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Archive for the ‘women’s art’ Category


The author’s real name is Carolyn Heilbrun, the detective Kate Fansler


Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) of Prime Suspect fame

Friends and readers,

An interim blog: this is me thinking out a few semi-conclusions I’ve come to after a couple of months of reading books about women detectives (history, literary criticism, culture, feminist) and reading and rereading a few such books by men and women. As I’ve written on my Sylvia I blog, I seem to be going through something of a transition after living in this world without Jim for some 9 plus years. Part of this is I am liking books I used to not be able to read, and able to accept optimism and at least sympathize with (understand in a new way from an outward transactional POV) some conventional transactional pro-social-ambition perspectives.

To get to the point here, I find that I can’t resist reading and watching new kinds of material in the detective, mystery-thriller, spy genre kind, which I’ve come back to seeing as closely allied to the gothic. Not that I altogether rejected books with women detectives at the center: my first Internet pseudonym was Sylvia Drake, a minor character in Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy night, and my gravatar for my political blog is a small picture of Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane looking thoughtful.


From Strong Poison: she is supposed the murderer and this is in prison, she is talking to Lord Peter Wimsey (Edward Petherbridge)

The reading came out of my preparing for my coming The Heroine’s Journey course this winter. As you can see, if you go over the look, there is no example among my four slender book choices of a female detective novel. That’s because I couldn’t think of one slender enough for such a short course until I came upon Amanda Cross’s (aka Carolyn Heilbrun’s) Death in a Tenured Position. Most recent and older female detective novels are average size, say 350 pages (Gaudy Night is about this size) because often many combine a “novel of manners” (or domestic romance) with the detective formula. But I found it to be a central category because since surfacing in novels in the 1860s, the type has multiplied in appearances until say today there may be several TV shows featuring a female detective available all at once.

Although I’ve found dictionary-type books with lists and essays on women writers and their detective novels (Great Women Mystery Writers, ed Kathleen Gregory Klein, truly excellent; By a Woman’s Hand by Jean Swanson and Dean James, 200 short entries which have the merit of naming the author as well as the detective and offering enough information to give the reader a gist of what type of mystery fiction this is), it has been very hard to find any essay-like books treating just the category of female detective fiction by women writers. The nature of the material (influences, who’s writing what, movies as a group-creation) has led to many male writers putting female detectives at the center of their series, and many female writers putting male detectives, and these mixed gender creations (so to speak) are often superb in all sorts of ways.

One of my felicitous reading and watching experiences this past year was Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (both book and film), which features a private detective, Atticus Pund (spelt without accents) in a 1950s novel as part of an investigation into a parallel murder today by the old trope amateur sleuth, Sue Ryland in (presumably) 2021 — for its witticism, self-reflexive uses of the core fantasies, styles and yes multi-gender empathies.


Sue Rylands (Leslie Manville) is also intended to appeal to older unmarried career women (the spinster trope transformed & modernized at last)

But as there is a real, findable, and demonstable fault-line and difference between male and female writing, and films made by mostly men or mostly women, and visual art, and music too, and one of my aims as a teacher and writer is to keep women’s literature alive and make it more respected; I’ve been after just the books by women albeit in a multi-gender context. I’ve also tried to stick to films where the central author originally (or continuously) is a woman, and evidence shows women directing, producing, doing set design. The qualification here is all of these are shaped by the kind of detection mystery genre the book/film is written in. I’ve followed Andrew Marr centrally here; Julian Symons’s Bloody Murders is also indispensable.

I’ve come to a few tentative conclusions.

I agree in part with Kathleen Klein’s brilliant analysis (The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre) of the depiction of female detectives mostly in books, but equally by men and women that often these may easily be read and are in fact intended (when conscious) as anti-feminist (meaning the movement for independence and equality) portrayals from a male (in some eras on TV lascivious) POV.

This POV is on display in right now in the incessant arguments and brutal put-downs of Miss Eliza Scarlet (the ever patient Kate Phillips has played many an wholly abject woman, from Jane Seymour in the recent Wolf Hall, to Tolstoy’s hero Andrei’s long-suffering wife, the 2016 serial by Andrew Davies) by “The Duke” Inspector Wellington (the pugnacious, overtly insulting professional police detective played by Stuart Martin, doubtless chosen for his resemblance to the matinee idol type, Richard Armitage) who reiterates constantly a woman cannot be both a real or natural or happy woman and a detective; who needs strong men around her to protect her. Injury was added to insult in the most recent episode (Season 3, Episode 2) where a story was concocted whereby a mean and bullying ex-friend, Amanda Acaster, who repeatedly humiliated and nowadays derides her, is also used to criticize adversely Eliza’s character: Eliza is supposed now to have felt for Amanda trying to have a career using the same manipulative amoral tactics she did when the two were young. She is not charged though her measures were what encouraged a gang of thieves to use her restaurant as a front.  But look she surpasses Eliza in the Victoria sponge cake line. The costuming of the program shows some knowledge of the illustrations for such stories in the 1870s/90s, the music is very good, and lines are witty (though usually at Eliza’s expense) and I’d call the presentation stylish. I have spent this much time on it as it’s contemporary and its perniciousness extends to endorsing bullying and mocking non-macho males (Andrew Gower as a homosexual man controlled by his mother).

In many of these detective stories especially the hard-boiled type, and since the 1990s, the woman simply takes on male characteristics, and when she doesn’t and displays genuine female psychology, set of values, life experiences, and is as competent as the males and not just by intuition, by the end of a given book or series, we are to see she has not lived a fulfilled life, which must include marriage and motherhood. This is how Prime Suspect finally ends. In medias res, the female detective of whatever type is often allowed genuine common women’s lives characteristics and we see themes and archetypes familiar in women’s literature, e.g., recent film instance of the mother-daughter rivalry paradigm in Annika where the older heroine is divorced and lives with her teenage older daughter. There is now a line of disguised lesbian socially-conscious fiction, e.g., Val McDermid, seen in film recently featuring Karen Pirie played by Lauren Lyle, of Outlander provenance, dressed in unemphatically non-binary ways

But I don’t agree wholly with Klein (or others who write from her vantage). At the same time, the way out is not to trivialize and pretend to treat as playful amusement “the lady investigator” and her now many daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters, all the while lightly coming to the same conclusion as Klein, with some face-saving and genuinely rescuing qualifications. This is the vein taken by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan in their The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction: a very informative as well as insightful book; it covers amateur and private detectives as well as the spy genre, which Klein does not. Nor is it to ignore this aspect of the genre altogether: Lucy Worsley in her Art of Murder manages this, at the same time as she (curiously) denies that the mass audience for this kind of thing understands it as fantasy (that most murders are not solved, and when solved not by brilliant ratiocinative nor super-scientific techniques, but rather information from people involved) but out of a thirst for violence and fascination with death (this does ally it to the gothic).

What we need to remember is the history of the genre: it first emerges in the later 19th century when women could get jobs and income on their own, go to college as woman (usually women’s colleges). The whole larger genre of detective fiction develops its characteristics when you first have men hired in visible numbers and a real police force. So there were male models for male detectives but no female models for female detectives. This changes (Miss Scarlet and the Duke is quite a startling throw-back) post-World War II when women held on to their array of male jobs and began to be hired, however slowly, and to be promoted to managerial positions in institutions, including the police (Lynda LaPlante modelled Jane Tennison on an actual woman detective).

I suggest that the woman detective was an popular substitute for the “new woman” so distinguished by feminist literary scholars of the 1890s (which never achieved much popularity or was not lasting); she becomes liberated and a real woman as women in our western societies begin at any rate to achieve the right and education for financial and some real sexual independence. We see this in Horowitz’s Sue Rylands and I hope to show other women detectives from the post World War II era.

So as a follow-on from this framework, I hope from time to time to write blogs here when the writer is a male and the portrait less than really feminocentric; on detective fiction found in both books and films; and on Reveries under the Sign of Austen (when the writer is female and the work genuinely l’ecriture-femme, which includes for me a genuinely anti-violence, anti-war and pro-woman political POV, which by the way I do think Prime Suspect was and is: Gray Cavender and Nancy C Jurik’s Justice Provocateur: Jane Tennison and Policing in Prime Suspect. The victims in these shows are often women tortured by male violence, young children, including boys destroyed and warped by male pedasty, immigrants, mostly women working menial jobs desperately, and yes prostitutes too, and women who murder (including one semi-accidental infanticide) too.

First up for Austen Reveries will be Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position and, for this blog, the older masterpiece, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (Inspector Alan Grant investigates the character of Richard III)


Of course Josephine Tey was a pseudonym; the author’s real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh, and the photo is of Jennifer Morag Henderson who wrote an excellent biography

Ellen

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From Andrew Davies’ 2004 serial drama, three of the major characters of Daniel Deronda: Daniel (Hugh Dancy); Gwendolen Harleth (Romolai Gareth), and Grandcourt Mallinger (Hugh Bonneville)

Here I describe the experience of the book I’ve had over these 3 months, describe it generally and argue that the way of reading it as two separate sides is not adequate — though understandable. To read it as one tapestry with the Jewish story just one strand won’t do either. The problem is, Where is George Eliot in her book? and how is it a text we find her working her own deeper psychic problems out through.  She is mirroring her and Lewes’s life once again (as she did in Middlemarch) …

Ellen

Dear friends and fellow readers,

For the past 3 months, in four different ways, on top of reading the book silently to myself, I’ve been engaged socially through George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. I took a course in the book (alas only 7 sessions, but we went over time — well past 90 minutes — a number of times) with the marvelously inspiring enchanting Maria Frawley online at Politics and Prose; I participated in a group reading and discussion of it with at least 20 people on the TWWRN face-book group, where each three days someone wrote about three chapters, often in detail, with summaries, evaluations, questions, pictures attached. It was a close read of a mighty meaty book. I listened to Nadia May reading it aloud in an unabridged form on CDs in my car. And I watched for an umpteenth time Davies’s brilliant adaptation (4 DVD form and streaming). This was probably my 4th time through over many years.


Early scene of Mirah (Jodhi May) singing for the Meyricks, Daniel to the side in attendance

This is a book which needs a book to do it justice, and I want to write a not overlong blog about these experiences. I will first write about it in the way literary critics often end up: divide my description into two stories, one about a pair of Jewish characters, Mordecai, dying when we meet him from some fatal organic disease or TB; and child-like Mirah Lapidoth, whom Daniel becomes involved with after he rescues Mirah from suicide by drowning, slowly falls in love with her, and so helps her build a career as a singer and teacher of music. Daniel goes on a quest within London and finds out for her her long-lost brother, Mordecai:  think of Shakespearean romances derived from the 3rd century Greek ones of vast watery worlds where after disaster, tragedy, there is renewal, reunion.


Mordecai (Daniel Evans) waiting and watching for a Deronda on a bridge over the Thames

The other story is, in this scheme, then about at least three groups of English characters, of whom the vulnerable (because monetarily bankrupted after being brought up to do nothing to be self-supportive) Gwendolen Harleth is the center; she marries a sadistic debauched cold man, Grandcourt Mallinger, who has a mistress, Lydia Glasher, now widowed, with four children by Grandcourt.   He, together with her forcible vehemence, haunt and cow the nervous, and proud (also child-like) Gwendolen.


Lydia (Greta Scacchi) terrifying figure for Gwendolen, found among some neolithic stones on Grandcourt’s property.

There is Daniel’s foster father, Sir Hugh Mallinger (brilliantly randy Edward Fox), genial, cynical, a relief for this reader (he is never solemn), the shaded face suggesting how he evades many questions:

Sir Hugh’s wife, daughters (no son); Daniel’s friend, Hans Meyrick, student painter whose family Daniel helps support themselves. Grandcourt’s sycophant Lush (James Bamber in the film).  The Arrowpoints who include a couple who hold out for marriage for love (lest they not get to pass the precious life they have together). And we must not forget Daniel’s mother, Leonora, now called the Princess or Contessa Maria Alcharisi (Barbara Hersey), a strange exotic figure, like Mordecai, a type of character straight out of Walter Scott. She probably belongs to the Jewish story, but she has fiercely thrown off this identity, and tried to erase Daniel’s; her connection to Daniel is through Sir Hugo who once loved her.

Told this way it almost seems an exciting read; the movie is exciting and mesmerizing to watch (strange and repellent beauty), but the book is slow-going, meditative, long passages filled with argumentative and poignant worked-out thoughts. If you look at it this way, you end up having to discuss some very questionable ideals (nationalism, zionism), a genuinely progressive agenda, pro-semitic or at least anti- anti-semitic, on the one hand, and, on the other, the usual attack on coerced mercenary marriages, run by cruel, indifferent and malign men, the subjection of women, with quite a number of them complicit.  This includes importantly Gwendolen’s lachrymose probably abused-as-a-wife mother, Mrs Davilow (played by the endlessly worried looking concerned Amanda Root) who nonetheless does nothing to prevent her daughter from marrying partly for that mother’s sake for money a man Gwendolen knows nothing about that does matter.  Mrs Davilow should & does know enough:

Daniel becomes the linchpin of this diptych, the man of integrity trying to serve all; identity-less when we first meet him, slowly discovering his Jewish heritage. His presence and needs leads us to think about how motherhood as practiced ideally then, and partly now too imprisons women; about adoption as an alternative way of bonding people: it worked for Daniel and Sir Hugo, who love one another, and for Daniel and his mother, who did have her career, though in the book Eliot thoroughly punishes her for it, making her endlessly miserable and now dying and still angry at her father imposing on her the subjected (to her stigmatized) identity of a Jewish wife, mother.

An interesting side-theme is the place of music in our lives, and how to build a career through aristocratic patronage. The learned radical musician Herr Klesmer presides over this: beautiful interesting quotations from Italian poetry of the era:

But there are other ways one could read the book. Here is a second, concentrating again just on the book itself. It’s not two separate stories, but a group of [English] interwoven strands, with Jewish one threaded in and out of the larger tapestry:  the Meyricks take in Mirah, Hans falls in love with her, Daniel’s foster father and his wife promote Mirah, protect Gwendolen after her monstrous husband dies — mostly from an accident he brought on himself. Daniel becomes Gwendolen’s adored trusted confidant, functioning as a psychiatrist-priest: they are the central couple.

Women’s stories might be said to predominate, with the hard deals they are dealt for the most part in life to the fore, but equally there are a group of male stories, with some of the men at least having had to make their way in the world as does Deronda. Even Lush (David Bamber), the failed academic should be considered a human being; he is a conduit for information whom Sir Hugo is not above using.

Both ways account for how basically we read the book in the P&P class and on face-book; how Davies would have us humanely interpret it, with an emphasis on the loving friendship between Mordecai and Daniel, as Daniel takes over Mordecai’s life work (and his sister) — Davies often brings out the male individuals in his film adaptations

The problem here for me is both descriptions omit George Eliot. Where is she? For me this book only becomes understandable when you see Eliot’s presence strongly everywhere — both in the book’s daring insights about women, especially motherhood and the limited choices given women otherwise; and in its odd flaws or sudden absences and contradictions.

What I bring together are Lydia Glasher’s fate: “it was as if some ghastly visions had come to her [Gwendolen] in a dream and said, ‘I am a woman’s life’ (Bk 2, Ch 14) and Mirah’s probable one. The book is at times hopelessly fairy tale stuff (part of its flaws); when Mirah’s basely fraudulent father left his wife taking Mirah with him as a child, he was later led to try to sell her to a man, and probably she would not have been able to escape; if she had made her way to London to find her mother and brother once more, it’s highly unlikely she would have been rescued by a Deronda.


Near suicide romanticized

Grandcourt’s death is too convenient (as is Raffles in Middlemarch, even if both deaths are used to show the ambiguity of murder itself in ordinary life),as well as the legacy aftermath which rescues from destitution Lydia Glasher and her children, and Gwendolen and her mother and sisters.  Eliot never seems to remember the probability in most families would be:  had such a huge estate been left to a nobody mistress and her bastard son, it would have been ferociously contested. Without Daniel’s generous subsidy, the Meyricks would have lived a subsistence life — a widow (Cecilia Imrie tries hard, but the “little mother” designation grates on me), and two or three daughters — they are basically women with one artist son without any money to back them up in life’s ordinary emergencies.


