room enjoyed the novel, but most were riveted enough to think about social coercion, silent violence, the twisted perversion of human nature or what we think are natural impulses), trauma and its effects. Though some critics talk about the text as libertine, and as inviting vicarious sexual voyeurism in the last section where the mother superior is a an aggressive semi-self-hating lesbian, no one in this class showed any evidence of such titillation — unlike what I’ve seen in response to Lovelace’s hounding, harassing, and teasing of Clarissa in Richardson’s epistolary masterpiece Clarissa. (Early on I described Clarissa, we read an excerpt of Diderot’s Éloge de Richardson, and I suggested that The Nun couldn’t exist but for what Diderot learned from reading Richardson’s novel and imitated from it.) In a way I gathered those who did respond to Voltaire’s Candide took some pleasure from the hard jokes, there was little pleasure in such an exposé — it was like reading stories from the anthology I reviewed, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. There were at the same time genuinely original insights — one woman pointed out the mother who so berated Suzanne Simonin (our heroine’s fictional name) for poisoning her existence was not sinful; it was the mother who committed the sin; her daughter was innocent. I hadn’t thought of that.

A summary:

Diderot and his friends had heard of this case and played a practical joke on the sentimental heart of M. de Croismare, a philanthropist. A series of letters fooled him so they had to pretend Suzanne had grown sick and died. Finally they confessed; it’s said that Croismare was not upset but I wonder. Like Madame Roland’s Memoir, La Religieuse was first published in 1796, in his case many years after his death.

Diderot has a problem: he felt in order to gain sympathy for the nun, he had to make her religious; the reality as far as we can tell (and makes sense) is most girls who didn’t want it weren’t religious; they wanted to marry. Suzanne does not; she is presented as wholly innocent: that’s another element hard to believe because she also enjoys the lesbian sex.

First person narrative has real problems: the narrator has to report her own compliments. I’ve been trying to emphasize analogies with other forms of imprisonment, hostage situations, violations of one’s body and identity (like rape) but it is also seriously a critique of the whole idea of monasteries and nunneries as deeply wrong for human nature.. He means it – Diderot is not attacking the church as the central of the worst evils of the ancien regime as Voltaire does (intolerance, barbaric punishments, thinking life a sin) but he is attacking this way of life imposed on people from many angles

Story falls into three parts. Opening section about how and why she is pressured into going into the first nunnery, Sainte Marie, and we can say that the time there where she is wheedled into taking her vows and just goes to pieces and hates it; she is sent home. There was such a place, established 1763 and it was a place that Marguerite Delamarre spent a long time at. The mother superior at the first place wants to win new recruits.

Second and longest section, she is sent to Longchamp: there is repetition because she was scapegoated. I’d call it humiliated in public, scourged in Sainte-Marie, but here it goes to high lengths. First she has a kind mother superior, Madame Moni whose regime is reasonable; no sourging, allowed all sorts of liberties, but she is urging Suzanne to take vows and that is not what Suzanne wants; she dies and then Sister Christine takes over –- she is mean and cruel, sadistic. It is there Suzanne writes her plea to the lawyer and her friend smuggles it out, and the lawyer makes the case. There we see the visitation of these powerful men. All the lawyer can get for Suzanne is a change of convent. He pays her dowry.

St Eutrope, Arpagon. We are never given this third mother superior’s name… We get stars or dot dot dot – or hyphen. This was a device used in novels to make readers think some real and powerful person was involved Suzanne is a bit of a prig, and she seems to disapprove of the mother superior’s lax ways but it’s really that there is no rule, it’s all her whim and caprice; this week she is cheerful and in love with the natural world, next week she is guilty. Mother superior’s guilt is played upon by the father viciously (natural feelings are perverted) and she becomes crazed with guilt and repression. Suzanne is blamed and she finally escapes; it’s not clear if the man who helps her escape is the same one who assaults here Dom Morel.

This is only to find herself a victim of attempted rape, dragged to brothel and finally working as a laudress and from the original hoax that is when she writes M. de Croismarre.

