Archive for the ‘women's novels’ Category

John Everett Millais’s depiction of Mary, Lady Mason deep in thought (she is guilty of forgery on behalf of an ungrateful son, has to hide this or she will be put in prison, from Orley Farm)

In an early part of this story I have endeavoured to describe how this woman sat alone, with deep sorrow in her heart and deep thought on her mind, when she first learned what terrible things were coming on her. The idea, however, which the reader will have conceived of her as she sat there will have come to him from the skill of the artist, and not from the words of the writer. If that drawing is now near him, let him go back to it. Lady Mason was again sitting in the same room — that pleasant room, looking out through the veranda on to the sloping lawn, and in the same chair; one hand again rested open on the arm of the chair, while the other supported her face as she leaned upon her elbow; and the sorrow was still in her heart and the deep thought in her mind. But the lines of her face were altered, and the spirit expressed by it was changed. There was less of beauty, less of charm, less of softness; but in spite of all that she had gone through there was more of strength, — more of the power to resist all that this world could do to her. Trollope, Orley Farm

Next to Sugar’s bed is a stack of books and periodicals. Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, collected in book form, is topmost, but she won’t read any more of that: she can see where it’s heading. It wasn’t so bad at the start, but now he’s put a strong-minded woman into it, whom he clearly detests, so he’ll probably humiliate her or kill her before the story’s finished. And she’s fed up with Trollope’s latest serial, The Way We Live Now – she won’t buy any more instalments, it’s threatening to go on forever, and she’s wasted enough money on it already. Really, she doesn’t know why she persists with Trollope; he may be refreshingly unsentimental, but he always pretends he’s on the woman’s side, then lets the men win. (Michel Faber, ‘The Apple’, in The Apple. New Crimson Petal Stories, 2006, one of the six contemporary texts, a historical novel set in the 19th century, quoted and discussed, see below)

Dear friends and readers,

The second day, Friday, September 18th, was as long and rich a day as Thursday (1, 2), and it included some unexpected collocations (e.g., Trollope’s North America with a double sonnet by Elizabeth Bishop, which sonnet I mean to quote), panels with four to six presentations, and my own paper (linked in). Intriguing unexpected perspectives were broached.

Elizabeth Adela Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912), School is Out (1889)

Panel 6: Teaching Trollope. Deborah Denenholz Morse chaired the panel and spoke first. Her perspective was her perception of Trollope, which she offers to her classes as a foundation for understanding his works. She presented Barsetshire as a modern place by looking at all the darker, cynical, failed and plangent stories and characters that the structuring of these series allowed Trollope to weave in. Her students had responded to Trollope seen at this angle. She then detailed a couple of students’ responses to these stories. Prof Morse sees Trollope’s novels as recuperative and she ended her talk on those characters in Trollope who are saved morally. Margaret Markwick has never taught so she told us about changing attitudes towards Trollope that she experienced as a graduate student in England, who wanted to write a graduate thesis on Trollope. She met with bemusement, Trollope as a subject with ridicule, and people would say, “Whose Trollope? or “which?” In Britain Trollope is identified as a spokesperson for the establishment and the adaptations on radio and TV mostly reflect this. V.S. Pritchett recorded the first return of liking and respect generally for Trollope during WW2: people read Trollope in the air-raid shelter’s (it’s said). There has been a resurgence in respect for Trollope, two film adaptations since 2000 (for The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right, both scripted by Andrew Davies). One can find people writing with real interest on Trollope’s presentation of how one achieves a successful career, of his self-reflexivity, as an artist, but much stonewalling remains.

Suzanne Raitt teaches He Knew He Was Right as a one of several key texts of the 1850s through 60s (others are Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Ann Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Arnold Bennett novels) in her exploration of Victorian patterns of ambivalent support of various civil and social rights bill for women over the era. She suggested most couples in Victorian novels are in hellish miserable marriages, and this set of novels of the 1860s are particularly: they cover the deserted sexualized masters and mistresses; also the governess stories, stories of mothers-in-law, wronged wives, husbands, lawyers. Raitt’s students researched the bills at the time of these novels, and the laws passed or operative during the period giving women limited custody over their children, allowing women the right to move about freely, to own property, to get a divorce. Novels often have an inconveniently sexualized woman, tropes on mothering a child, on children used as weapons, as ignored; the books are heavy on grief. Students see the benefit of exploring the novel as part of an interdiscipinary study of an era or set of issues.

Mark Turner teaches a course which takes advantage of and discusses and explores the effects of serial publication on literature of the 19th century. Prof Turner works with Linda Hughes and they find themselves practicing serial pedagogy where you are forced to live in, pay attention to what is presently happening. He felt this is a different kind of encounter with texts: people have experienced texts serially, but here they must move from work to work, bits of them at a time on a screen with several windows of texts. Young adults watch movies and present day TV programs in this way too. The notion of progress and progression is structured into these experiences, but but there is no sense that one must finish something, or the book itself manifest completion. He felt seriality has become crucial in our culture.

“It’s Dogged as Does It”: the frontispiece by Francis Arthur Fraser, drawn for the second volume of the 1878 set of Barsetshire books published by Chapman and Hall

Mary Jean Corbett began by saying she felt she had read fewer Trollope novels than many in the conference: she has read his Autobiography, The Way We Live Now, the Palliser novels. She taught a course on the Barsetshire series as a whole, where she divided the students up into groups and asked each group to deliver a presentation on one of the six novels and each of them separately choose a novel by Trollope and read it on their own. Students talked seriously about the persistence of women’s inferior status in Trollope’s books.

Emily Carr (Canadian artist, 1871-1945, her visionary art inspired by the indigenous peoples of Pacific Northwest coast), Walk at Sitka

Panel 7: Australian Trollope. Nicholas Birns chaired and talked generally of “Trollope and the New World.” He felt the delayed building of the Panama Canal helped define Australia as so far away, the Antipodes, and this British attitude affected the Australian view of themselves. He discussed the view of Australia taken by 20th century fiction by Chinese immigrants. Nigel Starck’s “Antony Trollope’s Australasian Odyssey” was a semi-comically delivered summary of his book, The First Celebrity: how Fred, Trollope’s son, came to Australia, married (Rose did not attend the wedding because “she had had enough”), had children, his hardships and how Trollope helped him; how Trollope and Rose’s cook came with them, stayed, married and prospered there, and the present Trollopes; how Trollope was greeted (as the “first” celebrity), and (later) how Trollope’s book criticized (adversely). Steven Armanick showed how Trollope’s Christmas story, Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, may be read fruitfully alongside Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Many have regarded Trollope’s art as not in the same league as Dickens’s; while Trollope said he had to acknowledge Dickens’s power over readers, he attacked Dickens’s art more than once, and himself wrote for the Christmas market reluctantly. Prof Armanick saw Trollope as giving his hero, Harry, a character comparable to Scrooge’s, very hard to get along with, even paranoid (an urgent watchfulness, suspecting everyone as an enemy), except importantly while Harry may reconcile himself to his circumstances and the people he must be friends with to live, he does not fundamentally change his nature at all.

From Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock

I came last and was glad I had cut mine down to 18 minutes for that was all the time left. The general description of my paper gives the impression I dwelt on Trollope’s two travel books, North America and Australia and New Zealand, and talked of how in his colonialist fiction and non-fiction alike Trollope is “concerned to show how the memories and norms of people from an “old country” interact with the geographical, new economic, and evolving cultural and social circumstances the settlers find themselves in to make a new environment.” I ended up writing as much about some of Trollope’s great and lesser known or read colonialist short stories (e.g., “Journey to Panama,” “Aaron Trowe”), talked briefly about colonialist sections in his non-colonialist fiction (e.g., Framley Parsonage and the closing epistolary section from the characters emigrated to Australia in The Three Clerks). I compared two of the stories to some famous 20th century stories and films (Picnic at Hanging Rock (film and book), Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape,” and the film The Proposition). I critiqued Trollope’s justification of some of the central behaviors of settler colonialists towards the natives of the country they are taking over at the same time as I argued against the tendency to separate Trollope’s fiction from his non-fiction as distinctively different and showed that if you read them as indivisible and in terms of one another and both as also highly autobiographical, there is much humane and predictive insight to be gained into the results of settler colonialist practices then and now. I’ve made my paper
available on academia.edu, and invite all to read it: “On Inventing a New Country: Trollope’s Depictions of Settler Colonialism.”

It was at this point the sessions came to an end for everyone to have lunch.


U.S.S. Cairo, one of “Pook’s turtles,” which fought on the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers until sunk by a Confederate “torpedo” in the Yazoo River near Vicksburg, December 1862

Panel 8: Modern Trollope. I was very taken with John Bowen’s paper, “Bishop’s Trollope: Not Proudie but Elizabeth.” He argued that Elizabeth Bishop’s double sonnet gives us an epitome, the core quintessence of Trollope’s North America: Trollope’s mood, central attitudes to the war. Unfortunately Trollope’s book has not been respected, but Bishop saw the same city many years later and had the same take on it. It is not a cynical perspective but an accurate response to aggressive militarist people, an unpretentious disquieting vision. She took words from Trollope’s letters and wove them into her verse.

From Trollope’s Journal

As far as statues go, so far there’s not
much choice: they’re either Washingtons
or Indians, a whitewashed, stubby lot,
His country’s Father or His foster sons.
The White House in a sad, unhealthy spot
just higher than Potomac’s swampy brim,
— they say the present President has got
ague or fever in each backwoods limb.
On Sunday afternoon I wandered, – rather,
I floundered, – out alone. The air was raw
and dark; the marsh half-ice, half-mud. This weather
is normal now: a frost, and then a thaw,
and then a frost. A hunting man, I found
the Pennsylvania Avenue heavy ground …
There all around me in the ugly mud,
— hoof-pocked, uncultivated, — herds of cattle,
numberless, wond’ring steers and oxen, stood:
beef for the Army, after the next battle.
Their legs were caked the color of dried blood;
their horns were wreathed with fog. Poor, starving, dumb
or lowing creatures, never to chew the cud
or fill their maws again! Th’effluvium
made that damned anthrax on my forehead throb.
I called a surgeon in, a young man, but,
with a sore throat himself, he did his job.
We talked about the War, and as he cut
away, he croaked out, “Sir, I do declare
everyone’s sick! The soldiers poison the air.”

I admit I was so taken by Bowen’s argument because in my paper I had had a long section on Trollope’s depressed time in Washington D.C., how it was in part from his personal life at the time, but also in reaction to what he saw going on in the city at the time. I have now restored the section to my paper in an abbreviated form in a footnote but include it here as one of the comments on this blog report.

