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Archive for the ‘women’s art’ Category


Hamlet (Papa Essiedu), Gravedigger (Ewart James Walters) and assistant (Temi Wilkey)


Leones (Michael Tisdale) accosts Camillo (Eric Hissom)

Friends,

I have been putting off writing about the plays, concerts, lectures, and dance I’ve been to since coming back from Milan (well I did just once because Friel’s Translations was not to be missed) that they have begun to pile up. So late as it is, I’m here to urge all who read this to see the RSC’s Hamlet with a nearly all black cast. It is touring.


Hamlet with Lorna Brown as Gertrude

Allowing for exaggeration, the reviews have (rightly) said that Essiedu makes the experience what it is (Telegraph (several of the actors were superb, especially Clarence Smith as Claudius, James Cooney as Horatio, Mimi Ndiweni as Ophelia): a new star is born; Washington Post: a rogue outsider artist).


Marvelously comic: Richard Henry the old shepherd and Joshua Thomas the young one


Grace Gonglewski a strong but frightened Paulina (of this tyrant)

But I’d like to qualify that and say its strength is the same as the deeply felt Folger Winter’s Tale, which I saw two weeks ago now: The Folger WT also had some great acting: Michael Tisdale as Leontes, Melissa Graves (an understudy) a poignant dignified Hermione, Eric Hissom, any number of linked characters (Camillo, Antigonus, Storyteller Time). More important: the directors of both productions allowed the actors to do Shakespeare straight on. Both are despite some exhilarating African music and modernized songs and dancing in Bohemia traditional productions.

I can never have too much Shakespeare. By the time we got to the final scene of Hamlet, I felt the awe, the wild exhilaraton, and savage ironies Shakespeare intended me to feel. In the last scene of The Winter’s Tale, I felt a grief akin to what I nowadays feel when I see King Lear. In Lear death is the final blow of a harrowing of cruelty and madness; in The Winter’s Tale, we are awakened to a joy we cannot quite believe as “oh she’s warm” is pronounced. I wish this Winter’s Tale had gone on tour. When they are this good, I often hope to myself that they have filmed it onto a digital device.

The most intellectual and stunningly moving experience was Ivo von Hove’s After the Rehearsal and Persona at the Kennedy Center. Gijs Scholten van Aschan in the Bergman role and in the first play Marieke Heebink as his wife, contemporary partner, an aging actress (alcoholic, depressed) who needs him more than he does her (and he needs her) and Gaite Jansen as the young substitute (possibly pregnant and not sure she wants this life), taking over. In the second Heebink is a mentally shattered woman, with Anne her young nurse: after much manipulation and emotional attacks, the two see themselves in one another.


Somehow the hospital turns into a summer cottage where it seems to be raining continually — rain helps wash away tension

The plays (originally done on TV are about the destructive and therapeutic function of art in a dedicated artist’s life. Hove is superb at Bergman material (like the corrosive effect of growing old) getting his actors to release the vulnerable and angry self. The same actors played the parts in the Barbican; it was in Dutch with surtitles. The stories were not intended to comment on how men use women in the arts, but they do, prophetically.

The sets and stage business was so poignant too: the second ended in both women standing in a large pool of water, together, in simple white shifts, holding hands.

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As to concerts, dance, our local small Metro-stage in Alexandria provided a warm delightful presence in Deb Filler, a New Zealander Canadian Jewish storyteller doing all sorts of traditional sons “her way;” in Yiddish as well as English. You haven’t fully enjoyed Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah until you’ve heard Filler sing the song in Yiddish too. Writer, actress, singer, comic, musician, hers is a one woman entertainment, stretched out with some film. She was the third of three women solos this spring at Metrostage (Catherine Flyte (scroll down), Roz White (ditto)).

And to tell the truth, more than the Folger Ovid’s Vineyard. They had a soprano singing from two operas, Phedre et Hippolyte, and Orphee, a man brilliant on the flute, a rich harpsichord and a woman who worked very hard on her violin, but still it was tame except for the unexpected beauty of the melodies of Jean Philippe Rameau’s concert songs for harpsichord. The Folger Concert has not been as inventive this year as previous. Perhaps I should start to go to the pre-performance discussions.


They used the set from the Winter’s Tale

I did go to one dud: the Scottish ensemble and Anderson Dance performing the Goldberg Variations at the Kennedy Center was an in-your-face insult to anyone with sensibility. After the Milanese Goldberg Variations at La Scala as stunning beautiful — graceful, lyrical, interestingly psychological, wonderful group patterns — this group fobbed us off with comic grotesquerie and awkward individual non-dances. If I had been on the aisle, and hadn’t gone to trouble to see it, and hadn’t kept hoping at some point there’d be dancing, I’d have left after the first ten minutes.

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A Smithsonian lecture on art


Cezanne’s Boy in a Red Vest

Although I’ve not gotten to the exhibit at the National Gallery, I did go to a long full lecture (many good slides) at the Smithsonian on the Cezanne portraits. I bought the ticket and went to the Hirschorn in the hope I would be taught why I should like Cezanne’s art. I don’t: it seems so inert. Roger Fry loved it, and I’ve friends who say they do too. To me Cezanne’s paintings seem made up of empty abstract forms, even if “monumental,” and he leaves me cold; the portraits often lack faces. While curator told of interesting relationships between Cezanne and his sitters, and said there were several versions of a given portrait at this exhibit so you could study the differenes, she never answered the objections of several reviews of the show, e.g., one in the Washington Post by Sebastian Smee, and three very respectful questioners in the (crowded) audience. Madame Cezanne as painted by Cezanne has been vilified for not smiling (women are supposed to be joyfully compliant at all times). Smee omits that Cezanne was the son of a very rich man who supported Cezanne all his life, so his choice to paint peasants — and to live with one and mistreat her for many years (she was left isolated) before finally marrying her has a certain hypocrisy.


Madame Cezanne in a Red Arm Chair

The curator offered the idea these are iconoclastic portraits, modern, refusing to satisfy us or glorify the sitter. Well in the Cezanne cases (unlike the same thing seen in Vanessa Bell’s portraits) these are not rich customers buying a pre-photographic portrait to glorify themselves. I become irritated when people complain about Cassandra Austen’s second portrait of Jane Austen where Jane is not facing us. She has the right to look away; it’s a trope of reverie in the period — you can find the same pose in front of novels. But when Jane was facing Cassandra, Cassandra drew her face. A friend on my WomenWriters@groups.io list wrote she had read that the faceless portraits reflected how humans/individuals are unknowable. We can think of Woolf’s de-centered novel Jacob’s Room, where similarly, we never get a clear picture of Jacob; it was said Woolf was inspired by Vanessa’s painting at the time, in particular her faceless portraits.


A detail of one of Vanessa’s paintings of her sister, Virginia

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Must not leave out new TV & Internet films

I’ve left for last and now just briefly the fascinating four part adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End by Kenneth Lonergan. Sometimes nowadays TV offers us far richer experiences in film, music and art than what is found in physical theaters. I don’t think this production was that superb but when compared to the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala (see Samanthan Ellis’s ironic take) and it is quite different from the original book; still, it was thought-provoking with its own new genuine feeling, intelligent, meaningful.  Who would not feel for Leonard Bast after this one?.


Phillipa Coulthard as the cultured assured Helen and Joseph Quinn as the aspiring Leonard Bast

I then re-watched the 1993 film (on a DVD with two hours of features about Merchant-Ivory) and it was subtler, more nuanced, more sheer content somehow, with Margaret inexplicably actually falling in love with Mr Wilcox while the 2018 film makes this central relationship seem far more performative and self-interested,

but the more recent film is more deeply empathetic towards the failing Leonard Bast, and makes explicit how these privileged wealthy people live off the undercompensated labor of others. I hope to write separately and with more detail than I have here when this summer on TrollopeAndHisContemporaries@groups.io we read the book together. I bring the new version up here to mourn that it did not appear on PBS (which sticks to inferior mysteries and thinner contemporary books and stories) but Starz (a high tier channel and too expensive for many people). I am watching the second season of Handmaid’s Tale but will hold off any comment until I’ve reached the end.

A paradox: Izzy came with me to the Hamlet and Winter’s Tale, to the Metrostage; a friend, Panorea to the Folger but I’ve felt least alone watching Howard’s End and now Handmaid’s Tale because of my friends on my three lists at groups.io. There we had ongoing good conversation and look forward to reading Forster as our summer project. They revived the foremother poets postings on Fridays on Wom-po (a women poets list)! Reader, I am working on a woman artists blog on Vanessa Bell too: Frances Spalding’s biography and Richard Shone’s art criticism (on Duncan Grant and Roger Fry also)

I hope no one takes any of my blogs as here to give the impression I am living a good life, surrounded by friends or whatever is the going ideal norm for existence for a woman like me. It is far too late for me to come near a fulfilling existence for myself now, if it ever were in the cards. I was exhausted last night, falling asleep in front of a movie, couldn’t read Virginia Woolf’s A Sketch of the Past (her memoir printed in Moments of Being), so I reached out to others with material I thought might find acceptance and be of interest to those who come to this blog. Add something that might cheer or help others and that might prompt them to write back in a similar spirit.

