Archive for the ‘women's novels’ Category

Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) looking into Farrell’s shop window in a highland village


(Outlander 1, scripted Ronald Moore)

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. 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. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Six months after the end of the war (taken direct from Gabaldon’s Outlander, opening.


It’s time. Overdue. It may be my readers think I am above Outlander. I am not. I love it. I have now watched all sixteen episodes of the first season three times. I’ve read Gabaldon’s novel, I’ve read her Outlandish Companion. It connects to so much I’m deeply engaged by: it’s Daphne DuMaurier in the high romance mode, elegant, controlled wildness. Outlander is a cross between DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand where the hero travels back and forth between the mid-20th and 14th century:


This older cover for and BBC Radio 7 image for a reading aloud of The House on the Strand capture the strangeness of a book moving back and forth from mid-20th to 14th century Cornwall

Also her historical romances, say King’s General (set in the 17th century civil war), Frenchman’s Creek, or Jamaica Inn (smugglers as misunderstood free-trader outlaws set in the very early 19th). Claire is the many times great-grandaughter of Sophia Lee’s Elinor and Matilda, the twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots in her The Recess. I’ve been reading about Scotland and its civil wars, diaspora (to among other places, Canada), poetry and fiction by its writers (from Anne Murray Halkett to RLS Stevenson and Margaret Oliphant and onto Margaret Atwood) for years and years.

The immediate inspiration though is the new Poldark. Outlander reflects mores of the last few years far more frankly explored, and unlike the new Poldark thus far is a woman’s mini-series, a proto-feminist series of films. I’ve learned the second season of Poldark is going to depart so radically from Graham’s books as to change a crucial thread across all twelve novels and one of my favorite characters (though like Jane Austen over Emma it seems no one but me will much like), Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan. So I thought I might sustain a comparison of the two similar mini-series: Poldark drawn from historical novels, Outlander from historical romance, both obeying naturalism and verisimilitude once the terms of the fiction are set up). I don’t say I won’t compare the 1970s Poldark nor the two books, Jeremy Poldark (1950) and Warleggan (1953), but I will keep in mind and bring in this contemporary comparable series. Run them on this blog in tandem.

The Outlander resembles the new (2015) Poldark in its grimness, brutal violence, grimyness, the POV from below, the peasants and outlaws, not the elegant and fringe people of the older (1975) Poldark, Oneddin Line. But this is Claire’s story, make no mistake about that. The central consciousness, the voice-over in this season in all but one episode (when it is Jamie’s [Sam Heughan] and that very unusual, as “real” men don’t do over-voice). By keeping the central consciousness a woman’s, the narrator a heroine, Gabaldon kept all the intense ambiguity about a woman’s helplessness in pre-19th century eras against males, who then in reaction to the heroine manifest unashamed or shall I say unhidden attitudes towards her sexuality (the film is written, directed and produced mostly by men): upon meeting Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) the film’s 18th century men, British soldiers and aristocrats, Irish thugs and clansmen alike promptly think her or ask if she is a whore because she is alone. Jonathan Wolverton Randall aka Black Jack (Tobias Menzies, also Frank, Claire’s gentle husband in the mid-20th century, a descendant of Black Jack, whom he has been researching) proceeds to try to rape her. But she is a 20th century woman, pro-active on her own and others’ behalf, not inclined to regard herself as secondary person or take punishment, self-confident, with a sense of what she is entitled to.



As our story begins, Claire Randall has been a nurse in WW2 and presided over and helped in horrifying operations, and the war now over, she and her her academic archaeologist husband, Frank (set for a professorship in Oxford), meet again after a near 5 year absence. They visit Scotland for its ruins, look at neolithic sites. They are trying hard to recreate what they once had, but it’s not quite working. The whole section, the way the bed-sit room looked, reminded me of women’s films of the 1940s, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard stuff. The two actors convey the strain the couple is trying to overcome:



I thought of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

All photographed with soft brown lights too, stark dark and bleak blacks for the houses, yet in gentle light grey light. He explores genealogy, ruins of ancient fortresses, clans, primitive neolithic stone sites; she half ironically goes along.



Frank has made friends with a local scholarly vicar, genealogist a Reverend Wakefield, as in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, played exquisitely fine, with subtle humor and gravity by James Fleet. Our honeymooning (in effect) couple take to visiting this gentle vicar and Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson), his wry housekeeper. Again I was so reminded of say Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers material before the murder occurs. The men discuss Scots and English aristocracy, Scots clans, the injustices of the 18th century, the patronage system, speculate that perhaps Jonathon Wolverton Randall could act with inpunity because his patron was the Earl of Sandringham. Claire goes off for women’s gossip and tea; Mrs Graham asks to read her palm and finds odd marks on Claire’s hand, and tells of rituals she participates in by Crag na Dunn, a circle of standing stones.


They are allured by these woman’s midnight rituals.


