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Brian Friel’s Translations at the Studio Theater (14th Street)

Friends and readers,

Since returning from Milan, and my health improving, I’ve been to the theater twice, and the concert hall at Kennedy Center, and the experiences have shown me whatever the rotten, seepingly poisonous and willfully destructive behavior of those in the rooms and corridors of a few staggeringly powerful individuals here in DC, the local culture has not lost its moral compass.

Brian Friel’s Translations on Saturday afternoon, the house full. This is not the first play by Friel I’ve seen: Jim took us twice while in London — I remember Dancing at Lughnasa. I saw in NYC on my own The Faith Healer (about hypocrisy in the Catholic religion). I’ve a volume of plays by him and have read in it.


Language played upon, classical figures become Irish, a contrast of Irish and gaelic too

The first half was a deeply lyrical and quietly hopeful scene in a hedge school in 19th century Ireland: a son long gone returns, now a surveyor and translator for the British, who are opening National Schools in Ireland. These are English Protestant schools where Irish language and culture will not be taught. This act was slow moving and thoughtful, meditative. All about differences of language, culture — as someone interested in language and how it influences thought and culture I found this absorbing, but also we see the impoverishment of these Irish and how desperate their circumstances. It starts slowly and requires thoughtful watching. Each of the Irish characters is carefully delineated, sometimes comically, sometimes with considerable plangency. British officers barge (they don’t ask permission) in, interrupting the studies at the hedge school. Their behavior is, though, gentlemanly, decent. They seem to be trying to accommodate Irish ways. One who wants to assimilate, to learn the Irish language and Irish history, falls in love with one of the Irish girls (not similarly high-minded).

Second half is, by deliberate contrast, devastating, stunning with shock. The officer who had fallen in love and been truly open to Irish culture eloped with the girl, but has since disappeared, probably murdered in the tryst itself. The British response — of the officers we have just seen — is counter-productively, senselessly harsh — if it were a case of seeking justice or equity. One of the officers who had pretended such friendliness, such interest in Irish schools the day before (in the play), says if the man is not found alive after one day searching, the British destroy all the Irish crops of the people in the area. If he is if not found on the next day, the British army will kill all the animals (more than livestock) owned by Irish; on the the third, they will burn down their houses and evict them. So the pretense is over. We watch the characters crack under this regime.

It doesn’t take much to see the British as the US today, devastating countries or helping others to devastate countries, helping the present Israel gov’t to destroy the Palestinian people. In the 1980s Arthur Miller wrote that the retreat from realistic politics in plays was a cowardly retreat and inveighed against the fantasy-farce type play prevalent in the 1990s. American theater has come back from that, but the one place where exposure is found is on TV satire where the genre and time precludes the depth of a play like Friel’s.

The audience was clearly deeply affected by the wanton cruelty inflicted on our characters.


Adrian Edmonson as Malvolio (Christopher Luscombe’s production)

The Folger continues its periodic HD screenings, and this Monday night they screened a recent RSC production of Twelfth Night. As one review has it, the play as done here lacks the nuanced intertwining of melancholy and not only raucous laughter and gaiety, but downright bitterness (in one version I saw which took Sir Toby Belch’s words and position seriously), which argues a lack of thorough-going thought about the words and social-pragmatic relationships in the story. Shakespeare never neglects that.

But it brought to bear a post-colonial point of view, that together with bringing out the latent homoeroticism between Sebastian and Antonio, his sea-captain beloved friend, between Olivia and Viola (Olivia seems very reluctant to give Viola up even after she has been married to Sebastian), provided a relevant reading for the play. Viola, Sebastian, and Feste are all Indian characters: dressed in Indian garb and played by Indian actors. Malvolio is made self-consciously the ambitious white Victorian caste-climber. Much has been made of the later 19th century costumes, and certainly we are intended to remember Wilde as we watch Malvolio sneer at Maria, appear so cold, but I think the allusion is clearly to the Raj empire. Edmonson’s Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter song, fun in itself, is part of this skein. The caste system, the practical and cruel jokes dissolve these hierarchies, with a good deal of help from wine, song, and sex. Perhaps the Merchant-Ivory point of view is also mocked.

The imprisoning of Malvolio into a tiny dark dungeon, his humiliation and bad treatment, his lack of recourse were intended to allude to obduracy of the US prison system with its solitary confinement. I would not want to lean too heavily here (torture is probably not alluded to), but the whole way this part of the denouement is built up suggests the contemporary perspective. It’s not the old wild comedy of born great, achieve greatness, greatness thrust upon ’em that is at the center of this. I was much moved by Edmonson when he is finally brought out of the darkness to tell Olivia what he has suffered. Equally important is the high elegance and projection of true rapture in the “willow song” conveyed by Dinita Gohill. As in a recent production of The Merchant of Venice, the non-Christian has full humanity and depth. It was also strongly feminist in the way both Maria and Fabian (turned into a young woman) are master-minds of the revenge-trick by the servants.

It cost me $15 as a senior Folger Shakespeare member.

I chose for my one night ($25 for a good seat) out of at least a week’s worth of concerts brought together under the umbrella term, Festival of American Orchestras, a program which eschewed the usual (and sometimes to me too often repeated fare of) suspects: Beethoven, Handel, Brahms, Mozart, Bach. The Albany symphony appeared to be doing beautifully melodic and varied “picture” music by composers I’d not heard of but where what’s pictured or is the story attracted me. As an old New Yorker, I love a bridge, and the last full piece was by Michael Torke where three phases were music evoking Manhattan bridges I’ve drove on so many times.

