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Alison Luff as Nell falling on the floor as she dies as St Catherine in Tyrannic Love just before getting up to speak the Epilogue … (Nell Gwyn, by Jessica Swale, directed by Robert Richmond)

They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps … Moth, Act 5, Love’s Labor’s Lost

Friends,

A remarkable season is unfolding itself at the Folger this year, and I would advise you not to miss any of it. It began with a magnificent lavish production of Wm Davenant’s “improved Macbeth.

It carried on with the daringly bare and self-explanatory King John; it was deliberately slow-moving as if to give each audience member a chance to mull then and later think about the nature of politics as seen here or there, by turns seriously earnest, a quietly sardonic, or showing characters who crave calm, peace, order and thus safety. I couldn’t get over that I felt I was listening to Shakespeare think aloud about the ways monarchical hierarchical power in his era worked; what the military are about. For the first time I understood Constance’s speeches attempt to save herself and her son.


Holly Twyford as Constance (King John, directed by Aaron Posner)

Falcounbridge anticipates the ruthless politician types of the later plays, with the difference he (in this case she) explains herself.


Kate Norris as Philip Faulconbridge in Wm Shakespeare’s King John, as directed by Aaron Posner

Peter Marks wrote an essay about it calling it a Shakespearean “Games of Thrones:”

… you will have gratifyingly broadened your knowledge of Shakespeare and your appreciation of Folger’s ongoing campaign to expose audiences to the astonishing range of Shakespeare’s mind and interests.

In “King John,” his curiosity leads him to a contemplation of legitimacy — the political, psychological and spiritual foundation of leadership — as the reign of John is challenged. A son of Henry II, John acquires the crown after the deaths of his brothers Richard the Lionheart and Geoffrey. But a conniving French king (Howard W. Overshown), a meddling papal envoy (Sasha Olinick) and some ambitious relatives at court have other ideas. Constance, given impassioned heft by Twyford, wants Arthur (Megan Graves), her son by Geoffrey, installed. Meanwhile, Norris’s Philip, an out-of-wedlock son of Richard the Lionheart, becomes yet another rival, after King John himself intervenes and declares him, by a legal loophole, a legitimate heir.

“John is now king: Should he be?” is the question Posner poses in the preamble of his own devising. It’s the question that drives the evening and, just as crucially, the paranoia of the king in a court decked out becomingly by costume designer Sarah Cubbage in Victorian bowler hats and petticoats. Andrew Cohen’s set, where the only omnipresent fixture is a wooden throne, reflects the unsettled air of the English realm; above the chair is suspended a primitive crown, awaiting, it seems, the rightful head to fill it.

Dykstra’s John seems the right kind of John for the representation of a realm in disarray. He posits John as unpolished, impatient and prone to rashness; his authorization of his henchman Hubert to dispatch nephew Arthur may not be singular in the bloody history of English royal family affairs, but it does signal his homicidal inadequacy. And by the way, Elan Zafir plays Hubert, torn by affection for Arthur, with such exceptional emotionality that he makes a powerful case for this secondary character to be the humane touchstone for the play. (Twyford’s embodiment of a mother’s grief contributes to another memorable interlude.)

A third play was brought in through the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare company from Statford HD screening events: this time Troilus and Cressida: a concise review from The Guardian.

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And now this:

Jessica Swale has before this rewriitten and produced 18th century plays, original and post-text, Shakespeare plays (ditto), often with obvious feminist or feminine subtexts,e.g., Bluestockings. She wants to defend and create sympathy for women and the vulnerable.


Manuel Harlan; Olivia Ross (Celia), Tala Gouveia (Carolyn), Molly Logan (Maeve …) — bluestockings nervously seeking jobs

In Nell Gwyn we trace the outline of this brothel child-turned orange girl- turned actress — turned king’s mistress, her career as it’s publicly documented and known by hearsay. Each station or stage of her existence is followed if not in exact chronological order: from hanger-on, to attracting & being trained by Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen, the hero type), a cavalier, friend to, employee of theater entrepreneurs & aristocrats.

We meet and are thoroughly entertained by the actors of Killigrew’s (Nigel Gore) company, from the boy page (Alex Michell), to Kynaston (Christopher Dinolfo, just virtuoso in rants and hysteria), the servant woman, house- and costume-keeper, Nancy (Catherine Flye — pitch perfect accent and timing, she was very funny). The same actor played Etheredge and then Dryden (Michael Glenn). We watch Nell’s first struggles to learn her trade, to act, to sing, to dominate the stage amid the ensemble — as the play carried on, sometimes they reminded me of Shakespeare’s clowns because their playfulness was so gay, full of life, buoyant.


Hart acting between Nancy and Rose, Nell’s sister

As all this unfolds she attracts the king and wins his favor to the point her makes her his mistress, with pension, house, and his attention.


Nell Gwyn and R.J. Foster as King Charles II

He has to wrench her from the ensemble


Ensemble

We witness their troubles (so to speak) once married: her conflicts with her mother (Flye) and sister (Caitlin Cisco) who feel neglected, his with his ministers in the person of Arlington (Jeff Keogh), who feels more than neglected. The most powerful because for a moment believable scenes are two in which Arlington threatens Nell with disappearing and other ominous ends if she doesn’t remove herself. She wins out, to fall in love with the king and he her (she is pregnant by this time), time telescopes to Charles’s attempt to reign by himself, his death and the famous line: “Not let poor Nelly starve.”


King thoughtful

It has had a number of very favorable reviews: DC Theater Scene; Andrew White of Broadway World; Nora Dick in Maryland Theater World. Only the Washington Post was “disappointed.”

I’m not sure why the last nitpicked; maybe there was an expectation of an heroic life; this play stays determinedly in the terrain of what we may suppose would be ordinary diurnal experiences of a group of players, an unconnected woman with no money, a high ranked courtier. I admit I began to despair that they would not enact any parts of the plays of the time — only comically allude in parodic ways to Shakespeare’s (The Tempest, Lear — a marvelous comedy we are told), Dryden and Etheredge’s, and the story of the Titanic as conceived in many movies. Did they think these so bad. But at the close of the play after Charles has died, and Nell returns to her old stage friends, they do a quick pantomime of Tyrannic Love in order to end on Dryden’s famous epilogue spoken openly by Nellie, and conveyed with energy by Luff:

Hold, are you mad? you damn’d confounded Dog,
I am to rise, and speak the Epilogue.
To the Audience. I come, kind Gentlemen, strange news to tell ye
I am the Ghost of poor departed Nelly.
Sweet Ladies, be not frighted, I’le be civil,
I’m what I was, a little harmless Devil.
For after death, we Sprights, have just such Natures,
We had for all the World, when humane Creatures;
And therefore I that was an Actress here,
Play all my Tricks in Hell, a Goblin there.
Gallants, look to’t, you say there are no Sprights;
But I’le come dance about your Beds at nights.
And faith you’l be in a sweet kind of taking,
When I surprise you between sleep and waking.
To tell you true, I walk because I dye
Out of my Calling in a Tragedy.
O Poet, damn’d dull Poet, who could prove
So sensless! to make Nelly dye for Love,
Nay, what’s yet worse, to kill me in the prime
Of Easter-Term, in Tart and Cheese-cake time!
I’le fit the Fopp; for I’le not one word say
T’excuse his godly out of fashion Play.
A Play which if you dare but twice sit out,
You’l all be slander’d, and be thought devout.
But, farwel Gentlemen, make haste to me,
I’m sure e’re long to have your company.
As for my Epitaph when I am gone,
I’le trust no Poet, but will write my own.

Here Nelly lies, who, though she liv’d a Slater’n,
Yet dy’d a Princess acting in S. Cathar’n.

The subtext of the play is a young woman’s awakened determination to have, direct and enjoy her life. This was the era in which “everything changed” (as the players say) because women came onto the boards.

As with Davenant’s Macbeth, there was an attempt to evoke the 17th century stage world: a glorious rich curtain to suggest a framed stage, candle holders to the front bottom stage, the costumes (Mariah Anzaldo Hale), luxurious sex. with  a woman once again at the center.


The King with Lady Castlemaine (Regina Acquino)

The company’s fourth choice this year is another that asks for creativity in costume with its complicated play within a play, and is hard to do because of all the poetry quoting: Loves Labour’s Lost. I look forward to it. In the meantime in a couple of weeks Izzy and I will go to our first Folger consort performance this year, a spring festival of Spanish and Italian music, with a Renaissance band to provide dancing and a variety of older instruments, all around the Mediterranean.

“The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo” — the last words of Love’s Labor’s Lost, which I took heed of and so presented Shakespeare’s King John before Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn.

Ellen

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Brianna (Sophie Skelton), just after she’s been raped (Season 4, Episode 10)

Friends,

Since writing about the first half of Season 4: from Drums of Autumn: the American colonialist past, a book of fathers & ghosts, I’ve watched the whole of Season 3 (from Voyager) night after night, and found it was much better than I thought, and that paying attention to larger repeating patterns revealed the preoccupations of the serial drama (as opposed to the book), and brought out when the film-makers seemed to be treating challenging themes as a serious debate, and when they were providing action-adventure entertainment with a princess-bride and another violated hero at the center.


Roger Wakefield MacKenzie (Richard Rankin), like Jamie in the first and third season, singled out for harsh punishment

There were a number of online essays treating the season with real respect: one writer argued that our central mature couple, Jamie and Claire Fraser, were rare lovers on TV to talk and to listen to one another, and evolve as they interact; another thought Claire’s relationship with and treatment of Brianna, especially after Brianna has been raped, beautiful, a morally exemplary mother-and-daughter; while questioning some aspects of the treatment of rape over the second half of the season, much was done right. On the other hand, one “serious reflection” earnestly argued that this fourth season was a real disappointment because much that viewers had loved about the previous three was gone, especially the centrality of Jamie and Claire’s relationship; and a last said what had been radically exhilarating about Outlander (as a love story) was the full and frank treatment of love-making without presumably becoming porn, the presentation of female sexuality fulfilled, and now that the decision had been made to stop that, the serial drama had just about lost what made it a joy to watch. Maybe I missed them, but it seemed to me the recaps were much less snarky, with complaints mostly centering on the characterization of Brianna (I felt grated upon by the way all the characters but Mr Bonnet seemed to treat her child-like self-centeredness with a reverent worship, even her biological father Jamie when he questioned her behavior as prompting the rape), the picture-postcard landscape and use of sets.