An appropriate cover illustration, a photo of Broadway, circa 1860 to an abridged edition of North America (Penguin)

It is hard to convey James Kincaid’s brilliant satire on both much Trollope criticism as well as the academic world and its practices at conferences (lots of fun made of how people praise one another, the conventions of panels and so on) since if I was to write down the words he literally said they might come out sheerly as insults rather than the double-edged irony, mild burlesque and invectives he used. So rather than that I’ll offer some of the implied arguments (as I understand them), which was that literary criticism of Trollope is a controlled set of practices and conventions of speaking (by cultural agreement). We could talk about Trollope’s texts in very different ways than we do; when students first enter college that is how some of them talk about texts very often. Prof Kincaid also sent up the conventional moralizing way people still read Trollope (academics as well as non-academics), using Northrup Frye’s archetypal criticism and Barchester Towers (he has written essays on BT). He asked if Trollope is really assaulting conservative values (what a way to talk), if Slope is not a force for progress? Mr Harding a parasite? The Signora Neroni, a parody of absurd hierarchical pretenses? Charlotte Stanhope a deeply responsible young woman, and Bertie a marvelous anarchist. He seemed to suggest we read all of Trollope out of Bertie’s perspective.

Charlotte supervising the Signora Neroni’s entrance into Mrs Proudie’s converzatione, POV Bertie (1983 Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater)

The last paper I can include here before ending (lest the report go on too long) was Luca Caddia’s “The Way We Counterlive Now: Trollope as a Character’s Writer.” This was a third remarkable paper where Mr Caddia, a translator of Trollope into Italian presented six passages from 20th century novels and found in them references to Trollope as well as analogues of attitudes of mind that we find in Trollope or his characters. When in characters, Trollope’s insights can be similiar to those of the more sophisticated of literary critics. Among his many remarks, Mr Caddia found parallels in attitudes in Philip Roth and The Way We Live Now (he felt Roth had TWWLN in mind, especially perhaps Breghert).

Read The Way We Live Now. It may help to explode those myths that fuel the pathetic Jewish Anglophilia Maria’s cashing in on. The book is rather like a soap opera, but the main meat of it from your point of view is a little subplot, an account of Miss Longestaffe, an English young lady from an upper-class home, sort of country gentry, a bit over the hill, and she’s furious that nobody ‘s married her, [. . .] and because she’s determined to have a rich social life in London, she’s going to demean herself by marrying a middle-aged Jew. ‘ [. . .] ‘How does the family take on the Jew?’ ‘[. . .] They’re thunderstruck. [. . .] She’s so upset by their reaction that her defiance turns to doubt, and she has a correspondence with him. [. . .] What will be particularly instructive to you is their correspondence, what it reveals about the attitudes of a large number of people to Jews, attitudes that only appear to be one hundred years old.’ (Philip Roth, The Counter/lie. 19R6)

I was particularly drawn to the idea (which I agree with) that Trollope’s central characters typically will only accept change if he or she is not asked to give up his or her integrity; he expresses or sees this paradigm as a struggle of the individual against the world, and finds that the world’s demands for change are an attack on one’s character. Mr Caddia quoted Jacques Roubaud, The Great Fire of London (1989) where the writer takes on the anti-social attitudes of Trollope’s central characters, and Mr Caddia suggested that say in Can You Forgive Her? the issue is an adjustment to social conditions which the characters spend all novel long refusing, and some of them never give in for real at all. Henry James valued Trollope for his recalcitrant psychology. Proust gives meaning to life by memory instead of the actual experience, is an underlying them of Alan Hollinghurst,and he offers the idea that the way Trollope is discussed (as say about money) obscures what are the real themes of his books as after all it is the world’s voice which makes such pronouncements.

Mr Caddia talked more length about The Duke’s Children (newly out in a complete copy): a central meditation in the book: what do you do when deprived of someone who has acted as your beloved person for much of your life? He argued the Duke of Omnium on his own is then not so much about integrity as the demand he change his character and he holds out. In the Duke’s dialogue to Silverbridge we find that happiness is having too much to do, with a self-deprecating joke: “a great grind, isn’t it sir, replies Silverbridge. Mr Caddia suggested what Trollope’s characters offer us and his books too are ways of keeping life’s terrors at bay.

In short, during breakfast, I turned this cafe into my club. And like a character from Trollope in his own club (and no doubt Trollope himself, when he was elected to the Garrick, after his pre-morning work (he wrote as I do in the last hours of night) also arrived in the same way), I would walk over mechanically, always take a seat at the same table, utter the same words of greetings to the waiter or owner (a fan of the Dax rugby team), leave on my table the same, always exactly calculated sum, and absorb myself again as quickly as possible into my book, the almost twenty-four hours having elapsed since the day before instantly abolished in thought. But, as a true Trollopian, I didn’t realize that changing urban customs and passing time [. . .] were gradually going to turn my innocent habit into an anachronism. For, one by one, the cafes of the square shifted their opening times ever later into the day. And, one morning, the owner of the establishment I patronized came to me and explained [. . .] that for a month I had been their only customer, [. . .] [so J they really couldn’t keep this any longer, and to please accept his apology. I had reached the end of Orley Farm. I had been oblivious to everything. All Trollopians will understand me.” (Jacques Roubaud, The Great Fire of London, 1989)

In these last papers it was a relief to hear accurate views on Trollope’s texts, perspectives and comments which brought out what is truly of value in him today still. One can see how hard it is to bring this out against reams of distortions, turnings away. I wished the panel on teaching Trollope had offered more individual instances of how students themselves wrote about Trollope, but found Mark Turner’s assessment of the experience of reading and trying to teach Trollope and education itself in a modern classroom as making structures which go against the grain of Trollope’s knitted together texts at the same time as they mimic the installment procedure he himself had to follow in his time and so many writers and readers find themselves having to experience today stimulating: is it life’s patterns themselves, the way we experience life, time in the world that is therefore brought into our understanding or does it just undermine attempts to understand a text in a classroom?

One more blog report to come.

Recent illustration for a Folio society edition of Uncle Silas: the symbolic house (Charles Stewart)


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Programme Name: Wolf Hall - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep6 (No. 6) - Picture Shows:  Anne Boleyn (CLAIRE FOY) - (C) Company Productions Ltd - Photographer: Giles Keyte
Cromwell (Mark Rylance) holding up crossed wrists at Henry’s seething onslaught of accusation of plotting against him with Chapuys for the Emperor Charles V; Anne (Claire Foy) shivering in the wind, trembling as she waits to be beheaded (Wolf Hall 5 & 6)

He doesn’t exactly miss the man. It’s just that sometimes, he forgets he’s dead. It’s as if they’re deep in conversation, and suddenly the conversation stops, he says something and no answer comes back. As if they’d been walking along and More had dropped into a hole in the road, a pit as deep as a man, slopping with rainwater. You do in fact, hear of such accidents … (48)

‘He sent last week for a French executioner. Not from one of our own cities, but the man who chops heads in Calais. It seems there is no Englishman whom he trusts to behead his wife. I wonder he does not take her out himself and strangle her in the street’ … (382, Mantel personating Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies)

Dear friends and readers,

Prompted by Anibundel’s blog The Course of History, and having finished Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, plus locating the release transcripts of Straughan’s screenplays, I feel compelled to add another perspective on last two hours (Act III) of this mini-series, though I know there have been many insightful conversations and blogs online, to say nothing of the print media, about it. I want to point out that this last pair turns this famous Tudor marital-sex imbroglio into a usable past, a mirror to see ourselves in, its obsessive topics circling round its terrifyingly, almost inexplicably powerful figure, Henry Tudor, the Eighth of that name: death waiting right next to us, memory continually haunting us from our particular pasts as each day vanishes, and terror, not just state terror:

Henry (Damien Lewis) watching Anne, Elizabeth on her lap, reach out to him with an embroidered handkerchief

but what makes state terror possible, the obedient collusion of all who together make themselves subject to this terror

Richard Cromwell (Ross Porter) come to tell Henry that Mark Smeaton (Max Fowler) has named the names of men to be accused of adultery with Anne

Bring Up the Bodies may be regarded as a kind of culmination of a group of what’s called gothic but are political themes in Mantel’s contemporary fiction, memoir, and essays diary entries for the LRB, literary reviews and life-writing as a writer. I know as steadily and maybe more continuously nowadays as Mantel that the dead are real (see Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, October 15, 2012).

The need to keep the film historical, and explain how these startling visible turns of events from making Anne Boleyn into a cherished legitimate queen and wife into a powerless traitor-concubine treasonably adulterous came about rightly takes precedence over the course of Part 5 and into the opening of Part 6. At the same time the central story line about our hero, requires dramatizing the inward journey of how Cromwell drove himself however part- (but only part) reluctantly to put together transparently inadequate evidence. And there must be a pivotal high drama for the hour so that the high point of Part 5 was Henry’s fit of unconsciousness during a joust, and the sudden hysteria and unmasking of many about the king, and the improbably resuscitation by Cromwell:


The turning point for Part 6 the long interrogation of the foolishly vain Smeaton, seething with wounds over his “inferior status” and despised feminine brand of masculinity.

congratulatinghim (1)

congratulatinghim (2)
Cromwell congratulating the smirking Smeaton as Rafe watches and listens

And when Smeaton is taken away, Cromwell to Richard:

Well, there aren’t many men alive who can say they took me by surprise. Years of being despised by lords has made a boaster of him. Sometimes I think I should have taken him in here. I don’t want him hurt. If we have to torture sad creatures like that, what next? Stamping on dormice?

These plot-designs precluded the kind of quiet dramatization of passing events that count which were seen especially in Parts 1 & 2. No time for registering the increasingly criminal behaviors of Cromwell (as when he takes a tavern keeper’s wife to bed for a casual encounter, and later brings her to one of his houses, and has her husband disposed of) and the scope of his activities across England enforcing Protestantism, growing richer himself, and the many passing quick scenes, memories of such, letters to and from middle ranking eager sycophants (names familiar to anyone who has read anything of the period, as the Lisles).

Worse yet, well over half of Bring Up the Bodies is given over to Cromwell’s dramatic one-on-one encounters, from the slow gathering of envious vengeful or simply desperately self-serving witnesses (Chapuys, Jane Boleyn’s salacious malice), to the dialogues between Cromwell and his now grown instruments (Richard Cromwell, Rafe Sadler with whose family Cromwell shows his continued ability to love, to be fond, to be kindly cordial) and first Mark Smeaton, then the four accused (George Boleyn, Francis Weston, William Brereton, Harry Norris) and what we can call protected secondary characters (Henry Percy, Thomas Wyatt). In the mini-series only the last third of Part 6 covers this material. The book does give less time to Anne versus Cromwell because he keeps away from her until near the trial.

Yes I’ve found a flaw in the series: they needed seven parts. At least another hour.