I find the ending very poignant, and if we don’t have the letters Diderot faked and sent to Croismarre (as one does in the Oxford) it is more plangent in its way. Clarissa dies at the end of her ordeal – as does Ursula, and perhaps Theresa


Suzanne’s one compassionate friend (2013) — the recent film emphasizes the woman’s community perverted and the friendships as well as the lesbian story (Isabelle Hibbert plays that role)

I did at first try to downplay the attack direct on the Catholic church’s practices, doctrines and especially elevation of celebacy in our discussion, even if in one long passage it’s obvious that Diderot (like Voltaire before him) is intent on showing the harmful social arrangements and practices the powerful state Catholic religion was responsible for, and encouraged (getting rid of daughters where you could not afford a prestigious dowry to place her in a high position flattering the family). But as we talked I began to see that was counterproductive. One must begin there and Diderot’s investment in the story was pointed out by one of the people in the class after I described the fraught relationship Diderot had with his bigoted Abbé brother: nothing Diderot ever did could appease this man or soften his demands that Diderot believe as fervently and act as austerely, punitively as he. Diderot used a vow he made to the brother to excuse himself from trying to publish his radical works, which paradoxically freed Diderot to write for 20 years great works without worrying what the public would think. Luckily most of this has survived — the critics and scholars seem to think. I also repeated the story that Diderot’s daughter, Angelique, reported in her memoir that his third sister died of insanity after she was put into a convent: it is thought from over-work but who knows. He has in The Nun at least two unforgettable portraits of young women driven mad by the conditions and ideas they are forced to live with.


Jacques Rivette has Anna Karina play the part more gently, and more openly vulnerable (1966)

Nonetheless, I moved on to generalize as there we were involved. (It did turn out that one man as a young man many years ago had voluntarily entered a monastery; he said after class, he had had no trouble getting out.). Just at this time I’ve been following a good Future Learn course from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland on Understanding Violence Against Women and had been reading Victor Vitanza’s Chaste Rape. I’ll start with the latter:


Kate Millett’s The Basement

I had seen The Nun as a Clarissa story: in the center Suzanne forced to become a nun by the cruelties of her family, coerced, harassed. I also saw the hideous treatment she is meted out by the other members of the nunnery (they humiliate her, strip her naked, force her to whip herself, starve her, leave her to be filthy, scream at her, make her walk on pieces of broken glass) as a parable of what can happen in a prison and when you are outcast in a community whom you have openly rejected. Now I saw this is a story just like all the stories of rape except without the open sexual attack –- which is not necessary. It is very like the real events retold by Millett in The Basement where a woman is coerced into agreeing with her captors’ evaluation of her, loses her pride, self-esteem, identity, her very personality until the point when she is asked further to hurt and to berate herself she gladly agrees. Vitanza says the purpose of rape is not the sexual attack centrally; the point is to violate your ego and self-respect to the point you never forget the experience and are traumatized. This helps explain why women are so upset by rape and assault attacks and that fucking does not at all have to occur. Public humiliation is enough. Like a hostage, when such a victim is kept for weeks, he or she can easily be driven to kiss the tormenter for the smallest relenting, the smallest glass of water or kindness.

After one of the sessions of horrifying treatment, Suzanne is told her lawyer has obtained a change of convent for her. He lost the case to have her freed but he can do this. What does she do? she gives her most precious objects to the cruel superior mother; she begs those who thew her into the dungeon physically to take other favors form her and kisses them and thanks them. When the overseer comes who has the news she can move and he forbids her to see her lawyer, she says that she has no desire to see him and when there is an opportunity she refuses. This cannot encourage the lawyer to go on helping her. He might think her forbidden but he might think she doesn’t care.