The over-all patterns were fitted into a framework which made Jamie’s behavior and attitude the framework for all that was happening: the season began with him failing to rescue an old comrade from hanging, and it ended with him being required to find and arrest Murtagh, his beloved godfather, brother-in-arms. Claire was marginalized into a devoted wife, career-doctor when home-making (quite literal) gave her time. She never actively defied or openly challenged Jamie, even when he behaved with senseless violence to someone (Roger) he was not sure was the rapist. To be fair, he and she have come to understand one another and they share a set of humane and family-centered attitudes, and have come to support one another trustfully. That’s why they can talk and hear one another. I love this as well as what love-making we did have.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) giving Claire (Caitriona Balfe) a bath

But patriarchy won out again and again. The Indian woman at the end who is ejected from the tribal group for trying to negotiate over the hostage Roger; Ian’s exultation at becoming a “man” through taking violence near the end of the last episode are two examples that come to mind

The basic conservatism of the books emerged strongly – and sometimes appealingly — in the parallel relationship of Fergus (Cesar Domboy) and Marsali (Lauren Lyle); they cooperate and work together when she helped Fergus rescue Murtagh from prison (right there with her cart at the ready, pat). My very favorite sub-plot was the story of the older couple, Murtagh (Ducan Lacroix) and Jocasta Cameron’s (Maria Doyle Kennedy) coming together as lovers. It is so rare for older people to presented as having erotic needs and joys, as courting and going to be with another, and it was done with great delicacy. Unfortunately there were no promotional shots of Kennedy in her long flowing nightgown and loose hair but she was photographed as gorgeous and thoughtfully intelligent repeatedly, as well as passionate and witty and teasing with Murtagh

I thought also that the scene where Brianna is shown giving birth, and learning in the process how dependent she is on others emotionally effective:

More downside to this conservative romance masquerading as subtextual liberal ideas and behavior: the Native Americans did emerge as half-crazy savages, especially in the way they treated Roger and a preacher who had come to live with them and broke their taboos; the enslaved people were treated by the other characters as if they were equals to the principals and looked in wonderful health, beautifully costumed, and were all devoted service. The idea of sublime noble self-sacrifice came out in one pair of people opting to burn at the stake; Brianna as precious white girl was encouraged in her arrogance; Roger’s nearly complete abjection once he goes through the stones, coming back to the Indians to (in effect) die after he has escaped them was matched by Lord John’s improbable obedient behavior (a grown older man) to Brianna. Mr Bonnet’s mockery (Ed Speleers with his usual pizzazz) comes as a relief. The very worst or pits was the recourse to scenes where violence between men, beating one another up, or harrowing someone’s body or pride is seen as affording a solution to a conflict. And some of wha’s depicted is so unreal or improbable. I wished some fugitive from a Mel Brooks parody might mistake his or her way onto one of these sets.

The books are really far more complicated. For me the original frame for Outlander books (seen in the italicized soliloquies, which do carry on and are by Claire even into the fourth book but are hardly there in the films) is that of a woman seeking a personally fulfilling identity and escaping the one her 20th century society had on offer (Claire) and a really truly compelling tragic historical series of events (colonialism in Scotland, Culloden and the clearances). I hoped the Roger and Brianna in the 20th century would be interesting, but after a couple of sequences in the book, which are interesting, even touching, in the film the characters are turned into types which shows no interest or even understanding for real of what might actuate a later 20th century young woman or man: Roger is made into a throw back to mid-century in his attitudes and this becomes a victim-hero of male nightmare. But it still must be an adventure story it seems to me that what happens is Roger becomes part of the heroic individualism in US culture, twisted into a kind of culture of sublime death, with Brianna flailing out senselessly.


Jamie with Ian (John Bell) in the shadows nearby told about the rape of his daughter

It is true that a younger couple often displaces the original pair in popular saga romances, and sudden great jumps in time are common. The killing off of an original set of major characters the reader may have really engaged with. This is seen in the Poldark books: 11 instead of 20 years. One does not have to do this; cycles of books with recurring characters who don’t do this jump in time keep to the same central characters: Trollope’s Pallliser novels is an example here. by staying with the same characters and keeping them central you are driven to delve deep into the human condition over time and subject to chance. Gabaldon does prefer the idyllic: in Drums of Autumn the book a beautiful paradisal moment occurs when Jamie and Claire look for the land they mean to settle in and come across a feast of wild strawberries. I am drawn to this myself.

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Claire comes upon a young George Washington

Some total “jumping the shark” began in the eleventh episode (“If not for hope”) when Roger becomes pure victim, Brianna goes to scold Bonnet (and whacks poor Ian who has offered to marry her), and the “perils of Pauline” action-adventure crowded action took over (though I admit the shots of our friends canoeing down river with the Indians were breath-taking). So for this second and final blog on the fourth season, I’ll detail just episodes 8 (“Wilmington”) 9 (“Birds and Bees”) and 10 (“The Deep Heart’s Core”). In the first Claire meets a young George Washington; and in the second and third Brianna is raped and we experience with her the aftermath of rape is maybe worse.

Season 4, Episode 9: Wilmington

We are now well into parallel stories. For our older couple, they have arrived in Wilmington where a theater is playing a miserable 18th century play (people in oriental outfits and the lines do sound accurate) and all the glittering powerful Brits have come. Jamie and Claire seen with baby (whose name I cannot catch) born to Fergus and Marsali who have also arrived.


Roger and Brianna’s reunion

Cut to Roger on-shore steadily faithfully seeking Briana and lo and behold he hears her voice asking after Cross Creek where she thinks her parents are. Joyous reunion, and into a room where they show they can make love on screen almost as well as Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe. Richard Rankin is shyer than Heughan (not as stiffly acting it as Aidan Turner ….). Now she says she loves him and they go through a Handfast ceremony first.
The secondary story — and I think it is actually secondary although it begins first in the episode — is also now filled with suspense. All has at last been set up. We see a play is about to be performed. Cut to Marsali making food. Fergus to her. How is the bairn?

I was moved by Marsali and Claire’s conversation about motherhood. That is very like a woman’s novel; it took contains part of the theme of this episode and the whole season: Claire says you may want to but you cannot protect your child from life beyond a certain point …

Jamie and Claire go to the theater — naturally they are invited by the governor and cannot say no. Who do they meet but young George and Martha Washington. Claire is just so excited and cannot resisting asking him if he has been ‘chopping down cherry trees?” he looks at her puzzled enough she has to make an excuse.

More important another high ranking man, Ferrante has some terrible wound – an untreated hernia — that Claire notices because he’s in pain. She offers to help but who is she? a woman? a healer? what’s that? Jamie learns that these upper class people have placed a mole with our Murtagh who is planning to rob a coach to take back the taxes he and his man consider stolen from them. Jamie dare not go and help but he somehow — we discover — has sent a message via Fergus. Good ‘ole Fergus at the ready, for on the road just as they are about to rob these people Fergus intervenes, Murtagh calls it off. Fergus tells Murtagh there is a mole among his rebels …..

Meanwhile at the theater Jamie prods the wounded man and suddenly Ferrante can’t take the pain any longer; he would have died but that Claire spoke up and suddenly it’s all hospital theater and she performs a minor procedure with thread, hot water and other stuff she somehow gets and gains the govenor’s admiration. He now knows why Jamie so respect her.

Message arrives: the robbery did not happen, Murtagh and his men not taken. Someone had warned them. Who could it be?

The episode uses juxtaposition so much I just can’t repeat it; suffice to say, Jamie and Claire’s story is back-and-forth with Briana and Roger’s.

Almost immediately after the handfast ceremony and love-making Brianna and Roger get into another quarrel. She becomes all riled up. Basically their rooted disagreements come to the surface — and startlingly they part. I admit I didn’t believe this could happen: it seemed improbable, slightly contrived: a deliberate separation to make for more suspense and anxiety. After going to such trouble to find her, he would not leave her. After she knew him and had said they were man and wife and the love-making that happened, would she just go off? By herself and in this dangerous place? It didn’t make emotional or practical sense. Remember they don’t have cell phones to keep in contact.

Still the dialogue is important: he accuses her of being childlike and I begin to think this is the theme and what makes us nervous about her. So what if he hesitated at telling her about the obituary; nothing he has said shows him to be authoritarian; she is twisting his words when he talks of consulting. Apparently she behaved similarly with her biological father, Frank, refusing to listen to reason. She wants what she wants regardless of anything around her and reality. It is true that common sensically in 1967 her parents are both long dead.

Then think about her behavior for this whole venture: She did not take any clothes with her, barely a map and one peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. Baby comfort food. When she is walking through the highlands and nearly freezing, without food or water soon and is found by Laoghaire we are supposed to have realized why didn’t she prepare? When Claire crossed the first time, she didn’t prepare either but luckily she encountered Jamie …. ‘Nuff said.The second time she came she had a box of clothes, her surgical tools, other stuff.

What emerged quickly in Season episode 1 is Claire is at risk of rape immediately. From not only Black Jack Randall but the troupe around Jamie. Throughout her experience in the 18th century everywhere she is at risk of violence — but she knows this after the first hour, and after she is shown how to use a knife she is wary.

Brianna seems singularly unaware she is in danger – she has been sheltered all her life. She is startled to be taken for a whore and has nothing to counter this — she does not realize she should have her maid with her. A respectable young girl in the 18th century did not go about alone in the streets or into a tavern like this one. The maid did see her go off with Roger and I thought the maid would come to find her and interrupt. But I suppose why should she? she has no idea what her mistress wants and she is supposed to be subject to the mistress.And then when Brianna goes off like that it could be seen as suspiciously wanton by an 18th century person

Mr Bonnet begins to emerge as the season’s villain. He glimpses her when she comes into the tavern; he is gambling and sees him toying with her mother’s ring and pulls out money – which she thinks is a guarantee of respectability. Not so in the 18th century. Respectability is family, and knowledge of your past, all of which give status. Bonnet draws her into another room to make the bargain. Again she seems singularly unaware it is not a good thing to go where no eyes are upon her. But in this case that others know what is happening doesn’t help. It’s like someone in trouble in the streets or on a bus today and no one makes a move. I like to think they would act to prevent rape because it’s high violence, violation and the next step to murder.

Someone even closes the door on them. She is not raped in front of us but in another room. We are in the room just outside and we see no one soul lift a finger to help her. She screams in cries that call for help and we see she realizes no one is coming. That can have the effect of making people take it less seriously.

Then the camera switches to them and in his inimitable witty sardonic charismatic way Ed Speleers gives her ring. To him that she was not a virgin confirms the idea she could be a prostitute. He tells her he is a honest man who keeps his bargains. No he doesn’t– we have seen that before. The hour ends with Briana unsteadily walking away, stunned, hurt, now looking for her maid and room ….

During the whole of last episode and this for the first time I felt Sophie Skelton was up to the part. Hitherto it seemed to me Richard Rankin was so much better than she – he was far more nuanced, more depth. If you look at the stills of her, there is often something stiff or artificial, something self-conscious or self-regarding and it’s still there at moments, but on the whole she came up to the role last time with Menzies as her father and now this.

For 9 and 10, the episode commentary and evaluation continues in the comments.

Ellen

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Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. I live with them daily, after all … Any library is filled with them. I can take a book from dusty shelves, and be haunted by the thoughts of one long dead, still lively as ever in their winding sheet of words … Look back, hold a torch to light the recesses of the dark. Listen to the footsteps that echo behind, when you walk alone. All the time the ghosts flit past and through us, hiding in the future. We look in the mirror and see the shades of other faces looking back through the years; we see the shape of memory, standing solid in an empty doorway. By blood and by choice, we make our ghosts; we haunt ourselves — from The Prologue to Drums of Autumn

Friends,

The serial drama, Outlander, has become something of an addiction with me. I watch it one episode at a time, night after night. This winter I went through Seasons 1 and 2, and am now well into 3. At the same time I kept my weekly appointment with Season 4 each Sunday night at 8 pm, and sometimes we had second date, on another late night, a re-run. I’ve posted on a use of Christmas in Gabaldon’s novel, Drums of Autumn, to which I can now add:

Christmas in Scotland in 1967, Drums of Autumn, Part 6, Chapters 17-18: “Home for the Holidays.” Roger and Brianna go to a Christmas service in a Catholic church — Briana is said to be Catholic — I think Claire might be — as I recall her friendship with Mother Hildegarde in Dragonfly in Amber and her response to the stillborn birth of Faith. Roger is presbyterian by upbringing from his step-father, the Reverend Wakefield. Roger moves out of his adopted father’s house, gives away, puts in libaries and sells many books, and rehearses his memories very touchingingly. There is an erotic sequence between the young lovers at home ….