Here I was not only reminded of Dorothy in Oz, but the language in the book and series alludes to Frank L. Baum, especially later when Claire-Dorothy wants to get back to the stones as gateway to Kansas, but there is something new here: this is a tale of national identity, of seeking who one is by asking what group one belongs to, and it’s done from a post-colonial perspective, highly critical of the British. Whence the title: Claire is an outsider, a Brit, from elsewhere we know. A Scottish film company is a major producer, Scots actors, venerable (Bill Paterson as the lawyer, Ned Gowan) and new (Duncan Lacroix as the faithful Murtagh, so we are not far from Scott after all) are everywhere. Geography, landscape, blended time frames, intense interiority, mix with lessons in clans, Jacobitism, and the medicine and witchcraft of the era.

What I hope to do is apply to Outlander, several studies of DuMaurier, the gothic, women’s films and Scottish studies, and then by transference see how what is said today about films and books like Outlander relates to the new Poldark mini-series and what is being done to Graham’s Poldark books in them. So this is film, historical fiction, historical romance and delvings into time-traveling fantasies research in progress. It fits into post-colonial patterns too.

We begin for real and earnest when we move into the time-traveling sequence. Gabaldon knows that women in the 18th century went in for botany, studying herbs and so does our Claire so while Frank is buried in papers, she goes back to the stones and touching one she melts into another realm, coming out somehow into the year 1743.

She leaves her car

She has to come close to the stones of Crag Na Dunn to reach the flowers and herbs she wants

She hears something, music, looks up, and moves to touch the wondrous tall neolithic stone

The transported moment


An empty world, different older trees, no city in the distance (this is straight from Hungry Hill)

At first Claire thinks she has stumbled onto the set of costume drama (wonderful self-reflexity here) but no the bullets are real and she finds herself having to account for herself. So a re-naming, using her birth name, Beauchamp, she has to deal with everyone looking at her as stray whore: who else wanders in the wood in just her shift. This is an extraordinary moment that can only be done by a film: having the same actor, Tobias Menzies, play the hard mean ancester, Black Jack. Claire does a double take: he is but he is not Frank

So it’s a re-encounter

He now the 18th century educated man

she still the mid-20th century educated woman

The drums of sudden movement, excitement, she flees, he after and so her adventure begins. A snarling redcoat, upholder of a vicious colonialist order, and she finds herself shot at, nearly raped (this will repeat and repeat) by Randall, is taken up by one of the Scotsmen (Murtagh we later realize), rescued (or herself takes up, saved) by the Scots clansmen, and is paired with the wounded Jamie Fraser, whose arm she correctly sets (and thus saves), and soon she is riding in front of him (anticipating Turner and Tomlinson as Ross and Demelza), warning the clan from her memories of what Frank told her of ambushes, becomes one of them. She resists at first and we get the most old-fashioned of gentle abductions:

Claire: [having fled during the ambush, Jamie having gone back to retrieve her] I hope you haven’t been misusing that shoulder. You’re hurt.
Jamie: This lot isna my blood.
She: Not much of it, anyway.
He: Dougal and the others will be waiting further up the stream. We should go.
She: – I’m not going with you.
He: – Yes, you are.
She: What, are you going to cut my throat if I don’t?
He: Why not? But You don’t look that heavy. Now if you won’t walk, I shall pick you up and throw you over my shoulder. Do you want me to do that?
She: No.
He: Well, then I suppose that means your coming with me.
She – [Climbing, he Grunting] – Serves you right. Probably torn your muscles as well as bruising.
He: Well, wasna much of a choice. If I dinna move my shoulder, I’d never have moved anything else ever again. I can handle a single redcoat with one hand. Maybe even two. Not three. Besides, you can fix it for me again when we get to where we’re going.
She: That’s what you think.
He: Here’s to you, lass. For tipping us to the villains in the rocks and giving us a wee bit o’ fun! [All speak Gaelic] [Speaks Gaelic] Have a wee nip.It willna fill your belly, but will make you forget you’re hungry.


One blanket, one whiskey pouch

The band comes to a stone castle that she and her 20th century husband explored now become fully inhabited. I thought I was back with Frank Yerby’s The Border Lord, Book-of-the-Month club special (from the early 1950s like the Poldark series. I though of Radcliffe’s Emily coming up to Udolpho:

they lookuphesitant


Only the voice again is wry, prosaic, slightly comical:

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain.

When they get inside we are not in a gloomy, grand place, but a busy courtyard where everyone is going about her or his daily business. From the next episode:

Mrs Fitzgibbon [Annette Badland]: Mwah! Ye’ll all be needing breakfast, I reckon. Plenty in the kitchen. Away in, and feed yerselves. [chuckles] Murtagh, you look and smell like a rat that’s been dragged through sheep dung.
Murtagh: Gi’ us a kiss, then.
Mrs Fitzgibbon: Oh, no! A kiss, then! [laughing] And what do we have here?
Jamie: Claire Beauchamp, Mistress Fitzgibbons. Murtagh found her, and Dougal said we must bring her along with us, so So.