Diderot’s tale also anticipates what happens to Offred-June in Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale where she takes on the values of the Waterfords, Lydia and everyone else – like Suzanne. In the second season of the TV film adaptation, the film-makers move away from the original humiliation and enforced fearful docility and cooperation of the victim and make her a heroine to American watchers by having her hold on to violence herself and manifest an active desire for revenge and hatred; the American TV Offred-June does not utterly prostrate herself as Suzanne and the woman in The Basement do.

Suzanne is obviously such another as Levi in the concentration camp; people in solitary confinement and beat the hell out of and mistreated in US and other tyrannical nations’ prisons … I would not have been able to put Suzanne at long last next to Clarissa without Vitanza’s hook. Paradoxically he takes us past the way rape is discussed by de-centering the sex.

As for the Future Learn course, one of their advisors is Judith Lewish Herman whose Trauma and Recovery I know well and have long admired. So from watching and reading along with this Future Learn course I summarized:


Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery

Although Diderot started by a hoax — the typical case of based on a single real woman: Marguerite Delamarre. In 1752 at age 35 after several years she tried to have her vows annulled; she was turned down but the testimony showed an awful life; she tried again 1758, again turned down, she was still alive in 1788 when the convent was finally dissolved. What happened to her we don’t know. I say typical because young women were regularly forced into nunneries. The case of Galileo’s Daughter as retold by Dava Sobel from the 100 letters this girl left is heart-breaking and unforgettable. Gifted, socially engaging, she was cowed, starved, left in ignorance to die young – and he knew it.

The core of the Diderot’s story is violence against women, sometimes silent, sometimes overt – through law and custom. The perpetrators deny her right to have bodily security. To tell and/or seek help is to be punished. We see the impossibility of recovering from trauma in this situation. She lacks control over her environment, people helping her don’t consult her – she has experienced prolonged and repeated trauma so she is numbed – how to put back peace in her life; she has to be provided with safety, with a community to live in, work to do that’s meaningful, that she feel she is in charge of herself – problem won’t go away until society changes – until power relationships change. She is never given any opportunity to use her gifts for music and when last seen has been threatened by rape, a brothel and now lives hidden as a laundress. I assigned one recent essay which argued that the males in the tale have all the power: Suzanne’s mother is subject to her angry husband; her daughters have to pay their husband steep sums; the men in charge of the nunneries are harsh. The lesbian nun is driven into neurotic self-hatred by the priest who forbids Suzanne to have anything to do with her. At the same time, the one person who genuinely helps her with nothing to gain is the lawyer Manouri who even pays her dowry to enable her to move to the third nunnery, and pursues her case on her behalf as far as he is able.


The lawyer in the 1966 film has a stronger role, more prominence

According to the studies of the Strathclyde group: men believe they have the right to control women and whatever they have to do to achieve this is fine. The society is set up so that all authority figures have the right to transgress women’s bodies to force compliance in whatever way the society declares is fitting and to its interests. The way the female gender is trained, submissive, secretive, obedient, supposed to appeal to men, make their relationship with men central to survival fits into this paradigm. Violence against women begins early, in the girl’s earliest years. (I knew this.) It takes the form of setting up coercion in such a way that you prevent the girl from learning a skill, or idea that is enabling, or gives power to act freely on her own behalf. Later on when she is married (forced or seeming to choose), more than half the battle is done for the husband whose pride is made to inhere in controlling her to do his bidding and act out of and for his interest first. A silent violence against the child is secondary; it’s first aim is against her mother who is kept in an invisible straitjacket this way. The aim is twofold, mother and child, and we see this in The Nun, only the mother is absolutely faithful to her role as vicious instrument (as are the women who perform FGM on other women. They resent women who are not cowed and maintain self-pride. This secondary violence of women on girl children and sisters on sisters is seen with searing clarity in The Nun. Herman (like Adrienne Rich) brought out how compulsory heterosexuality is central here too: and in The Nun, the one act that is seen as bestial and beyond all forgiveness is lesbian love, yet whatever comfort and help Suzanne gets is from other girls who identify and say they love her: Ursule, Agatha. I remember Miss Temple in Jane Eyre’s story — until she marries. It is also important that no where helps the girl or women genuinely to find another role beyond wife, mother, as equally fulfilling.