Nothing spectacular: it’s like Austen, Christmas seems to happen to be there and adds touches as when in the opening of the third season of the series, Roger arrives in Boston Christmas-time and the events of revelation, research, and Claire’s return to the 18th century through the stones occur amid the rituals of a 20th century American Christmas.

My last blog-review of the series was of Voyager as the watery, water-drenched end of Season 3; and I find I hadn’t sufficiently emphasized how central Claire and Brianna’s relationship was to the first half of this third book, nor its overall structuralizing conflicts, with strong women in rivalry. Geillis becomes a weird witch, with Claire her nemesis.


About to build a life together

By contrast, Drums of Autumn and Season 4 are rooted in the land, building on it, hunting, fishing, each person doing their part to contribute to this (to them) new place, and for Claire it’s her medicine book, her surgery and care that’s needed for the invention of a new society. Along with this, what’s enacted this time, by Jamie repeatedly, by Frank across one crucial episode (“Down the Rabbit Hole”), are scenes of good fathers: Jamie and Willie, Jamie and Brianna, Jamie and Ian, Frank and Brianna. A central image-symbol for the book is Jamie and Claire’s log cabin; for the series, this cabin shares the imaginary with River Run, a plantation based on slave labor; a river down which Jamie and Claire and Ian float, and twice meet Stephen Bonnet; the wood and home of the Indians, and Wilmington, the town from which the colonialist order is run.


River Run

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Some notes, recaps and commentary for the first seven of the thirteen episodes:


After Jamie and Claire agree to take Bonnet with them (he’s escaped hanging), she tends to some of his wounds ….

Episode 1, the ironically titled “America the Beautiful:” At first I thought I might be driven to give up when they began on how wonderful the American experiment, outlined the American dream (you can do anything if you’ve the will &c) but pretty quickly this was savagely ironized as explicitly Jamie protests to Claire (despite English accent presented as American in the stories) about slavery and we see the slaves, and we experience violence as a way of life (for once repudiated) so that the idea is what’s a dream for some is a nightmare for others. And corruption rife. Ed Speleers continues his successful career: as the treacherous Mr Bonnet he was memorable, charismatic in his face.


Floating downstream

Amid the hanging of Jamie’s old comrade-in-prison, the refusal of his corpse by a church-controlled graveyard, so melancholy and mockery, as the raft moves downstream, the characters have bad dreams, long flashbacks which are juxtaposed to the present back and forth. These slow down the narrative sometimes until we reach the closing sequence of mayhem where all voice stops and we watch a pantomime of violence and grief distanced from us by stylization in the acting. The effect is to make the episode more inward, and very effective.

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Episode 2: “Do No Harm:” The film-makers have had the astonishing courage to make central, the heinous practice of lynching black men by white men. Lynching central to US life until the 1950s. They did not distract us with several stories at once but kept their eyes on this one happening. So not just slavery and its accompanying justification, racism, but the hideous unjust violence that sustained it – including whipping as a matter of course — is put before us. Claire is again center, with some voice-over, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as the blind Jocasta Mackenzie, somehow monumental as a successful plantation owner of long standing. The young black women who are enslaved are also individualized and as memorable. I was even more moved the second time because I watched it during the day (a rerun) and got more out of what was said. This season is beautifully photographed but this had the effect of keeping us at a distance from the captured African people working in the fields …


Jamie and Claire greeted by Jocasta, Ulysses and Phoebe

The unexpectedness of the story line kept me on tenterhooks. After the conclusion of the pantomime third exit, where Jamie and Claire have been robbed by an ungrateful ruthless but debonair Mr Bonnet (Ed Speleers), they turn to Jamie’s relatives. Lucky man has all these rich relatives scattered around the world. But when they come to Aunt Jocasta, they discover her dependence on slavery in house and fields, no matter how much she wants to turn the management of River Run over to Jamie and Claire, both balk but Claire more. Faery gold as Aunt Jocasta wantsto turn her property over to Jamie; wants to make him heir but before this goes further, a young black man, now named Rufus, whipped by some overseer has responded by cutting the guy’s ear off, and the mob (I don’t want to use the word community which is such an honorific), has strung him up on a hook thrust deep into his belly. This was taking the law into their own hands and Jamie manages to wrest the body back and we watch Claire and young Ian operate on him and him come back to life. He could have lived.


Jamie, Claire and Jocasta face the angry mob of white men determined to torture an enslaved black man to death: Claire has enabled him to die a peaceful death

But there are laws 1) again freeing slaves without pay 100 pounds bond for each 2) signing documents to the effect they will hurt no one and if they do, you get killed 3) that such an act of rebellion must be responded to by execution. A mob comes and Claire finds she must feed Rufus arsenic to save him from torture — the sleeping death is the kindest thing that might be done. Then the body is handed over. One can see that Claire and Jamie will not be able to stop at this plantation but go have to go west — where of course they will encounter Native American and the hideous casual violence, described by Jill Lepore in her King Philip’s war.

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Episode 3: “False Bride: Basically Jamie and Claire refuse to take on Jocasta’s plantation if it means owning and driving people as slaves. But there is an odd subtext here: the way the house servants are presented show them as well dressed, well fed, and happy enough: it’s almost a justification of slavery where Claire comes out as unreasonably austere in not agreeing to go with the system. After all, are not unfortunate injustices rife everywhere: that’s Jocasta’s stance and there is little to counter act it – the only cruelty we see is the one which murders Rufus..


Jocasta left alone

They go west and immediately as a couple Jamie and Claire do have a believable momentary trauma: Ian goes off with Mr Myers (why I’m not sure but they go on ahead) and the donkey bolts and Claire rides after it.. No surprise when she gets lost and then another tempest. Much juxtaposition of scenes so tension created until we get back. Then Claire has a dream of a nightmare ghost, an Indian or Native American whose head is broke open, and then she finds a skull with fillings not possible until two centuries later. Is there another person who crossed those stones now in distress trying to get into contact with her.

But Jamie finds her, all is well again and after some serious conversation, he agrees to stay there in this relatively place and try to make a home. We wonder if it’s too far from where other whites are and the Indians will attack — they have been mentioned as “more civil” in this part of the world but the reassurance itself sows doubts.


Roger and Brianna dancing at the Scots festival in 1967

Parallel is Roger and Brianna’s story. Here the film differs from the book. In the book after initial awkwardness: Roger at first and continues to stand for all Briana dreads about her parents and biological father) they become lovers – he is a wonderful folk singer and plays ancient instruments in the Scots festival. In the book it’s Boston, here North Carolina – I suppose to make more contrast and parallel. I am told that there are three separate encounters in the book where the young couple gets to know one another. Here is it just pressed into one time and maybe that accounts for the inconsistencies.

In the film Roger turns out to be way “behind the times:” he wanted Brianna to marry him, and he won’t countenance just fucking — to him, it’s all or nothing. But as she says she’s not ready, she has her schooling, her career, she’s not sure. An impasse. Is his song about a false functioning as a warning of what’s come. Often songs sung in a film have some resonance. False bride. In the song the man is betrayed by the girl who married someone else. Now we can say this refers to the initial Jamie and Claire story where she is (forced we remember) to marry Jamie and thus betray Frank – and when she returns to Frank she cannot love him any more for real.

There are strawberries in the song; but where in the book (the conclusion of the sequence) Claire and Jamie eat strawberries idyllically in a paradisal set-piece is omitted.

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Episode 4: “Common Ground:” This was a very well-meaning story and the tone throughout was appealing especially in moments where Jamie and Claire and Ian were working on their new home together: the theme is pro-settler colonialism with Jamie and Claire & Ian identified as very well-meaning refugees (in effect) from Scotland where life has become hard if not impossible for them – dangerous and poverty stricken.

One spectacular incident involving Jamie is of over-the-top St George and the Dragon archetype. (I don’t mind these, and they can have a sort of pizzazz if you have the nerve to do it — as in the first season when in Both Sides now Evil Black Jack Randall is about to carve holes in Claire’s body and rape her high in a castle dungeon and suddenly from the window, there is our hero gun in hand, I’ll thank you to keep your hands off my wife — or words to this effect). So a fearful creature, at first they think an Indian and then a bear attacks them and Jamie to the rescue. Turns the bear is not a bear but a murderous man who had put claws on his hands to claw people to death. Where he got these or why he thinks he is a bear this way we are not told. He does real damage to the trader with whom Claire and Jamie and Ian have made friends and Claire now to the rescue with her medical box and tools and knowhow.


Claire and Adawehi

This incident enables our friends to make friends with the local Indians. A story is told that this man was someone who beat and raped a woman and so was ejected from the Indian community (I was glad to see such upright humane attitudes, albeit perhaps anachronistic?). So all are grateful to our hero for killing the insane man with his wild claws and bear outfit and this gives Jamie a chance to make his gestures of friendship, which are reciprocated. A film has a problem here of translating what in a verbal text is easy to conjure up by a reader’s imagination; made concrete by concrete means it is susceptible of rejection as impossible or absurd. A sub-arch is about this ghost of an Indian who Claire thinks is another person who crossed those stones. The title is well-put: they are all living on common ground. Europeans and Native Americans.


Roger on the phone

The parallel thread is of Claire and her friend, African American, in college in Boston receiving a phone call from Roger who has come across a document showing that Jamie and Claire became settlers in North Carolina and called her to tell her. We learn that Roger’s Scottish housekeeper, Fiona (granddaughter of Mrs Graham now deceased, — in season 1 & 2 important) knows all about the stones and what happened to Claire. We learn she knows because the story line requires that she show Roger a document which suggests that 12 years after Claire and Jamie came to North Carolina they died. She says she heard all the conversation in the house (go back to the 2nd and 3rd seasons) This naturally distresses Roger because even if in realism Jamie and Claire have been dead now 200 years, it will upset Briana to think of her mother as not able to come back through the stones. Roger thinks he must phone again but now discovers that Brianna left for Scotland two weeks ago (!) to be with or join or find her mother.

These scenes are touching — they are now our young lovers.

We are (I suggest) supposed to remember there is a contradiction in the documents or concrete relics. At the grave yard in Scotland in the 20th century, Claire came across a tombstone showing that Jamie died in Scotland with a sub-header of “beloved husband of Claire” (or word to this effect). 17—the two last digits were wiped out. So did he die in Scotland? When? Is the young housekeeper’s document wrong or the document they died in North Carolina wrong. Stay tuned.

There were some very good moments between Claire and Jamie too.

The title is well-put: they are all living on common ground. Europeans and Native Americans; nevertheless, there is a kind of strangeness to this series this time in all these attempts to realize the book’s vision of America and the past now versus the present and keep them distinct. I wish they didn’t call her a healer so often (it just jars) — the word physician was common in this era among white Europeans. The Europeans would have called her a doctor. Much progress had been made by the later-18th century as her box shows – in the book there are interesting insertions in italics by the doctor who owned the box and his experiences as a physician. Claire reads them in Drums of Autumn itself, an instance of epistolarity, & very well done.

