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Archive for the ‘women's novels’ Category


No these are not dogs practicing social distancing ….

I’ve written a companion piece to my blog on cat stories, cat pictures, and a literature about cats: I make the case that dogs have been used and depicted, especially in fiction and legend as examples making a strong case for animal rights, their animal’s consciousness as somehow equivalent to people … Stories about dogs are focuses in the development of feelings and arguments on behalf of abolishing cruelty, respecting animals as we would want to be respected …. The second half I go into wonderful later 19th century novels, stories for children, and then recently a new breed which is non-fiction meant for adults, not sentimental sometimes with the dog as POV — from Woolf’s “Gypsy, a mongrel,” to Auster’s Timbuktu (about a dog living with a homeless man who is dying, both of them poignantly worried about the near future), to Garnett’s Lady into Fox, and finally Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip and the wonderful animated film.


A photograph of Ackerley’s female German shepherd, Queenie, re-named Tulip in the memoir

What strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of humans, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or “put to sleep” without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed — did they suffer headaches? — from Fierlinger’s animated masterpiece film My Dog Tulip

Dear friends and readers.

Here is a companion piece to my Cat stories, cat pictures, cat poetry: there is a literature of cats (no those cats are not practicing social distancing), though the two do not quite correspond. In cat stories I tried to single out what distinguishes the way people write about cats, especially when the cat is your pet, from the way they write about pets and animals in general, some quality and feeling evidenced in the stories (as admiration for them in situations where it’s a question of endurance, understanding, something that provokes resilience, resourcefulness, a stalwart demeanor, at the time time as having the tenderest fondness for them as adorably affectionate). I also cited scholarly studies of art and poetry about cats.

In this blog I am not going to single out a dog’s or dog traits because so far as I can tell stories about dogs, photos, art do not marvel at this animal nor have I to hand (because I have not read) a history of the depiction of dogs (I think it would be long). Instead I mean to make the case that they have been used and depicted, especially in fiction and legend as examples making a strong case for animal rights, their animal’s consciousness as somehow equivalent to people. I think of how Montaigne wrote of a dog coming to a crossroads, and having to decide which was to go next, “the dog discourseth to itself thus … “. Stories about dogs are focuses in the development of feelings and arguments on behalf of abolishing cruelty, respecting animals as we would want to be respected. Why? because they publicly, shamelessly love us, yearn for us, are faithful, hard-working, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible. They deserve rights …


An ancient Roman mosaic

I begin with the earliest part of human history: non-human animals often pictured on caves, usually ones people hunted, religious rituals where animals signal aspects of humanity people want to develop, admire, increase, and so ingest – where the earliest dogs are pictured as companions, fellow hunters, with men as the leader of the pack. Unlike early cat pictures, these are about human beings: people using animals to define themselves, caring about animals insofar as they relate to us, aid us, are our friends. The second early manifestation I’ll mention is an opposing kind: satire, the beast fable, Aesop’s fables which are satiric classical stories: you reduce people to animals to expose us. Chicken Little an American story, the ant and the grasshopper (I’m with the grasshopper and think the ant a self-righteous prig), fox and grapes – many many of these, all with morals, sometimes ironic. Are any of these about dogs? One 18th century anomalous novel is: Francis Coventry’s Pompey the Little, or the Life and adventures of a Lapdog. It is a bitter send-up of humanity, a variation on the “it-story” so favored by semi-pornographers of the era (stories where a sofa tells all, a necklace), except (significantly) the dog is given a consciousness, becomes narrator and will worry human-like questions, for example, is a dog property? is owning a dog wrong? Alas, Coventry never takes this far enough to be an abolitionist of slavery. The form of beast fable, Aesop tale (as in the brilliant poetry of La Fontaine) did have a resurgence in the 18th century, but its concern is not non-human animals but people.

It’s when you begin to find depictions of a dog saving people, of their attachment to us, and ours to them, we begin to see the turn taken towards the development of animal rights — Edward Landseer made a career out of this: if you click, you’ll find as many pictures of people with horses as dogs


Attachment (1892) – he was a foremost animal painter in the 19th century, specializing in dogs

There is more than a core truth about this focus: it is the center of Ackerley’s brilliant 1956 My Dog Ackerley — continually Tulip fixes our hero with her “anxious bright eyes.”

This is also the core of the 1970s poignant also somewhat comic tale by Paul Auster, Timbuktu about Mr Bones, who loves his master dearly, accompanies Willy G. Christmas, a homeless mentally disabled man everywhere, with his (the dog’s) heart-breaking because Willy is dying. Willy’s mission is to find an English teacher he last communicated with shortly after leaving college, who encouraged and respected him: they are seeking out a 20 year old address in Baltimore in the hope she will take Mr Bones in, for Willy fears for Mr Bones’s life and spends much time warning him to stay away from “shelter” people. Meanwhile Mr Bones has gathered there is an afterlife called Timbuktu and Mr Bones fears he will not be able to get in.  What Auster does is imitate the state of mind he imagines that a homeless person must know — loinliness, aimlessness, coming near death through accidents, alienation — and mate that to Mr Bones’s faithful loving state of mind. Half-way through Mr Bones dies (in a half-dream sequence) and Mr Bones is on his own: we are into a (to me) deeply engaging picaro narrative invested with extraordinary depth.  The dog tried to kill a pigeon in order not to starve but does not know how.  Eventually he feeds on thrown away ice–creams, garbage. Just before taken in by a boy (first adventure) he begins to howl. Piercing unforgettable moment.

I think of how I’ve watched a psychiatrist succeed in communicating with a withdraw child by taking out an animal puppet who is reminiscent of a dog. Not threatening. So early on in children’s literature (in Dickens, as in the disabled Barnaby Rudge and his raven), there is deep camaraderie in a child and his or her dog — and animals are made to talk.


Barnaby and his Raven by Fred Barnard

By the later 19th century when fine literature for children emerges beautiful tales: usually the animal is badly oppressed or abused and child loves her and the animal the child: so Anna Sewell about cruelty to a horse in Black Beauty (often a horse substitutes for a dog, or vice versa), or Wilson Rawls on two faithful loving dogs and a boy (Where the Red Fern Grows – socialist really, pro Indian). A Canadian early classic, Margaret Saunders’s Beautiful Joe about a real dog who endured terrible cruelty – as many non-human animals do.

Behind this a history of people in the Enlightenment first valuing non-human animals for themselves, keeping them as pets, companions, and legislation for animal rights – they are still owned by people and people have complete control. Earliest legislation on behalf of the dreadfully badly treated horse. People don’t want to hear what happens to make a horse race. Kathryn Shevelow’s book For the Love of Animals traces the rise of the animal proection movement memorably. We have not solved the problem of stopping human beings being cruel to animals for fun, torturing animals to madden and terrify them. No rooster was born with a steel spurs in its head (as Winston Graham’s Demelza tells Ross Poldark in Poldark) — Graham’s books manifest a real identification with and concern for all animals’ vulnerability.

For longer than the last half-century, a specialty in animals studies is the woman scientist who goes to live with a group of animals to study and observe them — from Jane Goodall’s wonderful books about her 30+ years with chimpanzees, to Diane Fossey with gorillas, Birute Gildikas with orangutans, and lesser known, Sy Mongomery’s several studies, e.g., Walking with Great Apes. Women are willing to give up their ego and identity to be with the animal. Sooner or later, they take on the role of protector.

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This was what I found myself developing when I sought to introduce the peculiar take of the Bloomsbury circles when they came to write memoirs of pets and about animals — as context for Ackerley’s peculiar memoir. As usual, they took angles that led to new insights — or so they tried to. They wrote wrote pro-animal imaginative literature for adults that is not sentimental. Or they try not to be. It is not instructional: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes books about the nature of dogs and how you take of them, ditto for cats. You don’t read My Dog Tulip, or Francis Power Cobbe’s The Confessions of a Lost Dog, Woolf’s Flush, a biography; or David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox or the recent Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (see above) for advice on how to take care of your dog. All of them are about us too, about our nature, and how we are aligned to, closely related to animals, they are critiques of us, our society through the animal’s life and personality alongside of and observing us.


The earliest edition of Flush: A biography resembled the layout and picture of Cobbe’s dog and book

Earliest version of this comes before the Bloomsbury 1910 date:

by Francis Power Cobbe, an important suffragette, who was among the first to try to stop useless and cruel animal experiments, especially vivisection, the use of animals for experiments; her slender novella anticipates Woolf’s Flush, and I would be much surprised if Woolf had not read Hajjin’s story. The Confessions of a Lost Dog include being taken in by a very genteel controlled single lady, and both have as the central incident how the dog is kidnapped held up for ransom, mistreated and nearly killed. Because that happened a lot in Victorian England. Cobbe also wrote non-fiction, “The Consciousness of Dogs” (Quarterly Review), then “Dogs I have Met,” which dogs have sometimes had very bad times (boys’ careless cruelty, eminent scientist’s’ deliberate torture, a man who kept a rat pit in Paddington and aristocrats shooting pigeons sprung from traps).

Flush was a present from Sackville-West; and Woolf’s book is a researched biography of both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her dog, from a dog’s point of view insofar as Woolf could do it. There are letters, documents, and Woolf is brilliant at not overstepping so that the dog somehow understands others the way a dog might (not through language). I taught the book as a canonical modernist biography. To this I have added (for the class I’m teaching) from Woolf’s The Complete Fiction, a touching short fictional memoir,

“Gypsy, a mongrel,” about Tom Bagot’s memories of a dog he loved, whom he tried to kill and could not (because of the way she looked into his eyes and grinned), who was a burden, bothering the cats, getting into mischief, but then falling in love (it seems) with a pedigree male, Hector, and when Hector was removed (as too much of a burden) so pined for him, that she disappeared one day in search of him. The retrospective memoir begins after Gypsy has vanished and is by turns poignant and funny.

Woolf had a dog who one day just disappeared.

Then there’s Bunny or David Garnett’s (yes he is Constance Garnett the translator’s son) Lady Into Fox.

It is a chilling book (not horrifying in the way of Kafka’s Metamorphosis where a man wakes up one morning to find he’s become a cockroach in body). One morning the narrator’s wife wakes to find herself become a fox. The first thing Garnett has to do is kill two perfectly fine dogs lest they kill his wife — we feel these as murder. She is regarded by all the world as vermin, as there to be killed. Gradually her eyes and whole demeanor become less and less human woman, more and more a fox as she mingles with other foxes, has a liter. Our narrator tries to become fox-like too Doesn’t work. He is not accepted. The book has a tragically felt ending.