Mrs Fitzgibbon looks at Claire in ways the men do not, sees what the men do not see

Mrs F: Well Claire. Come with me. We shall find you something to eat, something to wear that’s a bit more Well, a bit more

It’s the voice-over that held me especially in this first episode, compellingly, Catrionia Balfe’s voice perfect for a DuMaurier Rebecca too. A sophisticated use of old-fashioned realism smashed together with fantasy gothic and superb cinematography, a richly colored Scotland complete, with the themed music part minor key bagpipes, make for an undercurrent of thrill. I will be concentrating on the women in the series.

As for the book, the source, this first episode is lifted directly from the novel. Many of the lines are taken from Gabaldon; it’s as if she wrote the book with a film in mind. She began in earnestness from an online experience, a Literary Forum in the Net’s earliest days. In her Outlandish Companion her language gives away hat when she started, Gabaldon had Now Voyageur, the old Bette Davis trope in mind but was also thinking of “the Age of Enlightenment,” i.e., the realities of the 18th century.

I love her illustration are soft-focus photographs or line-drawing illustrations, evoking imagination on the part of the reader: emblems, herbs, older symbolic pictures (the zodaic for example). Much richness for us to explore for quite a number of weeks to come.

From the site of Castle Leogh in Scotland today


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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (the first season)

Aidan Turner as Ross

As all those who have been waiting for the second season of Poldark to air know, there has been an unexpected delay in the airing of the second season of Poldark. Usually when a series is a real hit, the producers, channel, film-maker strike while the iron is still hot. The second season of Outlander came before the end of another year, and a third and possibly fourth season have already been announced.

I am among those eager to see the new second season. So late last spring I noticed a column by Debbie Horsfield containing a carefully worded statement (around the time a second season might have ended) that they had decided to present the sexual events of the coming season discreetly. They were going to be suggestive, not graphic. All who have read the books knew a rape was coming and I took this to mean that as in the 1975 Poldark, we would only see the prologue to rape, and then the screen would go dark. She was saying that modern film-making customs would not be followed, and explicit sex scenes would not be developed.

Not that Ross’s rape of Elizabeth would be obliterated altogether.

Robin Ellis as Ross in the scenes prologue to the rape

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth in the same scenes (1975-76 Poldark)

That is what has been done. A suddenly timid BBC has perhaps pressured the film-makers of the new Poldark series to destroy a central event that makes for a meaningful plot design with a first climax at the end of the 7th book (The Angry Tide) and the final denouement of the whole cycle, at the close of the 12th book (Bella):

The BBC and film-makers say they feel that the modern audience could not accept a rape from a hero. It’s too shocking, rape. Have they not been watching other TV series of late? read any recent contemporary novels?

I wonder how much or if they fought over this. Robin Ellis tells us that in Making Poldark the script-writers and director were in conflict with some of the actors over the way in the 1970s mini-series Ross’s marriage to Demelza was presented as a shot-gun wedding, the result of a pregnancy which she first tried to abort, none of which is in Graham’s books.

Anghared Rees as Demelza protesting the morning after sex, declaring she wants to leave

With Ellis as Ross, she struggles to free herself so as to go for her abortion (again 1975 Poldark, wholly invented and unlike the book)

In Graham’s books Ross rebels against hierarchy, rank, status norms to marry a servant in his house because he and she have started to go to bed together, and he feels he is destroying her future unless he stops this before she gets pregnant or marries her. He finds himself comfortable with her, does not want to give her up as a servant, companion, and bed-mate, and is deeply angry against the social order. So defies it. Was this an important change? thereafter the script-makers and director kept faithfully to the books until near the end of Warleggan (Episodoes 14 to 15 in the first season, 1975-76) when they again departed radically, causing problems for the second season two years later (1977-78).

How important is the rape? I’d argue it’s far more important than the initial precipitating cause for Ross and Demelza’s marriage, as nothing else hinged on it. Not so the rape. To put it abstractly, in what ways can a film adaptation depart from a novel in order to erase or betray it? well, it can expunge a crucial plot-event that gives rise to a succession of climactic and centrally thematic fraught consequences in this or later novels, in other words further crucial plot-events. A series of consequences that make for the very ending of novels that are turning points in the novel series. You might say, this would not be easy to do. If A (so we’ll call the final moment in a novel) is the result of B, C, D, and E, and they came as a direct result of F, and F is missing (the rape), what happens to B, C, D, and E? Especially if they are particularly moving and tragic and give the characters acting these events depth and intense interest?