Ellen

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Tilda Swinton as Eve (The Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013)


Thornton burning down (a 2006 Sandy Welch Jane Eyre, with Ruth Wilson as Jane)

Friends and readers,

Much to my surprise, or I might say re-awakening to the Brontes, when over the last ten weeks I reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, then Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wilfell Hall, and finally Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I found (honestly) I preferred Jane Eyre to the other two. I found I had forgotten and begun to underestimate the originality, radical visions, the (also) sober and somber experiences of these books. They are all gothics (as is the recent quintessential The Only Lovers Left Alive, which I used as the blog gravatar), with the characteristics of female gothic (see my blog after reading Anne Williams’s The Art of Darkness), which brings to the fore the real subjection of women in society then and now.


A too flattering picture of Charlotte by George Richmond

I had forgotten what a masterpiece for sentences startlingly filled with vivid images after vivid images, original thought, sheer passion, alive with an individually convincing presence is Jane Eyre. Never a dull moment as to story. Burning with indignation at large and mean injustices. The unforgettable opening scenes at Gateshead and Lowood.  Later on, the gypsy scene with Rochester. Who ever wrote a better proposal scene, or witty teasing courting scenes. The theme of refusing to allow one’s innate self to be violated or a demand for acknowledgement of having done a wrong (when there has been none) or downright cruel self-berating is no where better. And how about this to add to your touchstones, Matthew Arnold?

I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay (Chapter 19)


Gemma Jones as Mrs Fairfax, Samantha Morton as Jane Eyre


George C Scott as Rochester, Susannah York Jane

Jane Eyre is about the centrality of childhood, the need a girl has for women friends, for a mother; the power of men. I never forget the scene of Jane waking in the morning, her beloved Helen, dead next to her. All the women must win a man. About psychic disturbance: is Bertha a projection of Jane’s intense anger. Jane re-tells her story over and over, each time more in control but obsessive. Rochester is a man of conscience and he does love Jane (and is so emasculated, dependent, even losing a hand) so we rejoice in the ending for her. We hope she does know peace. the Novel has presented a lesson similar to that of Mansfield Park: the validity of endurance of suffering. Jane has won through.

Her heroine does not enjoy teaching: and we can find in her A Teacher’s Monologue her dissatisfaction with what was available to her from life:

Tis not the air I wished to play,
The strain I wished to sing;
My wilful spirit slipped away
And struck another string.
I neither wanted smile nor tear,
Bright joy nor bitter woe,
But just a song that sweet and clear,
Though haply sad, might flow.

A quiet song, to solace me
When sleep refused to come;
A strain to chase despondency
When sorrowful for home.
In vain I try; I cannot sing;
All feels so cold and dead;
No wild distress, no gushing spring
Of tears in anguish shed;

But all the impatient gloom of one
Who waits a distant day,
When, some great task of suffering done,
Repose shall toil repay.
For youth departs, and pleasure flies,
And life consumes away,
And youth’s rejoicing ardour dies
Beneath this drear delay;

And Patience, weary with her yoke,
Is yielding to despair,
And Health’s elastic spring is broke
Beneath the strain of care.
Life will be gone ere I have lived;
Where now is Life’s first prime?
I’ve worked and studied, longed and grieved,
Through all that rosy time.

I re-journeyed through some of the many Jane Eyre movies, and FWIW, among the very best is the 1972 film noir (that’s the genre the genre “classic film adaptation” cum mini-series has been blended into), Jane Eyre, directed by Delbert Mann, starring George C. Scott as Rochester as moving Rochester, a woman who has learned to value humane morality with Susannah York as Jane. Cherry-picking Samantha Morton is the finest sensitive portrayal of Jane, and the 1997 Jane Eyre, directed by Robert Young (starring Ciarhan Hinds as Rochester) captures a modern understanding of Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She craves quiet, and achieves this through self-controlled endurance. And I recommend the latest Jane Eyre, 2011, Mia Wasikowsa as Jane flees Rochester at near the opening of film, and St John Rivers is re-conceived as human.

A woman’s take with the emphasis on Jane’s escape from Rochester and hardships to near starvation, and a domesticity not found elsewhere is in Sandy Welch’s Jane Eyre. Ironically this is not true to the spirit of Jane Eyre until near the end. Jane is restless, she wants challenge, to rise in the world, excitement. This is probably the most feminist passage in all the Bronte’s writing:

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags (Chapter 12)


Ruth Wilson as Jane in flight from Rochester who wants to re-make her as she finds St John Rivers wants to

This reading of Jane Eyre was a culmination of my summer read of the powerful biography of Charlotte by Claire Harman. I learned about a manuscript I didn’t know existed before: a two chapter beginning of a novel called Emma: from wikipedia: “an apparently wealthy young girl, Matilda Fitzgibbon, at an expensive private school. It transpires that her identity is fake, and that her school fees will not be paid. The child is unable to answer any questions as to her true identity.”


Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham


Toby Stephens as Markham reading Helen’s diaries

I had learned a few years ago when I watched Sandy Welch’s great film of Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and again this summer when I reviewed Nick Holland’s In Search of Anne Bronte, what a compelling transgressive truly feminist book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is. As I listened (from a cover-to-cover reading aloud of the novel) to David Case as Gilbert Markham reading aloud Markham’s two parts of the novel, I fell in love with the character. Anne Bronte wants to sweep away those norms for masculinity which encourage self- and society destructive behavior; women must be educated by experience and then they will not marry the worst of men.


Anne Bronte by Charlotte

I should mention I didn’t take upon myself to study these three books just like this, but was following an 8 week course called “The Best of the Brontes” given by a Dr Linda Freeman at the OLLI at AU. She offered an informed perspective on religion in this novel as the core for Helen Graham’s strong self-esteem, feminist stances, and behavior to Arthur Huntingdon, who if he would reform, could transform himself; Helen’s firm belief in her own value enables her to defy Huntington, tell him she wants to leave him with her child, flee him with the child (however illegally) and support herself by her art. For the first I realized there is an attempted rape scene (recalling Richardson’s Clarissa): Huntington gives Helen over to his pals and the one who has pretended to be on Helen’s side overhearing her telling Huntington she wants to leave, offers to elope with her and when she refuses, becomes livid with anger and tries to force her sexually; she pulls out a palate knife (from no-where it seems).

I read an eye-opening essay on the novel’s subjective writerly structure: it’s two sets of letters written by Markham to a friend 20 years after the novel’s main events are over; sandwiched between is Helen’s day-by-day epistolary like journal. Stewart proposes that this brings home how little orality was prized in Victorian fiction; that what we are given is an extra-territorial autobiography/biography and all readers understood this. The Victorian novel enabled them to work out what was happening in their own lives by presenting as impersonal (a manuscript), and long ago what was personal and immediate. I liked Gilbert Markham, and can see how he and Helen could flourish together: how he cares for her boy.

I love Anne Bronte for her longing for her home and love of it in this poem:

Consolation

Though bleak these woods and damp the ground
With fallen leaves so thickly strewn,
And cold the wind that wanders round
With wild and melancholy moan,
There is a friendly roof I know
Might shield me from the wintry blast;
There is a fire whose ruddy glow
Will cheer me for my wanderings past.

And so, though still where’er I roam
Cold stranger glances meet my eye,
Though when my spirit sinks in woe
Unheeded swells the unbidden sigh,

Though solitude endured too long
Bids youthful joys too soon decay,
Makes mirth a stranger to my tongue
And overclouds my noon of day,

When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.

Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.

The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.

Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.


Kay Adshead as Cathy Earnshaw


Ken Hutchison as Heathcliff (Peter Hammond and David Snodin 1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights)

I found I had forgotten Wuthering Heights too: crude as it sometimes is, like Jane Eyre, there is a remarkably complicated vocabulary, deeply expressive of actual human passions, poetic in its apprehension of the natural world all around the characters; like Tenant, the structure of two tellers in the present presenting two levels of story, and these from the distant, medium distant past and then in the last part immediate presents, makes for layers of anger and suffering and degradation out of the perpetual violence, at times gratuitous against helpless creatures. Now Heathcliff is the outcast victim, brought up to be without resources to support himself as a gentleman. “I am Heathcliff” can be taken as more than an enthralled love utterance.  The famous utterances about the person who revels in wildness and the one who loves calm, peace.  There are complicated love issues (do you want boundaries between you and another?), a will, Heathcliff the sadist towards Isabella Linton presented as wanting to be hurt (this is troubling). Only Hareton isn’t twisted beyond redemption by relentless scorn and the young Cathy is left to find peace with him. Almost everyone dies. There is an anti-colonialist theme in that Heathcliff might be the illegitimate son of Mr Earnshaw by an enslaved black woman (this angle recurs in Jane Eyre as Bertha Mason came from Jamaica).