To conclude, life-writing and trials bring into public awareness these kinds of psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people, but it is rarely retained for long. The woman remains so ashamed, and she carries on being punished for telling (especially when she does not win her case and she often does not) of these secrets men and society want to keep unspeakable and deflect attention from. The strong and lucky and men will deny the existence or even validity of such feelings so as not to have to deal with them.

While perhaps Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew like Voltaire’s Letters on England, would have brought before the class the sceptical and original ideas of the Enlightenment (Diderot had to make Suzanne religious in order to gain sympathy he felt), I could see from the fifteen pages I assigned it would not hve had the impact the other did.

On the two movies: Jacques Rivette’s The Nun versus Guillaume Nicloux’s The Nun.

Ellen

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Again Mabuza and Bokkie in a soft version of the orange-red light of the play’s first act

I want to make rock flowers …
They have eyes, but they do not see us. – Nukain Mabuza

Friends,

This is to urge all those within reaching distance to hurry over to the Alexandria City theater, MetroStage to see the startlingly powerful Athol Fugard play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. It tells the core experience of life of a real artist, Nukain Mabuza, who painted rocks across farmland he was paid a pittance to take care of.

There are two contrasting parts: in the first act, set in 1981, the era of apartheid, we watch and listen to a very old “Kaffir,” Mabuza (played by Doug Brown) suddenly moved by the presence of his perpetual companion, a little boy, Bokkie (Jeremiah Hasty) whom Mabuza treats with real love and concern, to have the boy under his direction paint a symbolic depiction. It is intended to project how Mabuza has been excluded from all that could have enabled him to live a life with enough money to live independently, with decent clothes (he has none), education (he has had none), shelter (he lives in a hut with no amenities), true peers — he lives dependent on the meager charity of the land’s owner, the white Afrikaner, Elmarie Kleynhans (Marni Penning). When he has finished his soliloquy and the boy the piece, she comes on stage to give a bowl of food to the child. At first she pretends friendship and concern, but when she sees that this picture unlike the others is not simply of flowers in circles, rather a coded representation of humiliated oppression, she turns nasty, insisting Mabuza erase it and replace it with flowers. When the boy defends the picture, she becomes incensed with his “disrespect” and insists the old man whip him. The old man grieves intensely when she leaves the stage.


Mabuza putting the painted images on the large rock into words for Bokkie

The young boy actor is not quite up to the wrenching emotionalism of the role, but the older one left me (and the rest of the small audience there) numb with pity and admiration for the deprived nature of his existence and his eloquence and nobility of soul. The character reminded me of Sam in Fugard’s very great Master Harold and the Boys, the only play by Fugard I’ve been lucky enough to see live (twice), only in this case the great-souled character dies a few days later and the listener flees.


Jonathan Sejake putting into words what his experience has been to Elmarie in a stage lit with alternatively white and dark light

A place of disgrace, of humiliation. – Jonathan Sejake

The concluding contrasting act, 2003, post-Mandela, comes onto the stage a young black man dressed in a suit, determined to restore the now nearly faded rock back to what it was so vividly many years before. He is Jonathan Sejake (played by Jeremy Keith Hunter), speaking a long painful soliloquy with even greater (if possible) searing eloquence about what his life has been since he fled.  Sejake is Bokkie grown up.  He went to Zimbabwe and was treated with true decency, educated, given a chance to take on a fulfulling useful job. He speaks to us and to Elmarie who now carries a loaded revolver and responds in turn for most of the act with open hatred and anger of how the revolting blacks are murdering her people, taking “their” land. He talked piercingly about a life of humiliation inflicted on Mabuza (whom she still refers to by a childish nickname). As someone who was an  invisible adjunct for decades and lives in a house once referred to as “painfully modest” in a local newspaper article about ex-President Ford’s house nearby, I identified utterly.  She “owns” the rock and refuses to give permission, but at last near the act’s end is brought to acknowledge the hurt and destruction she wreaked on Mabuza (whom she calls a childish nickname) and tried to inflict Sejake when a boy. Far more explicitly than in Master Harold and the Boys, the speech persuades a hitherto powerful white (the ambiguously shamed teenage Harold in the first play) into a change of mind or heart.