True. events A, B, C, and D will not come until the 3rd season. The results of Ross’s rape of Elizabeth about 2/3s the way through Warleggan (Poldark Novel 4) do not emerge until the birth of Valentine, Ross and Elizabeth’s son in The Black Moon (Poldark Novel 5), i.e, Season 3. The intense jealousy of Warleggan, and his abuse of Elizabeth, and her misery and wretchedness begin only when Warleggan has reason to suspect Valentine is Ross’s much later in The Four Swans (Poldark Novel 6). Indeed the script writer, Debbie Horsfield will not have to trouble herself over the final tragedy in say Episode 8 or 10 since it is only at the close of The Angry Tide (Poldark Novel 7) that desperate to make Warleggan think her present pregnancy is by him and accept Valentine’s his, Elizabeth decides she will make Warleggan believe she tends to give birth early and goes to a doctor for a dangerous concoction of herbs to precipitate early parturition and her own death. Never can tell, there might not be a Season 3.

But if there is (and I hope there will be), how will all this be handled? In Graham’s books Elizabeth was left to deal with it on her own. In the older Poldark mini-series ditto.

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth, this time pregnant by Warleggan, ashamed as she visits a doctor

The unsympathetic suspicious doctor who supplies the needed abortifacient

If there is a third season, and say, we actually reach a last season, and the 12th and final book of the series, Bella, what will they do with the plangent meaningful tragic close (our hypothetical E)? What guilt could Ross have over how Valentine became twisted and isolated if he did not for all these books and all these years evade his responsibility, refuse to admit to anyone that the boy was his, he was the father who left the boy fatherless? The gut-wrenching nightmares, Valentine’s turn to a pet orangutan (don’t laugh, the last books do justice to characters with disability, and develop an animal rights point of view implicit in the early books), Valentine’s own choice of death or self-destruction?

A very young David Hemmings and Samantha Egg in the 1970 Walking Stick

Graham has been credited with being an instinctive feminist, and with presenting women in transgressive and iconoclastic roles. Not just in his historical novels, but also his spy thrillers and modern mysteries and a few remarkable novels centering on mental disorder and disability (i.e., Marni (1964, Hitchcock film), The Walking Stick, both of which were filmed, the second brilliantly). I knew much of this was erased in the new first season, including any undermining of male gender stereotypes, but the protest level of feminism had been at least embodied to some extent in Verity’s story as well as Demelza’s. The first season saw the character of Elizabeth, in the original books and series, an insecure and ambitious woman, who found more joy in motherhood than she did understanding or support in her husband Francis; who didn’t care for sex particularly, turned into a pious moral exemplar, whose every thought was to make her husband a good entrepreneur and imitator of his father, Charles and every waking act to nurture her baby.

Heida Reed as Elizabeth near tears because Francis is not coming up to masculine norms (2015 Poldark)

Kyle Soller as a moving Francis Poldark in considerable distress because he’s come down in the world as he can’t manage the work ethic (wholly unlike the aristocratic Francis of the books and 1970s series)

Henry James said what a character does is central to how we know a character’s psychology and ethical character. I am wondering now how they will change this character so that she falls into adultery with Ross? If they have an affair, that means sex with some frequency, no? If we are to see a succession of days and nights of sex between Ross and Elizabeth, what does that do to his character? his relationship with Demelza? In the original books and mini-series, the Scots Captain McNeill almost succeeds in seducing Demelza; she backs away at the last moment. Will she “have an affair in turn.” I hope not because she does have a real love romance in The Four Swans that is meaningful: as a young girl she never had a romantic courtship nor a man near her age, respect and courtesy and poetry she yearned for comes her way. No one is expecting Graham’s hero to be as believable as Tolstoy’s Pierre (from War and Peace) I suppose, but the books do contain a real man as protagonist, a complex enough character to interest us. Real men who are not utter villains rape women — this even happens the statistics tell us often. This is an issue that should not be swept under a rug.

In the first season Horsfield boasted that she was closer to the original books than the 1970s mini-series. She’s given that up — or was forced to. Could it be that the BBC read fan sites where people have argued fiercely that Ross could not have raped Elizabeth; or, that Elizabeth is to blame for the night of sex; or anything rather than Graham’s disquieting novel for mature adults. No longer do fans have nowhere to voice their displeasure. They were worried lest sticking to the original books mar their ratings. Recent film studies have shown that further seasons of a series will alter intentions and characters to please on-line fan groups or at least exert considerable pressure (Andrea Schmidt, “The Imaginative Power of Downton Abbey Fan Fiction” in Julie Taddeo and James Leggott’s collection, Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume TV Drama: The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey). So perhaps the BBC was willing to mar their matter and pressured Horsfield to change her stance towards faithfulness. Whether the result will deprive the central heros and heroines of a complexly develping consistent personalities over a long series of books or (if it should come to pass) series of films remains to be seen.