Said to be Emily Bronte by her brother Branwell

Here I wanted to call attention to a great film adaptation that seems to have been forgotten because it lacks celebrity stars: the 1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights, directed by Peter Hammond no less, with marvelous script writer, David Snodin, 5 episodes, the closest film to WH I’ve ever watched, capture the eerie vision at the core of the book, not only a desperate violence at the heart of nature, a ceaseless urge to cruelty, especially when the person has been treated unjustly, viciously, but at the same time a deep suffering and plangent grief that this is so. This feels visionary because it is presented in the book and in this film that in the landscape itself this pattern is set. There is also (no getting away from it) a belief in an omnipresent supernatural afterlife just out of our reach, but manifesting itself in the same pattern of cruelty and grief.

I’m not alone in thinking this: in Valerie Hazette’s Journey through time and Culture: Wuthering Heights: TV and Film, a book which covers all aspects of films (from technology to culture) on this one film singles out this 1977-78 film for 7 pages. What helps make the film important is it also dramatizes the whole book including fully the second half and the relationship of Isabella Linton with Heathcliffe.

Although about an inadequate film, the first, the 1939 famously with Oliver and Oberon (too romantic and only about half the book), George Bluestone’s essay in his Novels into Films is the only place I’ve seen this core aspect of Emily Bronte’s book frankly approached. (I need to read far more of the secondary criticism since the 1990s de-construction movement), where he quotes a line from an essay Emily Bronte wrote at M.Heger’s Pensionat de Demoiselles, in Brussels, in an essay she called “The Butterfly:” Nature is an inexplicable puzzle, life exists on a principle of destruction, every creature must be the relentless instrument of death to others, or himself cease to live.” Is not that an astonishing frightening thing to think or say.

Here is one of Emily’s imagined poems:

Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?

Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

I’ve written a foremother poet blog for both Anne and Charlotte where you can read more of their poetry. I thought it very telling that both Charlotte and Anne’s heroines are painters.

There is so much more to be said. The books are obviously so different from Austen’s who is often coupled with them in discussions of earlier women writers. Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey while quiet, prosaic, realistic, is wholly unlike Austen in tone: she is caustic, bitter, severely critical of her employers and when she escapes relieved to find quiet romance. Barbara Tepa Lupack in her collection, Nineteenth-Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film, includes two excellent essays on the from adapted from Jane Eyre (by Kate Ellis and E.Ann Kaplan) and Wuthering Heights (by Lin Haire-Sargeant) respectively. Linda Freeman suggested we add Jane Campion’s The Piano to our Bronte movies.  (Tara Fitzgerald is heroine in Tenant; the closely similar Holly Hunter the heroine of Piano.)

I disagreed with Linda about Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography and Patrick Bronte: see my review of Lucasta Miller’s hatchet job. She presented a far too positive and normative or normalizing picture of Patrick Bronte. She did rely a great deal on the magisterial book by Juliet Barker. There was little said about Branwell Bronte: that he turns up as Hindley in Wuthering Heights, lies behind some of the scenes of Arthur Huntingdon’s alcoholism and death scene in The Tenant. The biography by Daphne DuMaurier which brings out his gifts as a poet and thwarted painter was cited. I was relieved that he was not berated and made into an easy central punching bag as in the recent wretched movie, To Walk Invisible. There is currently at the Bronte parsonage an attempt to treat Branwell with respect and do justice to his life.


A self-portrait by Branwell, c 1840

Thus I record how I managed to keep my mind absorbed and myself active, enduring in relative calm and peace in my house and going out to be with people outside over these books for some 8 weeks. And you see me doing this in imagination — holding on — tonight

Ellen

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Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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New Banner: George Hicks, At the Post Office

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

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New Banner: a collage of several paintings by Maud Lewis

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Anonymous depiction of Christine de Pizan writing

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Antonio Canaletto, Northumberland House

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sylvia Plath

Ellen

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

Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biography considered as a science.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A modern biography …


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Sophie Marceau as Anna, typical odd angle, very close up shot (1997 written, directed, produced by Bernard Rose)


Jacqueline Bisset as as a passive Anna submitting to Christopher Reeve as a conventional cad Vronsky (1985, script James Goldman, directed by Simon Langton)

Friends and readers,

I’ve been participating in another group read and discussion of Anna Karenina! This time on the GoodReads site. And I’ve gone on to watch two more notable film adaptations, the 1985 Anna Karenina (made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky) and the 1997 Anna Karenina (an independent film, made in Russia, an even more extraordinary cast, with Sophie Marceau, Alfred Molina as Levin, Sean Bean as Vronsky, James Fox as Karenin, Phyllida Law as Vronsky’s mother, and Fiona Shaw as Lydia).


Matthew Macfayden as Stiva meeting Keira Knightley as Anna at the train. well-known opening of book and film, resembles book illustrations (from 2012 Wright/Stoppard)

It may be this is hard to believe, having watched watched three other Anna Karenina films and read essays and chapters in books, yet I feel I learned yet more, and was made to see more insights into the human condition when under pressure from this particular story and character elements.

The 1997 film, dismissed as “shallow, bloodless, having lost track of characters, by re-arranging the order and then stripping from the story almost all the larger social scenes, to focus on key linchpin memorable one-on-one intense encounters lays bare the trembling core of Tolstoy’s second masterpiece.

The 1985, less interesting philosophically is moving because it updates, make feelingfully contemporary the same trajectory as the book the 1935 Gretta Garbo AK (she is what is remembered) and 1977-78 BBC faithful and liberal-minded Donald Wilson of-Forsyte-Saga-fame AK (remembered for Porter, Stuart Wilson as Vronsky and only after that Nicola Paget).

Scofield and Marceau in their different films enable us to reach a new understanding. Both films ought to be better known; they are absorbing.

I refer my reader back to my blog on Tolstoy’s novel for the story, and AK at the movies I for the 1935 and 1948 (remembered for Vivian Leigh’s performance near suicide and Ralph Richardson as the steele-knife Karenin), and Stoppard and Joe Wright’s 2012 brilliant theatrical rendition

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Bernard Rose’s 1995 Anna Karenina, an independent film:


Alfred Molina as Levin (1997, opens and closed film, given narrative overvoice)

I was astonished when Rose’s film was over. It startled me by opening on the ice-skating scene between Kitty (Mia Kirshner) and Levin; his point of view, seemingly reasonable, trying to find some rationale for what is happening, some comforting lesson or sense runs across the movie, linking the scenes. While Kitty is there and in quick moments, has the familiar turning points of dance, snubbing, sickness, rescue by Levin, baby, there at Levin’s brother’s death with brother’s prostitute-mistress by her side, hers is a minor role. The major woman after Anna is Madame Vronsky and Phyllida Law captures the banal hypocritical ways of this woman with her hard insinuating glances perfectly, so her presence at the first train encounter, and at the close of the movie as who Vronsky flees to makes her point of view that one that destroys Vronsky and Anna.


Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

Also made into a major presence is Fiona Shaw as Lydia. Rather than a mere religious fanatic clinging to, squatting all over Karenin, she is a forceful political actor (goes to political rallies).


Shaw as Lydia, while Karenin’s own austere idealism and role as a cuckold has ruined his career

Karenina is kept as an outer ring character; stern and sensitive he is the first of the Karenin enactments to move to rape when he brings Anna home after the race, and the carriage scene, which are (as in all social scenes of the movie) kept to a minimum. The point is to have the confrontation where Karenin’s sense of himself is rocked: his anger is not over social appearances and if she did agree to a veneer, we are to feel he wouldn’t keep to it.

Rose took all the famous strong passionate scenes and rewrote them so they become intense interactions where private emotions takeover; he rearranges them some, strings them together. All the rest of the story, the social world, hum drum life left out. Danny Huston’s draining of his wife, Dolly, bankrupting them, bland complacency is choral; we hardly see Dolly as she is a figure who brings in the troubles and compromises of the social and economic worlds of the novel; Huston’s role is to listen to Levin,go hunting with him, attempt to persuade Karenin to give Anna a divorce. He seems so weak against Fiona Shaw whose scene with the child where she tells Seriozha his mother is dead is chilling, scary. Somehow Levin working hard in the fields becomes another private moment of self-discovery which just happens to occur in a (lovely) public field. Childbirth is a screaming painful bloody affair that occurs twice (Anna and then Kitty). Another departure is Rose presents Sean Bean Vronsky more positively than any of the films:


This promotional still of Bean in uniform as Vronsky must be the only time in the film he seems involved in his regiment: the look of puzzle is more common.