The heroine’s text story-line is seen through Cromwell’s POV: he is ever coming upon and watching from the side the results, evidence, signs of Anne’s miscarriages (her own terror at the window after she bled after the king seethed at her trying to stop him jousting, with do you seek “to geld” me, Madame) and the way her gradual displacement is registered, most notably through the death of her dog: the helpless animal a cynosure for her.

Purefoy thrown on the hard stones, bleeding to death

Cromwell: “The window was open.”
Anne: “He was such an innocent What kind of monster would do such a thing?”
Cromwell: “Perhaps he got up on the ledge somehow and then his paws slipped.
Anne: “– Paws slipped? Paws slipped? — “

A rare scene without Cromwell occurs when we observe her household shunted off to the side, turning on one another, but that is immediately followed with Jane Boleyn reporting it all to Cromwell. The way people become eager to tell him of the slightest breakdown of Anne (as when she says in the tower she doesn’t deserve this room and Kingston reports it unasked) reminds me of the McCarthy era when witnesses came forward to testify against other people. Doubtless my reader will remember analogies of his or her own. We see Jane Seymour’s presence and Katharine’s death through Cromwell’s observation from afar and visits, as if we must have some sign of these or the story does not make sense, with the accent of the latter falling on Anne’s (premature) exultation and (wrong) idea she is now secure (just the opposite in fact happens). But again the focus is on the terrifying: the creepy nightmare of Cromwell seeing Anne served up as a meat dish pulled by sticks through the table with her face photographed upside down, her dress this deathly creamy satin:


I didn’t find the trial as philosophically memorable as the Bolt one from A Man for All Seasons; it was rather realistic, with Cromwell as the effectively trained lawyer trapping George Boleyn, asking leading questions of Anne. From historical studies (as well as her heir-daughter Elizabeth’s survival and reign) we know she was highly intelligent, but this is as nothing when everyone is agreed you must go.


Straughan is concerned that Cromwell should not appear a monster (and Rylance obliges by the quietude of his tones, face, and occasional hand gestures) so the revenge aspect of Cromwell’s motives are only quietly there. The memorable lines were in what was left of Cromwell’s encounters with individuals who provide phantom evidence, whom he turning into the dead.

So to Brereton’s outrage he takes him back:

Retort (1)

Cromwell: “Let’s go back. I remember in the late Cardinal’s time, one of your household killed a man in a bowls match.
Brereton: “Well, the game can get very heated.”

Retort (2)

Cromwell: “The Cardinal thought it was time for a reckoning, but your family impeded the investigation and I ask myself, ‘Has anything changed since then?’ John ap Eyton had a quarrel with one of your household only recently.
Brereton: “So, that’s why I’m here.”
Cromwell: “Not entirely, but leave aside your adultery with the Queen, let’s concentrate on Eyton. Blows were exchanged, a man was killed. Eyton was tried and acquitted. But you, because you have no respect for the law or Brereton “– I have every respect! — ”
Cromwell: “Don’t interrupt me! You had the man abducted and hanged. You think because it’s only one man, it doesn’t matter. You think no-one will remember, but I remember

To Norris’s complacent conceit, sudden bullying and threat worthy the ferociously corrupt Norfolk:

Norris: “You’ll not torture gentlemen. The King wouldn’t permit it.
Cromwell: “Oh, well There don’t have to be formal arrangements. I can put my thumbs in your eyes and then you would sing Green Grows The Holly if I asked you to.”

My favorite one:

George Boleyn: “But Mark Smeaton? — What has he done to you? — ”
Cromwell: “I don’t know I just don’t like the way he looks at me.”

He stonewalls Anne in the film, making her sudden reaching out to him feel more believable. When he looks out for her creature comforts (“Would you like your furs brought in?”) we get another more alienated light on how he looked out for Wolsey, Princess Mary’s and even Katharine’s transient welfare when placed in front of them. Given a chance, he will mouth platitudes as a wall around himself: to Jane Boleyn he inquires politely why she as a lady-in-waiting did not seek to “comfort her mistress.”

But what I suggest that we should note (while we wait for Hilary to write the third book, and then for the Straughan screenplay and getting the actors together, film-designers and funding together again) are aspects of Cromwell’s encounters with the king. When the king resorts to fierce bullying, Cromwell’s gesture of crossed wrists shows that there were tender moments with his father: it was Walter Cromwell who showed the boy how to soothe a wound with water and clenched hands. Henry makes an appeal which contains offers of friendship, concern, memories of shared interests, as when he takes Cromwell aside in the garden and pretends to ask what they should do for useful entertainment this summer.


Henry: “Will you walk with me? I wish we would go down to the weald one day – talk to the ironmasters. I’ve had various drawings – mathematical drawings and advices concerning how our ordnance can be improved, but I … I can’t … I can’t make as much of it as you would. It’s because … Well Because you are my right hand, sir. So, shall we go down? You and I, meet the charcoal burners?”
Cromwell: “Of course. But not this summer, sir. I think you will be too busy.
Henry: “Yeah. I cannot live as I have lived, Cromwell. You must free me from this from Anne.

When the evidence has been gathered and the trial is about to commence, Straughan does give Henry some lines suggesting that Anne aroused male insecurities, but nothing like Mantel’s books’ dialogues and monologues suggesting Henry’s intense resentment at how Anne once kept him at bay and then once having given in, delighted him in bed by transgressive sex. In Mantel’s book we see Henry’s rigid pieties come out to condemn her as someone who must’ve been whorish before she met him. In the mini-series the accent is again on how frightened people colluded in believing what they in their gut felt to be false:

Cranmore: “I never had a better opinion in a woman than I had in her. I can’t believe she’s guilty … Except I know Your Highness would never go so far if she weren’t.”
Henry: “She deceived all of us. When I look back, it all falls into place. So many friends lost, alienated Worse.When I think of Wolsey [Camera is on Cromwell hearing this, face to the side.] The way she practised against him. She said she loved me. But she meant the opposite. I’ve written a play. A tragedy. My own story. [gives it to Cromwell]
Cromwell: “You should keep it sir, till we have more leisure to do it justice.”
Henry: “But I want you to see her true nature. I believe she has committed adultery with 100 men.
Cranmore: “But her brother? Is it likely?”
Henry: “Well, I doubt she could resist! Why spare? Why not drink the cup to its filthy dregs?”

According to J.J Scarisbrick (a standard biography), Henry did write a play about Anne’s adultery. It’s a nice touch how Cromwell must flatter the king’s literary aspirations. In Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Paul Scofield as More pretends not to flatter Robert Shaw as musician and composer in order to flatter him the more delicately.

But the strength of the screenplay is to (as with the book) leave it improbable that Anne was adulterous but make it understandable that she could be suspected and even thought to have had sex with her male courtiers. Again looking forward to the third book and another mini-series, we should keep the ambiguities of Cromwell’s conduct and how Henry’s mind can twist something into plausibility in mind.


I have in another blog described the unflinching close-up way the execution of Anne is performed (“How can one tell of a life lived at this aware angle” — the question referring to Mantel herself). Here I want to say how this terror is reinforced by Cromwell’s slow walk back to the king, half terrified that the king might turn on him, and then the look in his eye as he allows Henry to pull him into a bear hug and Damien Lewis personates the half-crazed lunacy of someone who knows he can do anything to anyone, almost.



A parable for our time, or a new man for how we today see all seasons. I remember reading later fragments in the papers of Anne Murray Halkett who wrote an autobiography of her life in the later 17th century as an adherent of the Stuarts. She wondered how it was that a group of men could just murder Charles I when everyone asked later on who would speak about it expressed horror. How could this have occurred? How is it all these people stand there going through this barbaric scene, each behaving with utter calmness over a detached head, a bloody corpse, a wooden box to take her away.


Next to Cromwell and his son, Gregory (whom in the book he brings to demonstrate the boy’s loyalty) a man snickers over one of her women who had been so hard to her in the prison saying with frantic tones “We do not want men to handle her”: “It’s a little late for that.”


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Anne (Claire Foy) has had a miscarriage (penultimate sequence, Wolf Hall 4), POV, Thomas Cromwell aka Mark Rylance first observes the sexually spiteful Jane Boleyn (Jessica Raine) and then stands before Anne

… the historical novel has been one of the sites where women writers have had most freedom to examine masculinity as a social and cultural construct, Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel, British Women Writers, 1900-2000)

Dear friends and readers,

We left off at the close of Wolf Hall 2, whose screenplay is (let us nor forget) is by Robert Straughan since in Wolf Hall 5 &6, we will retrospectively observe and understand some significant departures by Straughan from Hilary Mantel’s conception. We watched Thomas Cromwell meditating over relics, objects to remember Cardinal Wolsey (played by Jonathan Pryce), including a blue ring he places on his finger, which he will twist now and again in the rest of the drama.



I argued the over-arching trajectory of the three-act (albeit 6 part) mini-series is that of a psychologically and politically complex Renaissance revenge tragedy. Within that larger framing, there are a number of secondary stories, with accompanying themes, some which cross all six episodes, some dominating just one episode or group of scenes. This week I will concentrate on two, one pictorially and the other allusively and thematically brought out by Anibundel in her blog, Wolf Hall 3 & 4: A Man for all Seasons.

Mantel’s Wolf Hall performs the function of recent sequels to classic fiction and revisions of consensus histories; she asks us to switch our allegiances to the victimized, conquered, castigated and stigmatized lives of traditional histories and in so doing discover the tragedy going on is one where the subaltern figures are us. In this case these figures include several of the hitherto despised and dismissed women of Henry VIII’s court and his low-born secretary, Thomas Cromwell. My feeling is Mantel came to her very project, her very choice of historical span, by way of so many women’s identification with Anne Boleyn, and added to her Mary and Jane Boleyn, Mary Tudor (Lily Lesser) re-seen (as the product of a neurotic relationship of a profoundly sexually twisted man and woman, Henry VIII & Katharine of Aragon). Thomas Cromwell she came to by way of her insight of the deep evils religion (in her case, originally Roman Catholicism) promotes and disciplines people to enact.

My favorite moments are when Rylance as Cromwell speaks truth to religious hypocrisy as when he follows Benjamin Whitlow as Bishop Warham upstairs to let him know he, Cromwell, understands, the games Waltham is playing using Elizabeth Barton:

Cromwell; “Archbishop Warham. This um, prophetess you harbour in your diocese – Eliza Barton? How is she getting on?
Warham: “What do you want, Cromwell?”
Cromwell: “Well, I hear that she’s telling people that if the King marries Lady Anne, he has only a year to reign. I just wondered who is controlling her.”
Warham: “She may be a simple country girl but she has a genuine gift.”
Cromwell: “She does, doesn’t she? I hear she can tell you where your dead relatives are. If it’s in Heaven, she speaks with a higher voice, if in Hell, with a deep voice.”