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Murtagh

Episode 5: “Savages” has clarity in the way the storyline is designed. The developments: Jamie re-meets Murtagh, now a blacksmith, suitably enough “aged” by make-up. A few sentences explain a long period of indentured servitude, ending luckily (faery gold again) for him in inheriting a smithy. At first Murtagh seems unwilling to leave his place to come live closely with Jamie and Claire once again because he is politically involved with a group of people protesting (among other things) taxes, but by the end of the hour he has turned up at Fraser’s Ridge. In the book I believe there is a Dunton who performs the role that Murtagh is about to take.

The other is that Brianna appears to have had a message that Claire and Jamie are in “terrible danger,” and she must travel back in time to help/warn them. Two sets of brief scenes with Roger Wakefield and a shot of her at the stones and then vanished. Is this another false one? These are neatly brought in not far from the opening of the hour and conclude at the conclusion.

In 18th century America, Claire helps a German girl to give birth to a baby, which baby catches the measles as well as the mother and dies. The grandfather blames the Indians (this is the term used in the series) who had passed by his land and drank some water. They left a blessing, which he thinks was a curse. He seeks a violent revenge on them and murders the good old woman who functions as their “healer;” in retaliation the Indian kill him and his wife and burn down their house. We are to mourn for her death.

The idea is Handy Dandy, who are the savages …. this includes the British gov’t wrenching taxes from the colonists, the original arrests and transportation of people in servitude, the German family, the Native Americans — everyone but our friends.


Remembering the Boogie Woogie song (from “The Search” Season 1, Episode 14)

The elements of fantasy seem to me to be coming out strongly or somehow more jarringly in this fourth season — Murtagh is still so hearty and strong – what works in a book is harder to put across in the visual concrete realism of a movie – which for the audience at large it even depends upon. Brianna almost at will crosses the stones. This put me in mind of The Wizard of Oz, which if I’m not mistaken Gabaldon alludes to in her first book, and the lines did turn up in the first season’s episodes. Claire as Dorothy longing to go home – sans Toto. Soon people will be traveling back and forth (joke alert).

I see no sign of the story of the young girl who was impregnated by a vicious man who was one of the prison guards at Ardsmuir. She either kills herself or tries to have an abortion and dies in the attempt. She is helped by an enslaved friend who is then hunted down according to the savage laws of this land’s people. Jamie, Claire and Ian find this girl and take her to live with the Indians. I hope it’s not cut as it certainly fits the theme of savages. .Handy dandy, who is the savage here – not “our friends” or the victims they come across now and again of this monstrous European colonialist order.

And I do enjoy the letters in the book: Ian’s conveying Jenny’s was especially very pleasant, filled with good feeling. It’s too bad they can’t or don’t try to convey that.

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Jamie and Lord John meet again, in front of the cabin

Episode 6: “Blood of my blood:” I enjoyed most of last night’s episode, but did cringe at some. The story for the hour is Lord John brings Willy to North Carolina, with a variety of reasons why, omitting at first only that he longs himself to see Jamie: Willy should see his father, he, Lord John just happened to be in the area (Virginia is not in the area of North Carolina Jamie points out), is there to reconnoitre the area &c&c

Early on there is an interesting series of inexorable political clashes between Murtagh now called Mr Fitzgibbons: Murtagh is a “regulator” (I’m not sure what that is) and he has been in political meetings with people in the area outraged at the taxes; Lord John commends the Governor’s mansion, “a true monument to elegance.” That elegance is off the back of the colonists and anyone else the British can demand payment from. Jamie tries to stifle this because he is determined not to get on the wrong side of the law again. Murtagh leaves.

There is a scene of chess-playing between Jamie and Lord John: some could come away again feeling a strong homoerotic relationship (without the sex longing on Jamie’s part). Lord John is a rival because Jamie had been willing to confide in him. It’s here that Claire’s jealousy is understandable, though the two relationships are so very different: I feel Jamie and Claire are classically heterosexual in their social and sexual behavior (especially in the areas of dependence and independence).

The most moving moments are between Jamie and young Willie who wants to be called Master William and speaks in a plumy English accent. Lord John introduces them as if they have never met and the boy says nothing, but when he left alone outside with Jamie he immediately asks him if he also has the name Mackenzie and it emerges the boy remembers a lot. What throws them together in the wilderness alone is Lord John comes down with measles — remember the last episode of a family died of measles. It was a virulent deadly disease — still is very dangerous. But no vaccination possible for 18th century people. Conveniently Jamie had it and survived, so Claire is left to nurse Lord John back to health.

Since Caitriona Balfe has rightly been nominated for a Golden Globe, let me say how admirably Sam Heughan acts his part of unacknowledged father and how touching the scenes.Indeed he is excellent throughout the series: The boy is difficult and used to his way and goes outside the boundaries to Indian land and the two are confronted by the Indians. They say they must have blood and in the desperation of the moment, Jamie says the boy is his son and he will bleed for him; Willie then speaks up that it was he who crossed the borders and the Indian leader just nicks him. The “cat is not out of the bag” as when the Indians have gone it’s clear the boy thinks Jamie lied. The boy is very attached to his father and longs to return to him more than once.

Lord John’s wife, Isabel has died — I suppose this erasure of an inconvenient character comes from the book. Back in the cabin Lord John reveals this and while some of the interaction is understandable, I cringe over the submissive lines given Lord John, his abjection before Claire. In some of her jealousy and envy of hi, I felt her unfair; she excuses herself that she and Jamie have been deprived of 10 years. That’s not his fault. When Lord John brings forward the boy as an excuse for his visit, she suddenly tells him she and Jamie have a daughter. That is what she is envious of: the child. Hers lives in Boston. Lord John cannot know Boston in 1967.

At the close I was as usual touched by the love-making and concluding scene. I know it’s improbable that they could have such a comfortable place alone in a wood, and that the log cabin could be so pretty. But this is a fantasy romance material.

The episode seemed like a quiet interlude. Except for the clash between Lord John and Mr Fitzgibbon aka Murtagh, these events will not lead to anything — indeed much of this season has been quiet or highly dramatic moments not linked forward to an on-going story, The story that is ongoing is the development of Briana’s determination to cross the stones back to her mother.

With Fiona and Roger, and Murtagh, when Brianna crosses back there will be 6 characters who know the story of Claire’s crossing, 3 and eventually 4 (for Roger crosses back) in the 18th century. I wonder if Lord John is ever told?

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Outlander Season 4 Episode 7: Down the Rabbit Hole

I watched 2 times this week and then half of it again. I am at the same time slowly re-watching Season 1 and am up to the 15th episode (which I find hard to go through, it is far too cruel and the voyeurism to me is suspect). Anyway I was riveted by this one, just loved it, and crucial for me to its affects and effect was the re-appearance of Tobias Menzies as as a loving, tired, suffering father and yes betrayed husband. The scenes between him as Frank Randall and Briana Randall (the name she gives made me for the first time think maybe the actress, Sophie Skelton has the depths necessary for the character to keep the series viscerally felt. The second actor whose talent is slightly uncanny is Edward Speleers; there he is again (last seen a couple of episodes ago): as the fiercely violent, altogether oblivious to humanity or any reasoning loyalty, Mr Bonnet, Proteus himself in how he flashes from type to type, he’s electrifyingly charismatic. Terrifying because he is all gaiety and courtesy as he does horrific deeds. He reminds me of some of the characters of the first season lost in the second. Several other characters re-appeared – or recurred – for the first time this season. Nell Hudson as Laoghaire Mackenzie now Fraser on the surface and when not touched to her depths this apparently intensely kind conventional woman; but how swiftly she switches to fierce witch herself when she realizes this waif is Claire Fraser’s daughter by Jamie Fraser – Steven Cree as Ian Murray, the gentle presence refelt. (What happened to Jenny aka Laura Donnelly – was she not contracted for this year?)

But none of them with the same meaning as Frank – paradoxically or ironically he is now the ghost people who loved him (it seems mainly Briana) long to resurrect or reach. In episode 1, it was that Scotsman by the monument in the central square at dusk looking up at a window he might see Claire from as Frank approaches. What else is this but beating death, going into the past to make it come alive again. And each flashback of a now dead man in the 20th century worked that way until the near end when the emotion becomes chocking as Brianna once again on her own (Ian cannot accompany her any further, like some Virgil guide cannot go further) turns round once more to look at Scotland before going aboard and sees the now clearly the ghost of her father waving her on.

The title is down the rabbit hole so we are prompted to irony, distance, mockery – here we are with Alice in Wonderland. But that’s not how it’s experienced. I found Brianna’s initial trek through the Scottish highlands as worrying as her mother Claire’s through the jungles of Jamaica in the third season. Both she and Roger (who also has no trouble going down that hole – after due adieus with Fiona) are given experiences which make shocking the differences between 18th century world and today. There is no city, no town, no lights, no coach, no phones and she is in danger of dying were she not found. We must not question too closely how the stones land the person near the place they want to be – though not quite there, like some magic bus that got the address slightly wrong. Roger finds that the structures of society he is so used to and depends on are out; he has to go low in status to get the place he wants (crossing to North Carolina) and once aboard ship, no one has any science or medicine to deal with common body needs. What’s more they are ruthless in this era and small pox so feared that people are thrown overboard.

I know people countered my idea that the last episode was like an interlude by saying grounds were laid for further action. If so, they are still in the planting stage. Here the story unfolds, or unravels swiftly in the way of the first & second seasons. Laoghaire locks Brianna in (fairy tale elements here – Rapunzel comes to mind) but there is a sympathetic child who has a wagon and horse (!) to take her to a relative nearby. And Roger crosses the ocean with memorable encounter with Mr Bonnet once again. That tossing of the coin is a brilliant embodiment of the idea of chance ruling all – though clearly it’s all providential if savagely so in this series.

Women did not travel alone in this period and anyway why not a friend as lady’s companion (Briana getting into the swing of things) so she picks up one Elizabeth to spare her rape. Since there’s been talk about the actress playing the role: her held-back stance and plainer looks make her just right: perhaps she is a bit well-fed, for servants in this era were smaller, thinner (they didn’t get a helluva a lot to eat).
This is a rare episode where neither Sam Heughan or Caitriona Balfe appear. I’d say they had that week off except maybe the film-makers don’t make these episode by episode. I doubt they do.

We see in this episode how centrally this is woman’s romance. The figure who acts first or is acted upon first is the female: Brianna. Before it was Claire before the stones. The male follows her: Roger. He is (I am so glad for this) the opposite of a macho male: anything but a violent cruel man. Jamie despite coming from a culture of violence is as moral and exemplary a figure as Ross Poldark (to bring in another romance hero, though a series of books centered on a male, i.e., him). Brianna brings with her her needs, and she is set in a patriarchy: her mentor and normative figure is her father. Claire’s profession is one woman traditionally have been allowed; she collects flowers & herbs (botany); turns to a husband who she bonds fiercely with. Briana’s role is that of daughter in a central mother-daughter paradigm: many women’s books have this as a central focus.

The use of flashbacks, juxtaposition, voice overlaps (if not over-voice) and parallels was so done so It felt intuitive and gave subjective depths as we went. I noticed for the first time too how they use deep-focus so you can see three deepening sections of a single scene (something the human eye can’t do). Wonderful episode.