When I arrived, the audience looked odd or different: far more of the young parent and children group in he audience than usual, many hispanic and black people. It was also not sold out. The mystery was explained when I realize the first half of the second part of the concert centered on a chorus from three DC schools, where children read aloud edifying verse about the building of “The Mighty Erie Canal.” The audience was made up of many people personally attached to some one child in this chorus. The singing was not great, but Dorothy Chang wrote the songs (“The Worker’s Song) suggesting hardship overcome, just, to have this communication, transportation system. Compare how llmost nothing for the common social good is sought by the US gov’t today. Then there were two soloists, both women in the first and last half. Joyce Chang is a great pianist; and she made the piano into a flowing river. Despite (to my eyes) the incongruous mermaid-like silvery dress Carol Jantsch fitted herself into, she is a fine musician on the tuba; she too was mirroring a river’s presence.

It was pleasant on the terrace to see the different groups of people. Very pretty in the sunset over the Potomac too. I was reading Antonia Hayes’s little book, A Universe of One’s Own, (a small present from a friend here on the Internet) as a kind of prelude to Katie Brigg’s This Little Art (on the practice of literary translation). Hayes says from her experience if you learn a language very young even if you forget it, the underlying grid stays with you, the language’s rhythms, forms, intonation. She talks about two areas of the brain where “mother tongues” where are found the first language we learn fully and later learned efforts in school or elsewhere. Hayes argues for a criss-cross, a blending, and talks of how what language we chose to make our primary tongue is so often chosen to gain a new identity, a new culture (You won’t find any of this in any of the review blurbs. Her mother did not want to be a Philippines person and deliberately forget her Tagalong and resisted teaching it to her daughter. Hayes appears to have a learning disabled boy and argues that teaching him two languages at once, French and English as he grew up in France, has unlocked his language barriers. The teacher in France wanted her to stop teaching the boy English, to stop talking it, and Hayes resisted. On the Kennedy Terrace the people were speaking English; in the concert hall, only some were using Spanish.

Hayes goes well beyond the usual way of discussing how we acquire language — as Jhumpa Lahiri tries to in her In Other Words — written by her in Italian with a facing English translation by Ann Goldstein (which I’ve also been reading). The theme of a character, in this case female Indian living in the UK turning herself into a French woman through study, art, and language is central to Lahiri’s prize-winning novel, Namesake (also filmed brilliantly and movingly). Lahiri (in In other words) is convinced you can’t have the same thoughts in different languages and she wants to have the thoughts and feelings she experiences in Italian. Language as identity, as finding oneself.

I know I feel this irrational sense that in Italian and/or French there is something I can experience that is sustaining for me not available at all in English. Thus my joy in translating recently say Elsa Morante’s poetry to her cats printed in her original Italian with facing French translations.


Gwen John drawing

Sometimes I wonder why anyone bothers reprint review blurbs since they consist of in effect noises of praise …. or denigration …). I looked up reviews of both Hayes and Lahiri’s books and you would not know what’ve I’ve suggested is their content at all.

But I am rambling on.

So, to bed.
Ellen

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Gentle reader,

I am sure you are aware there is such a thing as an Internet Style. If you know this, I am even surer you have gone beyond the kind of academic or plain-talking, writing style I fancy I practice here (rather than the mandarin demanded by peer-edited journals) and your meditative, autobiographical and magazine blogger (not to omit fan fictioners). I imagine many readers revel in (get a great kick out of) or endure (as need dictates) that “in-group of savvy, sardonic media consumers” known as recap and commentary content-providers. Over the last couple of evenings, I’ve come across essays in traditional publications (from MLA publications to the venerable TLS and brilliant coterie left-leaning LRB) seeking to imitate and and define the style and outlook of today’s popular Internet Writing.

Tom Rachman’s “Like. Whatever” is the most fun (TLS, January 19, 2018). Reviewing Emmy J. Favella’s A World without Whom: The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeed age, and Harold Evans’s Do I make Myself Clear: Why writing well matters, Rachman is. Just. Hilarious. Not behind a pay wall. Embracing this new way of writing does not mean writing incorrectly or sloppily; the point is to be entertaining and avoid (Heaven Forbid) the pedantic. First abolish Whom. No semi-colons allowed. Talk your words, and stay cool, unfazed. Figure out how to write sarcastically without offending the reader. When to use the asterick. When “in” abbreviations (jk, Imfao). Rachman quotes Favilla deliciously: she declares the emoji “the most evolved form of punctuation we have at our disposal.”

I mean, what a time to be alive, seriously.

Evans is your gentleman from the Times, growling, irascible, the man with the impressive resume. Edited thousands of writers, the “complex thought processes” of such as Kissinger (mass murderers who consider themselves realistic, respectable, need complexity). Evans remembers typewriters and when “there was no meandering in cyberspace.” Evans does think the public is I mean seriously in trouble, confused. Someone is for health care but against the policy providing it. Induced bewilderment comes from the scuttling of credibility as a criteria altogether. Buzzfeed apparently has exposed important frauds amidst its attention-getting games.

Rachman does catch Favilla easily enough writing gibberish, gobbledygok. Citing Orwell’s irreplaceable “Politics and the English Language,” Rachman tells us Orwell was warning us against manipulative language, which Internet style is a new form of. What’s wrong with “It is what it is” or “whatever?”:  cynicism and passivity oozed together. Rachman says we must not hum loudly until the opposition has left the room. The better fairer writer will seem to take into account the other side of whatever it is. And there are still writers writing in the way Evans once did, especially for the better TV programming and films. Much of this writing is about TV and for fan communities lured by franchise-worlds of evolving film characters and story events.