From the National Gallery, we see Eliot’s friendly alert face

I see in all the women of the book and Deronda himself surrogates for Eliot as she over and over again thought about and dramatized the life’s experiences she had known — breaking away from a stern, religious father, a vindictive brother, working for small sums as an editor in the house of a philandering man, not only her unmarried life with Lewes, but Lewes’s own life –Lewes is a model for Ladislaw in Middlemarch, so his burning idealisms (and very sick state) are poured into Mordecai who dies at the end. She was a step-mother to Lewes’s sons, whose lives were not easy.

I see George Eliot in all her fictions immolating central characters who have integrity and good natures. In “Janet’s Repentance,” Janet seems to have been blamed (for alcoholism), and her reward for escaping the brutal husband (also dead by the end) is to become a repentant depressive. Her husband beat her brutally and the community, Eliot shows, allowed this. At the close of The Mill on the Floss, Maggie drowns herself; in Romola, its heroine of the same name endlessly sacrifices all (sexless too). Dorothea gives all to others with little break. There’s the child-like guilty and self-effacing heroines of DD, Gwendolen (desperate to be good) and Mirah (who seems incapable of sustaining an angry thought). The only woman in the book who tried to follow her destiny was Daniel’s mother — presented in this light, not from the light of her career. From what I can see of Eliot’s life, though she’d break down (like Maria Edgeworth before her and Virginia Woolf after) after she published a book and could not read critics, she fulfilled herself mightily. She broke away for herself, spend an individual life of achievement, and did not turn into an exotic, though others from far may have seen her that way since it was felt she had to isolate herself or be subject to continual vicious attacks. The books’ greatness is to show us these predicaments; what makes them disappointing is the relentless pressure on the best major characters to renounce their worthwhile dreams and projects. Daniel has not really started his. It’s a saturnine joke that Lydgate having been forced to establish a lucrative practice among the rich in Bath achieves research about gout that is valuable.

I can only be suggestive: the best biographical study I know thus far is The Real life of Mary Anne Evans by Rosemarie Bodenheimer; one of the best books on her art, George Eliot’s Serial Fiction by Carol A. Martin; The Cambridge Companion has some fine essays, and for me very insightful is The Transformation of Rage: Mourning and Creativity in George Eliot.

Here she is, for example, as a poet, a foremother poet.

It has been a tremendously stimulating three months for me as I made my way through this book with all these other intelligent reading friends and companions.


Probably a bad edition (no introduction, no notes) but the best cover illustration …

Ellen

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Lord John Grey (David Berry, Episode 5, “Give Me Liberty)

Dear friends and readers,

I complete my account of the sixth season of Outlander (see Episodes 1-4: Processing Grief … ). I’ve been so enjoying the sixth season, I’m telling myself by mid-December I’ll try again to read or listen to The Fiery Cross and then go on to A Breath of Snow and Ashes, both of which I have as books by Galbaldon and as CD sets read aloud by Davina Porter.

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Episode 6: Give Me Liberty

Yet another basically reflective and retrospective episode. I was delighted to find that David Berry has returned. To my taste, he is the handsomest of all the male leads, and I’m “charmed” (really am) by the character. At one point he is wearing a lovely cream-colored outfit, but I could not find a still online of this scene.

This is another episode hard to disentangle and hard to replicate with the interweave so again I’ll just cover each thread. My framing will be the feature that comes with it: all about trauma and how trauma is affecting several of the central characters.

I had not picked up on how much Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is using ether – as one would a calming drug today. So at several points in the episode we her disappear after she takes a drug too. She sees and hears Lionel Brown (Ned Dennehy) as a haunting revenant.

Fergus (Cesar Dombey) is now traumatized because of his loss of his hand and the way other males and females too have treated him. During the episode he seems to disappear we are told after trading he began to work as a printer in one of the larger North Caroline towns, not far off from where Aunt Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has her estate. We also hear she is funding him, and what’s more he is again printing subversive pamphlets. He is for the colonialists in the struggle in which Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) was involved. Just one line from her but strong (because Maria Doyle Kennedy is a very effective presence) that she misses Murtagh: she is helping the “side” Murtagh died defending.


Jamie, John and black servant girl

This then involves Jamie (Sam Heughan). He has given up being an agent for the crown with the Indians because he does not want to be a mole. Claire and Brianna (Sophia Skelton) have told him the British lose – this seems to figure in his thinking. Lord John Grey first seen in the episode talking to the British representative and vouching for Jamie, and at first Jamie lies to him, but then tells him the truth, and Grey then alerts a meeting of the Regulators (?) on time so all escape.

A subplot involves Roger still helping a widow and her child finish a house and settle in. Everyone is talking, Brianna is jealous or worried Roger is being dragged in. We see in part he is — he is also a man who hasn’t got a role in the world that fits him anymore. But by end of episode Brianna pregnant again and Roger has supplied another young man as a substitute for himself.

An as yet nameless young man (later we find out his name is Henderson) appears to be having an affair with Malva – very dangerous because of her fanatic and tyrannical father. She seems to court punishment by prostituting herself. A scene I did not understand at all – we see Malva is visiting what looks like a half-alive and half-dead rotting corpse. She slices off one of his fingers. This is creepy gothic. I know she is not to be trusted.


Lizzie serving, Brianna and Roger at the table

Lauren Lyle as Marsali in this season comes into her own, in the various roles we watch her play – soon she will be joining Fergus we are told.
Ian not much there if at all in this episode. Lizzie (Caitlin O’Ryan) grows ill with malaria (malarial attacks repeat themselves) and we see the two twin male servants care a lot for her.

At end of episode suddenly Claire hears a tune that comes from a later period. I could not place it, but then we see (it seems) perhaps in prison but at any rate from the back, someone with a jewel he stole from Jocasta’s necklace in his hand. Long black hair from the back? Who could he be? I have not guessed it.

So a lot going on, much of it inward.

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Episode 6: The World Turned Upside Down


Claire seeking out Tom Christie (Mark Lewis Jones)

Well at long last we are not quietly reflective and retrospective: this is a powerful deeply distressing and disquieting episode. Everything is turned upside down when Malva becomes pregnant and accuses Jamie of having sex with her repeatedly, liking it, and being the father of this coming baby! Before very long everyone in the settlement or on Fraser’s Ridge has been told about this. This happens about half-way through the episode.
It gets worse.

The first half of the episode is about a disease running through the settlement. Is it cholera? Bacteria carried in the water. Different people appear to have different diseases. Claire becomes very ill, and while Brianna is out, Malva and Lizzie meaning for the best (I’m not sure about Malva) chop off Claire’s hair until it’s very short. She recovers, but many die. Of course the 21st century watcher worries about the gossip about Claire as a witch.

Caitriona Balfe is more interestingly dressed than she has been in a few seasons. She has after all been in story about American pioneers. We see her in long skirts most of the time but now she dons a Napoleonic like long coat and a fine hat to cover her head. She visits Tom Christie to discover if he has the same disease she does, but the conversation goes badly. He walks her back though.

And now the shocking accusation. Christie with his daughter and son, Allan. It should be noted they are hardly ever apart and when I first saw them I thought they were courting. Claire had had a bad dream in which she thought she saw Jamie responding to one of Malva’s advances. She flees to a barn and Jamie follows after denying everything and throwing the Christies out. A confrontation ensues: Claire cannot disbelieve him but she is shaken: she does not belong here, neither do Brianna or Roger, all for love of Jamie. This does bring home to us how much they are giving up. But we see other moments where she and Jamie are missing Marsali and Fergus now. How Brianna is attached to her. Even Brianna is shaken because of her parents’ own unconventional relationship. He confesses the one night of love-making with Mary MacNab before he gave himself up to Ardsmuir prison.

Always generous, Claire visits (!) Malva and tries to talk with her but it is soon obvious it’s useless – Malva lies, calls Claire a witch, the brother backs her up. Claire gets angry and threatens Malva. Malva impervious


Malva morte

At the very end Malva is found with her throat cut, just dying or dead, and much to my horror, as Claire is the one to find her, Claire seeing how advanced the baby is (how big the bulge) performs a C-Section on her! (with a knife), of course now she cannot live; Claire pulls a tiny baby, but complete and it is just breathing and she works to resuscitate it, but it dies in her arms. I was terrified by this as I know she cam be blamed for a double murder! I gather it will take a long time in the book ( A Breathe of Snow and Ashes) before it is finally discovered who fathered this baby, and who did the murder.

This is violence enough. Very real. Very relevant to our world today (I’m thinking of women’s reproductive rights, what pregnancy is, the attempt to stop all abortions maybe even contraception &c&c in places in the US).

This is worrying for Jamie is gone off to the Philadelphia Continental Congress where he Is not chosen for a representative because his reputation now ruined. Back, we the whole settlement ostracize the Frasers and Mackenzies – Roger had been a central minister at the opening of this episode. Iain gets into fights on Jamie’s behalf; he goes to Claire and says he is the father for he did once have sex with Malva. Claire suddenly says that Roger came upon her having sex with Henderson (I wonder that was not brought out before or made public). Malva seems to be promiscuous – who knows who the father is?

Then Claire still suffering traumatic memories (Lionel Brown’s ghost and voice haunts her), takes some ether rather than answer the door. It’s Malva. She has a bad dream of Malva accusing Jamie and her. Wakening, she goes out to the garden and find there the dying Malva, and what I described above ensues. Claire is left crying with horror.

I finished reading the redaction of A Breath of Snow and Ashes in the second companion and find that Bonnet died in this book. What’s more there is a lot more military action going in. The film-makers have deliberately excised that stuff from both the 5th and now this season. The girl’s accusations and its results up to her death are there in the book more or less as told in the film. The title of the book refers to the season of winter, and I see at the end of the book the explanation for the brief obituary Brianna read, which brought her back in time is also revealed.

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Episode 7: Sticks and Stones

This one feels like a cumulation of all the episodes of this season dealing with trauma; Claire is now utterly caught up with murder of Malva.
Then paratext of song this season is “the Laird that is gone …”


Brianna and Roger wished “safe travels”

Begins with Mrs Bug suggesting Malva was never to be distrusted, but Claire insists she never thought that way about her. Mr Crombie first appearance.

They are all standing around the corpse: brother (I cannot find any stills of him) curses Claire and Jamie; how did you go out there with a knife; did they see anything at all; father does not want to give her a burial in consecrated ground; Jamie says they will bury the bodies at the Ridge. Claire insists she thinks of Malva as life and light not darkness

Claire’s bad dreams woven throughout: it’s the voice of Lionel which is the voice of guilt; the most traumatic of all her experiences beaten and gang raped. Knocking at door. She is using ether – trying to medicate herself but making herself worse; haunted Ian out searching, asking questions. It was a Sin Eater who was missing finger parts and we now realize that’s who we saw Malva cutting.


Henderson — a likely candidate for Malva’s baby’s father

Anecdote episode with Henderson come to complain about questioning; it emerges that Roger saw him having sex with Malva and he gets indignant
Voice goes over all Claire’s history and “betrayals” and lies from first season on, with angry protesting voices at her at the time; she left when she should have stayed; stayed when she should have left (Frank’s voice, Black Jack’s)

Brianna and Roger now talking about it, he says he will do the service; as this episode develops Roger becomes more and more explicit that he wants to be a minister – finally this can be his occupation in this era


Roger as minister at funeral

All finally take note that something wrong or different about Lizzie’s behavior, she is caught in lies; Josiah and Kezzie have vanished

Perry Mason thought of by Claire (she wishes they had him there): who could have, who had the motive, who has opportunity and Claire says me: she is beginning to think she may have done it, rather that she wanted to do it.

Nightmare with Malva banging at door, shock she awakens, lost her temper and threatened Malvina: I’ll fucking kill you; Jamies there to contradict, sooth; over voice: funny we saw we are just human when we do bad things, not good ones.

Who is she now after all the roles she’s played? (Claire thinking)


There are contemplative images of them — an older couple

Story of Lizzie and Beardsley boys emerges; Lizzie feels she has done nothing wrong; eventually handfast with them both.

Talk about killing; eating animals (vegetarian explained); Jamie says big difference when Roger Mac killed a man in self-defense and this murder of Malva
Claire: because I came here I changed things: whole history of all; it was because she desperately wanted to be with Jamie – she loved him

Funeral scene: Allan (the brother of Malva) accuses them both – terrible scenes in the church. Quieter by the grave Jamie not to carry coffin; Ian can.

Claire going crazy she feels; losing it; Jamie says she must not lock him out the way she did not allow Jamie to lock the world out after Wentworth. She says she’d do it all again.

Brianna and Roger now decided on this career for him, a minister (it’s what his adopted father was); it seems to demand they go to Edenton as a family; Roger upset at how child is being taught to believe people become ghosts.

All now quiet, they are making dinner, and the posse of the Brown gang arrive and demand to take Claire away as under arrest

Episode does center a lot on Jamie and Claire — we keep returning to them

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Episode 8: I am not alone


Jamie and Claire defending themselves early in the night

I put off watching this because somehow I found it so painful and anxiety-producing the first time round, but that was late at night and I watched it directly after S6, E7, Sticks and Stones. This time I could see reassurance set up by the end

The previously takes us way back: Brianna tells Roger she cannot tell if Jemmy is his. News of deaths of Claire & Jamie in a fire. Jamie gives Cherokees guns. Roger preaching sermon, he & Briana to Edenton so he may be ordained Presbyterian: this could be his fitting occupation. Your wife covered up to elbows in blood. The accusation. Brown: we have come for our wife to arrest her for the murder of Malva Christie.

A scene of 2 in a café modern eating fries … one a woman, cannot catch the other – slipped in …


The Posse comes, led by Richard Brown

They demand Claire, are Committee of Public Safety. Beardsley & Lizzie flee. A battle ensues. Men surround the house; Claire kills with rifle man who got in. Frees Jamie from crowd; they barricade themselves. Boarded up windows. House being destroyed by all out shooting. Brown found out Marsali killed his brother (Claire to Jamie). This is revenge, an excuse. Brown with a white handkerchief; they’ll go to Salisbury for fair trial; that’s the law …. Jamie shoots at them, they look like thugs.

Switch to Roger & Brianna and Jemmy. Talking of revolution; what’s happening in Boston; once Roger would dream to go, but now he’s here. I must think all be safe. They talk of how truths kept from them as children; she now accepts what happened … Back to house, Jamie and Claire fear firing of their house; by the hearth, with water, find food, Obituary says 21 January; this is May so they must survive. No plan. Outside men bivouac.

Roger and Brianna inside tent with child; beautiful love-making scene of comfortably married couple, laughter, she pregnant. This contrasts and compares to Jamie and Claire: condemned eat hearty meal; she’d choose cheeseburger &c (it sound like the meal we saw a opening still). Where is everyone? Ian? Lizzie? They remember the times he came near death, when she did. Fortune teller read his palm and it connected death with number 9. Jamie cites Prayer of Contrition.

Outside fisherfolk, Hiram Comb – come out, thou shalt not suffer a witch to live; they accuse him of killing Malva; Claire shouts hoarsely she was trying to save the unborn child and Jamie innocent. Accusation of revenge. Malva’s brother: you debauched and killed my sister. Scots people ride up with Lizzie but no go. Tom Christie arrives and manages a negotiation Witness and mediator. No reason you should not rest in your own bed. Frasers go back in. Guard set. Love-making that night. Knitted bodies. Jamie promises her this will not be the last time they see the house and environs.


Their last night — an expressive image

Daylight. They are in wagon. Shall I tend to their wounds? Christie brings her breakfast. No court at Salisbury; off to Wilmington; Tom Christie looking remorseful. Lizzie I am back, but she cannot help; Ian back but vanishes. People roused to throw stones. Calm reasserted

Brianna: are we there yet? They read New Bern Onion, Fergus printer. Poet’s corner – Marsali. Child has lice; they cut his hair and discover hereditary nevus like the one Roger has. So they are father & son.