It is sometimes printed with Garnett’s The People in the Zoo (in this one you see the original origin of animal literature in the satiric beast fable.)

So to come to Ackerley’s comic masterpiece; he might be said not to practice so much as to undermine the dog memoir. It is a love story, the story of his devotion to his female German shepherd whom he wants to have full life – not to miss out on anything, and that means for him, mating, sex, pups. As told it is surely a man’s idea of what sex is, and the obsessiveness of the quest (and graphically told failures) reveal Ackerley’s purpose as also to make fun of heterosexual sentimentalities about sex and marriage (as well as homosexual ones). As in portrait biographies, we also learn as much about Ackerley as Tulip. The humor is exquisite: it’s a matter of language and tone: our narrator is every so polite and impeccable, very dignified in the language he chooses; also startling and inventive: he began to think he had an “undoctorable dog.” He shows the cruelty indifference and urge to master and make others bend to your will in how many owners treat their ever so yearning dogs. I began to realize how many dogs might be emotionally abused.

Here is Dean Flower from the Hudson Review:

As he put it in his autobiography, My Father and Myself, “peace and contentment reached me in the shape of an animal, an Alsatian bitch … [who] entered my life . . . and entirely transformed it”:

She offered me what I had never found in my sexual life, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which it is in the nature of dogs to offer. She placed herself entirely under my control.

From the moment she established herself in my heart and home, obsession with sex fell wholly away from me. The pubs I had spent much of my time in were never revisited, my single desire was to get back to her, to her waiting love and unstaling welcome. So urgent was my longing every day to rejoin her that I would often take taxis way, even the whole way, home to Putney from my London office, rather than endure the dawdling of buses and the rush-hour traffic jams in Park Lane. I sang with joy at the thought of seeing her.

Here is the language of a man in love, for the first time and irrevocably. The scales fell from his eyes. This was love, as he had never understood it before. He does not voice it so directly in My Dog Tulip, choosing rather to dwell on his own innocent confusions and anxieties—a con firmed bachelor of refined tastes at the center of London’s literary life, driven to care for a creature who cared so utterly for him. For Ackerley, loving Tulip (whose actual name, Queenie, was deemed too prosaic for the book) meant understanding her desires, her emotions and charac ter, her spiritual as well as her sexual and excretory nature, her myste rious and essential beauty as well as her irreducible dogginess. Inevi tably, that led to some comic incongruities, which Ackerley skillfully played. … Recent admirers too have commented on Ackerley’s excessive, perhaps ironic use of Renaissance sonnets as sources for these bursts of eloquence:

Her ears are tall and pointed, like the ears of Anubis. How she manages to hold them constantly erect, as though starched, I do not know, for with their fine covering of mouse-gray fur they are soft and flimsy; when she stands with her back to the sun it shines through the delicate tissue, so that they glow shell-pink as though incandescent. Her face also is long and pointed, basically stone-gray but the and lower jaw are jet black. Jet, too, are the rims of her amber eyes, though heavily mascara’d, and the tiny mobile eyebrow tufts that set like accents above them. And in the midst of her forehead is a kind of Indian caste-mark, a black diamond suspended there, like the jewel on the brow of Pegasus in Mantegna’s Parnassus, by a fine dark thread, no more than a penciled line, which is drawn from it right over her poll midway between the tall ears . . . her skull, bisected by the thread, is two primrose pools, the center of her face light gray, the bridge of her nose above the long black lips fawn, and upon each a patte de mouche has been tastefully set.

But here again the language of love is unmistakable. The elaborate anatomizing, the fine penciling and drawing, the chiaroscuro, the classical allusions and chiasmus (“are jet . . . Jet are”) all attest to the lover’s devout gaze. What may be harder to see is that Ackerley had no wish to be witty or extravagant in passages like these, least of all ironic. He put all his art and heart into them. Yet many readers were disgusted nevertheless. Why did Ackerley have to focus so relentlessly on feces and urine; or in the chapters concern ing sex, i.e., his efforts (all failures) to find Tulip a mate, why did he have to dwell on vaginal lubricants and penile stimulation and the odors of a bitch in heat? The answer is at least threefold: (a) nothing—again —is by love debarred; (b) the problem is with humans, not dogs; and (c) Ackerley chose that means to demonstrate something fundamental about love and sex. As to (a), Ackerley earnestly sought to understand the facts of canine sex, on Tulip’s behalf. He consulted her most trusted veterinarians, but also dog breeders and other self-professed experts, plus all the books available, and learned that the process of “marrying” two dogs is not simple or straightforward, and that a great deal of ignorance, misinformation, and mystery still surrounds it.

On the film, from “One man and his dog,” The Spectator (V315, #9532, 7 May 2011, p. 48 — no author cited)

a labour of love, the visuals mesh with the words perfectly and capture all the various moods, from melancholy and autumnal, to comic and skittish. The film comprises nearly 60,000 drawings hand-drawn digitally (that is, on to a computer), and are just so lovely, like the best ever watercolours come to life … Tulip has her foibles. Tulip can be flirtatious one minute and fiercely possessive the next. Tulip can be infuriating. Tulip sometimes earns herself a biff on the nose. But, all the while, Ackerley marvels at her every detail, rhapsodising not just about her beauty and constancy, but also her defecations and urinations. There isn’t a bit of Tulip he doesn’t find fascinating, or isn’t curious about. Occasionally, the animation leeches into black and white pencil sketches where Tulip appears half human wearing a little skirt and holding court. … The film, like the book, does not directly address Ackerley’s loneliness and homosexuality and childlessness, but it is there in the chinks … It’s marvellous, probably the best dog-flick you are ever going to see, based on the best dog-lit you are ever going to read. What more can I say?

There are three levels of cartoon:  beyond the beautiful colored pictures, which dissolve at the edges and turn into black-and-white satirical exposures of the less than admirable passions and impulses driving the characters, which turn into lovely lines of classical gods (now archetypally psychoanalysing).

Once again here is the vimeo:

https://vimeo.com/264796405

Ellen

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Un Village Francais; — first episode as Germans take over


My Brilliant Friend aka L’amica geniale, Elena (Lenu) Greco (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila, Raffaelle (LiL) Cerullo — principal heroines


Antony (Ralph Fiennes) and Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) — National Theater

Friends and readers,

During this earliest phase of living with pandemics (WFH for those who can), a new but probably temporary genre (as popular blogging goes) has emerged among those paid to do it: the column telling readers what good movies series, recent and long ago, are available for viewing on-line; sometimes for free (YouTube, PBS portals, National Theater from London), sometimes part of a subscription (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Acorn, BritBox). I do not pretend to compete. The accent is on new or very recent programming (I have not seen or read about even one Game of Thrones episodes) when older, mystery thriller, British costume drama, “classic” serials (though I am kept up, this will not be about Inspector Morse & progeny); cable channel star products aligned with fashionable seeming politically serious series (say The Plot Against America, West Wing). I am a novice at learning what precisely is among the cornucopia. I just learned of a YouTube presence of Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife, with a young Lindsay Duncan — who knew? I’m not trying for little known, and, at a minimum, such blogs will recommend six to eight titles.

But I am offering advice in the same spirit, slightly altered — and much fuller. What you should not miss, on offer because of the pandemic and reflecting our hard era.  Not one made in the USofA, two cannot be watched without subtitles; and the third, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra comes with subtitles. Maybe I should have called this Subtitled Movies.

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The exemplary hero and heroine — doing their best, meaning well enough — the mayor, Dr Larcher and the workman’s wife, Marie Lorrain

I’m only half-way through the seven seasons of Un Village Francais. I am hooked. What can I say that will be adequate (and not go on for too long). The first episode of the first season begins with three children killed as the Nazis fly a plane over shooting everywhere everyone in sight, accompanied by implacable bullying of the citizenry by men in trucks armed. We are introduced to three or four family groups plus others, several professional offices, see the Germans. The ongoing story justifies to some extent collaboration. It does more than explain how this happened, but leads us to sympathize with those who succumb, and even actively do the Germans’ bidding in return for favors not just personal but for the village as a whole. There is some unfair treatment of the communists (as senselessly killing): The communists were the backbone of the resistance: they were often the backbone of many of the parties against fascism – -in Spain, the Republicans, in China, around the world. Each was more or less locally run.

One way to sneer at the resistance has been to deny it existed in France — Caroline Moorehead is among those to demonstrate not so in either Italy or France. In two of her books, she demonstrates they were careful, cautious, respectful of one another’s lives – or they could hardly have survived though thousands were murdered. Importantly these many hours of believable sincerely imagined tough lives, wih their intermittent pleasures, griefs, warns us what fascists are and if they ever gain complete control in the US what we are to expect. 90,000 deaths and still counting, a collapsed economy with a stubborn refusal to help 85% of Americans for real is just a start; a laying on of the groundwork as the rule of law is savaged and the many agencies of the gov’t run by corrupt sycophants, made to rot from within. We see this in quiet enforced business practices that have the effect of starving and stealing all resources from the French to send to German privileged. Get rid of the weak, exploit and enslave those somewhat stronger, kill imprison the uncooperative.

So much of the power of fascists stems from those of decent beliefs for the real good of a public believing the people you are dealing with will operate decently, from at least roughly the same moral norms. It was extraordinarily creepy and awful —- I felt it in my body —as the mayor and police chief, etc, think they can turn the French thief over to the French authorities, and he will be treated justly, then are betrayed. There is nothing to do as the villager, who deserved a slap on the wrist, is turned over to the Nazis for what we know will be a horrible fate -— again and again, you feel the vulnerability of his body and the bodies of the men who unwittingly allowed this to happen, how they turn away, can’t watch, feel so utterly helpless and bad. Torture in front of us by burning people with cigarettes during interrogations as a first step.

Step-by-step is the process. (As we in the US are experiencing under Trump and his vicious Republican regime.) You understand, too, why the mill owner, simply seeing the immediate great benefits, makes the creepy deal with the Nazi commander to supply the wood planks to him. You know it will end badly, but you also realize that the French collaborator is not evil, just doing what seems to make sense at the time. Women now have to be careful who they have sex with — you are then identified as of that party. Interesting how the people fool themselves. Each person thinks individually oh I’ll just do this or that and I’ll survive. Schwartz switches to concrete when a new German commander has a new crony he wants to do deals for wood with. Contracts are worthless where law and justice don’t exist. The Jewish man thinks he will be alive when the war is done, and that he can take what’s left of his business back then so he does a deal too.