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


Susan Herbert’s Dietrich: Cool cat

What I liked about Christine Photinos in her “After Cliffs: The new Literature Study Guide and the Rhetoric of the Recap,” in Modern Language Studies: Beatrice, 47:2 (Winter 2018):64-73 (probably not available online or behind a wall of some sort) is Photinos explains the attitude of mind behind the Recap style and genre, the posturing wry or snark-filled blog. What these writers are doing is creating the experience of being a member of an “in-community.” The point of all the many allusions left unexplained to the latest meme, slang, fashionable shows and characters or actors is to pull the reader into a shared discourse where he or she will feel in a crowd where everyone knows everyone else, or assumes such easy contact.

To characterize that community’s discourse, Photinos close-reads their tones, terms, conventions, and she finds at core the idea that valuing the material at hand, taking seriously whatever judgements are going on, is dismissed. The stance of arch mockery implies indifference to what is being peddled; summing up what is presented as obviously and all the time a cliche and nothing more turns serious thought or protest into something futile and childish (“take that”), or non-existent, a pretense.

A very few examples out of many cited by Photinos: Silas Marner is basically dismissed in the phrase “Time for a Montage!” For War and Peace, we read “Prince Bolkonsky has him sitting with the family as some kind of lesson about all people being equal. Or something”. “Ma Joad throws a hissy fit” sums up a chapter in Grapes of Wrath. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof summary: “[We] discover Big Daddy has been sick, however, and that he and his wife, who is known as Big Mamma (we’re not making this up), have been … ” It’s a trivializing: “Get ready for some excitement: next, Thoreau describes how he planted and cultivated his bean-field. Wow” (Walden). Lots of “in” terms from film and media art (“cut,” “pan,” “close-up”) are part of a shorthand that performs a chiding of anyone for sensitive emotion. We are not supposed to lose control, never ask for or feel sympathy. “Blanche starts rambling maniacally” (Streetcar); “Chill out, Jimmy” (Lord Jim). Lots of reassuring hedge language (“kind of”). Much of this is dressed-up cliffnotes in burlesque.

We need to attend to this insulation of the reader from vulnerability.

Photinos says this is also a an assumed male-male discourse (references to “bro” abound) presented as gender free. The recap discourages commitment to the material, any sustained inquiry into the ideologies at play that “critical reading would call into question.” So there is a pretense of evaluation. Not all recaps or commentaries are like this but enough are. She includes a list of other articles on the new writing. I recommend the whole of this issue of Modern Language Notes. Beautiful illustrations of Dante and other Beatrices, and good poems scattered across the issue.

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

Jennifer Howard brings up the important issue of pay: the gig economy underlying much of this content production “doesn’t pay the rent.”: Again for TLS, this time March 23, 2018, is a review of a book about online culture and practices: Houman Barkat, Robert Barry and David Warner, edd. The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (see many articles by her). Howard begins 15 years ago when she wrote for Book World, a stand-alone pull-out review section of the Washington Post,and admits that many of the litbloggers who replaced her kind have morphed into “familiar bylines with publishing deals to match their strong opinion.” In the early years of writing on the Net, an appealing worthy writer could become “known to people of power and influence” who opened doors for him, so he could skip jumping off from an MFA and slogging through different underling jobs.

But there is now “an spirally galaxy;” the old hierarchies have replicated themselves on the Net but a “snappy Twitter feed, a good pitch and some connections” can help a writer to progress to the head of the line. One problem is the demand for perpetual content: how can you provide seven good posts a day or even week? Superabundance accompanied by “quick takes” preclude genuine critical thinking. When Howard turns to writing as “pay-by-exposure,” (the payment you get is the exposure your writing attracts, she writes about writers without a steady income. Not all causes paid in the days of sheer newspapers, and still don’t. You will have to work your way up through lesser genres to the editing desktop.

Howard ends on an essay from Digital Connection where Will Self laments the loss of solitude, isolation, loneliness, and the time to compose “long-form” fiction and essays. People online are surrounded by endless input/output, making it “hard to have the quality time alone with writing as writing.” Howard’s last remarks remind me of what I used to say to students as writing teacher: “we write alone but to pursue a career as a writer you become a social animal.”

Writing I would say is a social act. So there is a deep contradiction between what goes into the act of writing and how it has to function in the worlds of others. I like her hope that “perhaps counter-intuitively, the ties enabled (by online interaction), social media, web-based publication have a reach or tenacity that match or exceed what came before.” You are after all easily in more contact.

One online writer, Esposito writes that “so many of my primary literary relationships occur primarily by screens,” and the contacts in his case have been “durable.” Still, there is the qualification,that “who pays and who reads remain open questions” (I think) much more for someone online than someone off.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader.


Cat circa 1904-8 by Gwen John (1876-1939) Purchased 1940 by the Tate

Ellen

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Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) and Emily (Laura Fraser) in later confrontation (2004 BBC/WBGH, scripted Andrew Davies)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Seven Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
April 11 to May 23
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/a-spring-syllabus-sexual-and-marital-conflicts-in-anthony-trollope/

Description of Course

In this course we will read one of Trollope’s most powerful long novels, He Knew He Was Right, a candid and contemporary analysis of sex and marriage, as well as of custody and women’s rights. The novel includes seven couples, with themes that explore sexual anxiety, possession, business transactions, and insanity. It contains tragedy, farce, comedy, and romance, and has been brilliantly adapted in a BBC miniseries scripted by Andrew Davies. We’ll also read Trollope’s short story “Journey to Panama,” about a woman sailing to marry a man she doesn’t know, a common practice in the era, and the relationship she forms on board with a single male tourist traveler.