Deep in conversation from an earlier season

I was moved to write a poem about how the dead are never gone from us, how historical fiction is aligned with the ghost story and our longings to cross some border into the deep past and bring it alive. For me this is to reach Jim and be alive with him once more, to beat death the way Claire does in the third season and now Brianna in this fourth. The question is, how? I see the metaphor of the Wizard of Oz as central as Alice (and used as metaphor in the first season if not the first book) This is the driving actuation of great historical romance writers like Hilary Mantel and Daphne DuMaurier.

Ellen

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Scarlett Johansson by Annie Leibovitz — although Johansson is not capable of nuanced subtlety she was right for Mary Boleyn (the comments has a biography of Mary Boleyn)


Johansson with Javier Bardem (I remember Before Night Falls), another Leibovitz concoction

Instead of the famous “Art of Losing:”

I will be good; I will be good.
I have set my small jaw for the ages
and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies
even with my small brain
— witness the diameter of my hatband
and the depth of the crown of my hat.

I will be correct; I know what it is to be a man.
I will be correct or bust.
I will love but not impose my feelings.
I will serve and serve
with lute or I will not say anything.

If the machinery goes, I will repair it.
If it goes again I will repair it again.
My backbone

through these endless etceteras painful.

No, it is not the way to be, they say.
Go with the skid, turn always to leeward,
and see what happens, I ask you, now.

I lost a lovely smile somewhere,
and many colors dropped out.
The rigid spine will break, they say —
bend, bend.

I was made at right angles to the world
and I see it so. I can only see it so.
I do not find all this absurdity people talk about.

Perhaps a paradise, a serious paradise where lovers hold hands
and everything works.
— I am not sentimental.
— Elizabeth Bishop,

Friends,

One blog which should have been two: I got carried away with a woman artist and foremother poet , but it is really not overlong (if you will only visit twice; come two times — why not?):

The second woman photographer the OLLI at Mason class on American Woman Photographers was to watch a movie about and discuss was Annie Leibovitz. In the event, there was a weather report telling everyone in Northern Virginia we were in for some mighty brutal cold and it would rain ice, snow, and just pelt us all. Since the gov’t agencies in charge of cleaning and making the roads safe are underfunded in Fairfax (where the OLLI at Mason resides), all schools were closed as of the early morning. I can’t say the day was warm, but we were nowhere near Antartica, and the precipitation began around 4 when it was still 39F, so it began to rain and eventually it did rain ice for a while and then later 3 inches of snow. The next day the same story: everything closed when it need not have been. So the American Poetry class on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry was also cancelled.


Recent photo

However, the kindly and well-meaning (and frustrated) volunteer teachers sent everyone the URL to the American Masters film of Leibovitz we would have seen, and I watched it by myself and now share it with you

What the film suggests is that Annie Leibovitz is not a woman who can articulate or talk about her art in any coherent reasoned way, at the same time as she takes brilliant shots, has an eye for the arresting costume, gesture, featured actor or actress or somehow semi-numinous person and can capture a portrait of them either in movement among others or facing the viewer which is intensely revealing or (less articulately) riveting to the memory so that we remember the image and want a copy ourselves.


Nelson Mandela

This is unexpected since her longest life partner (15 years) was one of the more articulate writers and speakers of the 20th century, Susan Sontag. Years ago I went to an exhibit of photography by Leibovitz featuring Sontag’s life. She said in the film she loved best photographing beloved family members and friends and those she had been intimate with, could feel utterly comfortable with and hoped her subject felt likewise: ““You don’t get the opportunity to do this kind of intimate work except with the people you love, the people who will put up with you. They’re the people who open their hearts and souls and lives to you. You must take care of them.”

She had three daughters (two by surrogate mothers) who mean a great deal to her. Iconic with a dog:

Beyond the bare outline offered by wikipedia, you can read this life story. The magazine Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker have been important in her life. In the film she admits she had periods where taking drugs with her subjects and alone took over too much. Although presented to tempt a student into buying an essay and submitting it as his or her own (plagiarism), this critical analysis of Leibovitz’s art should give us pause: there is voyeurism, sensationalism and a strong bent towards the commercially riveting. You will not find on this blog the notorious photograph of John Lennon clinging to Yoko Ono as if he were cat seeking comfort from his mother, in fetus-like posture. Also not here her many nudes. She photographed to make humane political arguments (so to speak) but also powerful and vulnerable people whose reputation or integrity has since been questioned (see A Decade of Power). She’s published books of photographs, of celebrities; many glamor shots of stars looking ethereally or sexily beautiful. Men too. She captured Mick Jagger and his band leaping through the air.

I was startled by the film, for I found some images I had been drawn to and taken off the Net to save were by her. Especially this of Keira Knightley as Dorothy on the yellow brick road; her famous friends are actors who I recognize but cannot place

In sum, her art is arresting, voyeuristic insightful — she captures the gothic within us. Susan Sontag. Her Three Children too.

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This photograph pf Elizabeth Bishop is not by Annie Leibovitz:


The line from one of her poems: “the island within” is its caption, and that she was “the loneliest person who ever lived.”

She is wondrous at traveling through books: her opening lines are often her best moments and her thesis:

“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete
Concordance”

Thus should have been our travels:
serious, engravable.
The Seven Wonders of the World are tired
and a touch familiar, but the other scenes,
innumerable, though equally sad and still,
are foreign. Often the squatting Arab,
or group of Arabs, plotting, probably,
against our Christian Empire,
while one apart, with outstretched arm and hand
points to the tomb, the Pit, the Sepulcher.
The branches of the date-palms look like files.
The cobbled courtyard, where the Well is dry,
is like a diagram, the brickwork conduits
are vast and obvious, the human figure
far gone in history or theology,
gone with its camel or its faithful horse.
Always the silence, the gesture, the specks of birds
suspended on invisible threads above the Site,
or the smoke ising solemnly, pulled by threads.
Granted a page alone or a page made up
of several scenes arranged in cattycornered rectangles
or circles set on stippled gray,
granted a grim lunette,
caught in the toils of an initial letter,
when dwelt upon, they all resolve themselves.
The eye drops, weighted, through the lines
the burin made, th elines tha tmove apart
like ripples above sand,
dispersing storms, God’s spreading fingerprint,
and painfully, finally, that ignite
in watery prismatic white-and-blue.

Entering the Narrows at St. Johns
the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.
We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs
amog the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.
And at St. Peter’s the wind blew and the sun shone madly.
Rapidly, purposefully, the Collegians marched in lines,
crisscrossing the great square with black, like ants.
In Mexico the dead man lay
in a blue arcade; the dead volcanoes
glistened like Easter lilies.
The jukebox went on playing ‘Ay, Jalisco!’
And at Volubilis there were beautiful poppies
splitting the mosaics; the fat old guide made eye.
In Dingle harbor a golden length of evening
the rotting hulks held up their dripping plush.
The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the Duchess was going to have a baby.
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees,
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all:
A holy grave, not looking particularly holy,
one of a group under a keyhole-arched stone baldaquin
open to every wind from the pink desert.
An open, gritty, marble trough, carved solid
with exhortation, yellowed
as scattered cattle-teeth;
half-filled with dust, not even the dust
of the poor prophet paynim who once lay there.
In a smart burnoose Khadour looked on amused.

Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity whlie we were at it?
— the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkles, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets
— and looked and looked our infant sight away.

In a way she’s competing with the pictures: I’ve read
it somewhere that the essence of poetry is in the line;
the unit the line. Each of her lines is a world in itself,
and filled with more serious true content than the
illustrations she looks at.

She begins with the idea that the illustrations tell us what we should have seen, but soon moves on to suggesting that they tell us to be false tourist and not to see what is there.

What is there? This poem comes from a 1955 book called _A Cold Spring_, and we see that the anxiety, fear and prejudice against those who are
different from us which is fuelling the nonsense of the “war on terror” so that we are to ignore every and all statements of the people who rebel against the US in the countries we occupy or use our military to enable other powerful groups to occupy. All these people are simply plotting with hatred against the Christian empire — we are told.

She is as sceptical as Jhabvala. This is the content of the non-western women writer of women’s books, but note here it’s not used to argue for accepting individual repression or escaping it. This world is too relentlessly simply what it is: each living unit intensely going about its egoistic appetitive unexamined life. Bishop records some compassion: the dead man in Mexico, dead nature, the little pockmarked prostitutes.

Yes it is all very frigthening. Maybe better to look at the 2000 illustrations and study the concordance to them and keep our mind on them.

Nothing explained. What have we been missing all this while. What as children we are to allow our time to pass entertained in this way. We should be looking at that dark ajar.

This seems to me as great a poem at Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Maybe Bishop is however distracting us by these illustrations

I find I never wrote a foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79); much as I’m deeply touched by some of her life-writing poetry, her plangent controlled desperation, I find her use of geography and mythic creatures makes up a wall of avoidance I can’t get past except by speculation, which is unsatisfactory. The biography sent us omitted her lesbianism, her years of ceaseless alcholism, that her positions as a teacher were gotten for her by the elite clique of American poets she belonged to (by origin, her family she came from the Boston Brahmin group, which included Robert Lowell who was physically abusive to her as he was to Elizabeth Hardwick). Her early life was very sad, but so too her later sometimes harrowing one abroad and in the US. Strange the flight to Brazil: what did she think of the reactionary gov’ts? No clue is offered. She could not have ignored them altogether — or could she with her books, maps, illustrations. Her work & life crucially significant. Her sad life, her wonderful poems. I print unusual ones: her art of losing through books, illustrations, maps, and alas alcohol and retreat


Don McCullin, from Landscapes: Somerset Levels Near Glastonbury 2010

This New Yorker essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont is superb: Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing. She left a fat book of letters, many on punctuation. She is said to be “the most popular woman poet” after Emily Dickinson (!). I can only understand that if it’s like the popularity of Robert Frost: from misreading or preference for distanced strangeness (and geography) Many of her poems will be well-known to readers of modern American poetry, but here is one you may not have come across:

Sonnet

by Elizabeth Bishop

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow.

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, hat sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep

She was mistress of the sonnet form.

And this is so kindly to another women poet whose poetry is deliberately set up to keep her life and us at a distance, who apparently was unable to get from under her tyrannical narrow-minded mother’s domination, not even to find an apartment of her own far away from far off Brooklyn:

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore
by Elizabeth Bishop

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemcals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rollng of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capefu of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bride, on this fine morning,
please come flying.

Apologies for not being able to replicate the stanzas.

Bishop to Moore, Elizabeth to Marianne is a beautiful beautiful love poem of longing, friendship as love. It reminds me of a poignant letter by Jane Austen to Mary Lloyd, looking forward so eagerly to when they will be together again. I’m glad to see Jane and Mary did have their night on the floor together, their reading, walking, talking. It appears that Marianne in Brooklyn did not make it to Elizabeth in Manhattan.

One last:

“Crusoe in England”

A new volcano has erupted
the papers say, and last week I was reading
where some ship saw an island being boonr:
at first a black fleck – basalt, probably —
rose in the mater’s binoculoars
and caught on the horizon like a fly.
They named it. But my poor old island’s still
un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
None of the books got it right.