Schwartz

Mr Schwartz is a fascinating one: he is driven to murder a man who was trying to blackmail him into betraying the Jewish man who was lending him the money to transform his business and his wife — he is central, his well-meaning capable educated authority has led to him being a collaborator. His brother is now being pressured to move up from resisting by handing out pamphlets to killing in reciprocation, except the Nazi will kill as many hostages as they feel like for every murder the French commit. Lucienne, the schoolteacher now pregnant by the Nazi officer. Marie, a peasant’s wife who evolves into independence because she is gifted with strong intelligence, Henri De Kervern is the bearded policeman who becomes involved in the resistance.

For the most part there are no black and white villains or heroes/heroines in this drama. Everyone has to deal with complicated choices. Which I think is true to life. No one can say what they would or would not do given extreme circumstances. What I really also like about the series is how the characters evolve in ways you would not expect. We are in the middle of series three and could not have foreseen many of the developments. One of my favorite characters has been Gustave, the young son of the communist Marcel Larcher (brother to the mayor).


Schoolteacher, Lucienne

One of the many stories of private life: Lucienne is now pregnant by the German (Nazi of course) soldier. At first he has given her the cold shoulder. Despite her religiosity (and we see her praying repeatedly by the bed) and going to a priest to confess her sin (fornication apparently). Each man has a reason beyond himself why this is unacceptable. Priest: we will just about excommunicate you. You are a pariah if you do this. Lucienne leaves the church, having determined for own sake (and probably that of any baby caught up in this horror) to get an abortion.

What’s remarkable is again it’s the men who stop her. Reluctantly, but determinedly Marie visits Lucienne to see why she’s upset, suspecting all the while Lucienne is pregnant. Marie has self-aborted but takes her to a Jewish midwife, and they are in the midst of their operation, just about to start and De Kervern stops them. He says it’s against the law, he’ll get in trouble and he’s about to throw Hortense out. So they stop. Lucienne goes home and tries to self-abort and ends up bleeding profusely in the school; Mr Bedier (in love with her) rushes her to Dr Larcher who saves her life but refuses her an abortion. It’s not safe; just think of how much joy and meaning a baby wil give you. &c&c. Anyway he won’t. Then he bothers Mr Bedier who he thinks the father to care for her. Bedier is willing — this gives him power and purchase over her, but he is also a good man. The Nazi soldier comes back with all these offers of later loyalty. He is in love with her and wants her to have his baby. They are thwarted by the spiteful Mrs Schwartz who loathes Lucienne for not choosing her cake in a yearly cake-baking money-raising contest.

The story brings out how the women would all help but the men have the power and all stop her. The girl herself casts aside her religion (another force controlling her) and would risk her life to abort this burden and trouble – she will be despised by many for having a child out of wedlock, it will be despised. Not everything that happens in this series is the result of this particular war …

For commentary (analysis, evaluation on Seasons 3-4 click here).

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Across Lila’s kitchen table

My Brilliant Friend is one of these mis-named series from a cycle of books where the title of the first book becomes the title of the whole series. My Brilliant Friend is the title of the first volume and was the source of the first film adaptation series; the 4 novels are called The Neapolitan Quartet (they are mostly set in Naples); this season, the second, ought more accurately to be called The Story of a New Name as it is an adaptation of the 2nd novel, with this name. Lara Zuram in the Rolling Stone offers one of the best general assessments and interpretations of this second season I’ve come across. unfortunately this is not many: in Italian, Italian in feel, culture, places, on HBO, as one of the best TV films this year, and as a deeply woman-centered exploration, the 8 episodes are not getting the attention they deserve.

Here first is my review-essay of the second and third (Those Who Leave and Those who Stay) books. It is Lenu who by the end of the second series is being enabled literally to leave Naples: by going to college in Pisa, she has met and is about to marry an upper class young man who is himself becoming a professor, and through his mother found a publisher for her autobiographical novel (based on a story Lila wrote in their shared childhood), and by the third novel is living out her life among the intelligensia of Northern Italy, in Turin and Rome to be exact. Lila is said never to have left Naples and its environs (Ischia) ever.

Now to the second season for the second book:  From the fourth episode: The Kiss


A viscerally felt experience of the beach at Ischia with Pinu (married to Lila’s brother, Lila is married to Pinu’s brother)

I’ve not seen or felt anything like this in a long time. It’s not just that all the actors and actresses project real feelings fully that we can enter into, but the whole ambience of the situations. Thes= prologues often focus on characters other than Lenu or Lila so in this way that part of the novels is brought into play. Or we see an incidents or strings of incidents that are to the side of the main plot-narrative. Only by having many more episodes than the company was willing to fund can you bring in these “minor” characters. They are often suggestively complex about characters falling to pieces by the system.

After said prologue, we first see them on Ischia as they trudge down the beach. In an other film it would be all surface, glamor, here we feel how tiresome beaches also are, how heavy the umbrella, how weary the walk, hot the sun, and a sense of sticky sand. I put it down to not magazin-ing everything. The house is like a house I would stay in, the curtains thin, the stone steps hard, the doors ugly and off-center, painted in such a way that the shades are not perfect. All the surroundings are like this — a boat is not super expensive, perfect in way but messy, slosh slosh.

Their dialogues are what people might say: not elevated into top wit or reflection, but such wit and reflection as comes out is from offhand, slightly spiteful distrustful talk, the way people do ever one-upping one another — a real sense of contingent interaction

The fights every one has, the ambiguity of positions only once in a while made explicit: Lenu who is treated as a servant and yet is the educated person there with books with her. The mother says I’ll be blamed. When a quarrel happens, the debris and then how sordid
things can be — yet the beauty of the air, light. When they swim, they swim as awkwardly as I do — I mean the girls, as feeble in the sea and yet moving along. What the film does is give us in a way what book can’t — the viscera through sound, music, real presences — the series fulfills the book.

Yet OTOH, it has to simplify so the central story line stays with Lenu/Lila in conflict, Lila and her husband’s inadequate (I’ll call it and for both) relationship, and the entry of Nino into this mix. Lila begins an affair with Nino when he chooses her over Lenu (who is profoundly hurt and turns to Nino’s father and allows him to have sex with her one night on the beach) Another parallel is Pinu’s relationship with Lila’s brother, Rino — it’s too based on sex for her taste and now she’s found someone who she likes better and treats her as a person more, Bruno, and she wants to escape the conflict but also Nino. Almost she’d rather have neither man, but she is not permitted that choice of no man.

In the book other more minor characters are also developed: especially Pasquale Peluso. That he’s a communist bricklayer matters. The book and series wants to present Italy as it’s felt through the class system with all its nuances. Pasquale has no chance whatsover of getting to the beach. He gets his books from the library or cheaply made ones, and rag newspapers. So this stream-lined season (only 8 episodes) would or could be so much richer

From the sixth: Rage

One of many moments where it’s apparent Stefano has beat up Lila in his rage


Enzo picking Lila up to take her home (to Stefano) when Nino has abandoned her

Lila has been in a repressed rage since she was a young child and thrown out of a window by her father, and not allowed to go on to school beyond the most basic primary learning. The rage comes out again and again, mostly in the form of what’s called bad behavior. She is often mean to people, says things that hurt others very much, spiteful, mocking.

The episode opens with Lenu doing spectacularly well with another of these public questionings in front of all her classmates and all the teachers, told she should go on to university, demurring but urged by the teachers, and then when she tells her parents and her mother goes into a rage and forbids it (she is getting above them, where will she get the money from), defying them, going by train, arriving at this pretty looking city and off to take the exams, which if she does well she will be supported. She then says the hardest thing to tell now is what happened to Lila during this time.

We see fleetingly Lila give Lenu a box of notebooks; these are Lila’s life story, and then we see Lenu walking by a canal with them — in the book you are told what she does — and thus are prepared for why Lenu when she is in her sixties writes these 4 books after (the opening scene of the whole series), Lila in her mid-sixties disappears.

In this episode — for the rest of it — we see Lila in probably the first year or so of the marriage to Stefano defies the deeply entrenched norm of these people and leaves her husband for Nino. They live in a slum in a broken down apartment; only very briefly and from afar do we see their 23 days of joy. That’s all they have because suddenly without much preparation, Nino turns on her, and begins to complain ever bitterly about her lack of middle class manners, nuance, that she does break out and say what she thinks, she is an embarrassment to him. He packs and leaves.

Meanwhile upon her leaving — in a scene where Stefano is stunned, astonished, finally tells her how he loves her and has done all he can give her everything. She begins her telling him by saying she will no longer go to the shoe store, the grocery, hates staying home, hates him. He does not believe she will leave and goes to work and when he comes back she is gone. He weeps, and goes to the family, they are horrified and accuse one another of knowing where she is. They decide she has gone to stay with Lenu because they can’t bear any of the alternatives. What happens is the gangster type threatens Antonio, home from conscription and emotionally destroyed when Antonio asks for a job, then threatens him to go find Lila but not tell anyone. This mode of threatening is Mafia stuff – just what we see nightly on TV in the killing criminal Trump.

Antonio promises, but wandering near where Lenu has gone can’t find Lila; he goes to a neighborhood spectacle and tells Pasquale, who loves Lila and he and Enzo say she must be found. They do find her after Nino has left her. She is writing on a typewriter. After some
talk Enzo persuades her she must return to her husband, she is starving in this dump.

She does return, and there is Stefano all rejoicing. She tells him she is pregnant, and he is delighted until she says it is not his Now this is cruel: not only is there no need to tell him but she was pregnant before going off with Nino, and in the book it’s obvious she flees because the pregnancy is a final nail on the coffin. How can she now ever escape.

I’ve heard that phrase many a time from my father — a nail on the coffin that kept me here … What’s missing is the inwardness for you are through Lenu as narrative in the subjective consciousness of Lila at last.