Back to Jamie and Claire in wagon; Christie hanging round. Ian there, but not time yet. Don’t go away, lad I am with you Uncle.

Someone comes up; a man dies; Jamie brought out for drinking water: a trap, the rest ride off with Claire, shouting. Brown tells Claire his brother a lout but she is a murderer and he was his brother Mr Fraser sent to Scotland; Christie will not leave her, insists Jamie alive, he is there to protect her. Trip of fearful discontent.

Snap shot of Brianna and Roger still off with child to Edenton

Claire now over-voice: Tom Christie troubled; will not admit Jamie dead. Town (Wilmington) in bad shape. Corpse hanging. She is put in jail. Christie there: I would not have your deaths on my conscience. She is to trust him.

Switch to Jamie tied to post; just as someone is about to crush Jamie’s head, Ian’s arrow hits; we see him and Indians. All there, reassurance, and group now riding post-haste to rescue Claire (with Tom Christie protecting her). She (I) is not alone.

Finis for season — until next year when (we are told) there may be 16 episodes and then the series will come to an end. I have not included the more frantic and debilitating and humiliating seasons (Claire led by a rope, for example) because the over-all feel is stoical

Ellen

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Brianna (Sophia Skelton) helping Claire (Caitriona Balfe) to bathe — after she is brought back to Fraser’s Ridge from gang-rape (Season 5, Episode 12: Never My Love)

How many times have I put my hopes, my fears, my secret longings into the hands of a Being that can’t see, can’t hear, can’t even feel. How many times have my prayers been answered? Time is a lot of the things that people say God is. There is pre-existing and having no end. There is the notion of a Being all powerful because nothing can stand against Time, not mountains, not armies. Give anything enough time, and everything is taken care of, all pain encompassed, all hardship erased, all loss subsumed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And if Time is akin to God, I suppose that memories must be the devil …. (from script, the overvoice for Season 5, Episode 5, “Perpetual Adoration”)

Friends and readers,

I loved this 6th season, which, while it basically adapts freely A Breathe of Snow and Ashes, like Season 5, also brings together material from a later and earlier book and re-arranges everything to the point the overall feel is very different (a handy list for viewing all recaps and commentary on Season 5). It is also, crucially and astonishingly to me, strongly dependent on the viewer having become immersed before and being totally involved before you begin. I’d say almost all the episodes had long sequences that were reflective and meditative, remembering and re-processing as it were — so how does this rivet new watchers? There is but one feature and it is all about trauma. We hear from all the major actors/characters, the central scriptwriters (those here since the first season), where they talk of each major character in terms of how processing grief is difficult; everyone processes grief differently; it’s real, violent, volatile. They are searching for their identity, what is the way forward; their past holds them. Some terrible things have happened; is Claire Teflon? No. Jamie is giving her space and time to heal; she has nightmares .. the feature goes over each character but dwells on Claire, Ian (“The Hour of the Wolf”), and Fergus. I am telling myself I must go back and finish reading/listening to The Fiery Cross and then go on to A Breathe of Snow and Ashes.

I admit since I found the fifth and sixth Outlander books so muddled, so without forward thrust, that for much of the previous season and all of this one too I relied on The Outlandish Companion: Volume II by Diana Gabaldon

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Episode 1: Echoes (a straight recap with video clip)


Ardsmuir (New Craigmiller Castle)

Just a first impression, and w/o benefit of reading the source book at all. As I said a while back I got through only half of book 5 (The Fiery Cross); I’ve never opened book 6 (A Breath of Snow and Ashes). You are at a considerable disadvantage when you’ve not read the book in these sorts of film adaptations meant in part to be faithful and using the book for deepening. A brief read of some comments on Season 6 show Roger Moore back in central place (I imagine his movements away to other shows became fewer when the pandemic hit and much new programming delayed or cancelled but I could be wrong) and Gabaldon interesting herself to the point she says that much that she cared about made the transfer but not all; we are told the opening is not in the book but taken from elsewhere.

Certainly the opening was a surprise and to me a somewhat demoralizing one. We are back at Ardsmuir, way before Lord John Grey took over, not just after Culloden, but just after Jamie gives himself up (1753) – I did recognize the actor who played the first general. It is such misery and what we see is slowly Jamie asserting himself and the men gaining minimal rights. An ambivalent relationship emerges between Jamie and a man who is at the head of Protestant faction: Tom Christie (Mark Lewis Jones). I felt the loss of Murtagh and found that Duncan Lacroix is no longer in the cast at all.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire, 1773 (after flashback) dressed with attitudes which signify they’re older

Then we fast forward 20 years to 1773 and North America. I began more to enjoy it. I have to say that this episode reminded me of the opener in Episode 5: it moves slowly and is a gradual development of our favorite characters, showing us what they are at this point. I loved it but my feeling is if you are not already deeply immersed this may not grab you at all. Seasons 1-3 openers did, and Seasons 1-2 were especially exciting and melodramatic almost throughout. I grew to love 5, but I acknowledge others might not unless they were wrapped up in the characters already.

So basically Claire is slowly overcoming the trauma of the rape-beating; Jamie keeps close to her lest anyone attack her again; she is now inventing anesthetics but Brianna worries lest they be misunderstood and attacked again – part of the animus against Claire in Season 5 was her portraying herself as Dr Rawlings dispensing contraceptive information. And lo and behold there is Christie’s daughter, Malva (Jessica Reynolds), who seems at first simply a fanatic evangelical type sniffing around the “phosporus,” saying this is the stuff of the devil.

Yes Tom Christie turns up with his family; he saw the ad and wants to be part of the settlement. Jamie, a bit reluctant, nonetheless accepts them in. Tom is a tyrant to his family, and his son is going bad, partly a result of this repression and bullying. Marsali (Lauren Lyle) is pregnant again, but this time she has a bruise on her arm, and soon it emerges Fergus (Cesar Dombey) has become an alcoholic. She is deeply ashamed and he’s in denial: we are given clues some of this is the result of his having one hand and not being of service like the others. Problem here is this was not a problem before: he was always as active as ever (partly from Jamie’s influence but that’s not gone). Brianna and Roger (Richard Rankin) just there, in support (not given much to do beyond that). Young Ian (John Bell) active in hunting animals with bows and arrows; there is a conversation where he brings up the idea that perhaps Claire could help him change his destiny as he sees it with respect to his wife. This is the first we’ve heard of her explicitly.

Central scene is love-making, gentle and tender between Claire and Jamie – as befits this grandparent couple. Both of them have bad dreams or memories: Jamie’s shorter (of Ardsmuir) and Claire’s of the rape and beating. We see them as kind grandparents to Brianna/Roger’s children and one of Fergus/Marsali’s.

Plot-design of episode; governor’s aide arrives early to ask Jamie to become a chief crown agent dealing with Indians; he does not want to involve himself (as he refused in episode 5 – reminding me of Ross Poldark’s reluctance). The governor is going to tax the Frasers heavily for not agreeing to take on Indian tasks. But what happens is the threatening presence our enemy group (one must have a true villains) are what is left over the Brown gang, headed by Richard Brown (Chris Larkin), the brother of man who instigated the rape of Claire (hated her for helping his wife, his daughter) and whom Jamie murdered and returned in a body bag. The Browns demand that Jamie punish Tom Christie for stealing an object and Jamie is forced to whip him (we see a flogging of Jamie at the opening in Ardsmuir). Jamie hates this. Jamie now told Lionel (Ned Dennehy) will become the Indian agent. So at the end of the episode Jamie relents and takes the position as it would be dangerous for them, for the Indians, for everyone for such a gang to have power.

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Episode 2: Allegiances (another recap, this time with still, more evaluative)


Tom Christie (Mark Lewis Jones)

I’ve watched Episode 2 now and find that it’s making me very curious about A Breath of Snow and Ashes. I have the feeling the film team has done the same thing they did for Season 5, from (more or less) The Fiery Cross. They have picked a few of the episodes, and rewritten and rewoven them to fit a theme (or themes) across this season. Despite the re-appearance of Roger Moore’s name in key places (writing too), it has the quietude of the fifth season, with this difference, I am continually worried or feeling anxious about our six principals: Jamie and Claire; Roger and Brianna; Marsali and Fergus.

The threat is from the people Jamie has allowed to build and live in their compound (the religious ideas of Tom Christie are paranoid and aggressive, including an obviously misogynistic inspired distrust of Claire as a witch), and now the Indians that Jamie has (paradox this) become an agent to the crown (George III) to. Every doctoring deed Claire does is worrying, and now Brianna, matching Claire’s invention of ether, invented matches.


Still brings out the quietly comic feel of the operation

Story: it opens with Claire trying to mend Tom Christie’s more crippled hand, which she says she will have to operate using ether on. As in later conversations when Christie brings up the idea God doesn’t want him to have a good hand, Claire refutes this with secular and ironic understanding. Marsali’s pregnancy is quite advanced and Claire now with Malva (dangerous because Christie’s daughter-in-law) goes to take care of Marsali. The baby is near birth, but something is wrong, and Claire dare not do a C-section, for that would kill Marsali. Claire also gets out of Marsali, the bruises are from Fergus; they fight intensely over his drinking. Jamie deputies Roger to go get Fergus who is very drunk when Roger arrives, and Roger becomes disgusted and angry with Fergus, who finally agrees to come.


Fergus with Claire

A second thread moving through this is Jamie and Ian’s overnight visit to the Indians who are asking Jamie to ask the governor to give them guns, ammunition. Jamie consults Claire as to the future allegiance of the Cherokee and she says she doesn’t know as she did not read that far into American history: this Is part of a scene where they make love.

Back to visit to Indians overnight: a supposedly comic scene of two Indian women trying to have sex that night with Jamie, stopped finally by Ian speaking to them. Jamie will only promise to consider asking the governor.

Fergus comes and he is transformed (one hopes more than momentarily) to the Fergus we knew: sweet, loving, he begins to make love to Marsali, as enormous as she is, sucking her breasts. He says in the brothel they did that to help women give birth. All leave the couple alone, but and eventually hear the baby coming. We see Marsali giving birth with Claire and Malva on either side, also Brianna there, but when Fergus takes the child after a few minutes he is horrified (“nain” he cries and runs off): the child is perhaps a Downs Syndrome baby; Marsali loves it immediately.

The thread of the Christie group appears again with Christie building a church; and an old woman in the group dying. Roger is to be minister at the funeral and lo and behold she awakens momentarily. Claire explains this – a semi-comic, semi-deeply felt scene ensues with the old woman alive but dying still is what happens. Again the modern ideas that Claire brings to this endanger her in the eyes of these people. A little later Jamie comes up to their compound and queries this building of a church before houses; Tom Christie stands up for this idea, and Jamie appears to allow it as long as the new church is neither Catholic nor Protestant specifically but rather a meeting house for all – he refers Tom to the opening at Ardsmuir where he, Jamie, resolved constant fighting by joining the Freemasons and telling the others too and thus defusing religious conflicts.


Bree and Roger, playful

Brianna and Roger are seen having private time together with her hurt because over the meal they had just before Marsali went into labor, everyone thought good news was a new baby, when it was her invention of matches. Only Claire seemed to understand how important and convenient these are. It’s frustrating to Brianna that her abilities have nowhere to flourish. They talk of how they have decided to stay permanently and how they have been trying to have another child with no result as yet. We see Brianna a little later walking to stables where she meets Ian. She overhears him praying for a child he apparently had with his Mohawk wife. Ian is bothered by Jamie’s refusal to ask the Governor – a refusal that the Indians learned of and came to be angry over. Claire says if Jamie gives them arms, they could end up the Fraser’s enemy as the Frasers right now are on the British (not rebels) side. Ian says that nonetheless the Indians deserve weapons if they are to be endlessly displaced by these white colonialists.

In another scene (I’m not sure exactly where these all occur in the sequence) Brianna and Jamie sit on the porch together talking and cleaning their two guns. Brianna tells Jamie that Ian had a child who is probably still with the Mohawk.

A small later episode shows Jamie talking to Mr Bug about some supplies he is taking with Kessie to trade; up to them comes Mrs Bug and Lizzie (Caitlin O’Ryan) and we see that Kessie and Lizzie have a flirtation going on.

The episode concludes with Jamie writing a long letter to the governor (at first from some dialogue we assume it is to his Aunt Jocasta); late at night Claire comes out of the bedroom to ask about the letter. He confides to her he is going to give it to the Major (then with them) to give to the governor to ask for the Indians to have guns. She says I thought you were against this. He replies that he now realizes that Ian’s allegiance is to the Mohawk, to these Indians, and that he, Jamie’s, allegiance is to Ian so he will do as Ian asked him to.

Just about all these scenes are quiet thoughtful ones, filled with mood and complex feelings – even quieter and less overt aggressive action than Season 5. I find I have no trouble staying up and watching intensely, ever worried for everyone and caring about them. Snow on the ground showing it’s winter. The whole episode is beautifully photographed throughout.

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Episode 3: Temperance (detailed straight recap, emotional, with still)


Jamie offering Malva Christie friendship

I am now not puzzled altogether about the curious tone in which people who wrote about Season 6 when it was airing on Starz: the third episode is as oddly quiet, non-violent, non-active as the first two. Season 5 did have violence and action by the third episode – the fight with the Browns, then regulators versus the royal governor. The first sign we will have any is a newsletter that appears at the end of the episode telling of the Boston Tea Party. It’s not called that in the paper, but Claire refers to it that way. This is again a series of mostly non-violent incidents which are exemplary in different ways.

I looked at the summary of A Breath of Snow and Ashes in the 2nd Outlandish Companion and find it as unreadable as I found the last 2/3s of The Fiery Cross – there is no thrust forward but rather stories about our characters as they live an isolated life on Fraser’s Ridge. They are interwoven but again I’ll tell each incident or thread together as I cannot remember the order they are in as there is no weaving forward to some conclusion; they are self-contained. Another problem with these episodes is Jamie and Claire are too perfect, as are Roger and Brianna. The only un-exemplary character is Fergus – for Ian is also without any real flaw. I love them myself but recognize the incidents lack inner conflict. Yes, Claire carries on being haunted by images of Lionel Brown who insulted and raped her and uses ether sometimes to sleep. But that is not enough

By contrast, The Crown (Netflix series about British monarchy, 20th century) has shows Philip to be very flawed while we feel for him; and Elizabeth to be conflicted over how to behave towards him, angry and also torn in her role as queen.

So we have Tom Christie giving in and coming to have his hand healed – cut and re-formed and sewn the way Claire did Jamie’s hand – the man refuses ether (horrified by the idea) and won’t even bite on a piece of wood but reads aloud passages from the Bible with Jamie chiming in and holding him down slightly – he does scream from the pain. By the end of the hour (this time it is just an hour) he is healed, grateful, and takes away a copy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, saying he thought novels were evil until he heard Jamie telling aloud tales at Ardsmuir. Now he agrees they are forms of escape and distraction. However, when he reads the book, we look over his shoulder and see him reading one of Fielding’s many ironic passages about love, and he closes the book, and returns it with a note to the effect “this is filth” and he had thought better of Claire.

Another incident occurs when Roger sees a baby in a basket floating on the river towards a water fall and its death. He jumps in, barely saving it, all the while realizing a group of boys had done this. They include Germaine, Marsali and Fergus’s son. He is incensed at their idea this child is a demon – because it’s a dwarf. The boys are scolded fiercely and then required to turn up to Jamie who gives them the choice of touching a red-hot iron or the baby. They had also thought they’d be burned if they touched the child. Of course, they choose the child and find they are not burned, and the baby behaves sweetly.


Marsali (Lauren Lyle) spinning

Roger has become the minister of the place and we see him deliver a sermon against superstitions about dwarves using the Biblical story of Moses. Brianna seems to have built a spinning wheel, and we watch Marsali learning to spin fibre into yarn or thread. Brianna needs to be doing something too.