Well I had fifty-two
miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides —
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off …

My island seemed to be
a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere’s
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters — their parched throats
were hot to touch.
Was that why it rained so much …

I often gave way to self-pity.
“Do I deserve this? I suppose I must,
I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don’t remember, but there could have been.”
What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiar=ly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
“Pity should begin at home.” So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.
….

There was one kind of berry, a dark red.
I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.
Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects,
and so I made home-brew. I’d drink
the awful, fizzy stuff
that went straight to my head
and play my home-made flute
(I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)
and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.
Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?
I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries,
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
a miserable philosophy.

Because I didn’t know enough.
Why didn’t I know enough fo something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems — well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flesh upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss …” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.

Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
and love, but they were pleasant rather
than otherwise. But then I’d dream of tings
like slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I’d have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, evntually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.

Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came,
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman …
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
— Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.

And then one day they came and took us off.

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides? …
I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber …

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
— and Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

(Geography III, 1976)


A painting by Doreen Fletcher of vanishing England (“The architecture of the ordinary”), the area in London called Spitalfields, caught by her and her colleagues with scrupulous reverent meanness (to paraphrase a Joyce phrase for his Dubliner — another course I’m taking) — Bridge over Regents Canal Bow, 2018

Ellen

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Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Friends,

The OLLI at Mason winter term has started, and I’ve had two remarkable classes in two days. For tonight I can offer to you, a two hour plus movie on the art and life of Dorothea Lange, made by PBS, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, part of the American Masters series. All of these I ever saw were of uniform excellence at the same time as differing considerably from one another: each program took its shape from the artist it was about, and the creative film art-biography a shaping spirit in response made. Do take the time:

[A bit of a warning: the full-size screen movie can be seen only on PBS websites that carry; below is this movie, only for reasons I don’t understand the picture takes up only about a quarter of the left hand bottom side of the screen. The voice is intact, the photos shown, the narrative, but on the right side and just above the “movie” space you have to endure a black background with flickering stars]

I could for once leave this at that and for once have a genuinely brief blog (on my part) but I would like to tempt your appetite lest you have said to yourself I’ll come back later, and of course never do. After a prelude where she speaks of her core ideas on how to extract life from all around her into a camera shot, and we are shown her famous iconic picture, “Migrant Mother,”

One could say this picture is the Mona Lisa of American art: in the movie you learn who this woman was, her circumstances and how she felt about the photos taken of her later in life. Neither she nor Lange ever made the money from these they would have had they been controlled by a contemporary studio.


She posed many women and children, some with the children on the mother’s lap, some with their heads and bodies wrapped around the mother

You will move on to a narrative that combines her life story with the stages of her developing art, and at each point where she created some soaring set of hundreds of negatives and then photos, you are told the circumstances of how she came to make this set of pictures (who funded by, when, what the circumstances of the people). Many are shown you with intelligent insightful commentary on the narrator’s part.

Her life story begins with her childhood, how she wanted to become a photographer, how she was trained as a photographer at Columbia University by Clarence H White, how she moved to San Francisco, and there made her way to a job in a shop developing photos people brought to it. She managed while there and photographing San Francisco herself to met crucially innovative photographers running studios, exhibiting one another’s work, and sustained relationships. The film concentrates on her two husbands, both encouraged her: the first a noted western painter, Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two children; and 10 years later, after her marriage became strained and she fell in love with Paul Taylor, a professor of economics at Berkeley, deeply socialist, who had himself been married, so was now divorced. At one point she was caring for two of her own children, and three step-children; at times, she put them in foster homes to give herself time to practice her art. There is much emphasis on the ambiguous and difficult but brave relationship of her and Dixon, and then the long loving companion with Taylor.


This might be a still from the movie Grapes of Wrath

She began photographing the elite in fashionable ways for money, but when the depression emerged, turned her camera to the real people of the US suffering from the devastation of this catastrophe. We see them in monumental individuality and invulnerable moments, standing there, their struggle t survive. What they value enough to take cross country. And their despair too.

She was enabled by FDR’s agencies: Farm Security, Resettlement. The Oakies were among her subjects, and her pictures are reflected in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. A second set of photos are of a large community destroyed by a project to build a dam: this was seen as progress, and it did deliver water across a vast region and gradually improved the lives of those living around the dam, but it drowned, displaced worlds of people.


Pea Harvest, 1937

She also photographs immigrant workers in the fields of California, the hard work and small pay, the dismal housing, how they wrenched improvement for themselves and a better life for the children from such jobs; she does not neglect, average people and the land and natural world of the US. Another third set of photos are of the Japanese Internment Camps, where she had to fight censorship to show the individuals in these prisons.


A family awaiting a bus

These were impounded by the US gov’t and not shown for years. One of her themes is the effect of ripping whole families from their homes, their things, their very identity. You will see other smaller projects: she photographs how poorer people coped with the criminal justice system, courts. Her husband was a social activist and later in life she was taking photos by his side as he went about doing research, working with the UN to improve people’s lives around the earth where they could.


A group of women at a meeting

Her vision was partly the result of her experience as girl, wife, mother and her ability to identify with those who had no voice, including the environment, plants and animals. Her father had abandoned the family when she was very young; she and her siblings went to live with a grandmother; she also contracted polio at twelve: it left her with a weak leg and a limp. I found one of the most moving pictures one of a terrified horse, fleeing the opening thunderous waters of a dam.


Terrified Horse: Lake Berryessa

This is framed by a second story: the 1964 exhibition of her art at the Museum of Modern Art: after the opening prelude, you see her very old (and by this time sick with esophageal cancer) planning with the director and curator of the museum a magnificent exhibition. We keep coming back to this to hear her talk of her pictures, what this set or that mean to her, the beauty of a negative and so on. The movie ends with her death just before the exhibit was opened.

What’s left from the exhibit; the wikipedia article includes a list of good books, and the notes are filled with contemporary article and essays about Dorothea. There are more modern “theoretic” ones like The Politics of Seeing (a John Berger-type pictorial essay).


Dorothea around the time of the exhibit

It is particularly important as a film today where the impoverished, black people, and immigrants such people are being demonized, deprived of the agencies set up for the last 60 years to help them live good lives and protect them from exploitation; they are being put into prison, separated from their children. Budgets are being imposed on us all to make the super-rich in this country even richer and the rest of us (90%) lose much that enables us to live decent lives without debt and with opportunity to fulfill our talents and enjoy ourselves — the National Endowment for the Humanities has been smashed. Four women who left water for some protesting Native Americans were arrested the other day, put on trial. Federal workers expected to work without pay, as the judiciary is now controlled by reactionary judges (what about the 13th amendment). Heads of unions of federal workers try to demonstrate and they are arrested — a powerful group of ruthless reactionaries are intent on destroying the US gov’t as still constituted (though it had taken many hits for some 40 years) when Obama left office

I have over the years done a blog pictorial essays on the lives and art of women artists:  Dorothea Lange was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The film itself reminded me of the work of Frederick Wiseman for its social critiques and visual forms of analysis. The film is by her step-daughter, Dyanna Taylor and you see her children now grown speaking of her.


This of Florence Owens Thompson is iconic

The other three women photographers are Annie Lebovitz, Sally Mann, and Vivian Maier (three further films too).  My second remarkable class is on American poetry, and I hope to share some of what I learn and take away on Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Bishop on this blog too.

Ellen

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

Friends,

My first book for the new year:


A virago re-publication — keeping the book in print

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Christchurch hospital nurses

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


A sketch from nature (Punch, 1884)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Settlement houses: Chapter 6: community ideal for the poor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Christmas at Noningsby

Friends and readers,

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

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


17th century Dutch: scene on the ice

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


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

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

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


John Millais, Christmas (ghost) story-telling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas at the Cleeves also has a good moment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

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


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

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

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


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen

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One of the excavation sites at Vindolanda where digging was going on

Friends and readers,

We are tonight come to the end of our tour to northern England. You’ve heard enough of moors, great lakes and mountains; poet lairs, towns and libraries, museums;  towers and, castles.  So just the central three places left: Wallington House, the “seat” of the Trevelyan family, otherwise known for their activities in Cornwall and the English court; Vindolanda, surely one of the richest sites for excavation still on-going, the name translates into white or wintry field, with Hadrian’s Wall nearby; and Durham Cathedral, our last stop before driving back to Manchester, the airport hotel, and taking that long trip home.

The reader may notice I indulge my penchant for pictures by women artists in this last blog and end on a poem in a volume put together by a poet whose work I have elsewhere much recommended, Carol Ann Duffy.


Wallington House

Thursday our penultimate day. I will remember Wallington house for its picturesque gardens, the tasteful art objects in the house, the rooms themselves got up for us as living spaces (where people played this game, or read that), paintings by family members of themselves doing things (like painting a sketch of a chapel by a mid-century female Trevelyan),


Molly Trevelyan — a self-portrait I felt touched by

the doll house room (large ones there), a vast hall downstairs with tapestries, and another with murals:


The hall itself


Three plangent scenes


The one on the far right reminds us of the human enslaved labor which made Hadrian’s Wall.

I only understood the significance of these pictures as by three Pre-Raphaelites under the direction of Pauline Lady Trevelyan and who she was when I received a reply to this blog by Jacqueline Bannerjee: see Jacqueline Bannerjee’s review of John Batchelor’s Lady Trevelyan and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Most of all the stories told about the last Trevelyan to own the place and live here affirm that he was a committed labor socialist and left this house and its treasures to the National Trust. Little sayings attributed to him were everywhere: generous, egalitarian, humane thoughts.


A dollhouse so large I’m sure a three year old would try to step in

The guides were unusually friendly, and one gardener made me feel I was back in Secret Garden when he took me into his confidence over how he needs more staff with him, and tales of upkeep, a little about the family. I felt closer here because of the Cornwall connection (foolish me): I knew more about the Trevelyans than our Road Scholar guides.


Wallington Greenhouse with flowers all around

The old stables at Wallington were now a cafe, the old servants’ headquarters now an extension to look at artefacts; there is another another walk by a rivulet, and a large grassy square for tents for people to visit and children to play upon

That day we were in a town where we were in an indoor farmers’, butchers’ and all sorts of objects sold marketplace; in the square a street performer. But I did not take down the names.

Vindolanda on Friday might be referred to as chef d’oeuvre of the whole tour. It’s an excavation site, living museum, once the enormous center piece or showcase of Roman Britain from the 2nd to the 7th century AD.

The standing building, once the home of Robin Birley’s family, is now a cultural and science center, restaurant and meditation (if you can find a good spot)..

While I enjoyed the film with Robin Birley as narrator telling of his life of excavation on this site, and the thrill of finding the many plaques buried deep, which turned out to (with the help of super-technologically expert machines of all sorts) to be letters from various people who lived on this site (invitations to dine, instructions, personal commentaries, lists of all sorts),


Online photo of a famous birthday invitation

and liked looking at all the artefacts (one statue looked like a cat, until I saw it was a dog) for me the most enjoyable rooms were about the earliest excavations by the family who developed the site: this was at the end of the 18th century, a clerical scholar named Eric Birley, began it: here was this man’s desk, that woman’s find. One could follow the Birleys into WW1; there was a period of neglect but in the 1960s, new interest was kindled and now the place is crawling with archeaologists, geologists, students seeking degrees, to say nothing of tourists and sometimes local people.