From the seventh: Ghosts


Lenu studying


Lenu’s mother while caring for Lenu

We fast forward to Lenu being integrated into the university (Pisa, Normale superieure); she is the girlfriend of a wealthy young man who tries to buck the exam system where we are shown “orals” are a form of bullying or humiliation (if you don’t produce the right answers). We have seen Lenu go through this 3 times. The young man refuses; says what we are leaning is divorced of all social, economic, political context, he is excoriated, mocked, dismissed from college. She realizes when she goes off with him and he tells her he must leave now (deprived of all income) that she has not integrated socially into the college. She has spent her time in the library studying — so now he’s gone she is alone — not part of some group

She grows ill and very touching her mother shows up and takes care of you. The rough hard selfish seeming woman loves her daughter. Lenu slowly gets better. We get flashback where Lenu and Lila are together after the birth of Rino and where Stefano has asserted himself to the point he control her body and her movements. She fears her notebooks will be found and destroyed. She gives them to Lenu but Lenu sees them as Lila’s way to dominate and control her and make her choices seem inferior, lousy. There is truth to this: Lila has acted as a kind of DuMaurier’s Rebecca to Lenu with Lenu the submissive second Mrs DeWinter.

Lenu has to get rid of them — and she stunningly throws them into the river. These are all that Lila has created that’s worth while. They are better than anything Lenu can write since Lenu has been educated out of telling such direct truths.

OF course we are to infer that these four novels are Lenu’s way of retelling her friend’s story which she did read.

While reading Lila’s story is dramatized: from her first refusal to come out of the apartment and let all these people use her, to her giving birth, to her trying to educate her boy to be something quite different from a fascist male. At first Stefano is submissive and loves her but slowly he becomes enraged. He has a relationship that satisfies him with Ada (I think she might be Paaquale’s sister) and Lila knows that Ada represents a direct threat to her, for she needs the set up she has to bring her boy up. She comes out to mingle and of course finds there is no good choice for her. She won’t go live with Solaro — just another fascist relationship based on sex and money.

It is time to go and she gives Lenu a letter to give to Enzo — in the book we are expected to understand this is Enzo who promised to care for her absolutely. But Enzo is not someone who has either a degree or business from his family.

We return to Lenu and see her mother leaving. The film of her walking away to the train and finding her way with difficulty was so touching to me. I know I may not be able to do online teaching because I may find they are lying and will not give me the support and direction they pretend. Getting on a train if you have never done it is hard.

When I finished I found myself wishing Ferrrante could have won the Mann Booker or some such prestigious prize or that her oeuvre would be given a Nobel – never happen because the focus is on women, women’s lives and the aesthetic l’ecriture-femme.

I’ve joined a tiny group of 4 to read or discuss these books together but do not know if it will come off – it’s online. Without benefit of a listserv

The last for the season, the 8th The Blue Fairy Book: This was a powerful episode. A wonderful finale to the book which ends just as the movie shows.


Lila as dressed for hard work in freezing environment of meat-packing factory


Lenu uncomfortably listening to disdainful criticism of her book at her book launching

An unexpected direct parallel to today — when Lila pays the price of freeing herself from her violent husband and the comfortable way of life he can provide her and her child, she cannot do this alone, not in this dangerous patriarchal society. So she accepts Enzo’s offer but that means helping support herself and she descends rapidly. We find her where? in a meat-packing factory, yes. The movie version does not begin to describe the filth, noise (screams of killed animals), the blood, the disgusting techniques for making sausages, the cold the people must endure, how they are cut, their skins bruised, the word hard and long.

So while the US meat packing workers are probably more comfortable because of improvements in technology, my guess is the rest — low pay, low status, long hard hours, coercion as a way of dealing with workers – is all there. Nowadays on top of that you can catch a lethal virus, but don’t expect unemployment insurance if you don’t come in. There are very high numbers of people sickening and then proportionately dying.

Ferrante is no fascist and last night’s concluding episode showed us how Lenu was being led to stay in the longer rungs of the upper class — be a teacher in a high school because you haven’t got the accent or the generations of family to justify putting you in a university level academic job. The way she nearly reaches that is to marry in. She has recognized this is also her path to getting her novel published. Piero Airota introduces her to his family and she is found acceptable, so he produces a ring. They will have to wait two years for him to get the position he needs to support them as upper middle people — there is no worry in his voice he won’t get that position, and as the next novel opens he has it.

We see Lenu come home and how she has been educated out of belonging and yet still belongs because at a gut level she understand. The scenes with her family and her mother seen now as a denizen of this pitch perfect. Their pride in her too.

The story of Lila’s replacement by Ada is told by Ada in the book as it is here. We see in both that Stefano’s way of coping is still to beat up a woman, and his deepest impulses conformity. Had Ada not gotten pregnant, not had the nerve to come to Lila, and Very Important, Lila accepted her, let her into the apartment and start just living there, it is possible she would not have been able to take her place as Stefano’s new woman. She does have to work long hours in the grocery store, and then a new baby to care for and also obey this man. A look in her eyes shows she knows the price of the ticket.

One of the beauties of the book is how the working class women can band together and recognize one another. So too the middle class but the middle class does not recognize those beneath them. We see that in the teachers’ behavior, women even more than men.

One interesting aspect of the price of refusing to conform to the role of wife in Lila is we see that in Enzo there is no violence, no forced sex so at night. She likes him for that. I feel we are to feel both our heroines capable of liking sex, but the way it’s practiced (so to speak) makes it a chore or betrayal after a while. Lila has some liberty to study, albeit supposedly with Enzo and for him — though as to talent for mathematics we will discover in the next book that Enzo doesn’t have much. She does remain grateful to him.

I was very touched by the closing scene. How both girls say let us not be lost to one another — because they could be. I knew that Lila would burn that child’s book — we have had in the series all the scenes between Lila and Signora Oliviera to know how Lila knows now how little er talent mattered once she did not go on to the conventional trajectory of schooling.

The concluding scene where the novel is published and Lenu is unable to commandeer the room or present a presence that is intimidating so the male reviewer gets up and condescends. Pietro had told Lenu to “remove the racy bits” and this guy makes fun of the presentations of the scenes of sex. They are so necessary to the women’s stories (see above). But suddenly our ambiguous hero stands up and defends Lenu. There he is, Nino, also part of this upper middle class, and he’s read Lenu’s book

I left out the touching flashbacks, especially of the two girls as very small, reading Little Women. Lila curled up in Lenu’s arms, the thinner one, dressed in a cheap sack dress. There are others and they correspond to moments of flashback in the book


As children, Lila in Lenu’s arms, reading Little Women

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Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theater

I recommend watching as strongly as one can — there may be as good productions as this one but probably since A&C is not that often done, it’s unlikely to get to see one better.


A playful moment

What impressed me is how the the actors (Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo, Tim McMullan, Tunji Kasim) and director (Simon Godwin) did not flinch from Shakespeare’s un-idealized Antony and Cleopatra. He is an older man, old, declining, spends a lot of his time drunk and befuddled, lascivious and lazy; she is a continually grating sort of mate, continually teasing, asking for validation, giving Antony a sort of hard time as a version of fun. Samuel Johnson endlessly claims Shakespeare’s real strength is the true characters. That’s one of the strengths of production. They had the uncomfortable comedy and the ridiculous.

When Antony is at that party roaring drunk with his fellows, we see (first time I’ve seen this), which the language allows, homosexual sex as part of Antony’s make-up and tastes. He’s false at times – he knows very well he won’t stay with Octavia. He takes the easy way out. She acts senselessly too — badgering her messenger. He also is too self-glorified. His strength is as a soldier, on land, but no he will fight at sea – and then lose. He is jealous of Octavius as this young effective man. Similarly the actor who played Enorbarbus is not done heroically (the way I once saw Patrick Stewart do it) but as a flawed human being whose flaws fit Antony’s but sees (as Antony does not) Antony’s self-destructiveness; when he hates himself for deserting it’s all the more effective.

But they have another side, and they do love one another, like their Egyptian life together; and as the play went on gained in stature based on being what they are, true to it, non-politicians, warm passionate, as opposed to the prig Caesar who is part of a long line of politicians in Shakespeare, starting with Bolingbroke in R2, Claudius in Hamlet. Antony owes a lot to Richard II, the development of this figure of a non-politicians, not a wheeler-dealer, a Hamlet, can’t be bothered to fit in, like the young Hal; also to Henry VI – aspects of these characters. It’s a very hard part to play. Cleopatra has no progenitor that I can see in Shakespeare except maybe some of the women in the history plays — those who love, those who are politicians; she played Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s wife in Hollow Crown. A flaw (it must be admitted) is the actor playing Octavius is too sweet, too young, not hard, mean, dense determined for power in the way of Shakespeare’s politicians.

Until they begin to fail and then as actors they can soar – – I was very moved by the ending. See how they both botched it and yet were just the embodiments of what love can be – sometimes so stupid — why did she flee and he flee after her during the sea fights? As he died in her arms, I remembered Jim dying in mine.


I also saw Frankenstein last week with Jonny Lee Miller as a powerful Frankenstein and Bernard Cumberbatch an astonishing creature; next week at the National Theater is Streetcar Named Desire; and if you want an alternative, or more traditional Shakespeare, the Globe is also on YouTube, for free for now (I spoke of Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry and others on a Sylvia II blog,scroll down)

So there you have it — how to wile away your hours in the evening (after work from home is done) with deep pleasure and growth in understanding and life

Ellen

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How she looks while you are watching.

Dear friends,

I usually reserve this space for cultural events, talk or writing about books, movies, theater, operas, concerts, visual art, but I thought I’d break my self-control or habit/convention here, and offer a URL to Angela Merkel’s speech to the German people — and by extension as it was put onto the Internet with translations into other languages than German. For us living in the US (and people in the UK too), there is nothing like this from anyone with authority or power to make the words operative for us. In the US all we have has from POTUS is more lies about himself (now he knew about the pandemic before anyone else) and more attempts to hurt the American people and anyone else living on the landmass of the US (to say nothing of those he can affect outside it). I don’t know if you can reach this — I hope so — that it is translated if you do not understand German. I heard the German with an over-voice of English, so I heard her tones.

I found it terribly moving, the kind of thing so moving that (as Scott said of one of Johnson’s poems) you don’t cry: Angela Merkel speaking to the German people. I do feel bitter shame that there is probably not one person in the US who could have spoken like this and has no chance whatsoever:

https://www.dw.com/en/merkel-coronavirus-is-germanys-greatest-challenge-since-world-war-two/a-52830797

Here is a further explanation

I accompany this with a URL to the John Hopkins’ Corona Site

Thus far three of the four courses at an Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning attached to American University that I was set to teach (one) and take (two) are cancelled or probably so; the same one (The Novels of E.M. Forster) I’ve cancelled at the OLLI at Mason. I cannot do Zoom and remote access; not simple or easy, it’s a complicated difficult process as teacher, & beyond me without a lot of training in my house, someone sitting next to me. For my style of teaching, I would not be able to transfer what I can do face-to-face, in a room where all the people are together, so all equally there, participating potentially and actually, with nothing recorded. My younger daughter who lives with me will by Tuesday be working from home (teleworking) at her job as a librarian: she is learning how and on Tuesday a laptop will be brought to her from where she works and she will link in through that.