Marsali is not having much success stopping Fergus from drinking to excess all the time; now he blames himself for having such a child. He tells Claire how he saw dwarves treated in Paris – it sounds like the dwarves here are Downs Syndrome children. Claire says none of that will happen now for they will take care of Henri-Christian. Fergus wants to know what happens to the child after they all age and die. At one point the Frasers are collecting rent (in just the way of the Highlanders) and one couple find Fergus “stinks” and say he is responsible for his freak child. He physically attacks them. Later Marsali says to Claire, Fergus has promised to stop drinking; but when he comes home, he is drunk as ever. She throws him out and says she’d rather have no man than a drunk one. And later in the episode Jamie is out in the wood and from afar sees Fergus slash his wrist badly; Jamie saves Fergus, and there is a scene of traumatic talk, with Jamie the father hugging his son and when they return it does seem as if Fergus will reform and accept himself again and his new son.

Ian and Malva are striking up a friendship. I had mistaken and the young man I thought her husband is her brother — but there is an important hint here: they are behaving as if husband and wife. We are of course to see love blooming in Malva, but Ian seems attracted. Touching dialogues about what they believe, her father’s cruelty (in one scene we see the father whipping her now that his hand is fine), but she mentions that her father would be upset if she had a “lover” and it’s implied even more were he like Ian – Indian like, not Christian. Ian says he does not know what he believes.

Somewhat improbably Brianna builds a glorious spinning wheel. She needs to do something but it is Marsali who sits turning fibres into thread or yarn.
Lizzie makes an appearance at one point and again we see she is courted by Kezzie. She appears very happy in her position as working beloved servant-companion.

Christie tells Jamie and Claire his group of people have accepted the offer of the Browns to protect them – Claire tells Christie this is a bad move.
The end of the episode has Major Macdonald returning with the guns for the Cherokee, and bringing the newsletter about the Boston Tea Party. Claire says “the storm” (or war ) has started.

For my part I love watching it because I’m fond of the central six characters and worry about them.

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Episode 4: Hour of the Wolf (recap from an amusingly anachronistic POV, with 2 clips!)


Ian (John Bell) and his central rival, Wakyo’teyehsnonhsa (Morgan Holmstrom?)

Another quiet mostly retrospective and reflective hour — it’s curious that is the atmosphere because it includes a challenge and duel where one of two people could have been murdered. But no one is.

Ian’s Mohawk name was Wolf’s brother, and so the meaning of the title is episode devoted to Ian’s history, inner life, and watching him try to come to terms with what happened.

It opens with him remembering how he was initiated by rituals into the Mohawks, fell in love with girl whose name was so hard to pronounce, he called her Emily. They were happy but after the second bloody miscarriage, Ian was told the gods were against him being part of the tribe; Emily was given to the man called his brother, and he coerced into leaving.

Also early in the episode before they get to the camp, Jamie is giving Fergus the task of going with goods from the farm to trade for things needed, make money. Fergus is not drunk and says he knows what Milord is doing. Keeping him occupied. Jamie says he needs these things done, and as Fergus had said remembering their time in Edinburgh as printers, Fergus is a good businessman trader. Some of this was too didactic, but it’s beautifully acted and the film landscape and music and feeling is good.

These memories are prompted by a trip Jamie takes with Ian to the Cherokee to give them the guns. (Again as I’ve done before I am not trying to recap the episode because I’m not following the interlace. Some of the above is in a flashback Ian has when Jamie and he arrive at the Cherokee camp and discover Mohawks there, and (what a coincidence), just this brother who took Emily from Ian.

Before we get there Major (I’m not sure of this name) MacDonald has been at Fraser’s Ridge handed over these arms, and Brianna told Jamie that 60 years from now these Indians will be forced off the land — well after the revolution. So they will need these armaments. When they get to the camp, Jamie, now reflectively ethical, tells this to the chief. He explains his knowledge by his wife’s extra powers (so too his daughter). This is of course the cruel (infamous) Trail of Tears inflicted on these people during Andrew Jackson’s administration.

Another trader, a Scot, Alexander Cameron is there, and a fight erupts between him and Wolf’s Brother, and that’s the duel. Cameron cheats and turns to shoot before Wolf’s brother but Ian on the alert, shoots the gun (or hits it with a strong arrow), knocking it out of his hand. Wolf’s brother’s turn, but he does not kill the begging man, rather shoots in the sky. Ian acknowledges to Wolf’s Brother he can bear him having Emily (there appears to have been a daughter and be a son).

Back at Fraser’s Ridge, Claire is practicing her invented ether on Lizzie and Kezzie and Jo (I suspect the same actor plays these twins). It is worrying since Malva is watching, as her apprentice and she swears she will not tell the father, and looking at Claire’s notebooks, Malva appears not to take these as spells of a witch. Or so she says, but there is something insinuating about her.

At the close of the episode when Jamie comes home, Claire rushes to where he is, and in a barn they make love. The last still shows Malva watching them through a key hole.

Ian still has Rollo; in the previous episodes we’ve seen Adso drinking milk, sitting on the bed with Marsali …

What they must have done here is taken a group of incidents and meditations about Ian and drawn them together with knowledge of the coming wars against the Indians (the previous episode referred to the Boston Tea Party and heating up rebellion). Jamie again says she cannot be a rebel and Indian agent for the crown so he must give up this agency.

Upcoming: Episodes 5-8

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From one of the many moments of consolation, grieving, holding together …

Gentle and I hope forgiving and flexible reader, I realize two years have gone by since I blogged on Season 5, and going further back, all these blogs began in 2017 (3 years after the first season aired). What’s more at first I was putting them on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen (where many remain, except those here on JimandEllen). At first I deemed them based on a woman’s quintessentially woman’s historical romance, with a woman at the center, but then realized how many of the film team were men and how often every effort was made to create a male focus, so I also blogged here. Nowadays I’m here because the series is so popular, it seems to me to have a non-gender specific audience, i.e., both men and women (even if women are the greater number of viewers).

I confess to blogging less often and using the images I find on the Internet available openly instead of snapping my own as I watch. It’s easier, less time-consuming, and these are most of them images the film-makers have made readily available to the public.

I am doing my best and my dream is now that when I stop the teaching to write about the Outlander books and films, together with the Poldark books and films.

Ellen

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Early illustration of Uncle Tom ministered to by Cassy (from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1851-52)

I assigned Uncle Tom’s Cabin 3 times in the early 1990s when I was teaching a class called American literary Masterpieces. It was part of a unit I called The Civil War, and my other two books were a set of Lincoln’s speeches and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglas. I had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin between the ages of 11 and 12; it was on the shelves of one of the bookcases in our house. I found then (1992-93) it was not uncommon to find most Black good students (readers) and a few white students had read it.

Dear friends and readers,

Though Uncle Tom’s Cabin is by a woman, and fundamentally a work of genius that is at the same time a quintessentially American middle class white woman’s novel, based on the 18th century captivity and slave narratives that emerged from the first 2 centuries (17th, 18th) of ruthless colonialism aiming to grow super-rich by extraction of the natural resources and taking over the land of gun-less cultures, I am nevertheless going to place my brief essay-talk on it here (rather than Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two), because the still wide-ranging kinds of people it rivetingly engages transcends its author and immediate context. Its subaltern-extermination-slave or imprisoned-bondage labor story make it a universal post-colonial text too (see comments).

I am taking a course at OLLI at AU called “The Coming of the Civil War,” which I cannot praise too highly, for the teacher’s (a retired pro-labor lawyer who clerked for Thurgood Marshall) basing the course on original political documents, and the way he makes us understand quite how complicated were the laws passed, the customs protected, the reasons for the fierce polarization and violent behaviors, and hatreds, economic and political interests. I’ve learned about invasions by people who supported secession into Mexico, Latin and South America to extend slavery and renew kidnapping of African people to enslave thousands more. He knows so much and yet one book he has not been able to get himself to read is one of the central texts igniting it. I must suppose (from what I saw in the class too) that to many people Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes framed with the way many women’s books are regarded: as somehow inferior, this one as sentimental gush. So of course one needs to explain its extraordinary sale and central role. He seemed to think it was unique in some way. I learned too that quite a number of the mostly white 60+ year olds in both OLLIs have never read the book. It has not been on US high school curricula perhaps ever and especially not since the mid-20th century when it came to be reviled by leading black critics, who nonetheless had themselves read it as children.

So I wrote a short talk, and invite my readers to read it because Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a sina qua non text for understanding the literature and culture of the American 19th century and much of the twentieth until say the later 20th century period of progress for black Americans, jump started with the Civil Rights act of 1965. One might hope that if we were a post-racial society the book could be seen historically important rather than directly relevant, but we cannot — tragic: since the 1990s a massive incarceration of black men in the US began again — so UTC it can today be regarded as living witness and testimony. I will let my short essay speak for itself as about the book’s content, aesthetics, value, genres, and critical history; a second blog will contextualize it with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life and the immediate political fights over enslavement in the early 1850s.


Eliza leaping ice floes

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a powerful literary masterpiece, about the horrors of enslavement. It was an astoundingly wide best-seller (borne out by statistics), internationally acclaimed, prompting a ceaseless production of anti-Tom works, and parodic imitations on stage. Scholars seem to think, however, that the anecdote of Lincoln saying to Harriet Beecher Stowe, So this is the little lady who started this big war, is apocryphal. It is very pat: Lincoln being this very tall man and Stowe this very short woman. In the 20th century, her novel aroused terrific ire still, especially among Black readers (most notably James Baldwin’s loathing in his famous “Everybody’s Protest Novel”) and was dropped from college curricula mid-century. Its sentimentality was called an embarrassment; nevertheless, Edmund Wilson included it in Patriotic Gore for its “eruptive force,” “the irresistible vitality of its characters,” “the critical mind which on complex situations” sustains “a firm grip,” and its structure which “clearly controls and coordinates” the subplots.

So why did it hit an emotional nerve? Harriet Beecher Stowe writes vivid powerful prose; she writes very direct dialogue we can believe in, and characters whose motivations and emotions we recognize as real, its prose and action are rhythmic and scenes and descriptions effective & immersing. Stowe doesn’t mince words. She presents the issues she want us to understand directly and urgently reasons with us as her scenes make her points dramatically. She is a sharp ironist. Her major argument is you cannot make people into property; people are not things. Not all the scenes are of horrific punishment (Simon Legree enters the novel rather late), and many seem ordinarily probable, with the cause of the slave-traders and owners behavior making money, or a profit.

Here is just the opening section of George and Eliza Harris’s story, early on, an owner hates George Harris for being intelligent and hates how he is inventing machines and gaining respect when hired out, so brings him back, grinds him down with menial work, whips, debases him. We see George inwardly “The flashing eye, the gloomy troubled brow were part of a natural language that could not be repressed – indubitable signs, which showed too plainly that the man could not become a thing.” A little later, same passage, from the enslaver (“owner”): “It’s a free country, sir, the man’s mine, and I do with him what I please, – that’s it” (Chapter 2, 24-25). George soliloquizes: “I’m a man as much as he is, I’m a better man than he is, I know more about business than he does; I’m a better manager than he is, I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand – and I’ve learned it myself, and no thanks to him, – I’ve learned it in spite of him, and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?” (3, 27).

Our materials for this week’s class focused on the Fugitive Slave Act. Major scenes throughout the novel feature characters trying to escape and we see the immense difficulties and obstacles, the laws and actors empowered to help the determined owners to get their property back. Eliza jumping ice floes is just the most sensational but also (as Hedrick shows) Biblical in its intensity and use of allusion: “‘she’s clar ‘cross Jordan. As a body may say, in the land o’Canaan'”. Eliza crosses that river, her child in her arms. We are led to identity and ask ourselves, what if you were never safe, could never hold onto your children or parents? what if you had obtained, become a freed person and found yourself at risk of being kidnapped and re-enslaved? You cannot count on the next moment to plan anything. You may be sold anytime. And twice a set of characters are sold when “good” “owners” need money or go bankrupt.

No less important are chapters and whole sections of eloquent polemics against slavery, both out of principle and the lives such practices inflict on the enslaved and a society based on such practices.

Yes, there are cringeworthy comical scenes where Stowe condescends and shows racism in her descriptions of black people; yes the death of little Eva, and Uncle Tom and little Eva’s relationship is as drenched in sentiment as Joe the street sweeper’s death in Bleak House and Sergeant George and Esther Summerson’s sweet pity, but this is Dickensian stuff still popular today. There is condescension and romanticizing. But we do hear the voices of these people hitherto in white people’s books silenced — Stowe invents idiolects which are intended to mirror black people’s speech. Yes, in the ending the two races are separated, with one group going at first to Canada, and eventually two to Africa. But their fate is treated with respect and interest. Topsy is a black child, girl, who becomes Ophelia St Clair’s special property; Miss St Clair is a northern spinster who comes south to help her brother Augustine (sharp, humane man) because his wife is useless (not that much of a caricature). Miss Ophelia does beat Topsy trying to make her moral: the phrase used, “brought up by hand,” comes from Dickens’s Great Expectations. Miss O is anti-slavery and yet is complicit, but when household breaks up, she takes Topsy with her, and last seen, Topsy is freed, and both women living together. They have become a mother and daughter or aunt and niece pair.

What actuated Stowe? She was horrified by what she saw in the slave society of Ohio; she came from idealistic transcendental sensitive people, was surrounded all her life by Quakers, evangelicals who were abolitionists. She herself saw and understood and wrote against the economic slave system as spreading poverty and misery for most, but she was also a woman, was fired up by her lack of rights, well-educated, her situation with her husband left her supporting him, and she found herself too often pregnant. She finally got separate rooms. Crucially important too was a conversion experience in 1843, a culmination of several years of immersion in religious sect behavior all around her: we do not today sufficiently emphasize what a religious culture the US had (in different varieties) and how the understanding of desperate was filtered through religious ideas (see Joan Hedrick, pp 143-160). Her brother, George, killed himself during this time. Harriet had dreams where she identified with a bleeding enslaved person being whipped. Then around the time of the writing of the book her beloved young son, Charles had just died. The death of this son is poured into this book; and she is particularly careful to show women as effective and important influencers to get the men around them to help enslaved people escape.

Elaine Showalter in A Jury of Her Peers (a history of American women writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx), argues Stowe is a major 19th century career writer; Joan Hedrick, Stowe’s biographer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a quintessentially women’s text (growing out of parlor literature and women’s periodical writing). Of course Stowe is also very religious, with this book following the usual providential patterns: being Stowe these are graphic. Gilbert and Gubar (The Madwoman in the Attic) share this common view among those who’ve read 19th century American women novelists (see Writing [for Vocation] and Immortality by Anne Boyd Rioux). The attic prison becomes a refuge. Stowe’s style recalls Louisa May Alcott – think of Little Women; also Sarah Orne Jewett. Early on when Stowe wrote her first book, a didactic geography adolescent school children, it sold very well. Stowe is an equivalent of Elizabeth Gaskell (Mary Barton for example) in social conscience; she corresponded with George Eliot who wrote reviews of Stowe’s work praising it highly.

In the 1990s when I taught it to undergraduates, the book was written about as combining the very popular slave or captivity narratives of the 18th and 19th century centuries. Stowe took a black form and made it white and middle class. Stowe drew especially from the slave narratives of Josiah Henson and Henry Bibb. One of the many ironic chapter headings is “Property Gets into an Improper State of Mind,” whose point is the will to be free is compelling and ceaseless and immediate active (or at any time) among enslaved people. It’s revealing to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the context of the several other slave narratives too that Henry Gates has published over the years.


A Dover edition

Also in the context of books where the attribution is difficult. With, for example, Lydia Maria Child’s books, with which the 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was once placed. In The Incidents, once attributed to Lydia Maria Child, we experience a closely similar terrain to that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Child was an American abolitionist, activist, writing stories strongly for women’s rights. In 1971 Jean Flagan Yellin, a feminist scholar discovered in the archives of Quaker life and letters at the University of Rochester documentary proof that Harriet Jacobs wrote the narrative. It’s based on Jacobs’ life, and she went to Child to help her put it together and publish it. We should call Child Jacob’s editor and mentor.