Bean is driven to anger and distraction between Anna, his mother, Karenin refusing to cooperate. Anna’s baby by him dies or is stillborn in this production (we see her nursing an old broken plastic doll). When he screams at her, there is no sense from the film that she has deprived him of a career he wanted, or even a place. Just that it’s the done thing to be married so he can be an accepted landlord. The film’s tragic scene focuseson his scream and frantic mad behavior pulling himself away from the officers as we hear Anne go under the train.


Bean is that movement under blue cloth

It’s a stripping of Tolstoy to bare bones and then putting back in psychologically distraught moments. Sophie Morceau carries the film, moving from cheerful and strong by stages into utter self-abjection, loss of identity, a kind of stupor as she only half-heartedly tries to follow Vronsky. A each scene is flung at us background music passionate romantic opera or equivalent link — there’s a heavy use of music and at times pantomime. The last 8 minutes of Anna last walk towards death is all music. The houses and rooms are opulent. Trains continually brought in and function. Dialogue is extraordinary, things brought out frankly in physical interactions. No words of continuity, just juxtaposition. Are these the core power of Tolstoy, Rose seems to be asking.

Rose makes the book into a kind of wild romance. Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard made the book theatrical too but they kept the outer social world as a shaping force and the story line and dialogue had strong intellectual ironies. This film made me see Anna Karenina more as about how the personal and sincere have no chance to thrive. Vronsky’s mother’s objection, that of Betsy (Justine Wadell), and the astonishment of everyone else seems to be Anna and Vronsky’s attempt to live by some shared mutual soul within them. And this inner self can’t take this kind of leaning. Babies die. People don’t cooperate. Things don’t make sense.

The movie ends with Vronsky on a train going to Siberia. He has lost all meaning. Levin is narrator and then he returns us to his life with Kitty, and his book, asserting one can find meaning in life by turning to religion. It’s not very convincing.


Near closing shot of film, after this we see the writing of his diary (lines from Tolstoy)

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The 1985 Anna Karenina, written by David Goldman, directed and produced by Simon Langton (filmed in Hungary)


Paul Scofield brilliant as Karenin (1985 TV film) — this film returns us to Karenin as the powerful central male

This is another remarkable production. The cast includes some remarkable actors, and in the minor parts too: including Anna Massey as Betsy, Joanna David as Dolly. It opens using a sort of browned framed set of stills, to set up an antique feeling — although the attitudes of mind are recognizably those of the mid- to later 20th century imagined TV audience


Joanna David as Dolly: she is the suburban wife who is persuaded to forgive the erring husband

Simon Langton, who directed and produced the 1995 Andrew Daves P&P directs and produces; Goldman has written other fine screenplays (e.g., The Lion in Winter). It seems to have been produced by some combination of companies, filmed in Hungary and then put on TV, though its length (2 hours and 15 minutes) and feel makes it seem as if it were meant for movie-houses. It’s the only one I watched straight through and it’s exhausting. Its one weakness as a film is Christopher Reeve’s inability to act, his woodenness is a real flaw. He was considered super-beautiful (yet he was given the usual mustache). That he too is made into a positive figure enables him to carry the complex role more easily. It does have something peculiar at first: it seems as if the voices were dubbed in after for the first hour so the actors seem oddly distanced.

In conception it’s a redo and updating of the previous three I’d seen (1935, 1948, 1977) in the sense that Langton (director) and Goldman (writer) adapted the same arrangement, story line, emphases. Yes Levin and Kitty are just about eliminated but that was the tendency before. But otherwise the characters are simply modernized. Tellingly there is a softening of attitudes towards adultery and at the same time towards both Oblonsky and Vronsky. Oblonsky is merely weak, poor guy means well, and there is a repeated Americanization of both going on. Vronsky never meant to mislead Kitty; and it is presented as perfectly understandable he wants to get on with his career. There is no Lydia, so no disquieting aspects to religion (American audiences might not like that). Betsy is not a bad woman either: she understands that Anna is not the kind of woman who can live a disguised life.


Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

Unexpectedly (but this seems to me very much in line with today’s attitudes) Karenin is himself a man who lived solely for his work and Anna, and she was enough for him; why is he not enough for her. Anna only grovels at the very end of the film. Strikingly it opens with Karenin and Anna and the son, and they seem a contented enough family. He has just had a big success, and they talk about whether they should say goodnight to their child and go into the bedroom. It’s a very 1960s family scene. It’s from this position of an adjusted family that the film departs and presents Anna’s seduction by Vronksky as a sort of sickness. Anna herself is without friends except for Betsy even before she loses her reputation.

Scofield’s characteristic quiet apparent reasonableness is to the fore; when he does become fiercely enraged at Anna’s behavior at the races and her telling him in the carriage she is Vronsky’s mistress, loves Vronsky, is pregnant, it’s no loss of social appearance that drives him wild. His image of himself as a man, his choice in life to make her the center and have no other friend (he says this) morphs immediately to near rape: this is her duty. It’s that she personally betrayed him, with marriage as a one-on-one relationship. There is real sympathy for Kareinin. He decides to get back towards the end by refusing to divorce her even after she agrees to give up her son. Anna is passive sexually (so a good woman), waits to be taken. She is firm and angry with Karenin after the childbirth collapse; she wants out of this bed and only one man at a time. I admit this film made cry more at the close because I bonded in small ways with this Anna as I had not with any of the previous: this heroine is no longer a 19th century character. I felt yet more for Karenina. If I may make the comparison, the couple reminded me of the characterization of Winston Graham’s Ross and Demelza Poldark in the recent film adaptation by Debbie Horsfield.


Anna with her maid did not want to take a ball dress with her; she was not particularly ambitious; their friendliness reminded me of Lady Mary and Anna in Downton Abbey

Some viewers might like this one best. Modern readers are often bored with Kitty and Levin, and they are hardly there. The directors and actors are allowed to present the sexual scenes between Vronsky and Anna far more candidly. While not as many as the 1997 film, it does eliminate a lot of the exterior events — especially the closing scenes between Dolly and Stiva and the Levins in the country estate. Especially interesting is this re-conception of Karenin: here he is not driven by religion or even his political position, he says he has no friends, and Anna has been everything to him, he has been satisfied with her as his friend and companion. He seems to go on for politics as a principled business as an aristocrat but find no personal meaning in it. He is not ambitious as Ralph Richardson, Eric Porter and then Jude Law all are.


One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

Four hinge point scenes are revealed as what one must have: the race scene, Karenina taking Anna away in the carriage after Vronsky falls, has to kill his horse (done intimately) and her abjection in the carriage. In their talk afterward Karenin is the most sensible of all the husbands: he is warning her of what will happen: she will be lost, Vronksky will tire of her; it’s almost done kindly. Scofield’s behavior and words reminded me of how he played Thomas More. She does get pregnant, have the baby, in this one wants to die — there is a death wish throughout. There is the forgiveness scene but then (as in the other movies but one and the book) she cannot stand Karenin again and flees. When she comes for the divorce, they are like a 1960s couple agreeing on how they will treat the child; she promises to give him up, and in return he will divorce her.


Scofield in pain but controlling himself


Anna giving up her son

Reeve was mechanical in feel early on, he did much better when it was a matter of sexual interaction and in the last part when he rejects her: as in the 1936 film he grows irritated, tired of her, threatens to leave. At first they seem to be adjusted: a visit from Dolly and Stiva make the four look like American in-laws during an afternoon.

But it’s not enough. In this one Betsy does not betray Anna as the norms behind it are not really high society Russia. Anna just becomes more clinging and nervous, and he does irritation and restlessness very well. The scene of her return to the house when they return to Moscow is powerful, at first centered on the husband. Her love of her boy and her boy’s for her is touching. In this the film harks back to the 1935 Anna Karenina where the strongest scenes in the whole film are Garbo and the son.


There’s real pathos as Anne bends her head; Reeve’s stiffness as Vronsky works well here

The last part of her chasing after Vronsky gone to his mother and her choice for his wife remembers the 1948 with Vivien Leigh. Bisset is going mad with nothing to do, no one to be with. She wears a dress that looks like a prisoner’s outfit, all stripes. She too is haunted by bad dreams and sees a figure of a man. But she berates herself in practical 20th century American terms: she has destroyed two men, one boy, and she does not love her daughter. In this film we feel why she does not love the daughter: the daughter stands for this new life Anna claimed she loved (I don’t need society) but found herself cracking up under. In this film she does not go to the opera; she obeys Vronsky and still she and he quarrel. He wants to escape her altogether. The last moment shows her by the train and then we switch to where Vronsky has become aware she has come after him from Annuska and turns horrified at what he sees. End of film.