I wrote about the pandemic from an autobiographical stance. I have been reporting (sending what I consider important information and essays and or videos (Sanders’ fireside chat) perhaps overlooked by mainstream and other media, for example when Trump and his cronies tried to buy a German company working at producing a vaccine to create a monopoly for himself (then he said it was the US) so he could grow rich and/or weaponize the virus and vaccine; or when he for weeks denied the seriousness of the pandemic situation (falsifying analogies).

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How to comfort and strength ourselves individually and within our own circles of companions? Humor, an absorbing sincere intelligent movie or movie-series, reading (of course), writing or what you do that you value as an occupation (hobby, or a vocational endeavour). So I leave you for today with an example I hope of each: a little Gilbert and Sullivan cheer:

I am the very model of effective social distancing!
I listen to the experts on the topic of resistance-ing;
I know that brunch and yoga class aren’t nearly as imperative
As doing what I can to change the nation’s viral narrative.

I’m very well acquainted, too, with living solitarily
And confident that everyone can do it temporarily:
Go take a walk, or ride a bike, or dig into an unread book;
Avoid the bars and restaurants and carry out, or learn to cook.

There’s lots of stuff to watch online while keeping safe from sinus ills
(In this case, it’s far better to enjoy your Netflix MINUS chills)!
Adopt a pet, compose a ballad, write some earnest doggerel,
And help demolish Trump before our next event inaugural.

Pandemics are alarming, but they aren’t insurmountable
If everybody pitches in to hold ourselves accountable.
In short, please do your part to practice prudent co-existence-ing,
And be the very model of effective social distancing!
Eliza Rubenstein (rated)

For fun in the unlikely event that you’ve never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? “A Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance:

A modern version: Tom Lehrer on the Periodic Table:

“A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” — the patter expressed as dancing, another production of The Pirates of Penzance:

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A still from the first episode

Try Un Village Francois: a friend characterized it accurately thus: “a fictional treatment of the Nazi occupation of a village in France. It speaks to our present struggles to cope with the latest version of ethno-nationalism/fascism [here in the US]. Many many movies in this realm but this stood out for me because of its sincerity , brilliant acting, and intelligence.” It is available on Amazon Prime (if you are member) or maybe bought (from Amazon again) as 5 seasons of DVDs

We see and experience what occupation means when several groups of Nazi troops come in, take over a village: it begins with planes appear over the village dropping bombs, and then troops come in fully armed, preventing freedom of movement, immediately instituting all sorts of (often absurd unrealizable) demands o people to teach them to obey but also to take from them all their wealth, many of their places to live in, to meet others in — achieved by implacable bullying backed up by indiscriminate and spiteful killing.

From the 2nd episode of 18, the individual characters and family groups begin to emerge, the two central male protagonists are a doctor in the village and a Jewish businessman. The mayor has fled. The doctor’s wife is childless and in this episode manages to rescue a fragile infant whose mother died giving birth to it — the baby was in danger of a jealous nun insisting on putting it into an orphanage where it would die. The doctor is a magnificent ordinary man who acts decently and courageously and sensibly and helps organize the villagers but is helpless against the ruthless brutality of the Nazis who just murder indiscriminately. The Jewish businessman’s wife thinks very well of herself and is suing the school for being responsible for some hurt her child received – not dead and it is an attack in effect on the teacher. He maneuvers to gain access to a single woman who is working temporarily as a nurse, she is married, her husband away and we see them making love after he has pursued her by a bridge. We see him drawn into collaboration with the Germans, agreeing to use his wood-making business to make objects for them, in return for favorable treatment (like a pass across a bridge).

What is important is the atmosphere and to see how social and gov’t structures just collapse under a fascistic and militaristic onslaught. We who live in fear that Trump will postpone the coming election and get away with it as another step in the direction of the lives of these victimized French villagers have a parable for our times before us. We experience the hidden lives of people like ourselves. It is inspiriting to watch how these people cope.


The poster for the series: To live is to make your choices

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C.S. Lewis came to mind as I watched: from his Epilogue to An Experiment in Criticism. “…we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. …. The secondary impulse [of each person] is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.” … “This … is the specific value or good of literature considered as Logos [something said]; it admits us to experiences other than our own.” (139) “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.” (pp 137-40). Lewis does not imagined experience need be autobiographically true on the author’s part; the good reader is not seeking to learn about the author in any direct way, but to see the world as he or she saw it ..


Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), Episode 4 (Wolf Hall)

Of course he is speaking of books (but such a movie functions as books too) so (I suggest only if you’ve read the first two volumes) hunkering down with Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.

As it opens, after the initial sense of groups of lethal Catholics at bay for Cromwell’s head, the narrative switches to Cromwell’s trying to carve out some space for the king to operate in calm and legitimately. To do that Henry VIII must be regarded as legitimate (still not a matter of course by any means), have legitimate heirs who can take over: Richmond, the illegitimate son, fatuous, mean-minded; or the disabled half-crazed Mary who yet has an integrity attached to her religion and affections; “he, Cromwell” must deal with an unstable distrustful and now openly murderous king. Threaded through all this Cromwell’s re-lived memories of the hideous executions that ended Bring Up the Body. I love the return to the characters who love Cromwell, Rafe, his wife, Helen, Cromwell’s nephew, Richard, the people in his household still alive. It is Rafe who persuades Mary Tudor to sign a document saying she will accede to the idea her mother was not married to her father, and Henry is the head of the state and a new church. A friend reading with me quipped when our computers seemed to go awry at the word “epidemic” that what we need in our state today is a Cromwell at the head, and Rafe his Man Friday

I [Cromwell-like] want to grab a quill, write something, and hand it off to Rafe. “Deliver this at once, Rafe. ‘Wait for an answer.'”

I’ve never seen a historical fiction lean so heavily on the knowledge of the reader of the ending and what happens for a couple of decades afterward. Elizabeth as a baby is constantly described as grotesque, fat, absurd ginger hair, useless to anyone but Lady Bryan who took care of Henry’s children after he rid himself of Catherine and would not let Mary stay with her and executed Anne; all the while we know that Elizabeth grew to be an able wonderful leader. The book is also profoundly anti-Catholic as profoundly against atavastic thinking and cruel tyrannies (mirroring 2020).

It’s another haunted book: Cromwell now carries with him in his mind and among his material objects his remembered wife, Liz, of course Wolsey, others; at the same time, it’s hard to get into, the erudition in effect expected of you is enormous: the people at an event know why Henry’s sister, Margaret Tudor’s daughter, Meg aka Margaret Douglas, is there to carry Jane Seymour’s train, but we cannot get the jokes unless we know, for example, that (to us a minor historical figure) Margaret Tudor married more than one man, who she went to bed with, whose child Meg is, because Margaret’s heirs (outside Meg who is probably illegitimate) are rivals to Henry (Mary Queens of Scots is her grand-daughter & Meg’s niece).

Colin Burrows (in London Review of Books, alas behind a paywall) has again understood Mantel and here the problems of his magnificent book, which is attempting to mirror our own deeply threatened uneasy time. From Burrow’s review:

These darkening memories make it seem as though the unenactable revenge plot against Henry has been driven underground and become a process of internal retribution, in which Cromwell’s own memories make him come to see himself as the brutal king that historians once believed him to be. When he is finally imprisoned in the Tower, these memories become ghosts who visit him as he waits to die … The episode of Margaret Douglas’s bethrothal also allows Mantel to play some of the elegant games with historical sources which have been one of the less obvious pleasures of this series. Thomas Howard [a new character in the series] wrote several love poems to Margaret Douglas, and she wrote some in return. These survive in the Devonshire Manuscript, a poetic miscellany gathered and curated by a group of women at the Henrican court (Mary Shelton, Mantel writes, ‘was clerk of the poetry book). Howard’s inept versification becomes a running joke.

We will need another movie series to realize the book fully — for it cries out for that, depends on our memories of the movie or stage play. I hope all the wonderful actors who were in Wolf Hall will return.

The lovely cover of the British edition and a limited 300 copies signed by Mantel (Herself!)

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So, to my gentle readers, stay in, wash your hands, try to stay well, do what you can to back leaders who will do something effective to help you with for your possible insolvency and medical bills, don’t let irrational fear drive you into hoarding any items you see in the supermarket which strike you as non-perishable — and find what pleasure and uplift and meaning in life you can during this time of social distancing (and all this will cost us individually) for the good of us all …


Us by Olga Pastuchiv, cover illustration for Fe-Lines: French Cat Poems through the Ages

Ellen

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Opening moments of Fortunes of War (1987 BBC 7 part series)

Dear friends,

Tonight I had intended to write a blog-essay on the first two novels of Manning’s superb six volume cycle of novels, Balkan Trilogy followed by Levantine Trilogy set across World War Two (1939-44) and its equally fine film adaptation by Plater and Jones, Fortunes of War, famously starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. But I find to my slight amazement, I’ve already written a blog on precisely this material, where I had also finished The Great Fortune, and reached the end of the second novel, The Spoilt City and vowed to go on to the third, Friends and Heroes, and then the second trilogy — and never did. (I have begun Friends and Heroes.) As when I first began reading these novels for two sessions of a five session course at Politics and Prose (bookstore in Northwest Washington DC), and discovered my mind was a complete blank over them (I forgot I had made my files of notes), so I had completely forgotten this blog.

I know why. I read the novels during the first half of the summer when Jim was dying but I thought he might live and then had the shock of realizing the doctors had filled us (or me) with false hope and allowed, nay encouraged him to take a dreadful operation (an esophagectomy) on the supposition it could help stop the spread of the cancer. It did no such thing, and when the cancer metatasized into his liver, his inability to eat anything without having it slosh back with acid and sour tastes of the worst sort made the last two and one half months of his existence a yet worse hell than even it was.