Fast forward to 2022, today. People remark on how uncannily Uncle Tom’s Cabin anticipates Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The last sequence where Cassy, Legree’s much abused concubine (who also bullies him) hides in the attic with a young Black girl, Emmeline, whom Legree had bought intending to use her sexually is gothic, ghostly, haunting. The sequence anticipates the ghost of a murdered baby in Beloved, and two of the many incidents told more briefly also repeat parts of Margaret Garner’s history. There is in UTC another enslaved woman who kills her child rather than allow her to become the sexual toy of whoever can buy her, later this woman’s son seeing he is about to be re-captured drowns himself. Garner’s story is sometimes told as if it was somehow unusual to experience such abuse. Not at all: read the last two chapters of Fanny Kemble’s memoir, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-39: you will be horrified at what the women endured as matter of course (made to work from dawn to dusk in heavily pregnant stages, and immediately after birth driven back to the rice fields again was just ordinary non-sexual life)

The sticking point is Uncle Tom: what do we do about this noble man who refuses to escape, who is all goodness to the Shelbys and then St Claires who sell him. It’s not enough to say he’s a Christ figure because for some of us that doesn’t work. I’d like to emphasize that a much of his behavior and passivity is simply idealistically ethical when he is treated with respect (much of he book) and, when not, we see him holding out against snitching and against demands he be cruel to others, become complicit in abominable practices; paradoxically Uncle Tom’s not even for rent. When he’s whipped to death, he is refusing to tell where Cassy and Emmeline are hidden. He’s admirable: his story is a bondage narrative, where usually a woman is at the center, yoked to a freedom narrative, where usually a male escaping is the center. Stowe’s reversed them, putting a male in female story (captivity narratives often have females at the center) and a female and child, Eliza and Henry in the usual male escape story (this is Hedrick’s idea). I find Uncle Tom endurable and can admire him at the end. He receives a decent burial and moving honors by Eliza and George’s son, Henry.

Stowe did write another novel of enslavement in 1856, now in print, Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. The hero is a violent vengeful escaped enslaved man, a sort of Spartacus. In conception I’d liken Dred to David Walker’s 1829’s Appeal to the Colored People of the World, where Walker, a black Bostonian publisher of among the earlier periodicals by and for black people, analyzed the horrors of colonialism as at the core of this new world, and called for immediate abolition of slavery and threatened (urged) black people to rebel. Like many a black male who threatens the white hegemony David Walker died young, in his thirties as did Malcolm X, MLK, and Medgar Evers. Alas, it is said to be poor novel, rushed, the characters insufficiently imagined. It is, however, of interest equally as a “sharp response to the male or patriarchal culture of Andover” (where Stowe was at the time), and contains strong criticism of hypocritical clergymen (Hedrick 258-62).


1875 photograph of Harriet Beecher Stowe

To sum up, why did Stowe’s book become so famous and why was it distributed so widely. It’s a powerful work of literary genius. You will laugh but I liken the spread of her book to the influence of Shakespeare’s plays on his fellows — enormous. Like Shakespeare, Stowe was writing in the same genre and idiom as fellow novelists and pamphleteers.  Her book’s literary power soared because of what she was actuated by and her abilities to combine several popular genres and come up with something that for a while felt new. It helped that one thread of the novel dramatizes the human results (often ironic and so patently unjust) of the fugitive slave act, an understandably electrifying issue at the time (even though out of 4 million enslaved people it’s estimated only 30-100,000 escaped) but it is just as much a novel about the bondage and horrific conditions under which chattel slaves are coerced into surviving. Remember the old Roman saying, What father when he is a slave?, well a bit modified for Stowe, What father or mother or husband or wife or children or even friends when you are a chattel slave?

When I’ve finished reading Hedrick and a few other essays, I’ll write an accompanying blog-narrative of Stowe’s life and other fiction writing. In the meantime here is Lincoln’s moving eloquent argument against ending the Missouri compromise of 1850, whose purpose was to stop the spread of slave societies; let no one think that this man did not loathe slavery:  he is continually precisely on point for every philosophic and humanitarian argument against it — and by extension, racism, human hierarchies. Stowe does not cover all this ground of objections because her stories do not go that far (stories must be ambiguous if they are at all real). Lincoln’s argument is just beautiful at the end because it is a refutation of what’s happening in the US today — his speech is still utterly relevant.

Ellen

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The translator, like the original poet, is a Narcissa, who chooses to contemplate [reality, herself] not in the spring of nature, but in the pool of art — Renato Poggioli, On Translation

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I heard a conversation (sort of) between Jhumpa Lahiri and Nicoletta Pereddu on Lahiri’s latest book — so it was about translation. It came from a building once a synagogue, now a community center for the arts, via zoom, under the auspices of Politics and Prose bookstore. Despite my being irresistibly drawn to her, I didn’t expect much since the last talk I heard her give was so evasive and stilted (so it seems to me because I find the compelling nature of her texts for me inexplicable). She is a very guarded presence in her books too, more than ever in her new identity as an writer in Italian, writing in the tradition of intensely subjective women’s novellas and mostly concise memoirs.

This latest book, according to John Self of The Guardian, is another with holes in it: like Dove Mi Trovo and In Altre Parole she does not explain why she threw off English, her previous post-colonial and diasporic content, moved to Italy, became (as far as she can) Italian. They reminded me of Joan Didion in her Blue Nights: why write about something if you’ve no intention of writing about it (her daughter’s death from alcoholism, a condition she partly picked from Joan as mother and the father, both of whom drank heavily).

I’m writing this blog because I was very pleasantly surprised. She attempted to be candid, and when offered questions whose assumptions were unexamined reactionary-isms, she went to the trouble to undermine them and produce a humane reason for writing and reading good books. She was tactful and kind: it was a marvelous talk.

She said that for her translation is an origin story, an art that brings the writer back to her origins. The point of origin for her was once and still is Bengali/American. The book is a collection of essays of what she was thinking about translation while translating and writing originally in Italian. She feels you engage most deeply with an author when you translate him or her. She has been drawn by what Italo Calvino wrote of translation, Gramschi, and Ovid (strangely I thought to myself in this context — these are ceaseless stories of rape). Translators are transforming texts, says she. Echo and Narcissus provide central metaphors Narcissus is the first self, self-centered, and Eco the stronger re-producer. She quoted Borges on the idea that it’s the original that’s unfaithful to the translation — he’s giving translation priority and treating it as an original imaginative work.


Daffodils are narcissus flowers — from my very own garden on the front lawn

By moving onto Italian, it seemed she was re-alienating herself because in writing in Italian she is said to be using someone else’s language, as people claim ownership of a language if they grow up speaking it. Only if it’s your mother tongue (note the metaphor) are you free and deep with it automatically. So by doing this she made her identity an open question. In the case of the language she chose (for love of it, she says in In Altre Parole, from sound to world view), the reality is Italian is so diverse. Even now there are many dialects beyond the Tuscan, which has become standard Italian. In any case she never felt she owned English (or Bengali) — these are questions that belong to discourses in nationalism (imagined delusions in part I’d add).

She was naturally asked the question about whether she had the right to translate another language with one that was not her own. Of course the person had fallen into the trap Lahiri said she denied or was avoiding. She answered that by saying, when you ask the question, Who has the right, you are flying in the face of all she believes as a writer, reader, teacher. A text (when incandescent? — that’s Woolf’s term) transcends such categories; they are irrelevant, we are all human beings together, it seems.


A recent photo

Here I would have liked to challenge her: she insisted that when she translates a man, say Domenico Starnone whose Ties (Englished version) she has translated, it does not matter that she is a woman. Implied here is there is no gender fault-line in texts. This argument is why I am putting this talk on this blog rather than my Austen Reveries one. She is wrong, and having myself read her translation of Ties, I know she’s turned it into a feelingful woman’s book despite the story being one about a man who easily drops one wife and picks up another. (His book is in dialogue with his wife, Elena Ferrante’s, or a kind of refutation of them.) By making this claim, she escapes the accusation (at the time) that when in her first book she made the center of it a traditional older woman and then a young man, she avoided delving into herself at the time, for in The Namesake we now see she was Moushumi whose identity in the end is French through the language she studied, and country and culture she went to live in. Self is probably correct to say her latest book shows curious self-blindnesses. I have bought it (from ebay) and await it eagerly.

Then as a translator, she said, face with your text you are translating: you are always just arriving, upon arrival. I thought of Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival, a beautiful book about his time spent near Stonehenge in a cottage, deeply burying himself in the English world he wants to be part of. So the act of translating is an enactment of the diasporic condition after all. For her in the act of two languages coming together in her head, there is an intensely compelling experience, a crucible. She re-enacting the intensely passionate stories of her Bengali-American career by acting out language in a different way. It emerged that she has also been studying Latin, and she is not just reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but translating the text — presumably into Italian! What she finds, even in two tongues so close in linguistic forms, is the text resists her, it resists her modern substitution. Getting inside a new language challenges your/her reality. She cannot learn to talk it as she has Italian, for there is no world where people are talking Latin any more.

There was a modesty and humility in some of her comments and tone. She said each translation is an attempt and so an original text can be re-attempted, and it is is as ages pass — the mystery of how an original text remains itself but when you are translating it, somehow you need to put it in contemporary target language or it’s pastiche. This line of thought of course would seem to move in direct opposition to Borges’s claim. Still translation remains transformation and what happens is the previous text (the original) disappears, or at best, lies behind the translated text and only someone who knows the original language can see the previous peeping out as it strains against the translated language.


I’m reading Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth in the Italian version/translation for the sake of Anita Raja’s (Elena Ferrante) postscript …

But Borges was there again in her idea that translations erode the idea of authorship, especially when they are masterpieces in their own right or occasionally better than the original text — I saw that in the Italian translation I read of Goncharov’s Oblonsky. To this day I don’t know the name of that Italian translator but dolce vita values of Italian itself made the Russian book lyrical. She offered the idea that the translator is liberating the original text from its first author. (For myself I think some literary critics do that for primary imaginative texts and great movies for great books.) She came out with this idea in response to someone who in her question has talked about how a translator must “honor” the original author (reminding me of the demand people sometimes make of movies that they be “faithful” to the original source book).

Lahiri’s idea is that there are a range of ways of translating — of course there are. This brings us back to Dryden with his distinguishing the metaphrase (very close, nearly word for word, the danger here is the translator can fall into translationese), the paraphrase (free enough to write in the target language in a creative way appropriate to the genius of that language) and the imitation (or freer adaptation we might say, the appropriations of modern transposed into other times movies and 18th century satires called Imitations). The writer-translator is paying attention to the original text for the sake of the readers who want to reach that original insofar as it’s possible. The translator has to allow the text to read the reader or the reader to find in the text what he or she can read.

She did talk in abstract ways and showed that she has led a privileged life — there was an austerity and idealism about her approach which suggested someone who has not had to bend to the commercial world or the limits of understanding in undergraduates, or average readers. But I suppose that was refreshing in itself — the professor questioning her produced these roundabout self-grandiose commentaries filled with flattery of her. I thought it admirable that Lahiri could pick out of Pereddu’s gobbledyguk a clear point or points and questions. Pereddu’s hair (so I’m catty) was a vast mop of overdone curls obscuring her face; her clothes ever-so-elegant. The present style for tenured women faculty who want to look young is sexy-fashionableness. So here was a European version.

At one point Lahiri compared the translator’s encounter with a new or other language to an encounter with a landscape: as you learn the language through translating into it, and deeply study, become your text through translating faithfully. I liked that idea very much you see. I translated 600 of Vittoria Colonna’s sonnets and poems into English, 90 of Veronica Gambara’s (see my essay from many years ago), some twenty years of my life in study — using French as an intermediary sometimes.


A reimagined land- and seascape of the island Procida, Italy

I’ll never actually meet this woman (Lahiri) nor would she offer me the respect I’d like, but I have myself followed a similar path (even to ending in the same language) to create an identity of sorts for myself.

Ellen

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Untitled (Still Life) — Alma Thomas


[Pine] Trees [from Maine series] — David Driskell

Today I saw with a friend, a dual exhibit at the Phillips Collection of the marvelously luminous and comforting paintings, puppets, costume, and prints of Alma Thomas and the visionary, sorrowful, African American paintings, prints and stained glass window work of David Driskell


Alma W. Thomas, 1963


David Driskell, recently

I’ve been to the Phillips many times before, the last time to see the exhibit made from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. This earlier one was on the theme of global displacement. Here we concentrated on the work of two individual geniuses, African-American both, lifelong teachers of art both, with Driskell, a student of Thomas’s. I didn’t buy the heavy expensive catalogue books, so cannot share images except those I’ve found here on the Net. No matter. If you live close by, you can go, and the two exhibits have been traveling about the US for some time now.

It includes two excellent movies, the one about Alma Thomas focusing more on her life and how her work emerged form that; the one about David Driskell focusing on details of his art, how he did the prints, his religion. She found great solace and fulfillment in her 35 years in one classroom; he spoke of the ugly things he saw in social worlds in his experience and sought to escape. One of the most frightening moments in the two exhibits was a clip from his film showing a gang of Ku Klux Klan people in white sheets in the dark of night setting on fire icons on the grounds of the traditionally Negro college Driskell attended. One of the most poignant moments of of hers was her gladness at never having married, at having been a Miss Thomas all her life, and the independence that meant; at one point late in life she had a bad case of arthritis and was bedridden for two years; when she started painting again, she used pillows and whatever came to hand to paint huge canvases (some seen at the exhibit).

I’ve linked in the two excellent wikipedia and Phillips’ articles about their lives and work. I will find articles and more modest books, obtain them and add to this blog.

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Two of the galleries with Alma Thomas’s art

For now what I’d like to emphasize about Alma Thomas, is she lived a long life as an African-American, with all its hardships and painful experiences, but also embedded in communities of Black people in DC and of artists (once she grew older and had gone to Howard University), these gradually including the finest artists of the century. So when she says “everything is beautiful,” and declares so roundly on the joys of creativity and how much she rejoiced in teaching and her experiences of life, she is speaking from the heart. Her art developed from a quiet realism, some of it a kind of naive school,


Alma Thomas’s Mandolin

to her own brand of abstract expressionism — thousands of squares of color making figures and designs her titles give concrete allusive meaning to. This is from her Journey to Abstraction:

This is just a gorgeous pink when literally seen on the wall:

From her Flower Garden:

The many circles are a transposition of deeply rooted memories of a garden she saw as a child; she loves controlled precise forms too

I like realism more and wish I could share with you her pictures of her grandfather’s house, of a neighborhood of quiet private houses seen from the POV of their back yards (you see above her mandolin). Each of her drawings has a consistency with the others in mood and tone. Her mother was a dressmaker, she participated in putting on plays, making costumes herself, drawing some figures that looked like dreams of historical romance, and made a puppet set once:


Clown and woman marionettes, Fabric, wood, paint, and strings

The touching qualities of these, with their hints of African-American life in enslavement must be seen live.

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Here is David Driskell, surrounded by his paintings in his studio

Driskell’s art is a lot more aggressive, and troubling, much more African motifs, strong contrasting colors:

He presents his own image here and there, very somber:

He seems to love trees:


Winter Trees, this is called

Here is Driskell’s obituary with hard pictures of African-American men, far angrier than anything seen in the Phillips. In the Phillips’ exhibit there were a number of modern versions of writhing Christs and the film showed stained glass windows with modern Church imagery in African-American churches

Here he is surrounded by his work once again, this time in a Maine Contemporary Center for Art

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What to say? how to conclude, now that I know the history of lynching and repeated massacres and arson burn-outs of African American people and communities — Thomas’s grandfather was born enslaved, and as a girl she lived in Georgia where she could not progress in school past the 9th grade. That was one reason her parents moved with her and her sisters to DC. Here is what she wrote in 1970:

“Creative art is for all time and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality; the statement may stand unchallenged.”
-Alma Thomas

Here is his hopeful strong statement:

“I was not looking for a unified theme,” he told The Times in 1977. “And this, of course, usually upsets the critics because they want to see a continuous kind of thing. I was looking for a body of work which showed first of all that blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years, and by stable participants I simply mean that in many cases they had been the backbone.”