Required Texts:

Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right, ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
—————-, “Journey to Panama,” online at Adelaide University. Also available in Anthony Trollope, Early Short Stories, ed. John Sutherlan. NY: Oxford UP, 1994 (this is the best edition); or Anthony Trollope: The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed. Julian Thompson NY: Carroll & Graf, 1992 (this is the complete and best buy); or Anthony Trollope, Lotta Schmidt and other Stories. Facsimile of original edition online at Adelaide.


Arabella French (Fenella Woolgar) and Rev Gibson (David Tennant), one of the many scenes based on original illustrations (2004 HKHWR)

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

April 11th: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; the state of the law and customs surrounding marriage, child custody, sexual relationships in the mid-19th century. Colonialist marriages abroad. Read ahead for this week, HKHWR, Chapters 1-15

April 18th: 2nd week: read for this week, HKHWR, Chapters 16-31

April 25th: 3rd week: HKHWR, Chapters 32-48: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 2nd: 4th week: HKHWR, Chapters 49-65: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 9th: 5th week: HKHWR, Chapters 66-81: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 16th: 6th week: HKHWR, Chapters 82-97: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 23rd: 7th week: HKWR, Chapters 98-99, “Journey to Panama” Modernity of novel?


A romantic 19th century illustration of emigration

Suggested supplementary reading & film:

Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Knopf, 1993.
Herbert, Christopher. He Knew He Was Right, and the Duplicities of Victorian Marriage,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 25 (1981):449-69.
He Knew He Was Right. Dir. Tom Vaughn. Script: Andrew Davies. Featuring: Oliver Dimsdale, Laura Fraser, Bill Nighy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Christina Cole, Ron Cook, Anna Massey. BBC Wales/WBGH, 2004. 4 Part Adaptation
Jones, Wendy. “Feminism, fiction and contract theory: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right,” Criticism 36 (2004):41ff.
Kohn, Denise. “‘The Journey to Panama’: One of Trollope’s Best ‘Tarts’ – or, Why You Should Read ‘The Journey to Panama’ to Develop Your Taste for Trollope,” Studies in Short Fiction, 30:1 (Winter 1993):15-22
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: So. Illinois UP, 1989.
Moody, Ellen. “Epistolary & Masculinity in Andrew Davies’ Trollope Adaptations,” Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey, edd. James Leggott & Julie Anne Taddeo. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Standford University Press, 1988.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. NY: New Amsterdam, 1975.
Sturridge, Lisa. Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005.
Wagner, Tamara, ed. Victorian Settler Narratives. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.
Wingert, Lee. Battered, Bruised and Abused Women: Domestic Violence in 19th century Fiction. Ph.D. Thesis, Iowa State University. On-line pdf


Emily and Col Osborne (Bill Nighy) as imagined? by Louis (2004 HKHWR)

Ellen

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The first modern biographer, Lytton Strachey and his subject, Queen Victoria when young

Friends,

I’ve been thinking about biography all my life; that’s because I’ve been reading biography all my life. To prove to you how odd I am the first books meant for older readers (meaning post-childhood) I remember taking out of the adult library on Sutphin Boulevard (in the southeast Bronx), at the time (in my child’s memory) a huge irregular building with many back-stairways; I say my first introduction to adult reading (which I chose, not forced on me) were two fat tomes, bound in brown, of two Renaissance queens, Margaret de Navarre and her aunt, Jeanne d’Albret. Why I chose those or how I found them I’ve no clue. Since my teen years I’ve been aware that I have a favorite kind: literary biography. I’m convinced that as with ghost stories, certain kinds of gothics (female), and epistolary novels, women write the finest versions of this genre, though men who can write an equivalent of l’ecriture-femme can produce gems too. I even love biographies of biographers: like Caroline Moorehead on Iris Origo (of Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44).

The last few months I’ve been especially alert to the form as I have not given up my new life’s goal to write a literary biography of Winston Graham (of the Poldark matter and Cornwall) and turned an offer to include a paper by me on the subject of Johnson and Woolf as paired modernists into a study of their biographical art.

And two weeks ago I chanced upon the equivalent of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography. Maurois makes an attempt to understand his chosen genre’s prevalent characteristics in the modern kind too. Modern biography, he says, is a conscious work of partly imaginative (that is to say, fictional) art, a courageous search for truth in which the biographer realizes highly complex personalities; the most fruiful subjects are of people who have struggled, endured failure, but achieved something. I’m going to look at biography from the different aspects Maurois identified.

First, biography as a work of art: its concern for truth requires documents, but to express a personality requires art. How to do this?

You must choose an angle on the life: he calls this your true subject, and you find the hidden unity of that life through this angle of vision. Johnson may have said the most obscure seemingly reactive, passive life may teach us something important but the truth is you need something to present beyond daily non-events, and it’s best to have an individual who plays some part, no matter how seemingly varied, on some aspects of the world’s stage in a more or less unified performance. Doing the same kinds of things over and over for the same deeply held motives. At the same time all moral preoccupation in the work of art kills the work of art, so the angle should not be moralistic.