2013 was a long time ago now. Seven years have gone by in my life, and I’ve changed a lot and had many new experiences (yet not changed at all and remain the same person unable to do very different things — mostly because I don’t want to). I remember reading somewhere the body replaces itself every seven years. More to the point for Manning’s books and TV series, the political world has shifted dramatically so that my perspective at the time — one where I compared the art of the books to the art of Jane Austen — emerges as obtusely unimportant, showing how this influence led to the making of a more delicate nuanced art, but missing or de-emphasizing why one reads these books and what made them important in shifting political world of 1970s as a reflection of the world of the calamitous 1940s. I grant my old blog this much: I retell the basis story and outline the themes of two of the books and the movie. But in 2013 we still had Barack Obama as president, and however troubling was the state of the world and retrograde many of the attitudes in public that dominated over social, sexual, economic, political life inside the US and the cultures worlds like it, all that is nothing to what this US gov’t, the public world of our society, and all sorts of norms have become or been contested into since Trump took office in January 2016.

Suddenly Manning’s depiction of how the average person will experience the step-by-step closing in of a military dictatorship, disintegration of many aspects of society (from closing of schools, to wiping out of all sorts of accustomed freedoms — like movement, to new forms of imprisonment, destruction of social services, many protections), ruthless killing in say the streets and just over the hill of the skies in another country (where “anything goes”) is starkly relevant. This first part or the first three novels are basically a woman’s view of war, what she gets to see (a lot) and how she copes with it. The second three take us to Egypt and into the desert war where the characters who dominate (or become Harriet’s friends) are men fighting in battle and coming back shell-shocked; we witness war itself, the blowing up of people, of trucks, of towns directly. Gentle reader, I cannot rewrite the blog nor do I want to transfer it so I leave it to you to read the details of its summary up to the third of six books and about the TV film series.


An evening in the Pringles’ flat in Rumania ….

To that I want to bring out this time the brilliance of making Yakimov as third central character through the first trilogy. Because he is so perceptive, alienated and amoral, yet calm because he expects nothing else, his reflection as a mirror of say the fearful and hurryingly hidden passengers on the trains, the seeming and real luxury of the hotel lobbies become electrifyingly frightening in an uneasy tragi-comedy. I want to do more justice to Harriet as our moral commentator: she registers far more than I was giving her credit for. Guy is not a joke, but a genuine idealist and sociable man whose idealism as socialist-communism, and lack of personal ambition, his philosophy wholly inadequate. That’s important.


Ronald Pickup as Yakimov — oddly we grow very fond of him, our Pandor, despite his betrayal of his friends — he is suddenly senselessly killed

There is also Manning’s uncanny ability to create the atmosphere of war for civilians just outside a war zone (the book is autobiographical). We feel the cold and we feel the hunger as Guy and Harriet are helping others in a kitchen for a job and themselves not fed. The not knowing what is happening while you watch the bombs go off. While you watch one group of people take power and another be imprisoned, tortured, disappeared. Then how do most of us experience war in a war zone? as unnerving terror, as flight, as death and disappearance of people all around us, how the dreadful to see and experience becomes the normal. We can’t imagine it until we’ve lived it and only those who try to get it down in imagination can help us — so I must now read the Levantine Trilogy.


The Danger of Tree was a considerable literary success (she was disappointed not to win the Booker); the other two are The Battle Lost and Won, and the posthumous The Sum of Things

Now I refer my reader to Manning’s Extraordinary Cats, and conclude this brief survey of Manning’s masterpiece by returning to that first blog once again where my then close and now old friend, Judy Geater spoke of how the film adaptation lacked the deeper sense of the books about hunger, about clothes turning into rags, about desperate living conditions.

I did feel the whole theme of hunger and poverty which dominates large sections of the books is underplayed in the series, and in the books everybody is also increasingly ragged – Yakimov’s grand fur coat is falling to bits. Of course it would be difficult to show all this fully, as you can’t starve your actors, but the desperate beggars in the streets are a constant presence in The Balkan Trilogy and almost never seen in the series.

She saw the two cats as not only creatures to whom the love-starved Harriet can attach her but also doubles, doppelgangers for Harriet herself

In the novels Harriet also starts to look after a second cat later, which is half-starved, at a time when the characters are all desperately hungry – this cat didn’t feature in the series. While reading the books I felt as if both of the cats were possibly doubles for Harriet, playing out what is going on in her mind, as her thoughts become increasingly “fierce” and desperate and then later she is starving for both food and love and with nowhere she can call home, like the second stray cat.


The kitten in the TV series

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Last time I had a chapter from Thomas Staley’s Twentieth Century Women Novelists to recommend and summarize (see last quarter of the blog), a review of Deirdre David’s biography by Margaret Drabble to convey and one essay by Mary Salmon about Manning’s deep feeling of not belonging to cite. Now I can add David’s biography itself, and say I find it to be far better than is acknowledged — insightful, beautifully written, giving full depth to Manning’s life, taking the reader along that life and moving back and forth between time past when a novel takes place and time present when she’s writing it. Manning spent her life writing so the effect is to go from book to book, sometimes the book providing the past and sometimes its context another parallel present time. Her Anglo-Irish background and time in Palestine are done justice to. I also found a book-length literary reading and study: Carmen Oliver’s A Literary Reading of Olivia Manning’s World War II Trilogies. I found it as a pdf (which has now vanished, but if any readers are interested, contact me and I’ll send it to you by attachment). Finally a new pattern interests people: the refuges, the hard lives Harriet and Guy live — half-starving as refuges are discussed by Eva Patten, Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War, reviewed by Heather Ingman, in the Irish University Review (43:1, 2013).


I am just now reading two further books about women at war: DuMaurier’s King’s General where the heroine is hopelessly disabled (her legs paralyzed, twisted) and for a time lives in a war zone; Sontag’s Volcano Lover where the core deeper characters are the women attached to William Hamilton, our collector, and for a stretch we experience the terrors and insane cruelties wreaked on the Jacobin revolt in Naples.

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Olivia Manning (an appealing close-up)

Olivia Manning had one close woman friend, Stevie Smith, also someone who didn’t fit in, didn’t belong, was at heart a spinster type (no matter if she had affairs too), and could also become close to cats, as seen in Smith’s Cats in Color. My two close companions nowadays are my beloved cats too. So as I began with myself I end on similar use of the cat, unsentimental and metaphorically to that found in Smith and Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy.

The first is by a post WW1 and 2 German poet, Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74): Die Katze

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought home.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

(from The Defiant Muse: German Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to Now, ed. trans. Susan Cocalis)

The second a paragraphy by Hilary Mantel, her final devastating critique of life in Saudi Arabia is in her last paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazza Street: how relieved she is not to have to see the state of their cats, like ours, an emblem of us:

The street cats swarmed over the wall, looking for shelter, and dragged themselves before the glass. She watched them: scared cats, starving, alive with vermin, their faces battered, their broken limbs, set crooked, their fur eaten away. She felt she could no longer live with doing nothing for these cats. Slow tears leaked out of her eyes.

Ellen

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Claire Randall looking longingly at a vase in a shop window (Outlander 1:1)

Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years.
Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase.
That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing.
And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own …

But I can still recall every detail of the day when I saw the life I wanted sitting in a window.
Sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d bought that vase and made a home for it.
Would that have changed things? Would I have been happy? Who can say? I do know this:
Even now, after all the pain and death and heartbreak that followed, I still would make the same choice.

Friends and readers,

So, after all, I am going to the 50th anniversary conference of ASECS (American Society for 18th century studies) in St Louis, Missouri (! — where?). About a week ago the male scholar-professor for whose panel I gave my paper on Winston Graham’s uses of documentary facts and silences in the last ASECS emailed me to ask me if I wanted to submit a proposal for his panel, which request pleased me (it means he respected my paper) and whose new proposal had puzzled me:

“I Refute It Thus”: Encounters with Eighteenth-Century Objects (Roundtable) [Northwest Society for Eighteenth Century Studies] …. Proposals invited on any aspect of encounters with eighteenth-century objects, then and now, whether personal, professional, or philosophical; whether in texts, or with texts, or without texts.

Like many — almost all — of the Calls For Papers this year I just couldn’t get it — most of them were filled with jargon beyond me; this (thought I) must came from “materiality” theory, which (to me) is a hodgepodge of gobbledygok most of the time. So I asked him (as he had emailed me) could he explain in commonly used (natural easy) — English — for I would like to join in another panel with him. After a couple of days he did.

What I was thinking for this round-table was a set of 10 minute presentations on personal encounters with 18th-century objects, in mini essay form, that captured what essays can do, and connects with specific research you might be doing. It could be as simple as encountering an 18th century text, or an object associated with an author (Jane Austen’s turquoise ring?), or even encounters with objects in fictional texts. The main linking element really would be the essay/roundtable form, which allows for having fun with a topic. Some round-tables invite discussion because of the ideational content. This one would invite more “show and tell” responses from the audience with other encounters, I’m thinking

Well, all right. Not only did I get it, I found myself enthusiastic. I am it’s not too much to say profoundly engaged by historical fiction and romance. A couple of summers ago I taught Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover. The impetus or impulse for this book (so Sontag has said) was the collection of extraordinary objects and painting Sir Wm Hamilton gathered together, especially his vases.


An ancient vase found in Naples area

To teach the book and put this idea across I had bought a marvelous (expensive) art book on this collection published by the Sloane Museum, which owns a goodly part of Hamilton’s estate: Jane and Kim Sloan, edd. Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection. I passed it around to the class and we looked at a variety of real historical objects found in the catalogue and in Sontag’s book. With The Volcano Lover, I taught Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. The class’s subject matter was historical fiction set in the long 18th century: this book is set during and in the years just after the 17th century English civil war in Cornwall. It’s an unusual book for her because closer to historical fiction than most of hers; it is far more thoroughly researched than most of her books, based on papers and documents about a siege at Menabilly, which ended in attempting to burn the place down, a real general (a cruel ruthless man), indeed many of the Rashleigh and other Cornish family and military characters really existed. Its impetus too (I can’t remember where I came across this — probably Margaret Forster’s biography or one of DuMaurier’s memoirs) was an old wheelchair (ancient type) that she claims she once saw (I am not sure this is true) in an old building on the grounds of Menabilly. She also tells a ghostly tale about half-ruined objects found in a closed tower, suggesting someone hiding away or imprisoned for years on end — haunted things left over from the 17th century civil war.


Said to have been Sir Thomas Fairfax’s wheelchair — DuMaurier says the one she saw was pathetically feeble and looked uncomfortable


The famed (since DuMaurier’s Rebecca) Menabilly with DuMaurier and her children during her long time there as tenant

I said nothing of how the central propelling image in Ahdaf Soueif’s tale of Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Cairo, Map of Love, is from John Frederick Lewis’s oriental paintings, still in a Kensington museum, which I had just reread, attended a class on, and blogged and written about too.