I had been planning to write about the second season without referring to the 1970s mini-series. Now I will compare the two series with the books as I did last year (see my blog and an essay, Poldark Rebooted, 40 Years On). I may even teach the second trilogy of Graham’s books (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, and The Angry Tide, 1973-77) as last and two years ago I taught the first quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan, 1945-53)

From the cover illustration of the first paperback edition of Graham’s Black Moon


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Dear friends and readers,

A major 19th century woman novelist, travel writer, Woolson depicts the south after the civil war, writes visionary landscape of the great lakes (ice and snow), realistic novels, with (in effect) feminist stance, very enjoyable travel writing. Anne Boyd Rioux has written a fine biography showing what the career of a women of letters in America was like — obstacles many. Woolson moved to Europe. And of course the deep friendship with Henry James. She situates herself among the major women novelists of her generation, knew quite a number of them, translated George Sand, never forgot Jane Eyre. She even liked Anthony Trollope, his autobiography, admired his relentless traveling:

“Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography, yes, I have read it. It gave me such a feeling! Naturally I noticed more especially his way of working. What could he have been made of! What would I not give for the hundredth part of his robust vitality. I never can do anything by lamplight, nothing when I am tired, nothing–it almost seems sometimes–at any time! . . . And here was this great English Trollope hauled out of bed long before daylight every morning for years, writing by lamplight three hours before he began the “regular” work (post office and hunting!) of the day. Well, he was English and therefore had no nerves, fortunate man ….

I have no less than five or six books to recommend (!), or to make this sound less like a task of too many pages, an author you might not have heard of, or only heard of as a rejected mistress of Henry James, now known to have been if not actively homosexual (he probably quietly was), at least as regards heterosexuality celibate: Constance Fenimore Woolson wrote splendid novels, novellas, short stories and travel books in the post-reconstruction era of the US, from her escape sites in Europe, mostly Italy. Over the past couple of months, I’ve read her powerful first novel, Anne (which ought to have a title that gives some sense of its content, e.g, An Internal Exile) in an edition, which included the original touching and expressive illustrations:

The heroine’s aunt, Miss Lois,

A striking minor male character ….

a few remarkable short stories and gothic landscape fantasies, in Castle Nowhere, and her depictions of the bitterness of the defeated southerners, immersed in death, near bankruptcy (those who had been wealthy had been so off the bodies and minds of their slaves), and destructive self-thwarting norms, best read as a group in Rayburn S. Moore’s old-fashioned “masterworks of literature series, For the Major and other Stories, though a couple are reprinted in Rioux’s Miss Grief and Other Stories. Anne Boyd Rioux’s Portrait of a Novelist (the title modeled on Gorra’s) also depicts the norms and prejudices that marginalized and erased American women fiction writers of the 19th century (see her Bluestocking Bulletin). Woolson is a major American voice of the second half of the 19th century. Try her.

Unfortunately, Woolson is best known for either having accidentally died or killed herself at age 54 by falling out a window in Venice, probably (it’s thought) because she was rejected as a romantic partner by Henry James (see Ruth Bernard Yeazell, “In what sense did she love him?”, LRB, 36:9, 8 May 2014). Often this event which Rioux presents carefully is treated as a ridiculous joke because Henry James, so upset at what happened, came to help with her effects, and distressed attempted to drown Woolson’s dresses in the Venice lagoon and they all floated up around him. What happened is a combination of life-long depression, and some serious illness in her early fifties (not uncommon before there was an understanding of various human organs) led to a decline, too much medicine, bad pain, and a half-willed suicide. Woolson is a major character in Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, a psycho-biography of Henry James’s creation of the story of Isabel Archer, and not overlooked altogether by Colm Toibin in The Master. That she has at long last arrived may be seen in a volume of critical essays devoted to her:


It’s said though that the shared or mutual hidden or inner lives of James and Woolson is portrayed best by Lyndall Gordon in her biography of Henry James.



I’m going to differ from most accounts by my emphasis and what I recommend to start with: the travel books, say The Benedicts Abroad (a family effort) or better yet, her own Mentone, Cairo, and Corfu, which, like Anne, comes accompanied by lovely appropriate illustrations:


It’s a perfect summer book; perhaps you can’t afford to go to the Riveria this year; it’s the closest thing as a read I’ve come across to the once wonderfully evocative Miramax movies of lonely sensitive reading people traveling to some dream place, e.g., A Month by the Lake (Venessa Redgrave and Edward Fox in an H.E. Bates’s short story). A group of variously witty, desperate, amused, and knowledgable (about the undersides of history, geology, biography, tourist sites) have awakening adventures together.