Surprisingly perhaps, he finds the chronological method avoids dryness. All of us are artifically made (not just women); that day a great novelist was not born, a baby was. We are not unchangeable. Yet as we change slowly, most of the time imperceptibly, a good biography traces the spiritual and emotional development of someone as history impinges on him or her. You must make us see and feel the person physically. Boswell’s strength is his ceaseless gusto for every particular and entertaining simple style, but while he (I think) presents a distorted emphasis, he has understood enough authentically of his enormous cache of detail, with person who was fecund, varied, interesting so reading the book, we feel the more of this the better. The diary of the brilliant mind, a sketch in words of the person by a close perceptive friend or family member, is invaluable here. Boswell has Johnson’s letters and he (in effect) kept a diary for Johnson every time he met him and was able to find others who had written down or remembered what Johnson said too. There is this obstacle: how much truth do people write in diaries? how representative is what you write down of your life? How much do they understand of themselves. In Johnson’s case he lacked a secular non-judgemental framework. In many other cases, is the product of a writer posing to himself or anticipated others.

Biography considered as a science.

The thoughtful among the public often regard the chief character of a novel as a mirror of the author (no matter how disordered) — especially in non-formulaic fiction. So there is evidence the biographer can use. Also lyric poetry and psychologically revealing plays. A group of characters surrounding and commenting on this center provide a considerable expository base. Of more demonstrable equal value are memoirs of contemporaries who knew the subject — even if the writer is dim (as Margaret Oliphant said of Jane Austen’s nephew in his invaluable Memoir of My Aunt Jane). Letters are the lifeblood of a biography from this standpoint but there people are performing too. No person is understandable apart from her historical time. You must study the era, the geography and way of life where the subject lived, its history. So biography becomes the story of an evolution of a soul against a background of history, with help from contemporaries who knew him or her. That’s as close to objectivity as you’re going to get (thinks Maurois)

Biography as a mean of expression. The biographer chooses a subject which gives her the opportunity to express what is in her very keenly. Beneath the objective surface there should lie that vivid emotion, which gives a book an intensity a burning passion.

Biography will not come alive if you write it coldly or distantly. The biographer is seeking an opportunity for displaying some aspect of him or herself. This is all indirect: by quite an indirect means and through the medium of characters very far removed in circumstances from the biographer, the biographer attains to self-expression. Yet in novels and fictionalized (skeptic, modern) biography, the writers’ characters do not have to have been real or lived as people, just very believable in context. We should ask, whatever the indirect means, what were the secret springs in the biographer which are at the bottom of this desire to write someone’s biography? For Maurois writing of Shelley it was a deliverance for himself to write the life of Shelley. (For me what compels me are an attitude of mind I identify with in the first half of Graham’s Memoir, find acted out in a core group of characters in Graham’s first seven Poldark books, and the escape from my contemporary world is an intense relief.) In sum, biography is an expression of character when the author has chosen his subject in order to respond to a secret need in his own nature. Then it’s autobiography disguised as biography.

The appealing tone (Maurois suggests) derives from how the biographer regards his or her hero or heroine as greater than him or herself — or more important for some reason. Johnson finds it of riveting importance to show that the supremely gifted person can end up having done nothing most people would admire or value and in tragic misery when dying. Woolf is looking at a man as an artist of great integrity, who will not compromise his art, and was (she thinks) crucially influential anyway. The modern biographer recognizes he or she can never uncover the whole of their character’s innermost springs confront the mysteries of real people; Maurois thinks the biographer finds his or her way through a one alive persov by dwelling on one aspect of that person and sometimes fleeting, a limited and yet suggestive expansive aspect. Guilt at running the risk of spoiling the reputation, the considered presence of how the person is remembered, worry at offending and attack doesn’t stop the biographer from writing the life up as accuately as allowed in print. I don’t know quite what Maurois meant when he wrote something to the effect the biographer thinks he can refashion a thought then in the image of our own today.


Anthony Trollope, artful albumen print photo by Julia Margaret Cameron (1864)

He turns to autobiography as a sub-species of life-writing. Do you know the truth about yourself; your invisible center? Several causes make autobiography to some extent false and inaccurate. In a nutshell, we forget.

It’s here he first quotes Anthony Trollope’s utterance as a key: Trollope doubts truthtful autobiography is possible. Who would tell the meannesses he or she had done or thought. Trollope tells us he remembers so much from his boyhood — what produced that violent impression has the power to continue to make us tremble, himself to burn with passionate humiliation. He controls that seismic power. It’s a truism if we live through war we remember more as children. We don’t forget the shock at what we have seen.

To make up for blank space before say ages 7 to 9, most autobiographies of childhood are to some extent fabrications because what we have to fill in is what we remember and that is partly from what our parents told us. The confused feelings and associations of such our first crucial years are lost in obscurity and the unremembered past — yet here is this complex individual (Trollope) emerging around this shock. Johnson (and others) urge people to preserve written testimony before what happened is lost –- a fairly detailed record alone can bring ourselves before us, and the diary is its basis. Trollope relies on these memories burning into his mind still.

What else do we forget? The subject forgets her dreams, yet much of our hours are spent in forms of dreams. The biographer and autobiographer omit or forget in order to make a work of art – so much of life has to left out. “The cult of the hero is as old as mankind,” but we must struggle against it (says Maurois). At any rate we (helplessly sometimes) censor the disagreeable too. People feel a deep sense of shame at petty and other humiliations they have endured (Trollope is able to tell of these), at their bodies, very few can tell truth about sexual life: immediately too one response from many readers may be unacknowledged voyeurism. How painful to think that what you are writing is fodder for someone’s silent ridicule or disdain.