The episodes are entitled Anna Regina and Devil’s Spit, both of which refer to women, the first obviously Anne’s coronation and the second Elizabeth Barton (Aimee Ffion Edwards] a burningly spiteful self-deluded woman at the close burnt at a stake, whose spit or uttered prophecies were used by the Catholic faction at court to try to frighten Henry VIII from removing from positions of power adherents of the Italian and German circles of power and marrying Anne Boleyn. Across the two episodes we travel with Cromwell: in the first he begins with attempting to reason with the losers, Katharine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley) and her painfully awkward daughter (to whom Cromwell shows an instinctive pity):


Cromwell cannot stand there and not offer this stumbling naive woman a chair

to listening to Mary, Anne’s sister’s self-directed description of Anne’s manipulation of Henry’s insecure aroused sexual desire, her thwarting of him, Anne’s overwrought bargains:


Towards the end of the third part he is the first to notice Anne’s propensity to flirt too much with other men beyond Henry and arouse Henry’s ominous anxiety during dancing, hears their quarreling raised to a pitch that leads to an old-fashioned bethrothal. Henry had demanded sex after that flirtation with another man. Mary comes out and seeks a Bible; they pledge themselves off stage and we are to imagine consummation (this was a recognized form of marriage before 1753). We glimpse the wedding itself at first in Calais and then the crowning in Westminster.

But Anne’s fall from power doesn’t take much longer than that of her sister, both more watched and in invisible prisons than we or they are aware: by the middle of the fourth episode, a Boleyn male spy is there to stop Mary (Charity Wakefield) from kissing Cromwell; by the the close of part 4 Anne’s dog has been thrown from the window, and she has bled on the floor, miscarried a second time.

It’s easy to miss how many women’s lives are wholly epitomized in a few shots: Alice More (Monica Dolan) whose guarded face appeals to Cromwell as she cannot reach her husband, some complicit in evil thinking (deludedly) they can save themselves (e.g., Margaret Countess of Salisbury, Pole’s aunt [Janet Henfrey] later beheaded), or are exceptions because seemingly virtuously superior (Jane Seymour, played by Kate Phillips).

I am most drawn to those who recognize there is no safety and act out of this inner apprehension for others: say the interspersed touching moments between Cromwell and Johanne, through or in her his memories of Liz and his daughter with her peacock angel wings (ghosts), none of them can he reach:

Saskia Reeves as Johanne

Anibundel’s analogy for Cromwell is that of a fixer, but in the stories of these women he is helpless to fix their lives, and he appears to want to help them help themselves by the good advice he gives them (as well as the young male studs around Mary). He is himself a subject, dependent on the unlimited power of a near madman whose eyes (those of Damien Lewis) are fearfully threatening, fierce, glitter at us while the inner thoughts of the brains we think of as behind the eyes remain opaque:

Opening shot of Devil’s Spit

Mantel’s reconstruction of Cromwell in Wolf Hall, her rehabilitation of him comes from seeing him in terms of all these women at the court. If you go on to read even sympathetic historical accounts of him (e.g. Tracy Boorman’s biography) in the provinces where he successfully manipulated local powerful men by rewarding and punishing them through property arrangements, criminal charges dependent on the new Anglican church laws, customs, doctrines, you have to infer he drove these middle men to destroy and execute the local abbots or any priests who got in their way. The man Bolt and others have characterized as ruthlessly ambitious, and willing to kill, organizing from afar terrifying executions is glimpsed only fleetingly. The criminal aspect of Cromwell’s character is also more in evidence in Bring Up the Bodies where he will take a woman (innkeeper’s wife) casually, have her husband destroyed, remembers murderous acts he participated in in the past.



More pouring over the documents, Cromwell trying to reason with him to return to his home, to Lady Alice who has food waiting and will put him to bed

Part 4 is indeed a rewrite of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, to the point where speeches that Bolt plucked out of the historical records are re-plucked but uttered in contexts that reverse or at least significantly alter their significance. I was riveted by this as someone who has watched both movies of the original play several times: there was another beyond Fred Zinnemann’s with Scofield as More, Leo McKern as Cromwell, Wendy Hiller as Alice, John Hurt as Richard Rich; this other less-known A Man for All Seasons starred Charlton Hester as More, Corin Redgrave as the cynical allegorical ordinary man, and Vanessa Redgrave (memorably as a terrified Anne in way over her head). I also still admire More from having read his deeply humane analytical original Utopia, his Dialogue of Comfort during a time of Tribulation, his sardonic poetry, and his friend Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (in Latin translation it means praise of More as a holy fool dangerous to himself in his idealism). Much in More’s life resembles that of Cromwell as middling men in Parliament; both were instruments of Henry VIII.

In Bolt’s play all is done that can be done by More’s wife, daughter, son-in-law to persuade More to sign and live; Cromwell bullies and threatens, with Cranmore uttering the same rationalities. In Mantel and now Straughan, Cromwell takes over the humanity of the family. In Bolt’s trial it is Cromwell who engineers Rich’s betrayal; in Mantel it is Rich. Straughan’s 4th episode opens with More salivating over torturing someone, and again and again through dialogue and the burning and torture of other Protestants we are led to see More as the harmful fanatic. More’s utterance near the end that he has wished and done no man harm and if that cannot keep him alive, he’d rather not live (rendered famously by Scofield on the scaffolld), is answered here by Cromwell as they sit over a table by a list of people that Cromwell cites whom More has destroyed viciously. In the final scene of More’s beheading, in Mantel and Straughan there is only the pathos of a wretched narrow man.


The burning (after torture and imprisonment, interrogration of Bainham for spreading the Bible as translated by Tyndale, More’s POV)

Mantel is doing more than insisting on more accuracy about More and some justice to Cromwell. As Bolt was making a fable for the hopeful sixties where people could respond to figures who acted out ideals, so Mantel is taking the past and mirroring a deeply pessimistic disturbed era where we have seen much progress made in social and other areas of life over the course of the 20th century reversed. Popular and significant TV mini-series on commercial channels (Breaking Bad, Games of Thrones) portray utterly amoral characters in environments where there is no hope for humane solutions, with voyeuristic cruel violence an accepted sport. Henry VIII in Mantel’s Wolf Hall and this mini-series is a site representative of today’s ruthless militaristic and fascistic oligarchies, seemingly crazed armies of fanatic men determined to turn women into subject creatures. She is a deeply secular woman, for tolerance, feminist. I know her Eight Months on Gaza Street shows how fearful and helpless individuals and especially women can feel in Saudia Arabia where there is nowhere to turn for certain information about just about anything, and all action hinges on gaining the favor of powerful individuals.


I do ask myself where the power of this mini-series resides. Each time I rewatch it I think to myself it cannot be as good as I’ve remembered it, and each time it is. Is it in this vision? In the case of the famed Brideshead Revisited, one can point explicitly to a set of filmic techniques new and daring, or older and breaking with foolish taboos and conventions. If anything this is a kind of throw-back to the staged days of the 1970s. I wonder if it’s in the stillness and slowness of the filmography, how much time is left for each shot.

Cromwell coming to talk with the Boleyn family (to the back, George, the brother, to the front, Norfolk [Bernard Hill]

I come back to the use of Rylance as POV and his uncanny ability to convey complicated layers of thought in different scenes with these highly theatrical characters in situations of deep crisis strain, to seem outside the action and questioning it. The character he plays, Cromwell, is himself deeply complicit, compromised and comprising — rising, becoming wealthier, powerful, using his nephew and ward, Rafe as spies. He says at one point, now it’s his turn to get back. He participates in the neurotic fights of the Boleyns. He may tells Henry Percy (then drunk) the day of the power of the thug warrior-aristocrat as all-powerful is over: that the world also works on money, that bankers are in charge (this seems a bit anachronistic, you’d think the Italian bankers were turned into today’s European Union and World Bank).

Cromwell: “My lord, you’ve said what you have to say. Now listen to me. You’re a man whose money is almost spent. I’m a man who knows how you’ve spent it. You’re a man who has borrowed all over Europe. I’m a man who knows your creditors. One word from me, and all your debts will be called in.”
Percy: “What are they going to do? Bankers don’t have armies.”
Cromwell: “Neither will you, without any money. My lord, you hold your earldom from the King. Your task is to secure the north, to defend us against Scotland. If you cannot ensure these things, the King will take your land and your titles and give them to someone who will do the job that you cannot do.”
Percy: “No, he won’t. He respects all ancient titles.”
Cromwell [his expression conveys how dense Percy is and how laughable the idea that Henry respects any titles]: “How can I explain this to you? The world is not run from where you think it is. From border fortresses. Even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon. From wherever the merchant ships set sail off into the west. Not from castle walls, from counting houses. From the pens that scrape out your promissory notes. So believe me when I say that my banker friends and I will rip your life apart. And then, when you are without money and title, yes, I can picture you living in a hovel, wearing homespun, bringing home a rabbit for the pot. Your lawful wife, Anne Boleyn, skinning and jointing that rabbit. Yes, I wish you all happiness”

Percy has no credit card you see.

The fascination may come from the puzzle and elusive depths of suggestion. The series can suddenly speed up. Just as the fourth episode seems to come to an end and Cromwell is in the crowd watching More being beheaded, his memory becomes a series of flashbacks, he as a boy in More’s house where More was a boy. Then we see More about to be beheaded (unflinching scene) and Cromwell the older man watching.





Then the camera moves and sees Johanne watching Cromwell deeply ill in bed, sweating, hysterical, seemingly traumatized. We enter his mind as he glimpses his second daughter (not the one with the angel wings, but the one who wanted to learn Greek and marry Rafe).


He says aloud if he’s dying there are things he needs to tell Gregory (his son), Then a patch of sunlight on his bed, Liz (Natasha Little) his wife knotting,



Cromwell: “Slow down, so I can see how you do it.”
Liz: “I can’t slow down. If I stop to think how I’m doing it, I won’t be able to do it.”

The camera again moves, we hear words about an itinerary, which ends at Wolf Hall and out from the corridor comes yet another set of people, the Seymours.


By the end of this second act (fourth episode), we are back in the era of the all frighteningly powerful tyrant, and Cromwell seems to glimpse Anne’s waning power and glimpses the wary alert presence of Jane Seymour as a possible fall-back position as Henry must be pleased and wants a son.