Then instead of plunging into a longer novel, read some of her short stories. In the US the fiction writer did not have to produce three-volume tomes for Mudie’s Library, or the Cornhill or other similar venues. You won’t forget “Rodman the Keeper” or For the Major. Rodman is one of Woolson’s many solitary souls, a caretaker for a national cemetery of the union (pro-Northern) dead; like most of the central characters of Woolson’s stories I’ve read, he tries to retreat from society insofar as he can, but is dragged back in by his conscience and need. He comes across an impoverished dying ex-confederate soldier who is not at all reconciled to defeat and nurses this man through his last illness. This is centrally about the devastation of the civil war and the complex hatreds in the aftermath, the beauty of black people’s magnanimity, generosity of feeling, living down south still. Again the illustrations are remarkable:



For the Major is about intensely repressed lives where the gradually emerging white heroine has misrepresented everything about herself for years. There is insight, some degree of self-acceptance and fulfillment by breaking through taboos but no false redemption. Woolson provides the source of the hatred of the south for the north well into the 20th century and even the 21st. I hadn’t thought about how the conquered might feel in a situation: a woman’s apparently non-political fiction gives us the inner life of the impotent rage then turned against black people who since they represented a large percentage of the population would have had to be given real freedom for the region to thrive; the southern characters refuse to stop pretending they are rich aristocrats. They will not admit to having disabled people in their families. They will not permit women to live independent lives apart from marriage (now more or less out of the question as so many had died. There are flaws: while she does depicts black people with real empathy and dignity, she also portrays them as helplessly loyal to their ex-owners as if they cannot make their own lives.


The title story of Castle Nowhere reads like a distillation of the opening sequence of Anne. It’s set in a region of Michigan, the islands of the Great Lakes of Michigan, Woolson spent formative years in: like the opening of Anne, it reminded me of Daphnis and Chloe, or Paul et Virginie: an intensely solitary group of people live a quietly ecstatic existence in a dangerously cold, ice, snow and lake place. They succour one another and are deeply fulfilled. Tyler Tichelaar suggests this particular story focuses on a aging male solitary wanderer, but there is also a fairy tale element as the loving heterosexual couple who emerge (as in Anne) end up with a deeply contented life together. It can also recall the 1790s Radcliffe-like gothics, only the “machinery” or furniture is that of the wild landscape and hardships of mid-America. The bleak yet exalted (in Woolson’s curiously postive way of writing gothic) landscape of a spiritual lighthouse existence in St Clair Flats contains the same beauty as Woolf’s novel of creativity and aspiration.

I don’t know if “Miss Grief,” possibly the best-known story by Woolson was first published among her Italian stories; it has been interpreted (like Jupiter Lights, a late novel) as feminist. It is the one story I’ve read that directly concerns her life as a novelist. Like For the Major the narrative voice is that of implied sardonic irony: a fatuous complacent money-making successful male author finds himself besieged by a Miss Crief whose name he hears as Miss Grief. No one will publish her work, but when under intense pressure he begins to read one of her stories, he finds it has passion, strength, sincerity his lacks. Woolson wants us to feel precisely where and when this man is shallow his work is popular. Miss Grief reads aloud precisely the passage from the author’s work that he knows he is most authentic in, and he is riveted by her and her writing. But she will not temper it, will not eliminate half-crazed elements, will not change the plot to be acceptable story so the work can’t be sold. She has a great play but in order to get it performed, she must compromise. (This sounds like her sympathetic account of James’s own theatrical failures.) The story ends melodramatically with her happy death. She has had the fulfillment of his approbation. Some have read the story as about James and Woolson, though it was Edith Wharton who made the huge success, and during her life Woolson made a great deal of money on Anne and was well-known, respected and reviewed (if not favorably by Howells, who, like Hawthorne, seems to have wanted to marginalize women).


Another illustration for Anne

Of the longer works I read but two but liked them both. Anne was Woolson’s first long novel, and it’s very strong until near the end when it collapses into melodrama. People have written about her books to place them alongside Henry James; it’s more accurate to see them in the context of other women’s books, women’s writing, and visionary landscapes. The book opens on Mackinak Island in the straits of Mackinac where the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan meet, near the top of Lake Huron. the descriptions of ice, snow, waters are visionary. The story is of a highly intelligent young woman living a semi-solitary (again) impoverished life on a frontier who is willing to sacrifice all to the needs of her desperate family; she finds herself deeply congenial with a young man, Rasta.

The motif of the boy and girl growing up together in a world of snow and lakes repeats itself

Woolson has affinities with the work of Willa Cather: Woolson is even drawn to ethnic French people. As the novel progresses, Anne is forced to leave the island – for money, for schooling, to grow up — and she gains female mentors along the way. In this and the love affair that Anne flees from to avoid transgressive sex recall Jane Eyre. The first is the loving spinster who lives on the island near her family, Miss Lois, quietly in love with Anne’s half-philandering self-indulgent father; she is taken in by a hard mean aunt but finds friendship with an older generous and sophisticated friend, Helen Lorrington; when later in the book she becomes desperate for employment she is hired and kept going by a French teacher, Jean-Armande. Anne is betrayed by her French half-sister, by the educational system which develops the more shallow aspects of Rasta’s character, and finds the upper class mercenary social life of her rich aunt appalling, unlivable in. This anticipates Ellen Glasgow. In fact except that there are powerful depictions of the civil war (which the book’s time frame crosses), Woolson’s book could fit into he (dismissive) chapter on women writers in Alfred Kazin’s book On Native Grounds. She is not interested in socialism, not a political muck-raker; instead she writes l’ecriture-femme about women’s lives. Anne’s continual flights are from the situations women are put in to push them into narrow schooling, marriage, and motherhood. The men in the book are wastrels, weak, and (alas) all of them at some point in love with Anne, but here the psychology of courtship, the rivalries, are astutely depicted. I believed in the characters.