We also rationalize after the fact and finds reasons for what often occurred by chance. Maurois feels (and like Mrs Proudie, I agree with him), that there is no system to life, no pattern for real, no meaning, and we act out of private personal needs and to other people nearest us. The order we experience is from our need to sleep, to eat, to defecate; the institutions society says we must go to; our need to earn a living or share one from someone somehow. We also want to protect those around us. The underlying design here too must be the development of mind, that is your pattern, and that Trollope succeeds in: a portrait of how this novelist came to be and the nature of his novelistic art, a book which is a diptych.

Maurois may have seem to have left out much but he is speaking of modern biography:


A modern biography …


EBB’s life from the point of view of her dog, of her maid, Elizabeth Wilson (said to be Margaret Forster’s finest book, except I’d say for her biographies of the females in her working class family.)

Maurois does not talk of early biography (the way Forster does not talk of the earliest pre-novels before the later 17th century in Europe), not before Johnson and Boswell by which time biography had become in individual instances a portrait of an individual life, and then through these two men’s books (and the fiction of the era) consciously texts aimed at developing the sympathetic imagination of the reader who then can enter in (Rambler 60 and Idler 84),

Maurois mentions but does not regard as “true biography,” commemorative, pious, family, the zealous many volume documentary, which at its best aimed only at a consciously semi-censored “truth to life,” and is found in Gaskell, Oliphant, Froude’s Carlyle where (according to Virginia Woolf in Flush) a dog is said to have jumped out of a window or off the roof in response to the killing nature of the Carlyles’ marriage.

Maurois is contemporary with Woolf’s essay on modern or “The New Biography,” where she says what the new biography does is convey personality deeply, and she includes the semi-fictional sketches of Some People by Harold Nicholson as modern biographies. Later she changed her mind in “The Art of the Biography,” and conceded the foundation of biography must be fact, evidence and its means verisimilitude. And her last biography is her Roger Fry:

Facts are the problem, she says. By the time she gets to the end of either essay she’s made a case that the central use of facts can limit the biography. The existence of documents (facts) for Queen Victoria can make writing her biography so much more satisfying and near to great art. But how powerful and intense Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, that Strachey got in the “stranger bodies’ of the Elizabethans through strange (unconventional sexuality) imagining.

And at the close Maurois admits the genre has so many limitations and obstacles one might say it is impossible to pull off except you admit it’s fiction ,,,,

Ellen

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


Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)

Friends,

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


A statue on the Chartwell grounds

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

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


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


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

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

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

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Chartwell in both films played an important role.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

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

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


This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

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

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


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

Ellen

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A photograph from a New York City production

Friends,

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

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


The set of The Humans

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


The Gabriels’ table, dishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

In his Autobiography Trollope put himself firmly on record as resisting not just the commercialization of Christmas, but the way a cultural conformity of imposition leads people to pretend to Christmas feeling, resulting in meretricious art: he uses memorably negative images and metaphors to capture his “distaste” over the hypocrisy and artifice of being paid to produce a story filled with “cheer” and other manufactured “good feelings” because the “market” called for it. Since he makes a point over and over that he was never ashamed of writing for money, I assume he didn’t like being hired to pretend to feel what he did not feel, and especially with regard to Christmas where he thought some genuine worthy feelings were being corrupted (hollowed out, destroyed by exploitation):

“While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an uphosterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been Christmas at Thompson Hall], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time,– the picture-makers always required a long interval, — as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.”

Since he felt thus strongly, I have thus far not written any blog on his Christmas stories, individually or as a group. But time wears the spirit down, we compromise and the reality is quite a number of the stories are superb. One can even find (as with Dickens, or Oliphant or other Victorian authors who wrote a number of Christmas stories) a recurring set of themes, and motifs whether the story takes place in the fierce (fiery) heat of Australia (Harry Heathcote), centers on Christmas or just takes place at that time of year regularly or at a climax (“Catherine Carmichael,” “Two Generals”, “The Telegraph Girl”). He was deeply sceptical (not a mystic element in this man’s mind) and you will not find any ghosts or miracles, no revenants seeking revenge or to awaken the better nature of the person visited,no places haunted by some invisible past. He tends strongly not to focus on Christmas itself (the holiday or even its customs, with Mistlebough an exception) but let the time of year or the setting, the expectations built up around the holiday provide the emotional temperature. Then you find stories exploring the nature of charity, forgiveness, reconciliation, compromise, how the holiday functions as a memory device (it marks time), and brings out what is most characteristic in the nature of dominant characters. He wants his story to be a genuinely felt experience too.

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John Everett Millais, “Christmas at Noningsby” (Orley Farm)

Trollope wrote ten of them in longer and shorter stories, and four comparative chapters inside a remarkable novel, Orley Farm: I picked these out as stories taking place around Christmas time, where Christmas an experience or time-maker figures in the story), and in Orley Farm anthropologically considered. I’ve written (together with others conversational style) analyses, commentaries, summaries of these (linked in).