The last still of Part 4


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Wolf Hall 1, early shot, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) listening to Norfolk (Bernard Hill) and Suffolk (Richard Dillane) threaten Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) at York palace (1529)

“A strong man acts within that which constrains him” …. to Henry, who resents being told he cannot war on France easily (Wolf Hall 1)
“I have never known anything but kindness from the Cardinal” … to Bonvisi, the Italian friend, advising to talk nicely to More and to dump the Cardinal (Wolf Hall 1, Cromwell)

Dear friends and readers,

I am just so riveted each time I watch one of the hours of this mini-series, and was at the end of the last, so shaken and roused out of myself to myself, that I must write some separate blogs on it now. If I waited until I felt fully competent to write a series of blogs on this season’s Wolf Hall, I’d not do it any time soon. I heartily recommend Anibundel’s meditation on Wolf Hall as demanding something more in the way of background (real knowledge of the era, the historical figures who appear with no introduction, a study of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, her sources and other books, not to omit re-watching the 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Peter Straughan), and an ability to see the genuine analogies of this early Tudor era with the politics and social life of 2015, and so I end on another must-read, Fintan O’Toole’s comparison of the RSC stage play by Mike Poulson with this mini-series (in the NYRB).

You may also have come across high-pitched diatribes by name pundits (Charles Krauthammer) and much lesser-known historians who are still engaged in a bitter debate (400 years later) over whether Thomas Cromwell was a ruthless brutal thug (Colin Burrow) or an early modern magistrate, by closely monitored persuasive manipulations effecting a revolution from a Catholic hierarchical medieval European outpost to a Protestant local monarchy, and in both cases defying his low rank and growing rich, developing a household and estate as part of his reward (G. R. Elton and Marilyn Robertson). Was More a fanatical burner of men rather than this man of conscience Robert Bolt created? Was Thomas Cromwell the first modern magistrate with some integrity but very human? How shall we understand Anne? Why was she so disliked?

And yet the deeper pleasures require nothing more than watching. After all a novel, a film, piece of music, picture must deliver in its own right, have no need of anything outside itself, and I maintain this does. Just don’t be intimidated by Straughan, Peter Koshinsky (the director) and several of the actors, most notably Mark Rylance’s, refusal to compromise. So here goes.

If they avoid unreal histrionic theatrics most of the time, and do not treat the costumes and sets as on sale in shop windows, Damien Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner, Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn, more than make up for the quiet realistic performances of say Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey, Natasha Little as Liz Cromwell. Anton Lesser as Thomas More is more gothic than one realizes at first.

Our first sight of More which prompts Cromwell to one of many sudden frank speeches where he speaks truth to power (including to Henry):

More: “I care nothing for wealth. “The world’s esteem is nothing to me.”
Cromwell: “So how is it I come back to London and find you’ve become Lord Chancellor? Lord Chancellor. What’s that? A fucking accident?”
More: “You’re no friend to the church, Thomas. You’re a friend to one priest only – and he’s the most corrupt in Christendom”

And the music by Debbie Wiseman as driving and forceful and memorable, and turns soft, Renaissance like and lilting throughout as any of the latest commercial serial dramas.

Let us look at our story as three act play, which I believe a study of the release dialogue transcripts bears out. Let us think about how these imagined characters relate to the historical figures they represent only after we grasp the actors’ realization of them (out of Mantel’s characters and Staughan’s script, Koshinsky’s direction, in the costumes by Joanna Eatwell) as they move through the story which is a brilliant Renaissance “revenge tragedy” (Straughan’s phrase for how he constructed a coherent line out of Mantel’s two books).

The first act lays out before us the development of a father-son relationship which travels deeply into the core of the central consciousness, POV of the play, Thomas Cromwell, once a savagely-abused boy, homeless outcast, whose alert intelligence (social cunning), thorough practical and book learning, quiet reciprocal kindness, and loyalty (constancy) Wolsey recognizes and takes in. Wolsey is all personally that Cromwell admires and wants to emulate — the great public man.

What we are watching over the course of the two hours where time moves back and forth is Cromwell remembering his first encounters with Wolsey, the development of his love and respect for this man and how and why Wolsey was personally destroyed. After Wolsey tries negotiation in Europe with the Pope’s legate and then negotiation in England and then a trial of Katherine of Aragon in an effort to enable Henry to divorce Katharine and marry Anne. Wolsey’s autocratic dealings, we see his slow deterioration, which allows for an emergence of his affectionate ways (the birth and gift of a kitten to Cromwell). Here they are playing cards (the game Cromwell says supported him on the docks as a male adolescent):



They talk and eat together. Then as events close in, Cromwell’s helping to move the old man to Winchester and then York,

Cromwell:  “Masters, I want kindling, dry kindling … Get the fires lit … Stephen, find the kitchen …. Actually, see him in first… I need the bedding … What? Who is that? … Michael? Down, off. The horses, later. We want the Cardinal in bed and warm. …Come on, come on, we’re not done yet! …”

To Wolsey now in bed:  “I asked if they had nutmeg or saffron – they looked at me as if I was speaking Greek. I’ll have to find a local supplier.”
Wolsey:  “I shall pray for it.”

I find it very touching the way Cromwell tries to secure creature comforts for the old man, and how the old man gently mocks his endeavours. Despite Henry’s claim that he loves and misses the Cardinal, and that he cannot bring the Cardinal back (as his courtiers, and the powerful aristocratic clans who loathe Wolsey as a butcher’s son are pressuring him), Wolsey is thrown away, humiliated, sickens and dies. Against this the horrific scene of Cromwell’s father almost kicking him to death, and the one encounter where we see how vile to Cromwell Cromwell’s father seems.

By contrast,


there is the way Wolsey teases Cromwell and then blesses him. Perhaps the film-makers have Cromwell remember a nasty deriding masque four sleazy male courtiers act out against Wosley for the amusement of Henry and Anne a bit too often, but they want us not to forget what Cromwell does not forget. Colin Burrow suggests the two novels (and I this three act play) themselves make up a revenge story, deep and abiding. At the close of the second hour, Cromwell assures George Cavendish (Wolsey’s secretary, right-hand man who later in life wrote a memoir of Wolsey) who weeps for the man that he remembers all those who mocked, and used Wolsey:

Cromwell: “There’s no need to trouble, God, George, I’ll take it in hand.”

It’s easy to miss how often in the first two hours Cromwell is waiting to talk to someone, sometimes Henry himself on behalf of the Cardinal. Partly because Crowmell is an enigmatic figure, for after all although he promises to return north, he does not. He uses his mission to bring the king and cardinal back together to secure his own place in Parliament and in the king’s entourage. We are privy to his face, his remarks, his acts, his flashbacks, but not his thoughts.

The story of an old man and middle-aged one’s respect and relationship is not one must admit the sexiest of stories, and it occurs amid the criss-cross interwoven other stories, also told often through flashbacks coming out of Cromwell’s memory: the central one which also moves across the whole 6 hours is Anne Boleyn’s rise to power as a result of Henry’s sexual attraction to her strong aggressively confident character (as seen in this play)

Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) as first glimpsed dancing with Henry Percy (Harry Lloyd) in a flashback as her father, Thomas Boleyn (David Robb) explains to Wolsey that the young people have pledged themselves to one another

The homelife of Cromwell at Austin Friars, with his real love for his wife and affection for his daughters, seen in warm light, before they suddenly sicken with sweating sickness and die:

Grace (2)
The first shot of Liz Cromwell (Natasha Little), POV Cromwell as he comes home and up the stairs

Cromwell: “You’re sweeter to look at than the Cardinal.”
Liz: “That’s the smallest compliment a woman ever received.”

Grace (1)
With Grace on his lap as he attempts to tell Liz of the Tyndale English translation of the Bible which she should read

The stories of the boys he takes in, trains as courtiers, then spies, and finally aides in bullying, and threat-torturing of those Cromwell wants and needs to take down, take out. In the novel (and history) Cromwell filled his house with such young men.

Another early shot, Richard Cromwell (Joss Porter) and Rafe, his ward (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) whom Cromwell’s young Anne loves as a young girl and asks permisssion to marry:


Anne: “Can I choose who I want to marry?”
Cromwell: “What?”
Anne: “Can I choose who I want to marry?”
Cromwell: “Within reason.”
Anne: “Then I choose Rafe.”

I warmed to Cromwell’s turning to his wife’s sister, Johanne Williamson (Saskia Reeves); he pictures her in place of Liz, but he likes her for herself. It cheered me to see them in bed together in the morning talking. I sorrowed when she brought an end to it because her mother had found out. She is often seen in the group more lit up then the others


If I’m supposed to get a kick out of Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn’s bitterness and ironies about her sister, and her attempt to seduce Cromwell to become her protector (as she sees how strong he is), I bond rather with Liz and then Johanne. But I am intrigued by Mary (discarded mistress and mother of children by Henry) and Jane Boleyn (one of those who provided evidence against Anne and her brother, Jane’s hated husband) and have gotten myself two history-biography books about them to read:

Mary talking to Cromwell

The colorful contains the dangerous and we are intensely alerted to this at each renewed encounter of Cromwell with Henry, from their first meeting in the Hampton Court garden, to court interactions,

The careful photograph captures the neurotic king, half-unsure of himself, and the bare grey head of Cromwell

to real intimacy, as when Henry asks for Cromwell to come to his palace at 2 in the morning to reinterpret a dream.

If you remember Katharine’s bitterness, her court trial where she stands up for herself as a virgin when she first went to bed with Henry (she has the most striking headdress in the series until Anna becomes queen (Margaret More’s easy to miss, the most beautiful and tastefuL):


there is so much going on in these two hours, it’s chock-a-block. Mantel has remembered and used Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

But it’s best to see it as slow, the scenes and shots are much longer than usual for a movie, you can take in what you see while the sense is if something hieratic. Think of it as a build-up. The sub-stories evolving depth and emotion while the longer over-arching ones are moving towards a terrifying climax as so few have power to keep themselves afloat. In Act One Cromwell thinks he can still act justly to most and get what he wants as well as secure himself. He will find otherwise.

Fintan O’Toole has the relevance and appeal of Mantel’s thematic shift to and take on Cromwell right:

He is a middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world. Thirty years ago, Mantel’s Cromwell would have been of limited interest. His virtues—hard work, self-discipline, domestic respectability, a talent for office politics, the steady accumulation of money, a valuing of stability above all else—would have been dismissed as mere bourgeois orthodoxies. If they were not so boring they would have been contemptible. They were, in a damning word, safe.

But they’re not safe anymore. They don’t assure security. As the world becomes more oligarchic, middle-class virtues become more precarious. This is the drama of Mantel’s Cromwell—he is the perfect bourgeois in a world where being perfectly bourgeois doesn’t buy you freedom from the knowledge that everything you have can be whipped away from you at any moment. The terror that grips us is rooted not in Cromwell’s weakness but in his extraordinary strength. He is a perfect paragon of meritocracy for our age. He is a survivor of an abusive childhood, a teenage tearaway made good, a self-made man solely reliant on his own talents and entrepreneurial energies. He could be the hero of a sentimental American story of the follow-your-dreams genre. Except for the twist—meritocracy goes only so far. Even Cromwell cannot control his own destiny, cannot escape the power of entrenched privilege. And if he, with his almost superhuman abilities, can’t do so, what chance do the rest of us have?