I suggest that the 1985 film has the most modern feel because of the depiction of Karenin is not based on religion or status and of Anna as the most inward, inner directed people might say. I wondered if the elimination of many of the social scenes gave Rose the idea for his re-conception.

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One of the older Penguins

Returning to Tolstoy’s book too, I am just reading a book by Joan Hardwick about Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife, whose father was not her mother’s husband. Hardwick paints a picture of the aristocracy in Europe at this time as often adulterous, with differently sired children in one family. Karenin is then as unusual as Anna, but they live in a world of egregious hypocrisy. Oblonsky represents the norm. That makes the outlook many middle class 20th and 21st century readers and viewers have had on Anna anachronistic; it was not her adultery that was so unacceptable; it’s the way she went about it with passionate integrity. In that she resembles Levin. And the movie adaptations that come closest to this are the 1948 and 1977.

We might say now in our 21st century political and corporate culture what the filthy rich do today esembles the parasitical aristocrats of Tolstoy’s day, so it may be the 1% as a culture (which are where Tolstoy’s characters fit in) are not so far from these corrupt aristocrats as we like to imagine. Levin and Anna are our figures of integrity — Kitty is simply another utterly conventional young woman, believable yes. These hollow pretenses have provided the way Karenina, along with rank, and wealth and status, has risen so high. A real jack-ass con-man whom of course Oblonsky gets along perfectly with wins an election in Vronsky’s area; Levin can’t figure out how he did it. Like Levin, Anna doesn’t fit in; she will not play the social games with all their hollow pretenses.


From a two act production in the Abbey Theater by Irish playwright Marina Carr, directed by Wayne Jordan

The book was written by a man and all these movies made by men. What matters in male-centered, male-written, male-made movies is adultery, the man has been betrayed. What matters to women is the custody of their children. Anna Karenina shows these outlines too.

Next up for Anna Karenina will be an account of a few other of the Anna Karenina films as found in Tolstoy on Screen, edd Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael Denner. The list of movies is NOT endless. You don’t have to watch them chronologically. I am slowly discovering more about Tolstoy’s book by watching these

Ellen

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Nicola Paget as Anna Karenina in the snow when she is still falling in love with Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)

Friends and readers,

Two summers ago our Trollope and his Contemporaries listserv on Yahoo (Trollope19thCstudies@yahoogroups.com) began nearly 6 months r reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace together, and a few of us watched just some of the many movies made. And to remember it, & make some of the conversations available to others, I blogged on all these. We thought it such a success and enjoyed it so that we repeated ourselves over Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,starting this past Indian summer. We took less time, 4 months to be accurate; instead of some 1400 pages, we had a book of over 800. We posted less: perhaps the issues of adultery, erotic enthrallment, marital and sexual conflict, class disdain, are less comfortable subjects to exchange thoughts about than sequences of war and sequences about the society that supports this. Although the list of Anna Karenina movies is longer than than that of War and Peace movies, I watched fewer. None had the reputation the War and Peace movies had.

Yet the experience was comparable. I had listened to the book read aloud once before looking at the book as I went along and years ago tried to read it on my own. This with a group was the first time I really read the book slowly and truly. I finished both books with the same group of people convinced they are great literary masterpieces in the novel tradition, and yet have fundamental inescapable flaws: for War and Peace, Tolstoy wants to write history and persuade the reader experience human experience is providential (controlled by some divine purpose); in Anna Karenina he cannot get himself to enter into the full emotional range of motives or sexual experience of verboten adultery, and sees marital experience far more from the point of view of sexual satisfaction and practical money support than genuine mindful understanding and compatible interests.

Again it was the 1970s BBC version of the book that seemed to me the soundest, giving enough time for complexity: the 1977 AK written by Ken Taylor, directed by Donald Wilson, featuring Eric Porter, Nicola Paget, Stuart Wilson — Wilson gave us the 1967-68 Forsyte Saga; and Taylor, the 1987 Jewel in the Crown respectively — compared to the 1972 BBC War and Peace, a Jack Pulman product, featuring Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood, Frank Middlemass (to name just three). Both books had also prompted comparable recent film adaptations which brought out the disquieting transgressions and marginalized people’s (women mostly) point of view, the 2015 War and Peace scripted Andrew Davies, featuring James Norton, Lily James, Brian Cox (limiting myself to 3), the 2012 Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, scripted by Tom Stoppard (no less),featuring (as usual with Joe Wright, Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Matthew Macfayyen). Here is a list of all the AK films I know of for those interested.

The parallels between the character types in both books, and the contrasts of their ultimate fates are striking. Both books open with an astonishingly persuasive portrait of a central male, in W&P Pierre Bezukhok, a self-doubting socially awkward, yet brilliantly aware character of great integrity; in AK, Oblonsky, known as the contrasting Stiva, Anna’s insouciant socially skilfully comical conventional (unless you have to live with him), utterly amoral, a careless adulterer. Some of us loved the opening skating scene in AK between Tolstoy’s troubled man of integrity, Levin and the girl he eventually marries, Kitty (in type close to the W&P Natasha). The opening two chapters on the Scherbatsky family: this group is the equivalent of Natasha and Rostov family. Very early we see Vronsky will be an inadequate lover-companion for Anna’s need once she defies society to go and live apart with him, Karenin, her aging husband, originally deeply well-meaning, will be unable to flex in a modern amoral environment, and punish them all. Stiva’s long-suffering wife, Dolly who is counseled by Anna to stay with him, and consequently endures yet more wretched years until he finally cannot pay her way, is contrasted to Anna who chooses not to stay, and ends in a tragic obsessively self-destroying life and death.

The issues outside the book we talked of again that are textual include the insoluble problem of and access translations provide. It matters which other language you read the book in and which translation. I found for myself the Maude War and Peace captured the rich texture of the original War and Peace in English, yet a mid-century French translation by Elisabeth Guertik was yet better. For Anna Karenina, the simpler P&V was what was wanted to reach that interior life so crucial to AK, and I just didn’t have, didn’t have time for a French translation (much to my regret as this theme is Writ large in great originally French novels, e.g., Madame de Lafayette’s La Princess de Cleves). I found Tony Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel, which I hoped much from, a disappointment, and we dialogued over this (see comments).

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Eric Porter as Karenin when Anne is trying to tell him she loves Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)

Sex and Marriage

About half-way through Diane Reynolds wrote that she had been reading Joel Fassler’s collection of essays, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process; Mary Gaitskill had written there of how she felt inspired by Anna’s deeply felt impulsive cry after coming near death in childbirth (from a pregnancy by Vronsky), and begging the returned Karenin to forgive her — that she has two selves, and her real self is the presence who pleaded with Karenin to return to him, while the self in love with Vronsky (we know loathes sex with her husband, Karenin) is “another woman in me, I’m afraid of her,” someone she “cannot forget, the one who is not me.” Stoppard picks up the importance of this scene and moment and has Keira Knightley as Anna say

“Oh, my dear [to Karenin] don’t look at me like that. I am not the one you think. I’m afraid of her, She fells in love with another man. I’m the real one. But I’m dying now, then she’ll be dead too. Poor man! [meaning Vronsky?] Let him come in. Alexis! Alexis!”

Now it’s not clear which Alexis as that is both their names. This might startle some readers were they to pay attention. Our modern predilection is to see the coerced self as the married women, not the fleeing one. Once Anna recovers in Wright/Stoppard’s film, she behaves like a hateful tigress to Jude Law as Karenin. In the 1977 BC AK Eric Porter captures the feel of a Karenin who wants to love and to forgive, to bring Anna’s daughter by Vronsky up as his own, but before the onslaught of society’s scorn for him, and her behavior, is puzzled, hurt, cold and finally subject to religious delusions invented by a woman who flatters and soothes him. All the Vronskys in the films I saw were true to the book as they tried to but could not be content with Anna. Tolstoy’s Vronsky needs social prestige, to be active and admired in the world, to be integrated as a landowner and his society will not permit this as long as he lives openly unmarried with Anna.

One reading is that Tolstoy thus indicts society for twisting the characters and/or refusing to understand and act with empathy. Another is Anna is turned into this another dark self as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s explanation for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: a doppelganger, a motif for expressing an atavistic self underneath our civilized selves, perhaps an amoral self whose appetites take over at night, or a sick self in reaction to the society that married a young innocent woman off to Karenin who has learned to dislike sexuality with him (this is not that far from Tolstoy in his Kreutzer’s Sonata. Yet Anna’s real self is that of a mother too; she misses her son truly; does not want a divorce if this means permanent separation from him. She does or can not understand that once she has left her husband, she will never have her boy back.