I was just stunned with the energy and masterful domination of the whole stage Hunter displayed. He gave this role his all and held me (and the audience) mesmerized. He was of course enacting a protest, ethical, upright, with an appeal so obvious to any but the most obdurate closed mind, an enactment of what is happening in the US today; alas, the problem is these closed minds are often (I have met such people) inoculated against any information or moral truth. I went to an end-of-summer picnic two Sundays ago and when I was telling of the documentable facts Mueller has been able to prove Paul Manafort’s corruption with, I was greeted with faces filled with derision, and voices which told me everything in the New York Times or whatever newspaper I read this in is all lies. The white people around this table grinned at me with glittering eyes, and I knew there was no use even talking with them, so filled with resentment and scorn were they. None of them would sit through this play; indeed they’ve never go.

All the reviews I have found describe the performance with as strong favorable words as I have: E. A. Aymer, Anonymous, Debbie Minter Jackson. The writers speak of how this is probably Fugard’s last play; he is in his eighties; as with the one other play I’ve seen, the playwright imagines the beginning of reconciliation. In previous iterations, the praise for the play is as strong.

There is little overt action in this play. The setting is bare stage with rocks with small paintings on them all around and the one big rock off center right.


The actors are posed in parallel ways in the two acts

At the back of the stage a veiled screen shows images of South Africa, we see a city, we see boys and men walking, a woman at one point, and at a moment of high emotion (as Sejake tells Elmarie how well he was treated in Zimbabwe, which she has described as a violent corrupt society) a film of Mandela as he was when he first emerged from prison and became the leader of the country. I felt choked up with emotion when I saw his image. The audience is thus shown that miracles can occur, even if (as the young man concedes) that hope that was has turned into disappointment. Life then seemed incomparably better for black people from what it was, and they had hope it would improve more.


Athol Fugard

Metrostage apparently opened in 1987 with a production of Fugard’s Blood Knot, and has staged other Fugard plays over these long years of mostly deterioration in US arrangements — with occasional successful attempts by those governing during the Clinton and Obama administrations to put in place laws, customs, agencies to help the majority of people whose interests the government is supposed to represent. Still it would be a shame worth crying about if this play is not seen by more people than I saw in the theater this past Saturday afternoon I was there (13, 2 black, 11 white). Go and tell others you know about it when you come home.

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

I wish I could say that the play could have some positive effect today on the minority Trump electorate: wealthy powerful people, with their hangers-on who understand that Trump and his regime are further destroying the economic existence of the deluded white working class willing to trade the promise of a better practical existence centrist democrats held out and never delivered on for pride in their race and revenge on other vulnerable people they have been taught to blame for their plight. They represent 27% of the population gerrymandered into a fake majority by an oligarchical constitution. I don’t believe this can happen before an election which brings to power the progressive left wing of the democratic party in sufficient numbers who are honestly willing to pass effective legislation to improve the well-being and self-esteem of huge numbers of impoverished and declining groups of people all over the US. Only thus can you reform the modes of thought that have led to an intolerable situation with a lying tyrant male given almost limitless power by those willing to exploit fear, and gaps in the US government arrangements which allow undermining of all social good they can.

In the 1990s I used to assign Master Harold and the Boys to undergraduate classes and had a tape of a performance (in the form of a video casette) I would show on a TV.


A key scene in the 1982 film I used to screen: Danny Glover as Harold, Zakes Mokae as Sam (Master Harold and the Boys)

More than two decades later I am just now again adding my mite to bring some understanding to the history of the present clash of values by teaching a course to retired adults in the long 18th century I called The Enlightenment: At Risk.

Ellen

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