Online photo of the imagined fort at Vindolanda, from a western angle

I listened to two different tour guides about the life of the people and disposition of structures out on the open plain; also just watching a large crew of people.

We didn’t have that good a lecture, but I stopped and listened to a lecturer for another group. He talked of how the Romans coopted the local people: the men were offered Roman citizenship if they worked for so many years as soldiers and as soldiers they did many tasks beyond sheer military control. We were shown where people probably slept; the refectory; where when the Roman emperor came, he stayed. The Romans remained in Britain for several hundred years, mining mostly.

So it was like learning of several layers of civilization, a palimpsest you stripped piece after piece off.


Watching a group of people dig: I did this too, on another part of the middle level of the sites.

I just loved the bookstore, which was unusually rich in types of books relating to Roman Britain, the area of Northumberland, Latin itself. I bought as a present for Izzy the second volume of the Harry Potter books translated into Latin. She had the first translated into Latin! For myself a slender book with many pictures on Vindolanda. I can’t share these as my scanner no longer permits me to put anything on the glass but a single sheet, and I don’t want to cut up my books. I have succumbed to only one from Wallington (Molly Trevelyan because it touched my heart)

We drove from there to Hadrian’s Wall in two different places. At one we could look up to the top of the wall about the height of a fifth floor apartment building along one side was a stairway with no banister, nothing to hold onto and I decided I might not be up to that without a panic attack and I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. So I went with the careful people to a second site where we came upon the wall from the back, gently up slope to its top. So I stood there with another woman and we looked down and into the distance where we could see a body of water.

These were the days that on the way back to Otterburn we took a chance, left the itinerary of Road Scholar and stopped at churches nearby. One an ancient 12th century building, still in use — it seemed to me it would be very cold in winter.

Another was built-up, looking quite comfortable within (plushy seats, heaters, handsome decors for chapels


Late Romanesque

The last two evenings at Otterburn Castle were also especially enjoyable, pleasant for me. I knew everyone by that time, was comfortable with most, could sit by the roaring fire in the stone reception room and read my email from my cell phone. One night we gathered in a front room. People had been asked to write a poem, or tell what was the most remarkable experience of the trip. Most people did one or the other, and there were some comic and revealing verses. I fell back on quotations from travel books by poetic authors I had found in one of the bookstores we visited. There was more drinking together as there had been the first night at Lindeth Howe Hotel.


Otterburn castle in the morning

When we said goodbye to the hotel and the very friendly staff (a family) on Saturday morning, there was one more place left for us to see: Durham Cathedral. It’s not on the way to Manchester, but we had all day so we took the detour to Durham. We did walk through a major mall in the city where we saw a good opera house, playhouse with modern plays, theater for movies, shopping, cafes and the like. Then a walk to some older buildings and onto the cathedral square.

Durham cathedral combines the function of commemorative local community place (the center of economic life in the 19th century was mining), with history museum, not only of the religious history of the church (beginning with St Cuthbert as usual), but fast forward to the World Wars of the 20th century as they affected the cathedral close and Durham,. It’s a religious site, with relics, tombs; it’s a tourist attraction and restaurant with garden, and art objects: the building encloses in it different centuries of styles, of figurines. There are tours twice a day and people hired to stop vistors photo-taking as well as answer questions about what visitors are seeing.

I was not surprised to see modern sculptures of Mary, a replica of the four monks carrying the corpse of St Cuthbert round about Northumberland until his body rested in this very cathedral, but I was surprised to see a couple of modern women artists. Even here the attempt to bring women out of obscurity continues. So there was a Paula Rego (whose work I like) imagining (from her Portuguese Catholic background) an old woman, aristocrat, with a young boy at her feet.

This time I was startled — though the images fit the grave and desperate ones of people all dressed up in other pictures by Rego. Here the faces are of skeletons, ghostly.

We stopped for tea somewhere, and then we sped down the vast highway at 70 miles an hour, reached the comfortable, but anonymous soulless hotel where we to dine one last time and then sleep. I had to get up by 6:00 am to make a plane at 9:00 am. I had made a friend of a man slightly younger than me to the point we agreed to try to travel together inside a larger Road Scholar tour group next May to Cornwall. So I’ll see more of it than I did two summers ago with a friend and her partner. After that I may stay to do research in the Royal Cornwall Museum on Winston Graham, and to London for the British library and (if I can get in) BBC archives for the scripts of the 1970s Poldark. Perhaps a dream, but my friend met me at that early hour, we had breakfast, coffee, bid one another adieu and off I went.


Adieu to Cumbria

Gentle reader, I cannot get myself to take pictures as I move through these trips, and don’t have many original informed thoughts to share, only the lectures to tell and my stenography is not what it was.  I wish I had more patience to describe, but such as I am and what I have been able to do is sincerely represented here.

I did unexpectedly have many Trollope sightings: he sets numerous scenes in Can You Forgive Her? and Lady Anna in Cumbria where his sister, Cecilia lived for a time with a husband and he and his mother visited. Langdale Pikes is mentioned more than once as a place to (he must’ve) wander[ed]:

And so another set of travel blogs comes to an end. I close with a poem by Patrick Henry (found in Carol Ann Duffy, Answering Back):

The Waiting Room

An empty coatstand in a public building, in August.
Even this is draped with your absence.
The rags of a seagull’s cry hang from it now.

Nothing is devoid of love.
How many years did I waste, listening out
for your voice?

…………… The park through a window,
swollen with leaves, smothers its coatstands well.

Thin veils of clouds, a city’s prayers,
fall away to the west. For a split second
I can see your eyes.

………………… But if I break my gaze
the gull has slipped its hook, the sea
is a long way away.


Lady Mary Lowther, A Waterfall (one of the watercolor artists whose work I saw in a library and then read about in a book I brought home with me: In the Line of Beauty: Early Views of the Lake District by Amateur Artists texts and choices by Stephen Hebron)

Ellen

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Tarn Haws — a place we stopped at where three lakes intertwined nestled in hills (@Dorothy Glass, one of the people who had a remarkable camera, attached to a computer back in the hotel)

“Prologue to the Lakes District” with apologies to Geoffrey Chaucer
By Margaret Lapetina August 2018

In August, after daffodils ended season
Come Pilgrims from the colonies, for this reason–
To the lakes , to walk the fells , all most enthused
Road scholars, –funny spelling though
They mused.

A group of scholars, you know who you are
For Romanticism to Turbulence travelled far.
To share their knowledge they did yearn
And gladly would they teach and gladly learn.

Our psychologist bard named Bob
Reading Wordsworth did a daffydilly job
After dinner in the poet’s home.
For his pains, he was lauded and
Did admit to being chuffed when we applauded.

Poor Dora, sister-bound to William
In her time not praised for her words’ worth.
Today, the world would not dare ignore her
She might have had the chance to be our Nora.
Nora writes, and researches, publishes and edits;
Commands our great respect, to her great credit.

Sisters L. And G, all smiles and harmony
Long grown in years of mutuality
At dinner played a trivia game with Rick
Alas, they say he drove them quick–
To drink!

The doctor, Steve, in lean and quiet power
Eschews the scalpel now to photograph the flower
He wandered every bastle tower, strode on every trail
He seemed to take delight in fine detail

Suzanne ,the Carolina girl
Enjoys this second chance at traveling her world
To England is in thrall.

A late arrival, Cape Cod Sarah
Lifelong learner, seeks it all.
We hear she has a special yen for Hadrian’s wall.
From loss to strength; though short she stands quite tall
And thus is to be well admired by all.

Our Dave, who on his sweater sports a safety pin
Will help to bring the next election in.
With Sandy he has sailed Italy before
And now they stand in Windemere in awe.

On seeing Carlisle church’s window art
Dorothy, an expert in this part,
Taught some of us the elements to parse
The mysteries of the stunning stained glass

A Rick there was, and that a worthy man
To subjects erudite and small his fine mind ran
Over dinner he brings laughter and good talk
Outside he seeks to help all ladies as they walk.
In darkness he will offer light
He is the very perfect gentle knight

Host Peter J would rather make his way
By foot, we guess ,on fells than drive the bus each day.
He entertains with facts, tales nice or gory
Driving over Hardknott telling stories.
By far the best, the Wednesday highlight
Was dodging bullets in the twilight
Through the military camp …
No wonder he prefers the sweet green fell
He makes us love it and the sheep as well.
And so we thank you, from our 16 seater, Peter.

What irony prevails to name host Anne, Anne Strange?
Could not the world agree to rearrange a
name to celebrate her warmth and charm, her ease
To call her Anne the Friendly, pilgrims please?
For cycling through the sun and rain in Spain
next week
she’ll do 200 kilometers, no strain.
A riding holiday to end the year.
And so we wish her well, Anne-not- Strange, my dear

Road scholars we, though not of Chaucer’s place;
I hope, time comes, to see again each face …

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m back from my Road Scholar touring experience, and like last August’s at Aigas House, in Inverness, Scotland, I mean to share what I can. I’ve written a different sort of framework: A Canterbuy Tale, the human dimension because this time the people on the tour made the experience what it was a lot more than last, where (without meaning to regret this at all) the time was shaped far more by John Lister-Kaye, Lady Lucy, and the various interns. Romance and Turbulence, the title given the itinerary by Road Scholar, is a mix of cultural, landscape, social and physical activity (moderate) events. Accordingly, I’ll divide my story into artists (the Wordsworths, Beatrice Potter, Johns Ruskin); ruins and archeaological sites; landscapes and towns. There were three lectures and a film and I’ll bring them in as they occurred. Within this division, I’m more or less going chronologically.

The first evening we were together, Peter, one of our guides, walked with us from Lindeth Howe Hotel to Lake Windermere, the largest of the lakes. We were near the busy town of Bowness from which many cruise boats (day long, a couple of hours) come and go. Lots of shops, quick food areas, tourist items on sale (for local English people too) and an amusement park. Eventually we discovered there are long lines for the ferries up and down the lake to various smaller towns.

The next day we spent the morning at Wordsworth sites. First Dove Cottage (not far from the hotel).


Dove cottage — before renovated for conservation and tourist gazing by the Wordsworth Trust site

What is most memorable is how small and plain the rooms are, low the ceilings, yet at the same time it was not a hovel, but a gentleman’s residence. The house had much of the original furniture, and you saw chairs and tables one could sit in and work at, provision for different kinds of tasks, all set out in an orderly way. Downstairs one or two of the rooms had been part of an inn; there was a separate place in one room for cooking, in another for quiet activity. Upstairs was room that was flooded with light and it has a day bed, a desk, chairs, a built-in bookcase: William Wordsworth’s study; there was a room for the children, which was lined with newsprint paper to keep out the cold. The people in the rooms talked of how Wordsworth deliberately lived more meagrely than he had to in order to participate in the community: well he was and was not one of them. So too undoubtedly his sister, their poetic and political visitors. At Rydal Mount, it was emphasized that he was a generous man to all the people he and Dorothy came into contact with — he had more money then. That he was liked by the local community and sociable enough. I imagine he was respected if thought a bit odd.