Both went to Howard University; for both education, what happened to them in schools and then churches (though she was not herself personally religious at all) were central to achieving, and pride of recognition and belonging to a world of superior spirits. And all that the Civil Rights Era has won for all of us which groups of deeply harm-driven people are trying to undermine.


Thomas’s depiction of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King uttered his famous “I have dream” speech

Ellen

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Ada (Tara Fitzgerald, the Alice Roland of film story) and Flora (Anna Paquin, the Asia of the film story) — from Jane Campion’s 1993 The Piano, a very free appropriation of Mander’s 1920 novel)

Dear friends and readers,

I do not remember what year it was when I first came across Jane Mander’s traditional novel of the trials and ordeals of colonialism for the European colonizers, credited as one of the first true New Zealand novels (a product of this new culture), The Story of a New Zealand River. I found it in the Second Story bookstore in Alexandria, one of two such used book stores: one in DC (Georgetown); and this one in Alexandria, which took up a whole block, all sides and was two floors high. Long gone now such attics of “used” literature where I could rummage in past ages through their left-over books. I might have been attracted by the cover.

I recall being wholly absorbed by it, and recognizing it (not Emily Bronte, as was suggested by some film critics) as a central story source for a movie that made quite a splash with its teasing erotic content. Campion’s English heroine, a mute, coerced into marriage, with a white timber man in New Zealand, is persuaded to go through a slow strip-tease by his assistant, a white man gone native — she removes an item of clothing and in return gets to “own” a small part of her piano until she owns the whole thing), Jane Campion’s The Piano. My reaction to the movie this summer has been very different.

This summer when I decided to try to teach a course in colonialist writings, it leapt to mind as the one book I must do. As I told the people in the zoom space with me, this, together with her Allen Adair, are as worthy to be taught as regularly as the over-rated Heart of Darkness by Conrad and a couple of other favorites by men as classic colonialist books. Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is on record more than once inveighing against the deep racism of Conrad’s book. Mander at least meant not to be, and you can learn a lot more about colonialism from her for real than you can from Conrad’s mystic pompous vague ominousness. I am writing this blog in the same spirit as I taught the book: I would like more people to know about it and its contexts.

Its plot-design tells two stories. On the level of primary action, it tells of an epic romantic journey through time, experience, a river and hard adventures (including giving birth many times in a cabin in the rural woods of Nothern New Zealand in the 1870s through 80s) by Alice Roland. She is a woman whose stiff-necked estrangement from others (later understandable), narrow-minded class-based puritanism, the same suspicious authoritarianism towards others that in the book she allows to spoil her life, is in the book changed to assimilation, a broader minded toleration and understanding, an acceptance of her own and others’ sexual love life. The context for this is the difficulty of living with Tom Roland, a white timber man with whom she has little sympathy, himself creating a successful timber business from the ground up (literally) in the wilderness. When we meet her, she has married him to escape her lot as a widow with three children living in Australia (with a piano in tow — she had tried to make a living as a music teacher). She had hoped comradeship. Instead she falls in love with David Bruce, his gentlemanly assistant (also a physician), who does not go native, but becomes her friend and support of her and whole white community. The three, man, wife, friend, are at the center of all that happens. The inner core of this Campion took for her stark but (contradictorily) pessimistic movie; the outer is about people coping with the situations of colonial life and winning, just.

On the level of structure and character relationships, it is the story of a mother and daughter. The first two of the four books dramatize Asia’s growing up, struggling with and loving her mother. The third and fourth books occur ten and then fourteen years later where Asia, now grown up, turns round to teach this same mother as she achieves independence and a far more free fulfilling life than her mother is capable of. It’s a bifurcated tale. Asia is a kind of Jo March modernized — I am morally convinced the novel Mander was most influenced by was Little Women. Asia falls in love with a man married but unable to divorce, and her mother has to accept Asia’s going to live with him as the source of her happiness and life’s strength. This structure and these themes mark The Story of a New Zealand River as very much a woman’s novel. Many of the inward recognitions both women go through are the kind of thing one finds in subjective novels by women which have nothing to do with where they are particularly.

To parse the bifurcation:

Book 1 sets our scene and the themes and character paradigms that will be developed. The arrival. Alice, Asia, two small children and piano ferried deep into bush on the river by David Bruce; Asia falls overboard and Bruce saves her life. Alice’s first impulse to snub Bruce (he not being dressed as the gentlemen). She finds herself very afraid, very alone, has to give birth – this marks the woman’s birth and it’s David Bruce who is there in intimate moments. Her antagonism, her aversion turns to dependency on her part and his pity for her to love, which is acknowledged at the end of Book I. Tom takes a mistress (on the side, in town). She makes friends with a Mrs Brayton, a cultivated and wise woman who helps her learn to live in a rough environment; she clashes with her daughter at each stage in which the daughter asserts a separate and questioning identity. She learns everything she needs she must make herself. One of the things our characters are doing is “clearing the bush” and making a new society mostly in imitation of what they knew in England only shaped by the different climate, flora, fauna, kinds of foods available and grown.

Book 2 includes a gale-level storm, a flood which threaten and almost destroys Tom’s hard-built business site; David Bruce’s drinking bouts (he is a depressive). Tom Roland thinking he is facing ruin, takes poison, and is saved by David and Alice’s united efforts – tremendous inward scene between Alice and Bruce as they are tempted to let him die. Bruce becomes an uncle-father to Asia. Alice’s deep self-repression, guilty, rigidity over sex, and wanting to own her children, her Victorianism, the attitude so reprehended by Bloomsbury is also reprehended by Mander but through a Victorian fiction.

The problem throughout all this is our heroine, Alice Roland, is persistently in the wrong. She needs the putative hero, David Bruce, continually to teach her better values, among these to be nicer to her husband. It seems it’s her fault the husband treats her badly; her fault he goes into these drinking bouts (as does David himself but she cannot be blamed for that). She is told she is intolerant when he visits his mistress. And she is to consider how much of the whole encampment (all the people working for him, their families) is riding on his strength of character; it’s due to his physical and moral stamina that the timber mill is succeeding and creating wealth for him and her and money for all. Ironically what makes the book unpalatable to some readers today, scandalized her New Zealand readership until the 1930s because what Alice is being taught and Asia lives out are modern attitudes towards sex, class, parent-child relationships, work.

Books 3 & 4 (more briefly): 10 years later, Asia 18 and insists on independent life for herself, a terrible wrench for Alice. At first Alice cannot accept this modern way of life for her daughter. Bruce and Mrs Brayton enable Asia to leave, to become a sort of concert pianist going round New Zealand, but Alice again pregnant and now ill (endures yet another stillbirth), Asia returns home for a few months to nurse her. Then 2 and 1/2 years later, we find Asia now living at home (not explained) and she falls in love with Allen Ross. This part of the novel contains the most extensive descriptions of the realities of colonial life, the people who come as failures elsewhere and fail again; the landscape. Here we find the only mentions of the Maoris in the book (very traditional to leave the indigenous peoples out).

The novel’s non-modern techniques: back stories emerge. Alice had Asia as illegitimate child and punished herself all her life by his marriage; Mrs Brayton had rejected daughter who married someone Mrs B didn’t approve of, w/o help daughter died. Bruce himself did not save a man whose wife he loved and blames himself as a passive murderer (this reminded me of George Eliot, and Bruce seemed to me a Daniel Deronda).

Roland finally catches Bruce and Alice in compromising position and it emerges he thought they were lovers all these years –- especially after Bruce told him to leave Alice alone, for these pregnancies were killing her. A sub-textual argument of the book is on behalf of contraception (for which it was attacked). Does she want a divorce? No! but our noble lovers are saved when Tom dies in an accident nobly trying to save others. At novel’s end Asia and Ross have gone to live in Sidney where they hope to do good in politics. Alice and Bruce leave for Auckland to marry and find contentment as older adults together.

The book brings you into its world deeply; it is rich in description of New Zealand at the time. The characters are convincing (if contrived because of the romantic lesson-learning structuring). I find it to be melancholy: life is little to be enjoyed and much to be endured (there are various utterances which are variations on Samuel Johnson, mostly when Alice is thinking of what is to come. What is most striking to me is how the daughter is presented as more reasonable, more able to function in modern society, more daring than the mother, and they get into hard conflicts over opposed values — including directly sexual (against her daughter’s deep pleasures with Ross) as well as about a daughter’s independence.

I’ve seen this in a number of women’s books. I cite 18th century books: Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story, with two volumes each about the different heroine; Charlotte Smith’s Young Philosopher — at the time I thought of so many others where the mother-daughter paradigm was presented in just this way. In the 19th century there’s Gaskell’s work, Margaret Oliphant has several — Oliphant had her most important relationship with her mother. Oliphant’s greatest grief was the loss of a 9 year old daughter. This dual view enables a dual perspective in such books: here in Mander early colonial experience and then 20 years later where so many changes as the white settlers succeed have been made. Marianne Hirsh’s insightful and important book (still) The Mother-Daughter Plot begins with the idea that for many women, they read as mothers (this is Gaskell) or daughters (say Austen and Bronte and Alcott). Mander begins with the mother as central and crosses over to the daughter (as do Inchbald and Smith).

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Jane Mander, 1923, one of her emigration documents

She was born in 1877, so close in age to Virginia Woolf. Mander grew up in New Zealand, part of its middle class. There is a good literary biography by Dorothy Tucker. Like Asia in the novel, she had little official schooling. Mander’s father was a member of the early New Zealand parliament, a pioneer, sawmill owner, who purchased a newspaper, The Northern Advocate where Jane first wrote as a journalist. There was little audience or opportunity for a modern novelist; so first she went to Sydney and in 1912 traveled thousands of miles to New York City, to go to Columbia University. She joined the suffrage movement. She was politically active as feminist and socialist labor all her life.

It was in New York City she wrote The New Zealand River. 1923 she moves to London and gets involved with familiar names of literature today (and some less familiar) from Bloomsbury to writers of the 1920s; then she works for Harrison Press in Paris. She is fluent in French. She wrote three other novels. She had a very lively life and enjoyed it but there were bad pressures. There are parallels with Katherine Mansfield, also from the upper class of New Zealand, but much much wealthier (whom Mander still resembles in startling ways and who was one of the first reviewers of Mander’s first book). Mander might have been bisexual too — there is no record of heterosexual romance.

She seems to have missed New Zealand, and her parents in were in bad health too, so in 1932 she returned home and stayed. A long trip. She became friendly with New Zealand writer whose work is more widely known than hers: Ngaio Marsh – whose great passion was theater direction though she also wrote the detective stories for which her name is more widely known.

Having been attacked by the local community for this and subsequent books, and for not living conventionally (she never married), Mander grew depressed yet stayed on. She was part of the local higher literary culture of her country – but just could not get her act together for another novel or long work. She wrote reviews; people suggested she return to London, that she write autobiographically. She would not. She produced magazine pieces — very fresh vivid accounts you could call regional writing. Her mother had died and her father became very ill. That she lived with her father in her later years reminds me of Louisa May Alcott who lived with Bronson Alcott and died with in a few months of his death.

She lived through WW2 – and New Zealand, like Australia, was very involved. New Zealand was an independent commonwealth country by 1947. The present enlightened fine PM, Jacinda Ardern, a social democratic progressive, is no surprise; women had the vote in New Zealand in 1893; unions protected, and with an outlook like that of the British labor party after war & Australia’s progressive party, New Zealand throve.

In this first novel one can see many autobiographical connections. It’s in the 1870s when our story begins – there are a few references now and again to situate the narrative. Mander was born in 1877, so from her grand-parents and what she knew of her great-grandparents she remembers an earlier world. Jane Mander lived in the very area she brings her characters to when she was around the age of Asia -– three years before she was 12. This is period of childhood where deepest memories are etched and she continually in her imagination (according to Tucker) returns to this landscape in all her novel writing. Here Asia is she, a bridge into this novel.

Part of the reason for the book’s impact was its authenticity – it is described in books about New Zealand literature as among the first genuine culturally New Zealand books written – like Nathanial Hawthorne in the US, Emerson, Alcott – they don’t sound British any more. The places named all existed and the description of the timber industry is said to be accurate. There was never a mill at Pukekaroro or township but there was one in Puhipuhi near Kaiwaka (Maori names) a town, access in the 1970s when Dorothy Turner wrote her book on Mander was still through waterways. You can trace where the owner of the timber company (Roland) lived; there was a real wealthy Englishwoman living there, Mrs Clayton – and she had a house like Mrs Brayton’s and doubtless a fine book collection. Its specific setting is an obscure smaller arm in Kaipara Harbour, which Mander sailed into and out of herself (like Asia).

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There is an audiobook, LibriVox, so unabridged and for free

The Story of a New Zealand River is a woman’s novel as well as good and important colonialist writing — as some of the classics of colonialist writing, where the man has won a Nobel prize are arguably misogynist and racist: this is true of some of V. S. Naipaul’s novels: A Bend in the River has the hero beating up his female partner and there is no real criticism of this. Action-adventure stories characterize a good deal of Kipling (who is painfully racist and prejudice against non-white cultures). I just loved how Mander showed the way women were part of the colonialist project, central to it, and what they endured, their friendships, networks, deeper relationships with female relatives.

Mander does neglect the Maoris: they are seen only from afar when the reality is in this period a series of wars had been concluded, but feeling between the indigenous people and the interlopers was hostile, with outbreaks of violence on all sides. I discussed in the class and encouraged everyone to see The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, to be sure about an aborigine man in Australia, but a rare movie for depicting the horrifying treatment of indigenous people. Mander’s brother marred a Maori woman.

I’ll end on the use of the piano in The Story of a New Zealand River. It’s not a chance move by Campion to focus so on this symbol of middle class, settled, white upper class life, gentility. In “The Piano as Symbolic Capital in New Zealand Fiction, 1860-1940,” Journal of New Zealand Literature (JNZL) 28 (2010):34-60, Kristine Moffat shows the depiction of the piano in most novels and movies in the later 19th and most of the first half of the 20th century is as particularly a woman’s instrument, an instrument through which women can express deeper and unconventional longings, as her symbolic capital, her status, distorts the history of the piano.  It’s partly false. Evidence shows that the piano was played by men and it functioned not just in the home where there was no radio. Historical records shows that pubs, music halls, clubs, brothels, working men as part of music making groups – it is a versatile percussive instrument (a harp on its side) – means of entertainment; in the first decades of the 20th century Maori people took to having pianos, military camps, concerts.

Towards the end of Moffat’s essay, she focuses on Mander’s novels; in New Zealand River, for Alice the piano is also a symbol of “home,” which is of course England. In one of Alice’s first visits to Mrs Brayton she is drawn irresistibly to this Broadview Grand and starts playing Beethoven’s sonatas with deep feeling and is embarrassed to have let go so – how much had been repressed – the journey is so difficult. She had tried to make a living teaching music; when Asia grows up we are told that she succeeds as a concert pianist in an orchestra that travels around Australia and New Zealand, to places of entertainment. I was not that surprised to read about that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (Mander’s first reviewer as I said) fit into this paradigm.