Continually all these noblemen talk angrily and ferociously about both Wolsey and Cromwell’s low origins. They can’t stand that. They loathe having both around or above them.

Look at the use of the camera and color. The POV is only immersion when it’s a deeply private moment, one which must be hid from other’s eyes:

Johanne and Cromwell

and it is most of the time Cromwell’s. But it is to the side: the camera (and Cromwell) keep looking at others from the side and when the camera is on Cromwell himself we see his face from the side, framed in doorways, walking down dark narrow corridors (of power?). There is a deep sense then of cautious lurking. There is little use of montage — which nowadays is unusual (except for old fashioned costume dramas like Downton Abbey) and not much voice over (ditto). This keeps us outside the minds of the characters and keeps them enigmatic, at a distance, and leaves us with a sense of film as a stage. Light is used to bring out beautiful colors: the modern tendency to use light in ways that repeat the darknesses of eras before electricity is practiced, but large windows and “day” time makes up for this. Light colors, beautiful windows. Cromwell himself is soberly dressed, only gradually beginning to appear more rich by furs and the like. Here he is towards the end of part two, la rare unguarded frontal shot when he is alone, looking over the relics from the Cardinal:


I’ve written on functions of historical fiction and film in our culture, and self-reflexive acting of Rylance (scroll down to the final three paragraphs), but the joy of the experience is the story, the performances, the characters’ relationships, the film experience.


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Dear friends and readers,

When Izzy and I arrived at our local better cinema and saw to get into one of the movies we had to join onto a long line thick with people, I was startled to find this was for Saving Mr Banks! which in the trailers had been represented as about a crabby old maid schoolteacher type giving the warm and wonderful Walt Disney a hard time, rejecting his of course charming Disneyland. We had assumed it was for The Hobbit.

I figured and still think that the 4 full Mary Poppins books are not widely read, but liked by a sub-group of reading girls, Anglophilic, with an unusual penchant for implicit meanings and respect for the old-fashioned values of decorum, titillated by strictness. I liked the 1964 Mary Poppins musical, but know it is wildly disparate from Travers’s books. (See my blog on Pamela Lyndon Travers, woman writer of children’s books.)

As we stood there and saw the line grow past us and out the door into the cold, I reminded myself the new film, Saving Mr Banks, did have big-name stars with strong talent (Emma Thompson as PL, Tom Hanks as Walt); was a Disney film and thus guaranteed-to-be-wholesome film, and of course would be connected to the 1964 Mary Poppins film, which perhaps had made a very distorted view of the original character into a household icon.

I’m writing this blog because I’ve since discovered that in more popularly oriented movie-houses parents had brought children (not what the crowd at this art house does) and overtly removed these kiddies from the unexpectedly unsuitable material. That means the hum and buzz is giving a wrong impression of what this film is about and is largely responsible for the big audiences; the few thoughtful reviews concentrate on how the film misrepresents the final outcome of the strong conflicts between Travers and Disney over the nature, mood, characteristics and specifics of the 1964 Mary Poppins film: in the film she relents mostly and is deeply moved by the film insofar as it reflects the autobiograpical sources of her books; in reality; she hated the film.. But see Caitlin Flannagan’s Becoming Mary Poppins.

Promotional shot at the premier to which Travers had not been invited lest she convey her sharp disapproval: the photo shows she disguised her feelings that night

What’s been left out from accounts is more than 50% of Saving Mr Banks‘s matter: P.L. Travers’s childhood in Australia; few stills of Ruth Wilson as Mrs Hof, Colin Farrell as Mr Hof (the original we are told of Mr Banks in the books), and hardly any retelling of how Mr Hof is first responsible for moving his family from the comparative respectability and comfort of an upper middle class home in a citified area of Australia (New South Wales? Queensland?) into the hinterlands (called Allora in the film, perhaps central or western Australia) where he proceeded to become a thorough alcoholic and failure as a bank manager (someone who could not cope with the stress, repression, hard commercialism of any money-making occupation). We see him humiliate himself and family in a scene on a public stage, fall to the ground and slowly die of TB and delirium tremens. At one point Mrs Hof tries to kill herself by drowning. The child, Helen, called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) by her father, who since renamed herself Pamela and then PL (Lyndon a middle name) is totally involved, worshipping and feeling for her father,


trying to save her mother. A sister turns up to help them, dressed in the film like Mary Poppins in the book with a little of her outward sternness.

This does explain to me for the first time the strange turn the 1964 Mary Poppins takes: Mr Banks risks losing his job by refusing to give all his time to his work when he is made to realize he is neglecting his family; he refuses to yield to pressure and insists on going to fly a kite at the film’s end, when of course he is forgiven and hired back by the bank’s aged boss: Dick Van Dyke played this role as well as Bert, the match man, made in the film a lover-suitor for Mary Poppins, while in the books this is only hinted at, slightly and sometimes denied. There is no such story in any of the four MP books written by 1964 (MP, MP Comes Back, MP in the Park, MP opens the door). It is a much bowdlerized version of Travers’s father’s behavior. In life he did not die of TB either, but influenza; the real Mrs Hof had connections with powerful whites in Australia (and her sister had money).

Saving Mr Banks then may be said to inject back into the books the self-reflexive deeper material compelling the writer’s creation of Mary Poppins as a kind of strange savior of the family: the strangeness is in the way she does this: in adventure after adventure the children find themselves suddenly in another realm of reality, often connected to the zodiac or stars in the sky, the sun, sometimes natural worlds in a green park. Sometimes the figures met there are bullies, mean, or downtrodden and wanting and in need of affection. Mary is called upon to fix a situation, she does and she is worshipped there as a good kind all powerful woman (not the stern cold governess-figure she seems to be to outsiders), and each time the children return to Cherry Tree Lane somehow rejuvenated.

None of the above gets into the 1964 Mary Poppins except the passage to another idyllic place (pastoral and filled with penguins and animated figures) through Bert’s chalk sidewalk pictures (something that does happen in one of the four books’ adventures). Some does get into this 2013 Saving Mr Banks: the outward stern, cold, fussy, dominatrix feel of Ms Travers or Pamela as played superbly well by Emma Thompson is modeled partly on the book’s Mary Poppins. Thompson also conveys non-caricatured hurt, quiet moments of self-doubt, disquiet, with gestures that at moments reminded me of her most magnificent performance in Wit.


The advertisements for the film emphasize the relationship of Travers and Disney (much idealized, and played more subtly than at first appears by Tom Hanks):


Some of the Saving Mr Banks‘s worst moments come out in this strand: Walt’s long preachy speech to Pamela (he insists on a first-name basis right away) about how everyone can have or do what they want if only they try or work hard enough (a popular rightist American myth — Disney was an arch-reactionary it is true). (See Slate article on this meeting where she agreed to go along with the film.) Thompson’s imitation of a wry whose guardedness isolates her and accounts for how unhappy she makes herself (message: socializing is the most important thing to do well in life).


The strand in Saving Mr Banks which tells the story of Travers’s strong reluctance to give over the rights to Disney, her fights with the creative song-writers, Richard and Robert Sherman (David Schwartzman and D. J. Novak) and script writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are part of the finer threads in the film: we see them inventing and singing some of the better and still well-known numbers from the 1964 film — which as a song-and-dance musical is marvelous (especially where Van Dyke dances with a chorus of men and with Julie Andrews up a stairway into the sky).


I felt nostalgia for the film as these were sketched out by the creators, and Thompson-as-Travers’s disapproval added a piquant sauce to the mix. I remember how Izzy loved the film as a child. She has read at least a couple of the books.

The best companionable feeling in the Saving Mr Banks derives from Thompson as P.L. Travers’ relationship with Paul Giamatti as Ralph, her driver. He is the on-going person we see her with; at the first she bullies him and mocks his efforts at ingratiation and talk about the sunny weather, but eventually she comes to depend on him, especially when she has no invitation to the premier and he drives her there and provides her with support.

Driving Ms Travers

The most natural moment of friendship occurs when she is leaving L.A. after having rejected the script when she discovers it will have animated figures (she had been promised it would not) doing inanely silly gestures with clothes. She is seen sitting in the grass deeply distressed to think of what is happening to her story, and the driver comes over and they talk. Here she learns of his disabled daughter at home; I have read that disabled figures are figuring more in mainstream films, and Thompson as Travers is several times rebuked for her demands for formality by stories of the hardships others experienced in life as if precise manners must be an indication of obtuse snobbishness.

As she and her driver bid adieu, she addresses him as Ralph (his first name) and he addresses her as Pamela. Throughout the film her formal or more old-fashioned approach to life is seen in her discomfort in being required to start relationships on a first name basis immediately. I understand that as that is the way it was when I was a child. It’s not snobbishness; it’s a way of making some relationships more special and acknowledging intimacy that’s real. She is followed by Disney to England and he preaches his preachy-speech of his hardships in life, his father, and voila she is convinced — having liked “Let’s go fly a kite” and the depiction of Mr Banks in the film (by David Tomlinson).

Often the best parts of films don’t make it anywhere near the trailer, but this time they are also failing to get into the reviews — perhaps deliberately? Makers and critics of films like to see what is not discussably in the open brought out visually and through story but themselves in the case of expected popular audiences not risk going into tabooed matter.

Saving Mr Banks‘s script is by two women: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. I wondered if they had loved the Mary Poppins books, and wrote this movie in tribute to P.L. with a view of doing some justice to her and revealing some of the deeper explicable sources of the books.

I am interested in Australian literature, which I now see the Mary Poppins books belong to, and am tempted to buy one of the biographies of P.L. Travers. Patricia Deemers’s Twayne book may be the sensible one, but Valerie Lawson’s look like the writing of someone deeply engaged by the author and her books. Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. The sky provides the highest moments in the books and the 1964 film; this more sceptical disillusioned film (when it’s at its best) makes the sky the place planes fly across, but from time to time a sky is filmed, blue, with lovely clouds, as symbols of the books’ visions.

Bert and Mary looking up into the sky (1964 Mary Poppins)


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In 1939 Wuthering Heights: Geraldine Fitzgerald played Isabella Linton, but the film-makers did not have the interest, insight, or nerve to present the range of abuse we see in the book

Dear Friends and readers,

My third and final blog report from the PCA/ACA conference held here in DC. For the first, on serial storying and soap opera, see The Way We Watch TV Now).

Here are panels and papers on women’s issues (abortion, motherhood, careers), recent feminists (Vera Brittain), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Ann Wrighten, an 18th century memoir of an actress who moved from London to the US, Angelina Weld Gimke’s radical novel, Mara Lena Dunham’s Girls and Aaron Sorkin’s TV show, West Wing. These discussions include the best and worst papers I heard.

I begin with the women’s issues sessions.