4 chapters in Orley Farm (Christmas in Harley Street, at Noningsby. at Groby Park, in Great St Helens (Chapters 21-24) (written 1860)
The Widow’s Mite (written 1862)
“The Mistletoe Bough” (written 1861)
“The Widow’s Mite” (written 1862),
Two Generals (written 1863)
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (written 1863)
“Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage” (written 1870)
“Christmas at Thompson Hall” (written 1876)
“The Telegraph Girl” (written 1877),
“Catherine Carmichael; or Three Years Running” (written 1878)
“Not If I Know It” (1882)

My favorite once was “Christmas at Thompson Hall,” because I saw it as a story of comic anguish, not about the reunion home but the experience of intense pressure when obstacles get in the way of getting there, especially if you have lost status in some ways vis-a-vis against the other members of your family over the years. Mary Brown’s husband has lived a supine drone-like existence, they have no children, and they have rarely returned until now when she feels she must because her sister is marrying. We see how her husband has used a supposed weakness of constitution to control her and in this case almost thwarts her getting there in time. She takes this punishment of her out on the staff and also him, but is herself humiliated. Alas, it’s not the husband who ends up over-medicated – which would provide some poetic justice. (But then life doesn’t). In a way were her dithering trips around a vast freezing cold palace of a French hotel not done empathetically, many would not be amused. The story is edgy.

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But recently I found myself much preferring, enjoying once again, “The Widow’s Mite” for the full sociological and economic context, the character types, and especially Trollope’s revision of the familiar parable. The deeper lesson I glean is that it does not matter if the giver has to give up something, the way to measure how much good you do is how much you gave to the person in need and how much it helped them practically, not you morally (because that is too hard and ambiguous). I concede I may be reading against the grain here.


Newchurch in Pendle, Winter — Lancashire — K. Melling

A summary, in Judy Geater’s words,

“shamelessly pinched from John Sutherland’s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics Early Short Stories. Sutherland explains that the publisher of evangelical magazine “Good Words”, Alexander Strahan, wrote to Trollope asking for a short Christmas/ New Year tale for the January 1863 edition of the magazine, passing on a suggestion from Scottish minister Norman Macleod that the title should be “Out of Work” and that it should deal with the unemployment in northern textile mills caused by the cotton famine as a result of the American Civil War. Trollope agreed but politely objected to the title. ” ‘Out of Work’ would be a very nice name for a story – But it would be needfull with such a name that the chief character should be an operative. I do not think I could manage this. But the line of the story shall be of the same nature – if possible.”

Sutherland writes: “‘The Widow’s Mite,’… was one of Trollope’s strongest efforts to date. He had visited the United States for six months over 1861-2 and his mind was full of the country and its turbulent condition. The story is narrated in Trollope’s increasingly relaxed comic mode, but the mood is hotly topical – angry, almost… the story, while maintaining its easy tone of social comedy, probes the sorest of middle-class sore points – is it ‘charity’ if you don’t feel the donation as loss? ‘How many of us,’ Trollope asks, ‘when we give, give from our own backs, and from out of our own mouths?’ Walk through the streets of London or New York and it is still a topical question.”

We learn about the Lancashire cotton famine, the cost to the workers of supporting the anti-slavery states. Jenny Uglow in her biography of Elizabeth Gaskell writes:

The mills had no American cotton, but the masters were reluctant to change their machinery to suit Indian supplies if there was hope of the Civil War ending. Elizabeth set up ‘Sewing-schools’ to provide part-time work and corresponded eagerly with Florence Nightingale, hoping that some of the laid-off mill-women might train as nurses… ‘The poor old women’ were her special concern: ‘at present they have only the workhouse allowance; barely enough for the cheapest, poorest food – only just enough to keep life in. They have worked hard all their working years – poor old friendless women, and now crave and sicken after a “taste of bacon” or something different to the perpetual oat-meal.’By late summer the Plymouth Grove household had to check themselves from talking about the distress, ‘which was literally haunting us in our sleep, as well as being the first thoughts on waking and the last at night’. Gaskell’s words, in a letter, but this is very much the feeling you get in Trollope’s story, too, where the family are increasingly feeling guilty about every little luxury while others have nothing.


Pissaro, Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes, Winter (1870)

Judy Geater wrote of the story:

“The story is written with a wonderfully light touch, but still gets its powerful message across, probably as effectively as any preacher. At the start, most readers will be likely to laugh at the argument between Charley and Bob, where Bob tries to prove that if everybody gave up their Christmas dinner the savings would be “two millions and a half” – and Charley brings him down to earth by pointing out that the grocer and butcher would be ruined. However, if as readers we continue to scoff at Nora as she decides to make her own personal sacrifice by doing without wedding finery, I think the laughter soon dies on our lips as we realise that there is indeed a real point in her giving up her two mites.

My idea (Ellen here) is it is the feeling that people ought to have a decent dinner on such a day, some warmth, something to feel hopeful about that gives rise to the action of the story. What shall this middle class family do, if anything, to help the Lancashire cottonworkers of the area? Is it in good taste for the family to have an expensive wedding and the bride a luxurious dress when all around them others starve. Trollope seems to think this talk is phony, the characters don’t really mean it — or he has one of his characters (the American alas) assert that.

As the story opens we are told the American civil war has led to the Lancashire cotton workers losing their jobs and as it has gone on for some time they are now beginning literally to go without food, without warmth, without clothes, and some are nearly starving. They have been laid off as there is no cotton to work upon, but as Trollope develops the story there seems to be little resentment against the war against by the people it’s hurting. (It has been suggested they identified with the slaves.) The heroine, Nora, wants to help her uncle, the Reverend Mr Granger, gather money to feed the workers, but she feels she wants to feel she’s done something. It’s not enough to give out of her superfluity; she wants to give up something she will miss. It may seem odd that she finds this difficult to do — but she is middle class, gentry, genteel — and by the end of the story, has not pulled it off, quite. She is about to be married and the question arises, how much money should they spend in this situation. Will they look bad? to themselves, it seems.