Ellen

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The Householder (1963): husband, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and wife, Indu (Leela Naidu) not getting along


Shakespeare Wallah (1965): daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendall) and mother Carla Buckingham (Laura Liddell, Felicity’s real mother) playing Shakespeare


Roseland (1977): a few of the chief presences sitting around one of many tables just outside the dance floor


Heat and Dust (1983): chief characters: Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) and his kept man, Harry (Nickolas Grace) and the English Official’s Wife, Olivia (Gretta Scacchi) out for a picnic

Friends and readers,

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen at least 16 of some 40 films (and some several times) made by the whole M-I-J team or two of the three over half a century. A few are bound up with memories that matter: going out to the cinema one summer’s day with Thao, a young woman I am motherly towards, and Izzy and seeing the Chekhovian The City of Your Final Destination (2009, so very late, after Merchant’s death); one night very late, Jim asleep, I burst into hysterical tears at the sense of a life thrown away, in The Remains of the Day (1993) and rushed into a room in the front of the house so as not to awaken Jim; during our trip into Quebec one summer, about (I thought at the time) retreat, Heat and Dust (1983), and now I’ll remember Shakespeare Wallah (1965), studying, trying to understand the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for a course I’m about to teach, and feelings about England deeply awakened by the poignancy of the characters having to leave India to go home …

While they are quite varied, I’d say at the core what makes them so often so compelling, so memorable is the true feeling caught or theatricalized in their actually usually quietly understated films; themes like memory, inexplicable longings, an undercurrent of melancholy. Film stories carefully developed, so the hidden life of social scenes is revealed before us. I didn’t chose the most striking shots from the many many brilliant actors who have performed for them, some of them almost unrecognizable by the time they were swept up into the film world (especially once Maggie Smith transformed) though the shots released to the public bring out the actor from the part to sell the picture:


A young Shashi Kapoor as Prem, the intensely frustrated, repressed (before his mother) and occasionally distraught husband in The Householder


Julie Christie as Anne supposed independent young woman come to India to research the life and places her great-aunt Olivia ended up in India in Heat and Dust

Ismail Merchant in one of the many short films he made with Ivory abut their work, and now to be found (if you are lucky), as features in re-digitalized DVDs, said what differentiated their work was they all worked with “heart, intelligence, art.” They were earnest as well as playful about their trade (Wallah can be translates into a trade). I find in their best moments, they approach the work of Ingmar Bergmann; there are also many fallings away, as they stumble, try for non-cinematic almost non-dramatic material (Roseland), attempt to please an audience with simply lush photography (The Bostonians). There is a love affair with the English southern countryside, though three continents, three cultures are their groundwork: India first (Southasia), then England (and Anglo places wherever found), then NYC (very late South America) and Italy (Europe). They could take a photograph: in their very first movies, The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, they had the direct help of Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer from whom they learned much about cutting, editing. I feel they were drawn to the misty and intangible currents emanating from characters to one another


Felicity Kendall, the wandering half-broke troupe’s daughter, and Shashi Kapoor, the young Indian aristocrat in Shakespeare Wallah


Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse and Helen Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a View (1985)

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I have vowed to make these blogs shorter and so readable; my aim here is to encourage the reader (and watcher) to watch the earlier films (1962-83), perhaps in the black-and-white versions off-putting at first (little is compromised, they are not bland)go to Amazon prime or YouTube (where many are to be found), rent one of the older DVDs from Netflix (or better yet, splurge and buy a newly re-digitalized version with features as long as the movie), so perhaps the best thing, swiftest is to make a picture worth a thousand words by linking in the whole of Householder from YouTube

with a precise, carefully observed detailed study of the film’s art and the human story’s appeal. What I can add as to the story:

The Householder is a close adaptation of Jhabvala’s apparently fourth novel (in books on her The Householder is said to be her first). Now I realize it has in embryo central motifs and types of characters she has throughout her fiction, from beginning (all India) to middle (English women drawn into India and their original personality destroyed by the experience) to end (cool stories of corrupt individuals exploiting vulnerable ones across the Indian/American divide), — you can see a parallel plot in way (putting aside too literal alignments) in Heat and Dust (which I chose as the end of the early films as it was their first true hit, and ever after they were too often tempted into cream and enigmatic evasion).

The Householder is also a utterly believable story of two young Indian people put into an arranged marriage, and then left to make it on their own with the husband, Prem, having a low level job as teacher on a small salary. One of the aspects of all Jhabvala’s novels is that as we begin (and in many of her novels this does not change) in pairs of characters supposed to spend their lives together at least one, sometimes both have no concern or love for one another, are not congenial and what’s more don’t expect to be (particularly true here). Prem is having a very hard time adjusting to teaching in a crude place with no help from colleagues, no education in education, students absolutely w/o any real motivation to learn what he’s teaching (a dialect of Sanskrit); Indu (Leela Naidu, also an actress in France) is given nothing to do, no one to be with, her only function to serve him and he’s gone all day. One of his big mistakes is to bring his mother to live with them — a greedy, self-centered woman, rather stupid. The wife flees back to her parents and what she remembers as a happy household of sisters when she discovers she is pregnant. It’s this period away that awakens our hero to his need of her and desire to be a successful husband (householder). Amanda Vickery did a three part series on men in the 18th century and one of hours was how men wanted and needed to marry to belong, to have status, to be seen as successful males. So often 18th century England resembles 20th century India.

There are remarkable scenes of fights between teachers, of his attempt to get a rise in salary and get his rent put down, a friendship with a young man very like himself, but having an easier time adjusting to what the society has given him as his fate. We are shown that marriage is no picnic at all — The Namesake of Jumpha Lahiri (a writer whose franker work teaches you much about Jhabvala’s) is an idealized depiction — in Jhabvala these males are just so rude and commanding to the imprisoned females whose feeble weapon is to strike back by being awful in conversation. Prem gets involved with very ego centered Americans who have come to India to escape to some sublime nirvana (as does Anne in Heat and Dust) and we meet both sincere gurus and crooks. This is a sketch of the kinds of people and social interactions which matter which she repeatedly, almost obsessively develops at length in her later stories. I hope women today in India in some classes are offered far more in life for real individual fulfillment.

A Daphnis and Chloe archetype underlies this story, for at its end we are asked to believe they are making a happy adjustment at last


Returning home together on the train

I’ve not got a video of the whole Shakespeare Wallah for free online, but I can supply some remarkable reviews, from the New York Times archive; in The Guardian, the professional Chris Weigand approaches with concision some adequacy on the film’s complicated arts: Bollywood and the Bard

In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor (Geoffrey Kendal): “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognize that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.


Geoffrey Kendal doubting the value of what he has spent his life so beautifully on

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades

And now my words:

A wandering troupe of actors have made a living traveling around parts of India doing Shakespeare and other classics (as the film opens we see a Sheridan play in progress before a mass group of boys in suits — white, Indian and one Black).


In 18th century costume performing on a bike

But they find they are no longer wanted in the same numbers or way. Gigs dwindle: the local places would rather Sanskrit poetry; the British schools are closing; they are paid much less. We see their truck break down on the road. They are aging, one man dies. The Gleneagles Hotel (pitch perfect that Scots name) that used to accommodate them – very British – is closing. Felicity Kendall is not comic in this and she is not thin — no need to be near anorexic in the 1960s. She and Sanju, an Indian man who rescues them on the road fall in love ad who has as his mistress, Manjula, a Bollywood star who performs one of their sexualized songs, Madhur Jaffrey (she is the Begum in Heat and Dust).


Manjula performing a Bollywood song and dance for Sanju

The poignant question is, Can They Stay On?


Exhausted, on the road, rainy, hot ….

So this is a version of Paul Scott’s famous masterpiece, Staying On, a story retold by Olivia Manning in The Rain Forest (franker and nowhere as well know, and yet more visionary, acerbic, yet in Manning our hero and heroine after some scarifying ordeals escape back; in Scott’s the man dies and we leave our heroine in a desperate situation, just holding on in a beauty shop and hostile hotel. They and this are all autobiographical: the Kendalls did live this way and in one of the features, a mature Felicity tells us at first her father was disappointed with the film as it did not show their triumphs, the fantastical fun they had living the way they did, it too emphasized the ending and sense of loss

We see several famous scenes from Shakespeare done very well in what seems an old-fashioned 19th century way (disrupted now).
Saying goodbye; her parents know it’s best for Lizzie to return to an aunt in the UK; they will follow when they find they must — now they will go round just doing “gems from Shakespeare”. The way it is discussed off-hand by ordinary people suggests a rollicking comedy (!), but while it does not end tragically and there are very comic moments, it is a melancholy and oddly realistic film.

It’s very realistic in the sense that we get feel for India. Jhabvala is the author of the script which while not as subtle as her later ones is very good — no book behind it. I am slowly beginning to appreciate her stories for the very first time ever –understanding her better and being older less emotionally involved, more distant myself.

These two films are a pair.

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Roseland, the place and marquee


The dancefloor

I would call Roseland one of the team’s noble failures. They actually filmed in the real Roseland theater, and with some professional actors, used the aging and ordinary people dancing of an evening: the idea seems to have been to concentrate on the dancing itself, with the stories barely sketched and the repetitive obsessions of those who come to such places regularly emphasized. It has its moments (Geraldine Chaplin of the professionals manages best); there are some professional dancers who catch our attention now and again, but it is fatally unrealized because it is trying to show us that the shell of these places is quite other than what is unexaminedly celebrated briefly in commercial films and histories.

This evening’s task is nearly done. I am passing over the effective The Europeans (1979): sorry to do this as it features a young Robin Ellis (also Lee Remnick — see just below) is a Henry James story, about clashing cultures, which is picked up later on, as just the sort of thing that M-I-J were particularly good at. Its themes differ from those of the other early films and the film anticipate other Henry James stories as well as several of the later, E.M. Forster stories — all set in England — or the US as The Europeans seems to be. It is not one of their best; they grew better at this type as they went on.

Heat and Dust has been if anything over-reviewed. Jhabvala’s novel had won the Booker Prize (so it sold fantastically well). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian

After 37 years, Heat and Dust stands up as an intelligent, ambitious, substantial picture – with flaws but also intriguing aspects that were perhaps not sufficiently understood at the time. Is the movie’s love story a diversionary heterosexualisation of something else?


Anne after reading her aunt’s letters seems (mysteriously) taken by their content, next to her Chidananda allowed back in (he lives off her)

Yes, the Nawab is homosexual (the team also had real empathy for homosexual men), and the ending is not happiness; Olivia and now Anne turn out not to be free spirits but frustrated women who allow themselves to become the sexual partners, Anne, for example, as deluded as the successfully for a bit stubborn shaved American with his faux-Indian name, Chidananda (Charles McCaughan), and her landlord Inder Lal (Zaki Hussain, another less scrupulous Prem). She does not know who the father of her child is, and her retirement for help in the transformed building that Olivia ended her isolated life in as far from self-actualization as Olivia. The Nawab we have learned is a corrupt thug.

Bradshaw concentrates on the wonderful performances, and hidden meanings that leap out today, as well as the facile nature of the Anne parallel (just compare a real depiction of such a household, with the wife subject to epileptic fits, the mother-in-law supplying counterproductive punishing remedies). I want to add that what helped make people keep coming to the film after they satisfied an early Booker Prize enthusiasm, is the simplicity with which the stories is filmed — almost the hollowed out nature. Like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah (and the quietly complex The Europeans), nothing is over-produced or over-emphatic at all, even if feel of the film’s images and music is so sensual — which gave our film-makers their nuggets for turning to a commercially successful second half (later M-I-J).

What people remember best — who saw it — is the parallel plot, exquisitely dove-tailed into the same places — Anne (Julie Christie) comes back to India to see the place her great-Aunt Olivia’s (Gretta Scacchi) life played out, to understand it better by inhabiting the living context – and we go back and forth between the 1920s elegant Raj (once again Shashi Kapoor) with its desperate people and high violence (not seen by us but heard about off-stage) and the 1970s in exactly same places in India. The parallels including both women getting pregnant by the India man closest by, only Olivia has an abortion and the disgrace leads her to desert her (boring) English husband, Douglas (Christopher Cazenove doing a serious job a la Leonard Woolf) for the alluring (to Olivia glamorous because strange) Raj — a retreat which deepens when he is said to visit her only 3 times a year — in deference to his mother, the Begum (Madhur Jaffrey from Householder now grown 20 years older), and then stop altogether. Like so many of the women in Jhabvala’s stories, Olivia is utterly alienated from all the women she meets, and some have good advice, try to support her. Anne is your liberated young woman, but supposed sensible, with her affair with her landlord (Inder Lal) emerging slowly. But unlike Olivia, she stops short of an abortion


Anne stops the woman in mid-performance

and is seen joyously retreating to a building now a hospice institution, hospital, where we last watched Olivia live her life playing the piano, until the very end when (it is hinted) Olivia ended in desperate poverty. It seems the Begum has won at long last


Jhabvala presents these Indian mothers-in-law as vengeful when given any power

We have the saturninely bitter-witty gay companion, kept and bullied the Raj — Harry (Nickolas Grace, young in the 1920s, and made up to be very ancient in the 1960s; Grace played this type too many times — Brideshead Revisited, Dance to Music of Time. He can convey no wisdom to Anne now grown old, back in England so safer and more comfortable, but storyless — we learn nothing of the inbetween time — it is story which thickens out characters in films.


The two take tea many years later, miraculously Anne has aged little

Maybe what was liked were the scenes of playful social activity, rituals done so quietly (not much gossip) and dinners at length, Anglophilic with the important qualification none of the white men or women show any understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to be governing, except maybe Douglas at his table in the heat trying to dispense justice.


Maybe it’s his stiff white shirt and tie that make Douglas (Christopher Casenove) so unappealing to Olivia (Gretta Scacchi)

But unlike the stories of her later career, Jhabvala is willing to grant her heroines a refuge with the implication they have accepted being women alone or subject to others.

I recognize the types and themes  elsewhere in Anglo-Indian art (novels and films): people performing, a foolish American following gurus, who at the film’s end, somewhat unusually escapes relatively unscathed — like Lizzie, he is headed home to his aunt, in his case it seems almost a Kansas of Dorothy-like security and safety.

This is the paradigm for Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love who gives the story post-colonial politics, with dollops of feminism, strong heroines in the past and present and the central heroine at book’s end her own person, bringing up a daughter, companion to her deceased husband’s elderly (kind and gentle) father in middle class Kensington.

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Early in the partnership

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s most central theme in her books (as also Jhumpa Lahiri) comes from her thoroughly post-colonial roots; born in Germany of a Polish father whose nuclear family were killed in German concentration camps (he later killed himself), brought up in England (she writes in English), studying literature, she married to an Indian Bengali man, spending 25 years in India (read “Myself in India”), and the last phase of her existence in New York City. She was a perfect fit for the Englishman James Ivory who had come to India, and Ismail Merchant.  A major theme of her fiction — searching for, building an identity, which even people who stay put at first sometimes must do when the one nuclear family and community they live among seeks to impose an identity that violates their innermost nature which seeks actualization. This is the central theme of The Namesake (Lahiri also has a multiple identity now: Indian, English, US, and now Italian. It fits the Merchant-Ivory perspective as seen in the writing and interviews by and about them. She died in 2013.

Merchant appears to have personally been a secular man, but as an Indian born he grew up in a religiously-laden society, with opposing groups (Muslim, Hindi). In the online biography at wikipedia His father, a textile manufacturer, was the head of the Muslim League, and he refused to move to Pakistan at the time of independence and partition. “Family networks” enabled him at a young age to become friends with people influential and in the film industry. He studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and received BA degree of University of Bombay, moved to New York City where he worked as a messenger for the UN, and showed his talent for attracting funds from Indian delegates for film projects. He was the producer, the man who made the money come, and when he died, Ivory turned out not have the capacity to generate funds. He and Ivory had met in 1961 when he was in the US on a scholarship in a New York coffee shop; at the time Ivory was an Ivy Leaguer with aims to work in artful cinema. He died in 2005.

Ivory’s biography in wikipedia tells us he came from middling people in Oregon, where he first went to University; he moved to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he directed the short film Four in the Morning (1953). He wrote, photographed, and produced Venice: Theme and Variations, a half-hour documentary submitted as his thesis film for his master’s degree in cinema. The film was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. He graduated from USC in 1957. Here we are told Ivory met producer Ismail Merchant at a screening of Ivory’s documentary The Sword and the Flute in New York City in 1959; they formed their company in 1961. He wrote and or collaborated with all four books on them as a team.