John Frederick Lewis’s Cairo: Indoor Gossip

But I did talk of Paula Byrne’s brilliant biography of Jane Austen, a series of essays meditating and ferreting aspects Austen’s life through the small things she owned and we can look at still: A Life in Small Things. How successful (so suggestive) is Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: she too writes lives of Brontes, using relics, this time objects connected to them through death — some might find this morbid. I didn’t and don’t. And how I remembered Martha Bowden’s perceptive study of historical romance and fiction, Descendants of Waverley, romancing the 18th century, dedicated a whole part to how real historical objects put into fiction makes them come alive, validates them, are vivid focuses.

Bowden traces fascinatedly how these novelists mix true realities then and now (say time) with fictionalizing techniques (e.g., richly subjective world historical characters), especially those using allusion and intertextuality (to music, plays, once or still extant historical paintings and relics, memoirs) … Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge and Crossing the River (not covered by Bowden) include[s] a precious historical document, the scrap remnants of a past that have survived, and Phillips’s novels produce a take on this material that is sustaining and comforting today to those who today still suffer … where there is an intense desire on the part of a specific readership to go back and retrieve the past, to experience it intimately … there is a section on ekphrasis and the importance and uses of archeaology …

And so my proposal was accepted and then the panel also. So I’ve some delightful reading, re-reading, interesting thinking and dreaming and I hope effective writing ahead.

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Kenneth Branagh as Thomas Mendip, the discharged soldier who says he longs to die


Cherie Lunghi whom the town longs to burn as a witch — she escapes by fleeing …

I would say most of the time Winston Graham does not turn to material objects for inspiration or begin (say) with manuscripts. He is a sceptic and when he does have a written document will point out how problematic it is (Forgotten Story, Groves of Eagles, “Vive le Roi”). He does have pictures and the collecting of art objects as central to a number of his suspense books (his characters are artists, connoisseurs, insurance agents, thieves) and every once in a while (no where often enough for my taste) a real book, author, piece of music painting, but he rarely names any, most are fictional (cited plays in the Poldarks). He will use an alluring allusion to enrichen his meaning (again mostly in the suspense books): in one of his best I’ve discovered, The Tumbled House where a now deceased writer, John Marlowe’s reputation is defamed when John Shorn, a supposed younger friend, driven by envy and perhaps a betrayal, accuses him of plagiarism, and Don, the son and Berenice, the daughter experience much trauma suing the man for libel (a kind of nightmare haunting Graham himself — who had a son and daughter): the writer’s son’s wife, Joanna, is a TV actress playing the part of the witch in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning. This complex and Christianizing play preaches charity, tolerance, forgiveness — not that the wife whose adultery the novel suddenly swerves to focus on (to the detriment of the book) is at all to blame for what happens. Don and Joanna get back together at the end of the book in the same way as Ross and Demelza do at the close of Angry Tide,

When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity … Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter

and the final moral that here is all we have, all we can have, so we must cherish, make do is the burning center of all Graham’s disillusioned texts.

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive. We are. We are. The past is gone, over. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow. It’s only now that can ever be at one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask … Graham, The Angry Tide, last utterance


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark repeat in turn parts of the above passage with bits of sentimentalized love language thrown inm — done far too passionately, Debbie Horsfield, 5th season of her Poldark


The older series (script Jack Russell) had Angharad Rees say the lines softly, unchanged to Ross as what comfort could be found for death, and thus got closer to the book (1978 BBC Poldark 13:6)

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Still all historical texts romancing objects begin with a kind of enchantment with the past, haunted by imagined passionate caring for what the objects stand for in the past: these prompt the minds of the historical novelist.

Today is the 7th anniversary of Jim’s death and his spirit is everywhere in this house in all the objects with me from our lives together. Here is Samuel Johnson on Sorrow: Rambler No. 47 

” The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment …  Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away.”

Ellen

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Scenes from the recent Poldark series, with the accent on historical accuracy

Dear friends and readers,

My last blog was partly prompted by my reading through in chronological order Winston Graham’s contemporary suspense and Poldark and historical fiction and non-fiction books; I write again quickly because I’ve just put onto academia.edu, my third essay delivered at an 18th century conference on the Poldark books. The first at an EC/ASECS (East Central subdivision) at Penn State College (2011) whose theme was “liberty,” is called “‘I have the right to choose my own life’:” Liberty in the Poldark novels, and I put it prettily on my website, where you can see the titles of the other papers, and a more plain  copy at academia.edu.


Norma Streader as Verity asking Robin Ellis as Ross to provide a place for her to get to know Captain Blamey so she can decide whether to marry him or not ….

The second at an ASECS conference in Los Angeles (2015) that (appropriately perhaps) made film making and film adaptations a central concern:  “Poldark Re-booted, Forty Years On.”


An emphasis on community

For my third I discerned five phases or perspectives. a shifting genuinely liberal humane point of view politically, shaping Graham’s Poldark novels.

“After the Jump:” Winston Graham’s Uses of Documented Facts and Silences.


Contemporary playing cards

I had originally intended to call it “The Poldark Novels: a quietly passionate blend of precise accuracy with imaginative romancing.” Maybe I should have stayed with this, but it’s not the topic I actually wrote on.  I wrote on Graham’s different uses of fictional facts.


The cloak that Ross buys Demelza in the 2015 adaptation

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To explain:  At the recent ASECS (American Society, 18th Century Studies) held in Denver, Colorado (a convention hotel downtown), I was one of seven people scheduled to give papers on two panels on “Factual Fictions,” one on early Thursday morning, and the other late Friday afternoon, a session I was to chair.  Both panels organized by Martin Lansverk, president of NWSECS (Northwest subdivision). In the event, in this “subgroup” as I may call it, there were five papers, three on the morning I gave mine, and two on the late afternoon I was panel chair. I have a copy of a sixth paper (a good one), and I put it in the comments. I can offer the gist of the other two papers that Thursday morning: Lee Kahan (“Edgeworth’s ‘Lion Hunters:’ Defining Character in an ‘Age of Scandal'”) traced a shift in attitudes towards what was regarded as accurate personality portrayal. In newspapers supposedly captured real people’s characters by surface portrayal, external scandal, and events; the novel was recognized as different and superior by its endowing characters with depth, subjectivity, interior motives. A gender fault-line can be seen as novelists were then often women and women it was felt were “attuned to intimate understanding.”


Maria Edgeworth by John Downman (1807)

Martin Lansverk (“Laughter and Truth-telling in Jane Austen”) found a pattern of development in Austen’s uses of humor and comedy in her books which parallel emergent and developing theories of humor and comedy in the 18th century. He described what kind of laughter we find in Austen’s novels and what kind of humor and wit is practiced in good and bad characters in the different novels. In brief, honest laughter is a sign of an ethical character; where fake laughter shows amorality (brutal laughter comes in here as well as crude ridicule). He also found a continuum which in Austen and others moves from gentle teasing and silent (sometimes ironic) smiles (Elinor Dashwood) to nervous release (Mrs Palmer) to hard aggressive mockery (bullying and sneering).


Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood (walking alongside Edward Ferrars, 2008 S&S scripted Andrew Davies)

For the two papers on Friday afternoon I can offer a bit more detail because I am myself so engaged by the artistic work of John Gilpin. Tom Hothem (“Natural Fictions: Landscape Aesthetics and the Spatial Imagination”) turned out to be a beautiful meditation on Gilpin’s moral philosophy as made manifest in his idealized picturesque drawings, watercolors and illustrations. Gilpin was reaching for topographical archetypes as truths within all landscapes. Gilpin used aesthetic rules he found in novels (like that of Fielding), his autobiographical experience and apprehension of what he imagined as well as saw. His vision took the “best materials” in order to take “possession of the heart.” The trajectory of thought here leads to modern environmentalism and conceptions underlying urban renewal planning. He showed a number of slides of landscapes, parks, built houses, which (in effect) took us to architects in Italy, England and the US — Olmstead comes out of such schools of thought.


William Gilpin, Matlock from Views of Derbyshire (alluded to in Austen’s P&P)

Jacob Crane (“‘The Algerines are Coming!’ Fakes News, Islamophobia, and Early American Journalism”) revealed newspaper sensationalism and demonization of Muslims in North Africa, actuated by understandable fears of being captured and enslaved by pirates in the waters off the shores of the US. He offered the history of real border and trade conflicts and crises becoming in public media reports of fantastic barbarity. At one point it was claimed that Benjamin Franklin had been captured and enslaved. Again we glimpsed a liminal space (which can’t easily be checked) where fact and fiction were used as arguments and rationales by colonists, emigrants; Jacob quoted specific reports by captains and others, some true or partly true and some faked.


Anne Vallayer-Costa, White Soup Tureen

I will be writing more about this ASECS, one for my Austen reveries, a paper on Walter Scott from a session on the Jacobite uprising; on Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Northanger Abbey; on the theater as a career for actors, and scene painters, and the presidential address by Melissa Hyde on professional woman painters of the 18th century (including two almost unknown women, Marianne Loir and a Mlle or Madame Lusuler), and two here, further on film adaptations of texts written or set it the 18th century (Poldark, Outlander, The Favourite, Games of Thrones, Banished) and landscape gardening, Gilpin to Frank Lloyd Wright


Marked up page of Gilpin book

Ellen

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Sophie Rundle as Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey (from Walsh’s 2015 An Inspector Calls)


Ruth Wilson as Alison Wilson, a fictionalization of the deceit of a male “patriot” of four women and the families he biologically fathered

Dear friends,

Over the past week I’ve been lucky enough to watch the kind of “thriller & suspense or crime and/or detective novel,” which turns on its head the older hero-centered often misogynistic genre into a satisfying dramatization and examination of disquieting destructive values and norms in many societies. One example, I just loved two weeks ago now, was In a Better World.

Billed as a “thriller,” this Danish film, written and directed by Suzanne Bier, tells the story of a sensitive dedicated Swedish physician, Anton, whose wife has left him after he had an affair with another woman, and whose son is the type of boy who is susceptible to cruel bullying in schools. Elias is rescued not by the school authorities (who like those in real life I’ve encountered) refuse to recognize and stop the cruelty but another boy, Christian, angry at his father because his father was unable to save his mother from dying of cancer and was even relieved when she did die after a long period of mutual suffering. It’s an exploration of sadism in adult political life in Africa. It is when such stories are discussed in this way that we realize the formula for carrying along a mass audience is there merely as a vehicle.