From the outside

We then went into the directly nearby Wordsworth Museum. What an astonishing array of Wordsworthiana this place has — and impressive rich archive of manuscripts and older printed books. There were several full exhibits (lots of plaques, writing, pictures, book printed and manuscript) about the various woman associated with Wordsworth — taking off from the book The Passionate Sisterhood. The men were not left out: relics of Shelley, Southey and the radical Thelwall, an exhibit about DeQuincey (for a while a good friend of the Wordsworths). I was very impressed by the numbers of letters, pictures, paraphernalia of all sorts, and the lists of manuscripts just in the open rooms. The portraits were remarkable; a number I had never seen before (DeQuincy, again early on a frequent visitor)


Robert Southey — this was one there (he supported several of these people eventually)

Every attempt was made to bring the women to the fore in all the museums we were in; one of the exhibits here was titled to emphasize the women who lived in the cottage and visited, and kept it up and wrote. I was surprised at the amount of material about Mary Shelley, for after all she never came here and was not directly part of this group until after Shelley’s death and she became a woman of letters herself. But there is so much more about her to show visually than some of the Wordsworth women.

Here is one by Sara Coleridge, Samuel’s daughter, which reveals that she needed opium to help her sleep: an eerie poem: life was not so easy in that cottage or the others these people inhabited:

The Poppies Blooming all around
My Herbert loves to see,
Some pearly white, some dark as night,
Some red as cramasie;
He loves their colours fresh and fine
As fair as fair may be,
But little does my darling know
How good they are to me.
He views their clustering petals gay
¬And shakes their nut-brown seeds.
But they to him are nothing more
Than other brilliant weeds;

O how should’st thou with beaming brow
With eye and cheek so bright
Know aught of that blossom’s pow’r,
Or sorrows of the night!
When poor mama long restless lies
She drinks the poppy’s juice;
That liquor soon can close her eyes
And slumber soft produce.
0′ then my sweet my happy boy
Will thank the poppy flow’r
Which brings the sleep to dear mama
At midnight’s darksome hour.

From Peter Swaab’s edition of Sara Coleridge: Collected Poems, 2007:

She was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s daughter; she was Robert Southey’s niece; she was an accomplished translator who was proficient in six languages and who published her first translation (a three-volume treatise, from the Latin, about equestrian tribes in Paraguay) when she was just eighteen; she was a nineteenth-century mother who suffered from bouts of anxiety, post-natal depression and, finally, breast cancer; she was a writer of children’s books, a theologian, an editor of her father’s works; she was an artist’s model, first for William Collins’ painting in oils of her as Wordsworth’s Highland Girl in 1818 and then for a watercolour by Edward Nash in 1820. Invariably, all these other facets of Coleridge’s life and work jostle with her poetry for scholarly attention. Faced with the difficult task of selecting a particular angle or approach, no one to date who has made the decision to write about Sara Coleridge has chosen to make her poetry a prime focus of study. And the reason for this, I think, is because Coleridge’s poetry is markedly different from the kind of poetry we’re more used to reading.

When it came to writing poetry, Sara Coleridge stuck closely to the advice Robert Southey later gave a young Charlotte Brontë. She was content to “write poetry for its own sake; not in a spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity.” She was, in the best sense of the word, an amateur who pursued poetry-writing for the same reasons that anyone pursues any recreational hobby: “Just as I would have any one learn music who has an opportunity, though few can be composers, or even performers of great merit,” she explained, “I would have any one, who really and truly has leisure and ability, make verses. I think it a more refining and happy-making occupation than any other pastime-accomplishment

The piece de resistance was a talk by Melissa Mitchell, Assistant Curator about what we can learn from working in archives on manuscripts. Ms Mitchell quoted Philip Larkin on two values: the magical, a relic before the present person’s eyes and in hand of the literal circumstances of the writing; the intimate: we reach a level of closeness and shared experience to see private letters. She had a digital copy of a letter in the museum written at age 16 by Dorothy Wordsworth to a friend, Jane Pollard: the sheets are completely filled and only cross-hatched (to save money) on the outer part of the paper which served as an envelope. One feels one gets close to the creative process by what Dorothy describes of her behavior towards others and by what intelligent company reviewers could glean from visits. We see how sad Dorothy could be, how her aunt and uncle behaved meanly, coldly, harshly to her (their standards for dealing with wards is I hope not replicated today). Dorothy’s hope lies in joining her brothers, she dreams of sharing a cottage and making a garden.

Here is one by Dorothy after many years of living with William, and then with his wife and children and amid all the other romantic poets and writers: she still was a person who remained apart in herself:

Floating Island

Harmonious powers with nature work
On sky, earth, river, lake and sea;
Sunshine and cloud, whirlwind and breeze,
All in one duteous task agree.

Once did I see a slip of earth
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold—how, no one knew,
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind,

Might see it from the mossy shore
Dissevered, float upon the lake,
Float with its crest of trees adorned,
On which the warbling birds their pastime take.

Food, shelter, safety, there they find;
There berries ripen, flowerets bloom;
There insects live their lives—and die:
A peopled world it is, in size a tiny room.

And thus through many seasons’ space
This little island may survive,
But nature (though we mark her not)
Will take away, may cease to give.

Perchance when you are wandering forth
Upon some vacant sunny day
Without an object, hope, or fear,
Thither your eyes may turn—the isle is passed away,

Buried beneath the glittering lake,
Its place no longer to be found.
Yet the lost fragments shall remain
To fertilize some other ground.
(1828-29; 1842)

See my “Foremother poet: Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855).

Mitchell didn’t finish her talk as there were so many good questions and the answers took her in other directions from this letter and manuscripts as such. We don’t have all Dorothy left as her grandson crossed out lines to make her writing illegible. Dorothy was a deeply passionate young woman, she seemed so different from many people, slightly (or a lot) wild. Mitchell took down from the shelves of the room (like Chawton a room set aside for first editions of the writers of the era) a first edition of Milton which had been Wordsworth’s own copy; it was rebound either by Wordsworth or shortly after his death and Ms Mitchell read aloud a description on the inside by Mary Wordsworth about the rebinding of the book. It was an emotional experience to hear this kind of talk. Mitchell told of the story of Dorothy’s anguish the night before William married Mary (and how Dorothy wore the wedding ring that night on her hand) and the finding of the love letters of Mary and Wm which show they were tenderly in love. At the top of the museum is an exhibit intended to remind the visitor of Dorothy’s last years suffering senile dementia: the state of medicine at the era is seen in a replica of her last bed and the treatments attempted to alleviate her helplessness.

The politics of era and fine line these writers had to walk not only socially but politically, was eschewed and the presence of Pitt’s gov’t. We were not quite told how William was just finally (through patronage) offered a paying job, nor of the kind of surveillance, pressure and destruction that could be wreaked on any of the individuals in the circle who became too overtly radical in his public lifetime. Think of the imprisonment of Leigh Hunt, with whom, and about which experience Daisy Hay opens her book (see below). I cover this in my review of Kenneth Johstone’s Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s:

The bookshop is worth going to because upstairs they have older used books and the volumes up and downstairs have been carefully chosen and culled to include the best scholarship on the writing and visual art of the region. I bought two paperbacks I could carry by authors whose essays I’ve enjoyed:

We had lunch as a group in an old pub in Keswick and then were left to our own devices for a couple of hours. I found a good bookstore with little trouble. It was place for local people to sit in the square and talk, there were all sorts of ordinary shops and tourist places intermingled. I went to an art exhibit of lovely watercolors and then in the church found an historical exhibit about mining in the area and some remarkable chalk drawings of the mines and quarries sometimes executed with the picturesque in mind. I wished I had had room in my case to bring back some of these pictures that I saw.


Keswick, central town square

On the road again, “in the minibuses,” we passed by and made a quick visit (half an hour) to a famous slate mine, now turned into a perpetual shop for items made of slate for passersby and tourists to buy. One must keep in mind how what these sites are today are places for visitors to come and look at as snatched out and preserved pieces of history. That is their function and so they direct themselves to those who are using the sites to have (they hope) numinous or pleasant experiences. Every attempt is made to declare the site special, somehow lifted from the ordinary, and (to my mind) these are only successful when not too many people come to them and they remain relatively unchanged or are (as in this case) openly redirected as a store


Slate Mine — we stopped by several later in the week — I bought a new pair of earrings and a barret (to replace the one I had to give up going through security at one point because forsooth it made too much noise and I had a plane to catch and no time to cope with explanations)

Then we drove to a high point of a hill and looked down on Buttermere, a spectacularly beautiful lake just as the sky is darkening, whereupon we drove in another direction way, higher and higher, in circles, and suddenly found ourselves stopped at the bottom of a hill. Climb it and you find yourself in a small circle of neolithic stones.

Castlerigg can be found in wikipedia and is said to be among the most visited of the neolothic stone sites of Cumbria.  The question is of course what were these open air temples or airy-buildings for? I wish we had had more lectures or that the guides could have furnished more information, but what they said was true: we don’t know for sure what these circles were used for. This small one had the merit that on that day it appeared to our eyes relatively unknown (the guide suggested this) so there was no crowded parking lot, and only a few people around. It was late in the afternoon, and I could see it’s quietly taken care of or it would not last. It’s a kind of time capsule today; seen a couple of centuries ago Keats was not that impressed: “Scarce images of life, one here, one there,/Lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque/Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor…“ Maybe the weather was bad that day: we had sun, if not as much as in the photo: its landspace is protected by the National Trust


Castlerigg

An extraordinarily good book I bought when visiting Stonehenge, Avebury (both crowded with tourists, restaurants, tours) and Stanton Drew (like Castlerigg left alone basically) with Jim, Laura, and Isobel, Christopher Chippindale in his Stonehenge Complete tells of how vulnerable these stones are to defacement and from the weather. Peter talked of control of the weather by neolithic farmers and told a couple of stories: I suspect cruel sacrifices may have gone on in one, but like many historical sites de mémoire, the shell of what was can now be made to harbour and represent quite different meanings. Such preserved places carve out a space which can image present-day human resistance to the destruction and chance and loss; they can stand for the opposing impulse: human resistance to taking into account what really was — though this was not true of the Road Scholar tour as we went to the grim prisons (I’ll talk of the Hermitage, a castle with dungeons on the Scottish side of the border and Etal Castle (near Flodden Field another day). They show us too since they have been left to survive what human beings potentially can reverence and make socially functioning places to come to and experience together. Somehow the places become something more in memory after we left them.

In the evening after dinner three of us, me, Barbara, and Sara, accompanied a seemingly tireless Peter on a sort of zig-zag hop until we reached the top of our local Windermere pond. He said he had had enough of being on a bus for many hours.  He is a 76 year old man, originally from London, now lives in a small house on a sort of island in Cumbria. He was ever pushing us higher and higher and we actually got to the top and gazed out across the landscape just near the hotel:


This is one of the hotel’s promotional shots: it does show the gardens which have been much developed since Beatrice Potter’s day: a short history:

it is not a big glamorous modern hotel; rather it is a converted and expanded country mansion (not that big originally, imagine 9 rooms on 2 floors, with a stable nearby, plus kitchen garden). It was owned by Beatrice Potter first as a summer home, then a place to put her aging mother. During WW1 a tiny hospital, then a bed and breakfast, now a hotel. It is just outside Bowness, a large town on one shore of Lake Windermere, not far from where Wordsworth once lived. I should add it now has 30 plus “guests, 4 common rooms (for different purposes), dining room with piano, bar, office, kitchens&c, three medium gardens (the largest of which supplies the photo perspective), parking lot …

Ellen

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