Neither man seems ever to have married or had a public partner.


The three continual creative spirits grown older …

In Robert Emmet Long’s wonderful (full of wonders) and useful book, The Films of Merchant-Ivory:there are good biographies (much better than the ones I’ve provided), insightful details about stages in their careers, the gifts they showed, where learned their crafts, then descriptions and accounts of many of the films, many beautiful and thought-provoking photographs and stills. Long calls these three “unique uncommon individuals” who make “unique uncommon films.”

Ellen

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Hellman photographed next to her probably beloved typewriter


Jane Fonda in similar posture, as Julia (in the movie of the same name) typing her plays — calling to Hammett — an enjoyable moving film

Friends and readers,

It was in December 2013 that I wrote a blog here on Hellman’s four part memoir: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento (with Julia), Scoundrel Time and Maybe. My husband Jim had died two months earlier, and somehow I found this brave, stalwart, candid self-portrait of a genuinely strong woman, and its plain style strength of mind, integrity of behavior, with portraits of non-conformists (misfits, so-called), her own identification with these, was an appealing consolation. I was so foolish as to find in her portrait of Dashiell Hammett, my Jim, and in their life-long relationship a mirror of mine with Jim.

At the time I vowed to read the plays. Easier said than done. My inexpensive edition (1979 last reprint) has no notes, no annotations, and I found the psychological complexity of the characters and quite what they were doing on stage did not come across: I needed a narrator. I bought the biography by Alice Kessler-Harris, but tired of it as I have again as it is shaped by knee-jerk anti-communism when it comes to dealing with Lillian’s politics and political activity: K-H is perpetually apologizing for Hellman, and not conveying her beliefs. This time though I am teaching Hellman as a woman political writer of the 20th century, and the spur of standing (or sitting) in front of others (zoom on my computer) has pushed me into doing more work than that astute blog I wrote.


From Watch on the Rhine, where unusual for all plays, the dialogue is specifically anti-fascist, with fascism exposed — the noble Paul Lukas is risking his life to fight Hitler, with Bette Davis as the achingly loyal wife to a husband not appreciated


The Little Foxes Davis is the woman in the family who is far more a capitalist exploiter than her bumbling brothers or (to her) weak ill (from living with her) husband

So I read through three of her plays, The Children’s Hour (1934), The Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Autumn Garden (1951), and watched four via DVD or YouTube videor, The Little Foxes (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943, this script mostly by Dashiell Hammett), Another Part of the Forest (1948) The Children’s Hour (1961) — and the superb film adaptation of the inset story of her memoir, Pentimento, Julia (1977). Each of these films is either adapted (which means real changes), or revised to some extent, but they all thoroughly reflect her spirit, are what she wanted on the stage or screen. I read some startling criticism of these, much of it hostile, but some perceptive about her concerns. I also read in a book called Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. The plays held my interest intensely despite creakiness of sets, obsolete attitudes: they are driven by intense passions working themselves out unexpectedly but compulsively.

Then I went back to a intelligent unbiased true analysis of the McCarthy era, setting it in the long history of the US against any kind of socialism in thought or political action by many powerful groups of people: David Caute’s The Great Fear and skim-read that. It is apparent that today Hellman is being erased and forgotten partly as a woman but more because she once was a communist, remained strongly committed to socialism — and offended the Partisan Review and other centrist democratic types who were for the capitalist establishment where they were themselves thriving. They wanted mild reforms no more; they colluded and could not bear that she should show up their lukewarm wishy-washyness; their chummy careerisms. I know from the Conversations she is not the kind of writer who analyses herself so it would not be easy for her to defend herself. Politics she can talk penetratingly; but is careful to say nothing about individuals in conversation and most of the time in her writing. So she is a partly unconscious writer, letting herself go, reticent about autobiographical elements too raw for to confront. I can believe she appreciated Hammett’s help as an empathetic editor.

You can watch the whole of Another part of the Forest unabridged on YouTube for free: I hope it stays linked in here:

So — if you’ve watched the film, or now go back to it, see if you agree with some of my general usual critic-like conclusions. Hellman was a powerful insightful writer who has much to tell us about American culture, human beings, gender relationships, with her characters driven by intense desires for power, love, respect and money (the two go together in her universe), sexual desire, beautiful things; they are often fiercely aggressive, or self-protective against the expected aggressions of others; they do yearn for love; they can have strong ideals and stick to them and work hard to defeat what they see as evil beliefs and ways. They may be dressed anachronistically to us, be surrounded by absurd settings, over-emote in the sentimental way expected in the the 1940s and still in popular movies and theater. Hellman is not a writer for small subtle coteries. She gets them quickly into emotional imbroglios which we (or I) watch or read with fascination — sometimes appalled. Another Part of the Forest woke me up to the continual racism of 1940s movies — it was such another as Gone With the Wind with its recreation of this Southern world still mourning the defeat of the confederacy. Black people are only there as servants, sometimes good strong people (especially older woman) but also presented as childlike, doing only menial tasks. Maybe all the more they are not at all obsolete because they teach us about attitudes held towards Black people as late as the 1940s, though for some of the films you’d have to cut scenes, and for others you could color-blind cast and get an even stronger play.

I’d like to devote the rest of this blog just to The Children’s Hour, as it reveals some of Hellman’s more hidden values & feelings not usually discussed.

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Shirley MacLaine as Mabel Dobie and Audrey Hepburn as Karan Wright (1961 Children’s Hour, directed by Wm Wyler)

Half-way through reading the play:

I’m often struck by what people don’t talk about in literary (or other art) works. I’ve read half-way through Hellman’s now semi-famous The Children’s Hour, and while I would acknowledge the (in the play) the centrality of “ugly,” unacceptable, “unnatural” (a word used hedged with horror) desires of one female teacher for another (Martha for Karen and probably vice-versa), what’s really striking is until near the end of the second act is everything else — the motivations and behavior of a group of girls in a school ruled over by unmarried women. The school lying bully, Mary Tilford is the a girl who finds it conduces to increase her power over other girls (threats, intimidation, physical hurting, demands they become her obedient instruments) by saying and do anything, the more outrageous the better as long as she backs it up, doubles down on it, and her presence in the school brings out the worst in all around her. One man, single, Dr Joseph Cardin is the only male in the play half way through — it’s all women, very unusual — only unlike Cukor’s The Women, there is no soft affection for these characters at all. Then the lesbianism is never named; it seems to me at this point Lillian Hellman shows deep hostility to all girls’ schools, and sees females as likely to torment one another emotionally; the school itself is disciplining the girls to be obedient and gives them no reason why they should memorize what they are memorizing.

I thought of Martha Vicinus’s book on how independence was gained for the first time by numbers of women in later Victorian period, and how important it was for a girl to be allowed to go away to a school. And yes how appalled I was at her detailing and approval (it seemed) to how some girls took power over other girls through sexual relationships (not always consummated in any way) as this would form networks and mentors later on. Vicinus said such relationships were feared by parents perhaps more than a relationship with a boy, even if not sexual. Nowhere in Vicinus is the reality of mean emotions that such groups form on — this is what Hellman is after and the intimidation structures at the heart of schooling.

Curious that this is Hellman’s first original full length play — she denies writing as a woman in a way but she always is doing this. She does say she never makes a man the center of her works, it is always the female who is her important character. The real powerhouse of this play is Mary Tilford’s rich grandmother (a lot of prestige) who told that the two teachers are “unnatural” in their desires immediately phones the others parents who immediately withdraw their daughters. The girl Mary Tilford is getting back at Karen who tried to divide the nasty clique that had grown up by re-assigning bedrooms. Last thing I recognize aspects of Hellman in this worst character: like Mary, Hellman ran away, had this tight relationship with a powerful maternal grandmother, was a determined strong character ….

Upon finishing the play:

It is outdated because of the persistent even horror invested in the idea that Martha and Karen are sexually entangled and perhaps even had some physical intimacy. The implicit inference to the play is how horrible that two lives — actually 4 if you include beyond Martha and Karen, the suitor Joe, and the cousin to Martha, Mrs Mortar (what a name). In the third act there has been a trial for libel, and we come into the room where once there was a school seeing three desolated people. I was reminded of the close of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The school has been destroyed; Karen and Martha appear to have lost a libel case against Mrs Tilford, who did the phoning to all the parents to tell them they must whisk their daughters away. Tellingly all these women but the super-wealthy Mrs Tilford fear homelessness — so did I until sometime after Jim died and I still did when Trump used to talk of terminating social security and more gov’t jobs (that’s what Izzy has). Until this generation of women who are brought up to work outside the home for remuneration and demand a living wage, have a career, this was a common fear.

However, they are not giving up. Plans are afoot for Joe and Karen to marry and go with Martha to Vienna, but as the act evolves, these fall to pieces as each of the three suspects the other of lying (or telling the truth about lesbian feelings and even acts as the case may be). After protesting undying loyalty to Karen, Joe seems readily persuaded to leave Karen for ever. Mrs Mortar comes in: the nerve, she never showed up at the trial and would have been a help. She is shameless and has nowhere else to go and Karen and Martha are apparently not prepared to throw her on the streets. This happens before Martha confesses to Karen she really loves her horrifies Karen who nonetheless lets slip that she, Karen, may also have sexual desire for Karen. Martha leaves the stage, overwrought. Soon after we hear a shot — Martha has killed herself off stage. I thought of Jocasta hanging herself. Mrs Tilford arrives to apologize, to explain how she has learned that Mary was lying and had bullied another girl, Rosalie into backing her up. There is a hint Mrs Tilford still suspects that Karen and Martha are susceptible to such a dreadful love — nonetheless, they had not behaved that way, and she offers money to Karen who relents to say maybe she’ll take it — she now has nowhere to go. What’s striking though is how lesbianism is never once defended. It is telling somehow that this is Hellman’s first play, the first matter she chose to imagine and bring it before the public. A bad dream out of Vicinus’s book. I mentioned Mary, the thug lying child who spread the rumor, has aspects of Lillian Hellman as a child running away, her aggression too.

I’ll mention a role for a Black woman, Agatha, Mrs Tilford’s cook/maid/housekeeper. Very circumspect, acting on behalf of her employer while trying not to hurt anyone — very moral as all the Black characters are in all Hellman’s plays and prose. The play’s list of characters does not call for a black woman but it seems to me the character as envisaged is how Black people are seen Hellman’s texts.


The male is there central to the exposure of the girl’s lies

The 1961 movie

So now I’ve watched the 1961 movie adaptation with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner — directed by William Wyler, if I’m not mistaken with Hellman working on the script too. Unlike the 1934 movie, which ludicrously eliminated the central element of lesbianism, this one presents it as fully as Hellman apparently dared to in the year she wrote it 1934.

What I wanted to record is my amazement that as late as the 1960s the topic of lesbianism is treated with a sense of appalled horror — in the written play and now this movie, the word is never used. The characters speak of sexual love between women as just something deeply perverse and horrific. Reading about the play, it’s one of her first produced and that is fascinating because at the same time she claimed she wrote “as an exercise.” That is, she was not engaged with the topic; she further absolved herself (so to speak) by saying the story was suggested the Dashiell Hammett who came across it as something that happened in real life and told it to her.

In Kessler-Harris’s book she talks of how the original girl in the story was part of a minority group treated very badly by the majority, and thus had good reason to do what she did to disrupt the school.  The girl herself had been treated with disdainful discrimination. Hellman eliminated all that (what a shame) but wanted to claim her real interest was this girl. It is true reading the play she is exposing the pettiness and cruelty of girls to one another, but I did not realize that Hellman’s changes in the girl’s ethnicity and motives and insisting on this clash between “good and evil” works to ignore in discourse what most of the powerful ending of the play is — the two women admitting to sexual feeling. In fact only one does and she kills herself — in both the play and movie. The girl’s bullying and lies are made much of when they are exposed, and Martha kills herself off stage never to be seen again. I recalled how E.M. Forster said that he could have published Maurice far earlier had he been willing to have punitive ending for his pair of young men. What was not acceptable was the happy ending — and now I know in classrooms the “problem” here for Maurice is readers can dismiss it as unrealistic. But here Karen is erased altogether

In the written play as far as I can tell it is all crushing misery for poor Karen, though she seems likely to take the money the grandmother of the mean girl offers her as compensation. In the movie there is an attempt to present Karen (Hepburn) as rising above all that happened, as somehow escaping this conformist society whose children she was schooling to be conformist. We see her walking proudly away from Karen’s funeral as if she is washing her hands and body of all this foulness. It might be too that with James Garner watching her from the sidelines the movie watcher would say, ha, see they’ll marry. I remember someone interpreting Winston Graham’s Cordelia so as to have the transgressive heroine marrying one of the male family members at the end. No sense that if this is so, it negates the whole novel.

The 1961 movie is still powerful. Since Hellman would not discuss the lesbianism as important and said it was an exercise, and that Dash gave her the story there is no easily getting beyond the barrier she builds to stop questions — unless you are a Hellman scholar and know where to look. It’s not a pleasant movie and to the modern viewer — me — off putting because of the awed sense of taboo everywhere. As late as 1961 you could present middle class people are over-dressed and living in super-elegant houses as if it were 1931.

There have been more recent play productions; as radio plays: in 1971, the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series starring Jill Bennett and Prunella Scales; in 1994, the play was again produced for the radio by the BBC in its Monday Play series, starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margolyes and Margaret Robertson.

The critics:


A beautiful still of Julia and Lillian talking — I am aware that the story of their relationship is highly fictionalized, and take it to be autofiction

I worried I was being a bit hard on Hellman for suggesting she was wiping away lesbianism, showing far more hostility than ambivalence towards women’s sexuality — well last night I read three articles on this play — not a bit of it. One critic, Mary Titus (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature) argued Hellman was murdering lesbianism, that she was exorcising out what she feared she’d be accused of for separating herself from her first husband and living independently. She linked The Children Hour to the story of Julia where it’s apparent a deep loving relationship emerged from Hellman’s and Julia’s childhood — one could call its continuance homoerotic love. Hellman would not have wanted the relationship to be seen that way.

Julia is the story of two women in love with one another, especially Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Julia is destroyed — like Marttha. There is a scene in the movie where one of Lillian’s old friends, a male (possibly representing Dorothy Parker’s husband who annoyed Hellman), accuses her and Julia of having lesbian feelings from childhood; she gets up and smashes him across the face and walks out.

Benjamin Kahan (Criticism) takes a different tack and suggested Hellman’s open stance as semi-promiscuous, acting like an aggressive man when it came to initiating relationships, was also a guarded performance against being accused of being a prig, a dike, a man-hater. In the 1930s audiences would regard all girls’ schools as possibly luring a girl into relationships which would get in the way of the important marriage. I do not think this play an insincere disguise — Judith Butler’s idea that behavior is one long performance has a lot to answer for. Hellman punishes the one open lesbian hard.

In a third essay, this one reviewing the history of films meant for a wider public daring to deal with issues of homosexuality and lesbianism, Chon Noriega (Cinema Journal) found that lesbianism was less accepted than male homosexuality, at the same time it was seen (in the play and film from the point of view of aimed-at watcher-response) as showing the dangers of putting girls together in all women environments. I felt there was hostility in Hellman’s original play to the whole idea of an all girl school taught all by women. I would here agree with Vicinus how unfortunate this reaction is — for it was in such schools and environments women were given the first chance they had to train and hope for professional lives outside marriage.

I do know that nowadays with all the talk of Hellman as a great playwright it is very hard to get copies of her plays. Hardly any of her screenplays are in print — only the one she is said to have written with Hammett. And there is such emphasis on how he wrote with her, corrected her stuff. Her prose memoirs are what’s wanted. My edition of her plays is old and has no notes. The one summer Jim and I and Izzy rented a house in Vermont and each evening took a drive to see a great play we saw a production of Autumn Garden. Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer. Unfortunately neither of us remembers much as we were sitting way in the back and it was a long drive.


1977: Lily (Jane Fonda) and Dash (Jason Robards)

Ellen

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