In the novel Anna’s frantic visit to her son once she and Vronsky return to Moscow: early in the morning, at dawn practically, laden with gifts, preceded by two scenes: the first of Seyozha with his Slav tutor, Vassily Lukich, and his especial friend, the hall porter, Kapitonych. He is presented as happy but nervous, proud of his father for winning awards for his gov’t work on behalf of the people of Russia; underneath is stress (he cannot bear the religious woman Lydia, whom he is sent to): he has not learnt the lesson, he cannot learn it, but no one presses him. The father comes, means to show affection, but is so cold and hard because the boy cannot produce the answers. We are told it’s not that he’s stupid or didn’t read the passages, they just mean nothing. He has been told his mother is dead and we are told also he refuses to believe it. Then Anna’s visit: disguised, how she is not let in at first, how the servant disobeys what he knows is wanted, and stands up for this because Anna never was unkind to him ever. In the end the child is confused, he is punished for not knowing his lesson; all the better he thinks, he can stay with his tutor, they build windmills. All he wants to do is forget her. The word love is used of all Anna’s feeling towards her son repeatedly; she says she is worthless (note that) and her husband a good man but when she encounters her husband fleeing his own house, all she feels are spite and hatred.

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Stuart Wilson as Ferdinand Lopez in Phineas Redux (1974 Pallisers, scripted Simon Raven): there is a closely similar shot of him as Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)


Frederick March played Vronsky in the 1935 AK with Greta Garbo as Anna (his is the strongest performance)

In reading the book, its story is so familiar and the types Tolstoy’s characters correspond to are superficially and functionally in the story part of commonplace moral lessons or protests so the reader is in danger of understanding what he or she is reading in stereotypical framed ways. It’s reading the details that bring out what makes it alive, thought- and feeling-provoking, original and effective. Vronsky as a character suffers a lot here: he is often underestimated, dismissed as a shallow cad, utterly egoistic; in some of the films he is treated this way too.

For example, after Vronsky and Anna’s first erotic encounter at the train station, Vronsky visits Stiva and when he learns Anna is there, he tries to flee. Yet he wanted to see her again intensely. The narrator says: “he raised his eyes, saw her, and something ashamed and frightened appeared in his expression;” then when Stiva tries “loudly” to usher Vronsky in, we are told his was a “soft, gentle and calm voicing … declining.” Anna blushes and thinks she understands why he came to Stiva’s and and then didn’t come in. But all she says is “he thought it was late.” At the dance it is Kitty’s jealous POV which thinks “Anna was drunk with the wine of rapture she inspired”. It’s not the admiration of the crowd, Kitty thinks, “but the rapture of one man. Each time he spoke with Anna, her eyes flashed with a joyful light and a smile of happiness curved her red lips.” Vronsky “wishes to fall down before” Anna, and “in his glance there was only obedience and fear.” His glance seems to say he wants “to save himself:” “There was an expression on his face that she had never seen before” There’s an “irrepressible tremulous light in [Anna’s] eyes and [her] smile burned him as she said it.” Then it’s the narrator and Anna who “feel themselves alone and this crowded ballroom.” Again from Kitty on Vronsky’s face “that expression of lostness and obedience that had so struck her, like the expression of an intelligent dog when it feels guilty”. Kitty finds “something alien and demonic” in Anna. Earlier Kitty had seen that Anna was “serious,” had a “sad expression” on her face; “in her some other higher world of interests, inaccessible to her, complex and poetic.” We should recall that Vronsky grieves in mortification when Anna loves Karenin during the childbirth, and shoots himself in the chest afterwards, does attempt to remain faithful to Anna until her crazed needy vulnerability hazes him ceaselessly for a peace of mind (“repos” in French) not in him to give himself, much less anyone else.

For several other nuanced close readings across the book see the Trollope and his Contemporaries archives.

After the lovers flee, Vronsky is intensely desirous to believe he and Anna will be accepted and to do all he can to promote this. He needs this. He tries his sister-in-law but she says she can’t visit them; the sleazy amoral Betsy comes stays briefly and offers a return visit at a specific time, Anna knows that means that Betsy will set up the evevning so that no one who matters will be there, and says, that is precisely the time she cannot come (this is kept in the 1977 BBC AK), and Betsy sends a note she is sorry she will not see Anna and Vronsky before they leave.

Key incidents in the Vronsky threads:

Before he and Anna consummate their love at the racrtrack. First, where Vronsky goes into the stable to look at his prize horse. It seems to me the mood of the felt detail makes an analogy with Anna, and the way Vronsky rouses, pets, and soothes the horse is analogous to the we are to imagine he rouses, pets and soothes Anna. Emphasis is laid elsewhere on how calm and gentle he can be and still convey physical strength. Calm down, calm down he says to the horse. Tolstoy enters into the consciousness of the horse without having to make thoughts for it: lean head, shining merry eyes, nose widening, flaring. The English jockey tells Vronsky too he must not be upset when he rides – and he does become upset because Karenin (I half remember) shows up and Anna must move to her husband’s place.

It’s a very subtle far more carefully version of what Trollope shows us in Burgo Fitzgerald vis-a-vis Lady Glencora Palliser. Trollope is coarses, not as subtle — Burgo will mistreat the horse, pressure it too much despite his fondness for it – -the fondness is seen as a distance as about what it’s worth (the money).

Most of the time I’m bored by Trollope’s scenes of racing horses, hunting, but not here. Tolstoy has filled the scene of Vronsky with his cronies and then at the races and especially close up to his horse, Frou-frou — what a name. It resonates sexually, trivializng femininity. Tolstoy seems to be able to come close into realities of the presences, man, horse, the interaction of people. I suggest we are to feel that Vronsky has last his “cool” because for the first time in his life he is truly emotionally engaged with someone (Anna) and this spills over into the rest of his life .He cares more if he wins or loses, or he cares differently. A deep relationship between the man and the animal is felt. Then when it lays there all quivering and he must kill it, have murdered this horse. I suggest the horse can stand in for Anna too. She is becoming herself nervous, losing her calm and I would say unjustly and unfairly hates her husband. But before we exculpate Vronsky into a man of sensibility, notice how he kicks the horse. I felt that as a shock. We are to bond with this poor creature driven to race for these selfish aristocrats.

From the talk we can gather that there was an anti-hunting, anti-racing group of people — this is a circus spectacle.

After they have run away, had the child, gone to live together in Italy, found it impossible there and in the country and return to Moscow:

The humiliating incident in the theater — dramatized (like the horse race where Vronsky loses, shoots his horse dead, and Anna exposes her attachment to all). Vronsky’s mother’s exultation. Vronsky’s military mates act to accept Anna and to support him but it’s not enough. He rushes back after her and they have this scene where he agrees they must leave immediately, it’s too painful and then is forced to say how much he loves her. But he is now intensely put off. He cannot stand her beauty. In the 1977 BBC film he is not alienated as yet, not hostile, and doesn’t become so until near the end. The word love is only used by the characters when it’s this frantic clinging emotion of Anna towards the first child which we are told was the result of her not loving its father, her husband; the baby girl she feels little for. Or when you no longer feel it as Vronsky doesn’t or are demanding it because you have lost your identity. But this is an anti-adultery reading. People living apart form society who have left partners can adjust, can feel love, do not crack so quickly and often it’s for other reasons than the adultery or separation (as in Tolstoy’s case).

Part of their misery is they are surrounded by hangers-on, phonies. The carelessly flirting male cousin Levin kicked out is here flirting with Anna — and note she doesn’t mind nor Vronsky. But he’s a mindless limpet. Princess Varvara – Stiva’s aunt — is there because she gets free meals and a place to live. She’s utterly phony another limpet. Then there’s the male counterpart to Betsy who we now know told Anna unless Anna is married she will not see her. These are people who simply hide their amoralities — like Vronsky’s mother. Anna bursts out about Betsy: “Au fond c’est la femme le plus deprave qui existe.” (Ruth Wilson enacts this to a T in the 2012 Wright/Stoppard film.)

Vronsky is trying for respect by building his hospital and going to meetings and begin a responsible landowner in the community. But it’s the social activity they share that somehow they fight over. We see it doesn’t satisfy him and the functionaries in the hospital are not good enough as guests. He wants the relationship legitimized, and his children legitimized. We feel he wants children. Anna must beg Karenin for a divorce: she finally bursts out she can’t stand the humiliation and thinks she would not get one. She also doesn’t want to give up her son. We see she is not able to love her daughter in these circumstances. She can’t indulge in “that inexhaustible intimate conversation” she says she longed for. She does say not an hour goes by but she doesn’t think of this divorce matter, doesn’t reproach herself. She then preys on Vronsky, asking him for what is not in him to give, full validation, companionship which looks nowhere else, and when he does not give it, she accuses him of not loving her, of betrayal and he breaks out in frustrated fury.