Mikael Persbrandt trying to explain to his son why not to respond to bigoted violence with more violence is an act of desperately needed courage

The film struck me because I am just now reading and studying a group of these formulaic books by Winston Graham, which keep to the misogynistic outward plot-design so that the vulnerable woman is seen as the evil person whom the other characters have to root out (Take My Life) or the self-destructive bewildered victim of a crook who used the resistance movement in France for his own profitable exploitation and sexual predatory habits, and whom an essentially good hero (in this version, crippled himself by war) is right to stalk and pressure until she sees that giving herself over to him will bring her protection (Night Without Stars). Both were made into film noir movies. I am looking for a way to discuss them that brings out this hidden backstory. And sometimes I despair when I see how the generic surface is still presented as valid and tedious as the puzzle-unraveling is when speeded up, made terrifyingly violent sells widely.

So I am gratified when I see “all is not lost,” and the books and films which win worthy prizes, a better and/or female audience (not the same thing) are becoming as common. I am not saying anything many people have not observed before me.

In 1997 Marion Frank wrote a good essay called “The Transformation of a Genre — the Feminist Mystery Novel (printed in Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon, Setting Standards of Taste, ed. Susan Faulkner [NY: Edwin Meller Press, 1997]) where she traces not just the feminization of the central hero but a transformation of the values and the kinds of stories such material uses: Frank moves from Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, woman-centered and mildly feminist while upholding the hierarchical and patriarchal establishment to Joan Smith’s genuine feminist, then radical (not just liberal) humanist detective novels (A Masculine Ending to What Men Say).


Joan Smith

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For tonight I want to compare Aisling’s Walsh’s 2015 adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s “classic” everyone-did-it play, An Inspector Calls to the 1954 adaptation, famously starring Alistair Sim, so pitch perfect as the sinister and menacing Inspector Goole (in Priestley’s the name resonates as ghoul) that the 1954 film still has a following, and can be bought as a blu-ray:

and a re-boot has been successful


Pray forgive the conventional frozen promotional shot from the 2015 re-boot

I was reminded of J. B. Priestley early last week when someone on one of my listservs asked if anyone had seen the Walsh TV movie (now streaming on Amazon Prime)? A wonderful humanistic man of letters, novelist, radio host and commentator, playwright, erased by the media after World War Two because he would not give up his membership in the communist party and remained overtly a committed socialist. He was probably actually much better liked than Churchill during the war (Orwell just about says):

But he has been disappeared (like Mike Leigh’s recent movie, Peterloo) lest we have any encouragement for social decency in our media. A few years ago I went to a book history conference where a man gave a paper demonstrating that no communist after the mid-1930s was ever given a prestigious European prize. If you were not a communist openly, but were a socialist and known to be so, your book was suspect from the start. You’d be lucky to be in the short list and don’t expect a movie.

As an 18 year old girl I cherished two novels by him, The Good Companions and Angel Pavement. I sill have the old-fashioned hardbacks in my library which I read nearly half a century ago. At the time I was contemplating returning to college full-time and remember reading a history of English literature by Priestley, which I took out of the library. It stirred and spurred me on; his novels gave me courage and cheer – now I realize how the picaro novel is not one where compassion is the key note, but irony (Sarah Fielding’s David Simple never does find a friend). In later years (when I got to college) I realized Priestley was sneered at, called middle brow, and if I persisted in citing this allegiance of mine I’d be seen as showing I was not part of the knowing cultural world. A little far more candid and non-snobbish talk that day led me to watch Walsh’s rendition on my laptop that night and a kind friend sent me a copy of Helen Edmundson’s adaptation in 1954 and I watched that. I also remembered Walsh was centrally the creator of Maudie, a film about a disabled uneducated man and equally vulnerable woman artist.

So what is made central in the Walsh re-boot:

The conventional barely glimpsed back-story of a dubious unchaste working class girl becomes the central meat of the dish — the reason for having so many identities is she is trying to protect herself again and again, as each time she tries to conform and yet ask for decent usage (wages, respect, courtesy, kindness, a place to stay, companionship) she is used, dropped and sinks lower.

You can find a bit of the storyline in the wikipedia article on the 1954 version. Basically each member of the Birling family was responsible for ostracizing, firing, using and erasing Eva Smith; the worst moment is her humiliation before the smug mother supposedly running a charitable organization.

And in the 1954 film, much closer to Priestley (by Guy Hamilton as director and Edmundson as writer), we do see our heroine Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey but only in swift short takes and the focus of the scenes is not on her. Indeed in some of them she emerges as stereotypically a “tramp” or loose woman. But there is little going outside the room so we rely mostly on words to learn of the outside world. The kinds of arguments made are in cliches about responsibility. I feel that it is less believable these people would be guilty — their interactions are far less lethal, the family structure presented as far more conventionally okay.

Watch the 2015 immediately afterwards, and you see there were many more scenes with Sophie Rundle as central presence, scenes of her alone, scenes of her interacting with others, many giving her real gravitas, intelligence, and depth of feeling. What’s more the family is now made bitterly internecine and due to the inspector’s prompting presence are led to truly enter intimately into and expose their corrosive relationships. I’d call Walsh’s film feminist, Marxist, egalitarian, coming down to a human level in its demands, and really turning the “crime” genre inside out, while the 1954 one is Marxist and sentimental, still respecting the hierarchy and pious family “healing” at the end.


Grim

In 1954 Sims as the inspector vanishes and it really does seem as if he’s a ghost of Christmas whatever come to be therapeutic for this family. In 2015 David Thewlis as the inspector is not a ghost; as in Priestley’s he is lead in by the maid, and then let out. In the film we then see him watch (from afar Sophie) walking by the sea, then writing in her diary, and finally drinking the detergent; she is then seen whisked along a hospital corridor to an emergency room with a tube is put down her mouth and stomach (painful) as they try to save her. At the last he is sitting by her dead body at the end. IN both the family is then phoned and then told a girl has died and an inspector is coming.

The question in the 2015 is who is Goole? he is not ghoul as in 1954. Are we to take him as possibly some relative? some spirit conjured up against the capitalist male hegemonic order — almost magical realism rather than the female gothic.


Promotional shot of Soller and Pirrie as the Birlings still cheerful

I was much moved by the second film and not at all for real by the first. I do find Kyle Soller as great actor, and am drawn to Chloe Pirrie in all the roles I’ve ever seen her in.

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I encourage my readers also to watch, not to miss, Mrs Wilson on PBS, one of the more recent of these modern feminist humane “thrillers” — two hours last night (Sunday, 3/31/19) and another hour next week. There are of course the exegeses which try to stay on the surface, but the content so clearly calls out for the “backstory” to be told since the “thriller’s structure is now the emotional exposure by the women or the man’s grown children step-by-step of the male liar at the center. As Mike Hale of the NYTimes writes:

Alexander Wilson lived an improbable, deceitful, destructive but undeniably intriguing life. An author of popular spy novels and a British secret agent himself in World War II, he married four women from the 1920s through the 50s without bothering to divorce any of them. He managed to keep his four families mostly secret from each other during his lifetime, and his children (and many grandchildren) only got to know one another more than 40 years after he died …

Ruth Wilson of “Luther” and “The Affair” is the granddaughter of Alec’s third wife, Alison, and she plays her victimized, mystified grandmother in “Mrs. Wilson,” of which she’s also an executive producer.

So rather than the historical adventure or romance it might have been in an earlier era, “Mrs. Wilson” is an interrogation of history, a feminist critique of mid-20th-century British society, a mystery and, least satisfyingly, a character study. The strangeness of the story, and Ruth Wilson’s characteristic intensity, pull us along. But Alison and Alec, and their motivations, never seem to come completely into focus. The series feels caught between fiction and real life, as if the writers (Anna Symon and Tim Crook) and the director (Richard Laxton) were unwilling to fully dramatize a history that’s still murky, partly hidden in the files of the British Foreign Office.


Iain Glen

It could be said that perhaps the new feminist turn as gone too far in making the male an utter shit — I’m only 2/3s through though. One of the intriguing aspects is how the program makes mince meat of all this talk of patriotism and how keeping secrets for the gov’t is a noble patriotic occupation. Iain Glen the male lead often plays this sort of on the surface enigmatic male in female gothics — he was this kind of character in a recent re-do of a LeFanu novel, Wyvern Mysteries, which partly imitate the plot-design of Jane Eyre, except now there is real empathy for the mad wife chained in the attic. Keeley Hawes is getting old, alas, and Fiona Shaw even older … but are very good in their parts.


Keeley Hawes as Mary, drawn to be Wilson’s second wife


Fiona Shaw as Coleman (a sort of M)

Ruth Wilson ever since I saw her in Small Island, and then Jane Eyre, and now recently in an HD screening of an Ibsen play (Hedda Gabler, with Kyle Soller as the husband) remains one of my favorite actresses. I have never seen her in a film or a role where I didn’t bond with her.

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How to conclude? Don’t give up. Hang in there. Ripeness is all. Despite the horrors being perpetrated in the US by the heads of the federal gov’t, and sustained by its reactionary minority senate and judges in the public realm, there are still a large percentage of people from whom good can come, and who can make effective socially critical art from what Julian Symons (in Bloody Murder) rightly calls an inferior genre-game, which is still frequently obtuse to its own potentials.


A photo taken yesterday (3/31/19), the height of the flowering tree April bloom by my daughter, Izzy, as she walked along the tidal basin — we had the day before (3/30/19) endured more than 3 hours of driving on highways and DC streets to see and hear the Folger spring concert, an oasis of lovely, moving, fun, intelligently and passionately lovingly performed Elizabethan music and song

Ellen

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

Friends,

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Claire comes upon a young George Washington

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

Season 4, Episode 9: Wilmington

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


Roger and Brianna’s reunion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser

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

Friends,

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

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

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

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


About to build a life together

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


River Run

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


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

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


Floating downstream

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

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


Jamie and Claire greeted by Jocasta, Ulysses and Phoebe

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


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

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

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


Jocasta left alone

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

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


Roger and Brianna dancing at the Scots festival in 1967

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

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

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

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

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


Claire and Adawehi

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


Roger on the phone

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

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

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

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

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

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Murtagh

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Outlander Season 4 Episode 7: Down the Rabbit Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deep in conversation from an earlier season

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

Ellen

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Christmas at Noningsby

Friends and readers,

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

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


17th century Dutch: scene on the ice

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


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

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

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


John Millais, Christmas (ghost) story-telling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas at the Cleeves also has a good moment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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