The best and worst were seen as the conference began, Wednesday, 1:15 pm, in session called Motherhood/Fatherhood (1127). Vicki Toscano, a working lawyer, gave a superb paper on the current legal particulars of abortion law and controversy today. Popular anti-abortion propaganda are being transformed into (or regarded) as science and accepted as parts of laws. Anti-abortion laws increasingly exploit the post-modern idea that what is scientific fact is nothing more than culturally driven beliefs. At the core is the idea that a woman upon becoming pregnant, conceiving is a mother. Women are told lies that there is a risk of infertility and must be psychological damage is they have an abortion. The claim of a risk of breast cancer is untrue (and though she didn’t say it the same pattern of turning myth into science is seen in attempts to coerce women into breast-feeding). Explicit moral language is increasingly made part of laws.

Toscano began with Roe v Wade, 1973. The court found a fundamental right to privacy was violated when all abortion was illegal, but that in the case of pregnancy that right was not absolute. the 1st trimester there need be no regulations; during the 2nd trimester to protect women’s health you can regulate the procedure. Once the fetus can survive, is a baby in potentia (there is disagreement when precisely this is) then the state’s interest in saving the child can trump the mother’s desires. Increasingly then a woman has the right to an abortion only if her life is jeopardized: it seems the fetus feels pain at 30 weeks but machines can detect a heart-beat after a few weeks and if you multiply the fetus a thousand-fold you can make a woman feel there’s a baby there.

In Planned Parenthood versus Casey (1992), the court turned away from the fundamental right to privacy, and instead said a woman’s right to an abortion is part of he right to liberty; it becomes a 14th amendment issue. The decision did away with the three trimester turning points; now the state has the right to protect the unborn from the moment of conception as long as it’s not am undue burden on the mother. The court has never found any obstacle to be that substantial that it gets in the way. States began to express a preference for childbirth over abortion. The state can insist on teaching women about abortion; the limitation is the information must be truthful, not misleading, and relevant. For no other medical procedure is there this demand for a 24 hour waiting period while the woman is told information about their abortion.

Then in 2007 in Gonzales versus Carhart legislation outlawing partial birth abortion (intact D & E) was upheld. The law now had a constitutional obligation to intervene, with a concern for the fetus or baby’s life and no exception made for the woman’s health. Congress decided that if there is any serious health risk cited by anyone, that must be taken into account. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent said the court deprives women of information and the right to make an autonomous choice. The pro-act reasonings included the idea a woman’s place is in her home.

Most importantly what’s happened lately shows a disregard for the mother’s life and well-being, a preference to save or force a baby on a woman no matter if she risks in the process. Women are increasingly being put into jail as pregnancy is in effect criminalized (especially when a woman is unmarried). We are returning to attitudes that undergirded accusations of maternal infanticide.


Ellyn Lem and Timothy Dunn discussed Anne Marie Slaughter’s “why Women can’t have it all” as if for most women in the US having it all means high professional success and fulfilling family life (husband, children). They went over the Internet controversies, saw Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as a reply. They really defended both books as serious discussions of women’s lives and conflicts, typical enough lives with admirable values that may be held up as examples.

No one can fault their ultimate general comment that the workplace must have central institutional change to allow women who want to to be part-time at home mothers or wives. But the relevant perspective was that of the tenured college teacher who is dissatisfied because she is not making a huge sum, or on a crucially powerful committee, or is guilty because she leaves her children with a nanny for long hours at a time. Most women make small salaries and must struggle to make ends meet together with their husbands; they have no hired help. Or they are the hired help. They get part-time wages for full-time work. No benefits. The sad value of this session was to see that in these books taken at face value, feminism has become a movement for the few women who can afford to hire other women to take care of their homes and children. Feminism also takes on board neoliberalism, and in Sandberg women urged to imitate the anti-social anti-caring characteristics of men in the workplace.

I offered the idea both texts are irrelevant to most women’s lives; that supposed re-structures of work-days leads to people becoming part-time employees and a plunge in salaries with no benefits. I did not say (as I do here) the whole discussion was in unacknowledged bad taste.

Vera Brittain later in life — she did in her memoirs also chronicle women’s lives in her fiction-memoirs

Liz Podniecks’ paper on Vera Brittain showed that Brittain challenged an attitude that said women must marry and have children to be fulfilled. Brittain was an outspoken pacificist and feminist who argued that women must be employed for money outside the home to be fully adult fulfilled women. In her Testament of Youth she exposed and denounced the barbarity and uselessness of patristic wars. She herself did marry, but kept her name (unusual for the time); Winifred Holtby lived with Brittain and Brittain’s husband and helped a series of hired nannies to take care of Vera’s children. In her writing Brittain continually attacked the “useless” woman, the woman who has nothing serious to do when her children go to school; they vicariously live through their children, are dependent. Once a woman has a good job and home she can stop over-emphasizing the importance of emotional relationships which are not central to the real business of life. They are (in truth) secondary to the way society is structured.

It may be true that some middle class women live pampered lives once their children grow older; and certainly sentiment is not the driving force behind how we order our lives. But this paper, as put, was also elitist at core. It is not a matter of choice for most women. They do not want to be dependent; many cannot get near a good paying job, and thus do find their highest satisfactions in their family’s shared lives. What worried me about this paper was the next inference would be to get rid of women’s right to live on their husband’s social security if he should predecease her when she spent her life as his wife, working at home for him and his and her children and herself mostly without pay. This would force women to work outside the home, many in menial work which given men’s present reluctance to help with housework and take inward responsibility for children would give many women an endless burden. (Pass ERA and the supreme court with its identification with employers would be only too glad to do this; Republicans would be overjoyed to get rid of social security for a good chunk of the population.) For many women it’s asking too much when they are not born to the kind of people that lead to good colleges, degrees, jobs.

To be fair to Brittain, I’ve read her Testament of Youth and know it’s a deeply humane text.


Cast of Girls: Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet

Well, after the above, the only other women’s issues session I went to was an early Saturday afternoon “Gender and Media Studies” (4427, 1:15 pm) which I attended to hear a paper on “Girls” as well as “West Wing,” the first of which I’ve seen and the second never watched but was curious about.

I found Nikita Hamilton’s paper touching. An African-American young woman, she loves Girls and was determined to justify its lack of black and working class people, it upper middle class stance (the girls are supported by parents, don’t worry about losing jobs) to downplay what she admitted was its neo-liberal stances (“they do regret materialism”). she basically argued that this was a slice of life sufficiently realistic and reflective of young women’s problems today. Her valiant try reminded me of how I sometimes justify Downton Abbey as being for community, showing compassion for its characters (“intelligent dialogue”); so many of us find that we love programs in the popular media which are arch-conservative and exclude us. It’s hard to admit to enjoying racist texts which are rightly attacked as suc (e.g., Gone With the Wind is) on the grounds that this is what is on offer, where fine talents are allowed play. To say the more liberal, inclusive, socialist story is just not told. Ms Hamilton discussed the third season where Lena has a black boyfriend who is (natch) a Republican and it doesn’t last past two episodes. She said the use of a “float” magically powerful female black character (as is found in Sex and the City in recent formulations) is not much better.

Martin Sheen as the bully president, Allison Janney as his right-hand Hillary

I would have liked to believe Olivia Kerrigan’s thesis that West Wing is liberal economically and seriously alert to class privileges as well as mildly feminist but from her anaslysis of the three central women characters (all in elite positions, from a Hillary Clinton first lady, to her secretary, to a press agent), it seemed to me this program supported the point of view I heard expressed in session 1127. The program’s male hegemony (comically exposed) irritates & limits the women characters only in small symbolically grating ways. I’ve seen a video which does show the central male (president) as a bully mocking an educated women (naturally with that horrifying thing, the equivalent of a bluestocking sign, the English Ph.D.) but as explained to me we were to admire that man so I came away thinking the program reinforces our elitist hierarchical corporate society with its endorsement of competition as central to social life. Older feminist movies with actively strong career women types like Rosalind Russell (or Jean Arthur) had neither the bullying males nor the anti-intellectualism I’ve glimpsed in this series,and they evinced a genuinely social conscience towards people outside the elite world.

Two other papers briefly: Angelita Faller analyzed a group of commercials for home alarms and showed that they assume women want to be raped, black men are very dangerous, white men good protective heroes, and women living alone are not safe. Jose Feliciano brought out underlying challenges to mainstream conventional heterosexuality in MTV videos, discussing the bisexuality of stars like Lady Gaga. See my super-numinosity.

If nothing else, the papers on imaginative works from a feminist point of view vindicated literary studies. Asked to study finer imaginative works, the presenters did bring out sustainable critiques of the way society is organized, gives women a raw hard deal, victimizes them, complete with examples of a few women who did manage fulfilled lives despite this.

I’ve three sessions, but only four papers to cover, as (shocking) in one of them only one person out of a planned three or four showed; in another the other two papers were written in an abstract jargon impossible to understand, read at top speed and appeared to be about embarrassingly poor texts; and in the third only two papers were about women issues.

Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland at the Abbey (yes one of the four includes on Northanger Abbey)

I’ll begin with the best (or maybe only) literary paper in the conference I heard: Andrea Brittany Brannon’s paper on domestic violence in Wuthering Heights (Friday, 3305, 11:30 am).

It was a relief and delight to hear Ms Brannon defend and sympathize with Isabella Linton as the novel’s centrally abused woman. Through this character we see how male power is privileged and unquestioned; how easy it is for the male to disvalue and put his wife in the wrong (how dare she disobey him?): Isabella begins as a woman who enacts her society’s version of impeccable behavior to becoming someone who cannot cope with the smallest difficulty. Bullying has reduced to marginalization; she is Heathcliff’s way of getting back. She wanted him for the same glamorous sexed-up reasons Helen wants the upper class Arthur in Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hal, but unlike Anne’s novel where we live the experience of abuse through Helen, here we see it through Nellie’s conventional eyes: Isabella is therefore become a slattern without self-respect, and if weak, deserving the cruel treatment of the easily irritated. Heathcliff tells Nellie how Isabella comes to him shamefully clinging. We may see her struggling to apply the only social behavior she knows and finding it useless to help her, inappropriate in her situation. We see her physically punished and banished with him playing the rightly scolding parent. She cannot leave for she has nowhere to go — in the case of Helen she turns to her brother. Isabella’s brother, Edgar, her one male relative with power to help, is angry at her for marrying Heathcliff and abandons her to Heathcliff. So the patriarchy fails her.