Stuart Wilson played the part in the 77 series and also Ferdinand Lopez in the film adaptation of The Pallisers — we are going to be watching that one all spring — whether 24 or 26 episodes, it’ll take us into summer. One can do that with films. Transfer one actor into another film or book: Wilson played a type that included Vronsky, Lopez (a hard mean man in the novel) and a cold predatory cad in The Raj Quartet who lures Sarah to go to bed with him, challenges her and when she’s pregnant her mother insists on an abortion. He was tall dark and handsome, very thin. A critic made fun of this type in Jeremy Irons: tall, thin and tortured is the way women viewers like this hero type. Is it still the fashion somewhere? or are characters made too hard?

In the aftermath to Anna’s suicide Tolstoy avoids Vronsky at first and sets it two months later: we only see him from the outside. Well the last shot of Wilson as Lopez show his face in a frozen horrified look, so dark and brooding are his eyes. I’ve not forgotten that moment in the mini-series: it’s the last shot of that episode. I now transfer the look of Wilson’s face to Vronsky in the novel by Tolstoy. In the film adaptation we never see Vronsky again after he drives off in his carriage. I thought they did that because they ran out of time and didn’t have enough for a 11th episode and hadn’t planned one. The look in his face could also be Anna’s look as the train comes hurtling at her.

I will talk of Eric Porter’s performance as Karenin in the 1977 BBC production and Jude Law in the 2012 film as in both cases these conceptions and actors went beyond even the brilliance of the book.

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Robert Swann as Levin and Caroline Langrishe as Kitty ice-skating (early joyous scene, 1977 BBC AK)

Some readers are led to find the Levin story superfluous (not connected to Anna) or not what they are reading for (no matter how dull utterly persuasive) as at the same time this story matter increasingly takes up much of the space of the novel. Levin is Tolstoy the way Pierre was Tolstoy; his ideal, again here when first met (and at the last) the nervous person who doesn’t fit in. When Levin returns to his home after his first attempt in the book to win Kitty, he is so relieved to be in a world he has created for himself. But this takes strength too — you must be satisfied by living in and on yourself, believe in your goals, which differ from others. When Levin first arrives, he thinks he can do it, but even with his housekeeper’s kindness and companionableness, the memories of the outside world are a continual leaking poison. For example he wanted Kitty and couldn’t have her, so he thinks another woman will do as well, but he soon gives that up. After his hard work on his farm, with his peasants, we get a paragraph about how “doubts, an eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve, and failures and an eternal expectation of happiness” elude him and make him have to strive to be at peace.

This is as important in life as eros. It’s how Levin differs from Vronsky in a deep way and why he’s a worthwhile human being. He has original depths, he has real feelings and thoughts; he need not in his behavior mirror society’s norms as he has examined them and found them wanting. I found Tolstoy’s depiction of the naturalness of the animals in this world of nature also such a relief. The calf that seeks its mother and wags its tale. I read this in context as showing (for Levin and me) how animals are superior to human beings with all their phony subtexts. I was startled but won over by how Tolstoy entered the consciousness of a dog.

The deeper truer point about Levin is not that he’s exemplary but struggling against other human beings who just don’t take anything seriously but their own appetites. So he can’t get his workers to work — even if he paid them more – -the way he would. He can’t get things done even if he does some of it because he needs the others to. In my life I’ve never been part of team really but can guess from very early projects in school with others how frustrating this is — why people appreciate those who will work. I’m impressed by how deeply into the sense of the realities of agricultural worlds Tolstoy gets — Hardy tries but does not reach this. The 2013 film adaptation Far from Madding Crowd tried to by showing us the actors/actresses in the fields close up working.

An opposition in the novel is those who feel deeply good humane emotions (Anna, her husband, Dolly, Kitty, Kitty’s father, Levin’s brother) someone with much self-thought (Agafa Mikhailovna) and the cold performative manipulative types (Vronsky, Stiva instinctively, Betsy): not everyone falls into these two types but close enough as a theme. His brother, Nikolai, is the vulnerable idealist whose ideals of equality do not extend to women; whether Tolstoy meant us to see they do not extend to people beneath his class whom he is in intimate contact with rather than women, his behavior shows that too. He’s in fact a frustrated domineer; yet unhappy because he does not know how to live out his communist ideals (the society leaves no room for him as some of us may have experienced it leaves no room for parts of us central to us that don’t fit in)

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Anna’s throwing herself under a train.


Vivian Leigh in the final sequence of the 1948 movie

Trains matter in the novel, are focused on — as well as the brilliant movie, The Last Stationby Jay Parini, with a good movie by Michael Hoffman I blogged about years ago.

It’s a long deeply eloquent pictorially realized sequence; the choice of words to capture her intensely depressed state of mind is to me perfect. There are many words about light and darkness. But mostly her mind goes over and over again the recent incidents that have led to Vronsky fleeing, and she backtracks to the whole situation they are in, and she has truthful accurate remarkable insights into how he feels about her, and why she is so tormented. I wrote too much at length in response to Light into Dark so I won’t go into these: we’ve covered them, e.g., he’s tired of her, resentful, angry at the situation; she keeps asking him for what he cannot give her, all his self and a whole reason to live. She is preying on him (she doesn’t put it this way).

Anna does not know what to do with herself. She asks her maid, what should she do? Vronsky will not come back to help her.

She feels her views are clinched when she visits Dolly for advice and comfort. Alas Kitty is there and immediately it’s clear Kitty does not want to see her as a stigmatized “wicked” women. Anna speaks plainly that she sees this so of course Dolly denies it, and Kitty comes out and we see Kitty immediately soften, be attracted to this still beautiful women, drop her jealousy and be kind. But it’s too late

Tolstoy captures the confusion of mind such a state encompasses and (to me most impressive) the kinds of bad thoughts that revolve through the mind. I’ve had psychiatrists ask me when I say I had bad thoughts all night, what kinds are these, could you tell me them and I can’t because it’s too embarrassing — they are like Anna’s and thus probably common as types: seeing everyone in the world as angry or unhappy or looking at you and despising you; interpreting everything as ugly, cruel, miserable, resolving to do things you know you can’t do or fix and you feel absurd and know you will be told this is skewed by someone’s else “rational” mind. One problem in the way Vivien Leigh enacted this one is she over-did, she was over-the-top neurotic and we had no over-voice to listen to her reasoning because it’s a form of reasoning that leads to a desire to escape the world. I now think Nicola Paget’s quiet enactment much closer. But what’s needed is voice-over, and quotation quite literal from the novel – this P&V translation is very good.

I suspect thus far every single movie has been too embarrassed, unwilling really to put this before us. Telling that Andrew Davies at any rare was willing to put before us a slow agonizing secular-like death. I wonder if he has the guts to put this death before us. The point that such a scene needs is suicide makes sense for Anna — as it made sense for Richardson’s Clarissa.

Anna’s suicide is so interior, so much an extended almost stream of conscious that it would be extremely difficult to convey what Anna is feeling. A voice over would have to be done very carefully and directly from Tolstoy in order not to drown the scene in bathos. A series of images flashing or firing through her mind as she heads toward the scene and perhaps slo mo flings herself in front of the train could work. Especially if we have seen them before, if they replayed distorted to be uglier, meaner, more nightmarish we would understand that, though not if it were overdone in any way. This is a place where the genres don’t mesh easily.

It’s a hard scene to film and all the movies struggle with it. In this case I thought the most successful the 1948 film directed by Julian Duvivier, scripted by him and Jean Anouilh with Vivian Leigh as Anna, Ralph Richardson as Karenin. Leigh was superb at enacting the neurotic (the heroine for A Streetcar named Desire, for The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone). There is a consciousness so deeply gone into when Tolstoy takes the plunge, we are persuaded we are experiencing life. In Phineas Redux where Wilson in the film as Ferdinand Lopez throws himself under a train, we similarly have a long extended stream of consciousness, about Lopez’s shame (he is killing himself like other males in Trollope who does this because they have lost their place in the world after being publicly humiliated — far worse than Mr Slope); Trollope’s novel gives us an astonishing paragraph of metaphor about being smashed to smithereens. Tolstoy stays longer and more resolutely still the character’s mind, until she realizes she doesn’t want to do but it’s too late to pull back. In Trollope’s Nina Balatka, the heroine is about to jump the Charles Bridge into the river and is pulled back by the arm by a friend (a Jewish Rebecca character), but she was hesitating and slightly moving into the “wait a minute” mode, but there was no train on top of her going at high speed.
All comparable achievements.