A depiction of Anne towards the end of the novel

Another worthwhile novel is East Angels. It’s about how woman as a woman spends her life hiding her inner self, and has been likened to Turgenev’s novels. She threw a great deal of ambition and adult emotion from within her artist’s life into the book. Rioux suggests the only way this heroine can “maintain her self worth” is to “maintain her self control.” Male critics, espeically Howells panned it (they didn’t believe in this heroine), but a number of reviewers an readers too felt it showed “her remarkable powers of observation,” great art (see Rioux, pp 174-178, 200-202). East Angels sold much better than James’s work at the time, if not as well as Anne, and is in print as an ebook


Rioux’s excellent biography is very good from the angle of revealing what life was like for a woman who might aspire to be a serious writer in the US in the 19th century. I have read a few lives of and some fiction by 19th century American women writers, but and until this book my knowledge of what American women specifically were up against was minimal. Rioux cites Kate Field, the woman Trollope loved who lived as a modern woman writer, traveling, lecturing; the life and work of Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe are part of Rioux’s earlier context — as well as finishing schools for upper class girls. The depiction of the way sacrifice was inculcated, the way motherhood and wife-hood was used to leave no room whatsoever for individual development, what was one of the best schools, which Woolson went to, but how it had no goal for the woman to use her knowledge — all bring home to me that it was much more difficult in the US than the UK to become a woman of letters. No wonder Woolson fled to Europe. While she loved the elite and old Spanish cities of the south and Florida, and dutiful as she was to her mother, and finding deep companionship with her father, Woolson could not get herself to publish a large major adult novel until she went to Europe.

Rioux’s depiction of Woolson’s career as a journalist is again a story of a woman up against exclusionary practices and a demand she not have a mind of her own. In her stories what was wanted was pious moralizing and she resisted that. She was pushed into imitating Alcott for her first novel, The Old Stone House, a children’s novel. She translated Sand’s La Mare au Diable but it was not published! Alas. Someone else had translated it. I wish hers had been published too: She is also a strong reader of George Eliot, admires Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She is a little too earl for Edith Wharton. She tries poetry, but discouraged by others’ responses gives it up with the argument novels are as important.

I found a house, at Florence, on the hill
Of Bellosguardo. ‘Tis a tower that keeps
A post of double-observation o’er
The valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city) straight towards Fiesole
and Mount Morello and the setting sun, —
The Vallombrosan mountains to the right, …
No sun could die, nor yet be born,
unseen by dwellers at my villa: morn and eve
Were magnified before us in the pure
Illimitable space and pause of sky
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh — Woolson told friends in letters to understand how she felt about her home in Florence, read this passage( the 200 year old Villa Bichieri is photographed by Rioux in her book)

She had been responsible for her mother from the time of her father’s death, the loss a sympathetic brother-in-law also makes her sister more broke and dependent: she lived where her mother lived, with her, in elite, old (a Florida city founded in mid-16th century) moving “north” in summer (Asheville, North Carolina). But as she would ever be, she felt (and was) isolated and Rioux says of her she was a solitary author writing columns from afar. Depression was common in her family and her brother killed himself eventually because he could not cope with the demands made on him to live a commercially successful life. She had some great good luck: she had an income from investments her family set up for her; she had connections with the powerful and intelligent in the US and then Europe, especially male critics, diplomats (John Hay), and educated critics, literary friendships with men (Edmund Clarence Stedman). When her mother died, she could afford to go to Europe to cultured cities. She never came back. She found herself there — as did Henry James. Her attitude towards Europe reminded me of my own: as an American who has read so much of British literature, you feel you are nostalgically coming home.

Palazzo Semitecolo, the last of Woolson’s homes, this in Venice

This is not the place to attempt to go into the twists and turns of her life nearby, with and apart from Henry James (but communicating by reading one another and letters); suffice to say Florence was central to her, and that at times they lived in the same house together, writing on different floors, in different apartments. Her deafness has been insufficiently emphasized. It began early and became much much worse. Harriet Martineau, far franker than Woolson, said the worst experiences for deaf people were dinner parties. Her work was widely reviewed. She was known to many people, including Margaret Oliphant (who did not stay in Italy, did not like travel). Woolson’s sister and her niece visited and traveled with her. She wrote sensitively of the cruelties she saw in her own nand other cultures. She lived for a time in Oxford too — and found Cheltanham dull. She chose to be alone to work, to think, because she felt unlike many people, but she experienced despair from loneliness too. She and Alice James recognized one another. She eventually became close to an American family living in Italy: Francis Boott, a highly cultured wealth gentleman, his daughter, Lizzie Duvnack, and her husband, lived near her in Bellosguardo. Lizzie’s death was one of the devastating blows late in life that led to Woolson’s own death. She kept up an extensive correspondence with Boott where she revealed more of herself openly than anywhere else (says Rioux). In her last illness, Woolson was often doubled over with pain (diverticulitis? or gripping gut as they called it in the 18th century).