Isabella Lindon Heathcliffe (Sophie Ward) from the 1992 Wuthering Heights (glimpse of Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff from the side)

Ms Brannon pointed out we do have Isabella’s letter, the only narrative in the book which comes to us unmediated by Nellie or Lockwood, but most readers don’t pay attention to this counter-move against the romance of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliffe. The 1992 movie with Ralph Fiennes is a rare Wuthering Heights to dramatize the next generation and second part of the book where Isabella appears. Most reviewers if they mention Isabella at all blame her (the victim). Ms Brannon made a good case for regarding Isabella as a relevant portrait of domestic abuse today. Isabella is a woman with no access to legal protection. Ms Brannon conceded the novel is problematic as clearly Emily Bronte does sympathize with Heathcliff as the underdog and violence in this novel seems more than accepted as a source of power.

This was the session which was supposed to have paper on Little Women and the Civil War, one on Daisy Miller as a feminist hero and no one came. So there was plenty of time for a good discussion. There were about 5 audience members. Some, like me, said, they had never liked Wuthering Heights as much as the other Bronte books. I thought that Emily Bronte truncated the Isabella story too much, did not realize she was onto some powerful material here. Those who had liked the book when they were young did fall in love with the wild romance.

Angelina Weld Grimke (1882-1958) (African-American playwright)

For the papers on an 18th century actress who reinvented herself, Ann Wrighten, a powerful early 20th century black woman writer, Angelina Grimke, and Northanger Abbey and A Christmas Carol as gothics, see comments.


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From The Grass Is Singing, a Studio 4 film (1962)

Dear friends and readers,

Returning to my promise to try to write shorter more frequent blogs, over the past week and one half I’ve been mesmerized by one of Doris Lessing’s early novels: The Grass is Singing.

Lessing is the kind of writer who can produce such very different books (and thus takes on pseudonyms so as not to disappoint her readership under her first name): she has the intensely realistic social critique novel and/or memoir, often with a heroine at the center (but it can be a cat), where we are invite to experience the nature and sources of commonplace destruction of people, places, environment, relationships, communities on this earth. The Golden Notebook belongs to this type, and alas has overshadowed the others, e.g., The Summer Before the Dark, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and A Small Personal Voice. I remember being mesmermized by The Summer Before the Dark.

She also writes allegories where the action is fantastic, and susceptible to moralistic exhortation, feminist, anti capitalist, to my mind not persuasive because so unreal (you can prove anything when you get to make up the evidence), often dwelling on exterior delineation, e.g., the Martha Quest books, the Canopus in Argos series (some under a pseudonym). There are writers where even the stance or message is utterly different between two or more sets of books (e.g, Margaret Drabble with her traditional heroine’s texts versus successful careerist books; Margaret Atwood again with heroine’s texts, this time made contemporary versus environmental fantasies & allegories). In Lessing it’s the realization.

The epigraph to the novel tells us the title comes from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland which is then immediately parsed for us:

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the rumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico, co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Hirnavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder

It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses.

The story: We begin with a brutal murder. Mary Turner, a white woman has been killed by Moses, her male black house-servant. The novel seems to hark back to Olive Schreiner in its immediate reaching out to use the incident for a depiction of the class and racial divides of South Africa, countryside and town, and a sense of landscape dreadfully hard to endure, farm, survive in.

Then we move back to focus on Mary whom we first meet as a exhausted corpse. While not overtly feminist, we experience how she was driven to marry Dick Turner, a man she barely knows after years of living a detached successful enough (not unhappy) life in an office as a clerk. Lessing says Mary’s way of life offering liberty to women would not be possible in the era she is writing the book, 1950; that’s interesting. It means women have recently lost ground.

Mary is driven because she begins to overhear people mocking her, feels she is somewhat ostracized. Delicately it’s suggested people assume she’s a closet lesbian. She is not. She didn’t want to marry because she saw the misery of her impoverished parents, and especially mother’s life and now she finds she’s
repeating it. There is much compassion for the man too.

A colorized still from the 1962 movie

As with Schreiner, a contrast is set up between the veld and the city. The city is hollow, hypocritical, anonymous, mindless impersonal relationships which based themselves on daily repetition of numbing activities (like drinking), but the veld
is hot, dry, impossible to make a living on unless you pour huge amounts of money in and pay no wages for work; death dwells there; catastrophe and egoistic patterns of behavior where people lose perspective emerge. In both places a race and debt system controls everyone’s behavior. Mary’s husband, Dick, refuses to be co-opted into the debt system; he wants to live in harmony with his land and eek a subsidence life from it. This means living in continual bare poverty with small groups of crops providing small amounts of money from month to month. A tin roof which makes the heat worse. No holidays.

In Claire Denis’s White Material (partly based on this book), she emphasized Mary’s hatred of the store Dick tries to run as a version of what partly killed her mother as it died.

Feeling herself to be going mad with heat, poverty, loneliness, nothing to do, Mary at least determines to flee. She takes what has has left of decent clothes, what she can put together to get to a train (but she has to enlist a disapproving neighbor to drive her there), and leaves a note. Once back in town she goes to her old boss whose ad for a person to fill her old job she saw. He tells her sorry he’s just gotten someone else. A lie. She doesn’t look right and anyway she’s married. He’s shocked and alienated – at her looks too. The forces that drove her to this marriage are driving her back. Dick is at the hotel when she returns. He is abject and desperate and she returns.

Mary demands a child. Let’s have a baby and it will give us a meaning. He refuses. A child will only make life harder and how can they bring another human being up with any hope or good life in this place. Mary tries to get him to plant tobacco in huge amounts (he does borrow money) to make cash crops, but the year is a bad one and the crop fails. He hates what it has done to his land.

For a short while his behavior has (from Mary’s standpoint) been better, but he sickens badly. Then she has to run the team in the field; she is ugly in her behavior, inhumane, taking out her despair on them. A physician tells her they must build a decent roof, renovate the house to get rid of the bugs, and take a 3 month holiday. He offers no funds, but does not charge.

Mary has been taking out her rage on her house servants, and her one pride is that she is above them. She treats them like instruments, scolds, slaps, insults. Gradually no one will work for her, and there is left only Moses, and Dick now menaces her: he warns her not to lose Moses. To keep Moses she must bend, and we see him take over as she weakens, sickens, comes to depend on him to dress her, to make her eat. It’s suggested she begins to go to bed with him while Dick is out in the field all day with a small group of black men.

So, it’s a thoroughly implicitly feminist story. An anti colonialist expose of the capitalist system and the lives of poor to middling people who try to escape their grinding lives by emigrating. This is the set of people Trollope wrote his colonialist stories about too (see Returning Home). They mostly die or go to pieces or somehow, just, survive.

But the novel’s greatness is not in this message as in the way the prose begins to soar as Lessing enters Mary’s mind and we exist inside what Mary sees and feels as she desperately holds on against disintegration. It’s here her genius shows itself.

The outer pattern is that of The Golden Notebook. No we do not have four parallel differently colored notebooks where the action in each shows us versions of the heroine — in contemporary London as a bourgeois divorcee living off the proceeds of her one successful novel; in South Africa as a communist; as a fictional heroine invented by herself as magazine writer; as a diarist writing down what is said as she visits a psychiatrist. Then all dissolves into one golden notebook, a sort of final plunge in the final notebook which became identified with the almost Lawrentian idea that what the heroine needed was a long series of good orgasms.

At the conclusion of The Grass Is Singing we also have a dissolution. The heroine has lost her struggle and we return to the impersonal third person perspective we began with. An outsider, a neighbor who was the man who found the dead body now comes to the farm in hopes himself of taking it over and also out of pity for Dick. He sees a woman who has gone utterly to pieces, and become a sort of subject presence to her black servant and her husband gone equally crazed with his inability to cope with what’s needed in capitalist farming. The long stretch of meditation is extraordinary (some typical utterances from the book), but the insight is not sheerly erotically based as the circumstantials details of the disintegration have been exterior to Mary as well as what was in her and Dick.

Loneliness, she thought, was craving for other people’s company. But she did not know that loneliness can be an unnoticed cramping of the spirit for lack of companionship.

Dick often stood at the edge of the field, watching the wind flow whitely over the tops of the shining young trees, that bent and swung and shook themselves all day. He had planted them apparently on an impulse; but it was really the fruition of a dream of his. Years before he bought the farm, some mining company had cut out every tree on the place … it wasn’t much, planting a hundred acres of good trees that would grow into straight, white stemmed giants; but it was a small retribution; and this was his favorite place on the farm. When he was particularly worried, or had quarreled with Mary, or wanted to think clearly, he stood and looked at his trees …

Mary, with the memory of her own mother recurring more and more frequently, like an older, sardonic double of herself walking beside her, followed the course her upbringing made inevitable. To rage at Dick seemed to her a failure in pride; her formerly pleasant but formless face was setting into lines of endurance ….

Though what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of [Moses’] completed revenge, it is impossible to say. For, when he had gone perhaps a couple of hundred yards through the soaking bush he stopped, turned aside, and leaned against a tree on an ant-heap And there he would remain, until his pursuers, in their turn, came to find him.

We are told briefly (by the narrator) the evil was not this woman, nor was there anything wrong with her, nor her husband, and by implication, not even this “wicked” angry (enraged) black man, but the evil was all around them. The words refer to her past, the farm, how they have been taught to cope. Alas, many readers will not get what these vague or general pronouncements mean: she means the way Mary was driven to marry, the way Dick was not permitted to love his land and cultivate it without exploitation (as economically it’s not viable), the whole race system which when the black man is taken away is referred to when he is made to stand for “hurt human affection.”

In the book this is not spelled out clearly in the way I have just done, only implied and the book could be read as simply a story about a weak or neurotic woman. In her movie, Claire Denis makes sure that we see the larger picture and she writes a part for Isabelle Huppert which turns her into a strong presence who does not turn mad or become a slave, but is externally destroyed by the black revolution. There is a wikipedia article which sums the book up this way:

The Grass Is Singing is a bleak analysis of a failed marriage, the neurosis of white sexuality, and the fear of black power that Lessing saw as underlying the white colonial experience of Africa.[citation needed] The novel’s treatment of the tragic decline of Mary and Dick Turner’s fortunes becomes a metaphor for the whole white presence in Africa.[citation needed] The novel is honest about the fault-lines in the white psyche.

I think from the lacunae in The Grass Is Singing we see why Lessing turns to fantastical books with super-strong (supposedly exemplary admirable) characters and why her rhetoric remains unsatisfying. Lessing has said that people must force themselves, through effort of imagination, to become what they are capable of being, so there is a judgmental view in the book, a way of presentation that can be read as a punishment.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Girl with Cat

To return to her reading of Eliot’s poem, it’s almost silly to epitomize its meaning as about how failures and misfits reveal to us the weaknesses of society. Eliot’s poem is about a peace that can come when you give up the illusions of hope through civilized progress. Some might call it equally despair, but when the grass is felt to sing with life we are not being exhorted to find ways to build and share better tractors.

The Grass Is Singing is a great book because it shows us human nature and the worlds we create unsparringly.


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