An illustration for a 19th century wedding dress

This ‘problem’ is one that seems to speak to some middle class people as important. To those who starve or are homeless, such a question is egocentric: the concern suggests that the middle class is more interested in its own feelings than in giving to those who are in need. Still this is the way the story is often read; when I assigned it to my classes, one girl gave a long talk about how when she was young, someone forced her to give up an expensive doll she liked to a cousin. She was told that wasn’t charity at all as she didn’t even need it. I’m afraid this little girl wasn’t impressed.

The story is done in Trollope’s usual multi-perspective narrative: we look at the characters as products of their class and type and nationality. Their attitudes reflect their situation in life and what cultural group they grew up in. Nora’s cousin, Bob, suggests all the people in England, Scotland, and Ireland should simply not eat a Christmas dinner, take all the money saved, and hand that out. He is only momentarily non-plussed when he is told the problem is the Irish don’t have a Christmas meal to give away: “They never have any in Ireland, Bob.”

Charley, Nora’s other cousin, takes her to task for not spending money on finery, for in her efforts to help the cottonworkers she will leave those who make clothes without work: “Charley condemned [Nora] altogether, pointing out that it was bad policy to feed the cotton spinners at the expense of the milliners.” He is the one who feels the others are pretending to themselves they feel this regret.

The characters argue explicitly over how the wealthy in their community should go about giving to the poor: should they give charity or does this ruin the independent spirit of the workers? In the situation at hand this is an absurdity. It is said by the Newt Gingrich of the piece, Frederick Frew, Nora’s bethrothed and an American, who we are told “trusts to syllogisms which are often false, instead of to the experience of his life and daily workings of his mind.” Trollope tells us explicitly and through the use of heavy irony that our American Fred is wrong when he scorns charity givers as degrading the poor, that his analogy of “how dogs let other dogs starve and therefore we but follow nature if we do likewise to other people” is wrong, and that his idea “the widow would have done better to have invested her small capital in some useful trade,” is a hilarious bit of anachronistic and here obtuse American capitalism. Trollope was not a Tory in his own time; he ran on the Liberal ticket. Alas, this kind of thinking is running rampant in the US again today — at least among the powerful in Fox and other corporate news media.

Back to the story. How does Nora solve her problem? (Note it’s her problem; the angle is taken focuses on Nora and not the starving people.) Well, what she tries to do is to give the money she was going to use to make herself expensive finery to wear on her wedding day to her uncle for the use of the cotton-mill workers. She is about to be married and decides she will have a plain wedding, and she refuses to allow her American (and Unionist) husband-to-be to pay for the finery which he could do. I would liken Nora to the person with one pair of very fancy boots walking in the snow who sees someone with nothing on his feet. She gives up her boots up so she can feel the snow, although she has a small pair of ordinary shoes in her bag and is close to home where there’s another pair of boots waiting for her.

What Nora discovers is she doesn’t miss her very fancy boots at all, and — and this is what is interesting about the story — she doesn’t get the uplift she had longed for. She thought it would make her feel good to walk through the snow shoeless ( to keep up my metaphor) or with inadequate shoes, but it somehow doesn’t. This is the subtlest level of the story. Trollope suggests such a feeling is fleeting at best because luxurious goods are not what make us happy.

There’s an anti-materialism at the heart of this story and perhaps this is what makes it an idealistic or Christmas story — and it’s why I like it. This anti-materialism is figured forth for us in the closing scene of the wedding — Nora does have a very plain one. Nora finds that she didn’t need the finery. More: its absence is not only unimportant but actually adds to the beauty of the moment. The narrator underlines this moral lest we not pick it up:

“For myself [Trollope speaking as narrator within the story] I think they all looked more comfortable on that cold winter morning without the finery which would have been customary than they could have done without it. It had seemed to them all beforehand that a marriage without veils and wreaths, without white gloves nd new gay dresses, would be but a triste affair; but the idea passed away altogether when the occasion came. [The immediate family heads for church with the bridegroom with them, but said bridegroom], Frederick F Frew had met with a rebuff in the hall of the Parsonage, in being forbidden to take his own bride under his own arm; but when the time for action came, he bore no malice, but went through the work manfully. On the whole, it was a pleasant wedding, homely, affectionate, full of much loving greeeting… this, at any rate, was certain, that the wedding clothes were not missed. When they all went down to their breakfast in the Parsonage dining-room, that little matter had come to be clean forgotten.”

We might read the story as against turning something privately meaningful into an occasional for conspicuous consumption. (Gentle reader, can you tell how I dislike large expensive weddings? — I know of relationships which broke up over the wedding; others where years later the people are still paying for it as well as a divorce.)

In this moment Nora does feel the uplift she longed for. Her uplift is in her actual preference for the simple and for plain emotion, not in having deprived herself of some luxury. Nonetheless, we are left with some decent thought about the parable which Trollope also consciously emphasizes. Through the parable, he asks, Why was it necessary for Nora to “feel” deprived in order to feel her charity was charity? It seems to me that Trollope’s text shows us this parable projects a very selfish kind of charity, one which is egoistic: Nora’s feelings about her charity giving were were more important than the results of the charitable act: feeding hungry people, providing them with warmth and clothes.


A woman fallen on hard times bringing her baby home in a snow-filled landscape

Ellen

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