Film-makers hesitate at the voice-over; maybe they fear audiences will be put off by the emotionalism. It’s said by film critics it’s thought of as feminine, as too intellectual for the average movie-goer, but I love it. I think it makes the Outlander series far better and deeper because it is used so often (and the words taken literally from the book). I’ve been watching Bergman this week; he uses it all the time in his and often Woody Allen (who was much influenced) does it too. It would jar with the sudden train so there’s a media conflict.

Then the fiction switches to Levin until the end of the book …

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Tolstoy in his study (1891, Ilya Repin)

Which story was the afterthought? According to A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy began the book when he had experienced a prolonged period of depression, and been told the real life story of the mistress of a man who lived nearby and who had thrown herself under a train when he tired of her. Tolstoy poured his depression into Anna; Levin came as a relief. But together, they create a thickly felt set of realities, specially criss-crossed by Anna’s brother, Stiva, and his relationship to Levin’s wife’s sister, Dolly.

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Matthew MacFadyen stars as Oblonsky in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laurie Sparham

Anna and Levin, heroine and hero; Dolly and Stiva, contrasts: another angle

Both Anne and Levin are characters of integrity, sensibility, who cannot quite fit in. Levin is given far more slack; Anna easily ends up outside this realm of safety and acceptance. Much of the later part of the novel is given over to the Levin group partly perhaps because Tolstoy cannot get inside Anna and Vronsky in the same way — he cannot believe that they are living in similar nuanced conditions. Everything must be overshadowed by their adulterous relationship, but in fact that didn’t have to be. Levin is overwhelmed by “frivolous” people and wishes he could escape. He is not presented as alienated as he might be — finally again Tolstoy is wholesome. To them of course this that they are expending their lives on is not frivolous; the trivia of existence – water in jam, picking mushrooms is what matters or how they live.

Stiva comes to visit Levin many times and Levin overjoyed because Stiva will sit and listen to him. He has so much to say in himself he’s no one to say it all to. I feel for him — again like Pierre in W&P, socially naive, but not putting himself out for others, working for himself whose proceeds he puts back into the land. Ironically Stiva is not really pleasant, it’s that he’s indifferent to all but himself. When Levin tries to elicit a response, Stiva’s half-listening because he wants to produce a speech on “political economy” (conservative laissez-faire politics for the sake of impressing others) not the rural experience Levin is describing. Levin exposes his concern for Kitty– for himself and Stiva’s off-hand discreet comment about how interesting “Ossianic women — women of dreams are” is him musing over the women he has affairs with. How cold his heart to others – -this warm man. Tolstoy conveys this and I remember the deep feeling Dolly.

The two plot-designs are drenched in deep sex, one about fucking (Anna, Vronsky, Karenin) and other about a woman’s body producing a child (Levin, Kitty, her family). We do know that these things don’t have to be on everyone’s mind. I thought too Levin’s memory of his brother’s death and his seeming lack of memory of his difference from this older brother worth noting.


Kelly MacDonald as Dolly (2012 Joe Wright AK)

Dolly, Oblonsky’s wife, Kitty’s sister. Dolly goes for a visit to Anna and Vronsky: of course it’s her POV, but she is deeply sympathetic even and has every reason (as her thoughts tell her for 3 hours on the way there) to reprehend everything about the way marriage is practiced in her society and wish she had done what Anna stopped her from doing: while she was still young enough, a couple of pregnancies before, she should have left Stiva she thinks, tried to divorce or separate herself. Then she might have had a chance to find someone who would truly love, care, protect her – – the way Levin is doing for Kitty. She has utterly unspeakable thoughts about motherhood. What does she get for it? a worn body “Nothing but trouble. No work, no nothing. Just bondage.” She resists this thought by saying to herself she can’t live without them now but they suck the life out of her. One of the most interesting moments in the text is silence — Anna reveals to Dolly something that is so shocking Tolstoy gives us ellipses. I surmised it’s some form of contraception physically; they use anal intercourse or some form of ejaculation where she’s not inseminated by him. Dolly is horrified but remembers other couples with just two children.

Why horrified? If she would suggest this to Stiva, he might go along? or would it interfere with his pleasures. The BBC 1977-78 does try to dramatize this hard material including Anna’s choosing not to have a child and Vronsky’s hard resentful response to this to Anna’s face. This is not in the book, for it seems Tolstoy cannot get himself to question endless pregnancies inflicted on women even if he sees how motherhood is such an ambivalent and sometimes destructive experience for women.

We move very slowly through all this experience, many many pages devoted to slowly seeing Vronsky and him finally opening to Dolly and ditto for Anna, and how at the end Dolly wants to escape and quickly. Vronsky is as good a manager as Levin or Karenin and good thing (though we wonder where he gets the money from — the house is an old family house-heirloom) for they are emotionally miserable at the gut level. Lovely envious surroundings do help is the moral here, but are not enough. Basically they are not enough for one another, and neither has some inner goal or vocation to make up for the loss of society. I would like to suggest there are such people since I think Jim and I were all-in-all but I have to admit in the same breathe we were married and lived conventionally enough to him to maintain a full time job in the fed gov’t of some responsibility.

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


Ralph Richardson as Karenin, one of the politicking scenes (1948 AK)

Politics, religion, art. There’s a lot more here than is ever discussed: Levin, Karenin and Vronsky all go to political meetings, and in all these Tolstoy dramatizes what he sees as the uselessness of what happens from the point of view of doing any good for society as a whole. Karenin is outwitted by a conniving man who deludes Karenin’s people into accepting an exaggerated version of doing good and then that is rejected as unrealistic; Levin cannot interact well at all (his brother can but is only interested in issues abstractly), he cannot even figure out what is going on it’s all so implicit, nuanced, morally reprobate at core; Vronsky is a personal success in the same meeting and ends inviting the vicious man who behind the scenes manipulated factions to win the high powerful place to a dinner Vronsky pays for. Tolstoy more than once blames the victims who are subdued for allowing themselves to be subdued. In one-on-one vignettes: Karenin with the lawyer; Karenin and the religious fanatic lonely woman, Lydia, with the religious charlatan; in group scenes of trying to get people to change their ways to be more productive for themselves and work less hard, Levin fails; Stiva has the greatest political successes in what he tries to do (win money and position for himself). the extraordinary protracted death scene of Levin’s brother where instead of validating a religious point of view (as in Andrei’s death in W&P) it is wholly a biological process.

There are also brilliant chapters on art — the way there are in War and Peace. Vronsky is imitating being a great painter and Tolstoy tries to explain why: he has nothing to communicate deeply through his art, no emotion he cares about. Anna understands art in ways that Vronsky can’t even if she can’t be a writer for in writing she has nothing she wants to do for real — acting for the social benefit of others or for something to do or prestige produces schlock.

Much of this is omitted in all but the 1948 and 1977 films — where the actors playing Karenin are so strong the film-makers kept some of this material. It is important; it is the deep background to Anna’s stranded tragedy as an outcast. It takes chapters after Anna’s suicide where we are with characters who are minor and care nothing for our major presences. When we finally hear from someone who supposedly cares it’s Vronsky’s vicious mother. Anna is a bad vile woman she says; why? because she acted out of the sincerity of her heart — and yes body. When last heard of Vronsky is taking a job to where slavs are suffering very badly. This will get him back into the military. Although his behavior has been enough to allow people never to appoint him again, since this is a job no one wants, he gets it. Will he do any good for these ethnic minorities. We are supposed to remember that Karenin’s important rules and laws to put in place have been defeated.

So the last chapters are about Levin and how he is coping with the idea he has that the world is meaningless — there is no God in this world. This time Tolstoy will not nag us for chapters on end to accept his providential ideas about history but instead presents Levin as wrong, not seeing deeply enough while Kitty his wife so unintellectual does. Levin has learned how difficult it is to reform anyone and loses himself in coping everyday with the selfishness of everyone else and their problems. We are told Dolly and her children are now his province. Levin considers suicide when he starts to think about life and read his philosophy so this matches what happened to Anna, but unlike her he is embedded in his society as a landowner, husband, father, brother-in-law,in doing a little good, so he has little time to think about suicide much less do it. Very like Pierre at the close of W&P proper (not the coda where we hear of his gross political mistakes years later which end him in Siberia for years, the idea Tolstoy had about Pierre as he started W&P).

And so the second long masterpiece ends. Tolstoy did not write a third.

Ellen

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John Prebble, Culloden

Friends,

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

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


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

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

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

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

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

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

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

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

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

Tyranny is tyranny

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

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

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

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


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

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

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

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


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

Literary criticism and book history:

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

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


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

Novels and poetry for the first time:

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


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

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

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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