The last chapter on Woolson’s after life is moving, especially her burial in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. I probably have walked by her grave. Jim and I spent over an hour or so in that cemetery one afternoon in August 1994. It is a haven, a beautiful quiet place, if your corpse is going to be buried and you remembered that way, it’s not a bad place to have your grave stone. If I ever get to go there again (unlikely) I will be sure and stand by her gravestone too.

A drawing of Woolson by Lizzie Duveneck

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Margaret (Daniela Denby- Ashby) first making friends with Nicholas (Brendan Coyle) and Bessy Higgins (Anna Maxwell Martin) (Sandy Welch’s 2004 North and South, Part 2)

yet men set me down in their fool’s books as a wise man, an independent character, strong-minded and all that cant — Mr Bell, North and South

Dear friends and readers,

This past spring I taught a course I called “Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South in context.” Although I had spent over a year with a group of friends reading Gaskell’s short stories and a couple of novellas together on Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo, and had before read and responded intensely to Mary Barton, North and South and Wives and Daughters, I’d never really studied a Gaskell text the way I do when I teach it, and experience (as I do at the OLLIs at Mason and AU) true dialogue in a class room give-and-take. I listened to brilliant readings aloud on CD of Cranford, Mary Barton (Juliet Stevenson for Cover-to-cover), North and South itself (Clare Wille for Naxos) and Wives and Daughters. I wish there were a good one available for the Life of Charlotte Bronte. I could not find one. As with Fielding’s Tom Jones the fall before I also assigned some good essays which I’d never read before either, as we went along. I read Felicia Bonaparte’s half-mad biography too — the more I read Gaskell, the more I came to agree with her, to the point that I agreed Molly had in effect killed herself when she decided to follow Roger’s advice and accept and subdue herself to her new stepmother. The result of this immersion: I feel I got closer to Gaskell than I ever did before.

Paradoxically since North and South is a book that is doing so many different things and has a wide range of topics or subject matters, often but not always from the perspective of someone questioning authority, it’s the kind of book that you need a book to write about adequately. This blog is a series of notes towards such chapters.

To begin with, the book often takes unexpected turns. For example, it opens unexpectedly for a condition of England novel, partly based on the Preston cotton strike and the locks-out. Gaskell first creates lovingly the atmosphere of a sheltered home in an elegant London, where Margaret Hale, our heroine, her sleeping beauty rich cousin, Edith, and the shallow Aunt Shaw, and most of the women around them (it’s a household of women) seem ignorant of the hard realities of life — like the need to make or have access to money to support yourself. We are intent on beautiful shawls and clothes, a coming extravaganza of a wedding, and subtle controlling codes of manners.

When we move to Helstone which our heroine declared was idyllic, we find a pair of parents who hardly share an interest, the father a depressive, anxious, and seeking to throw off his job as a vicar and responsibilities because he has lost his belief in the Anglican system of thought and gov’t, a mother who is incompetent when it comes to anything practical and deeply dissatisfied with her life as affording her no companionship with people like herself; the neighbors around them are desperately poor. When Mr Hale allows his crisis of conscience to become public and insists on moving to the North to an uncertain precarious future as a tutor, what Gaskell emphasizes is how he need not explain himself. What he says goes, no matter how weak a man he is. They repine, but they obey.

Bessy in the factory when first seen (North and South, Part 2)

In Milton (Manchester), we meet a strange (unexpected) secondary heroine, a dream-figure alter-ego for Margaret, Bessy Higgins, a desperately poor factory worker, dying of a lung disease, and learn the reason her father, Nicholas, Higgins put Betsy in the factory (where she contracted a fatal lung disease), did not leave her where she was in a household sewing was he worried she would be sexually harassed. The gender ideology and practices throughout limit all the women’s choices. The first thing our heroine did in the early phase of the book is refuse an offer of marriage from Henry Lennox, an intelligent sharp lawyer, sceptical, cold (who comes from that hard world and is clearly successful). She found the wedding otiose, but she finds her friendship with Bessy fulfilling. We see her and her mother’s life-long maid cope together over the course of the rest of the book. Dixon is not invisible; where she sleeps, what she thinks and feels shape the novel too. There’s a servant in Mrs Thornton’s household who affects the action, so too Thornton’s sister who marries a stock speculator whose offer of saving himself from bankruptcy Thornton will refuse. The private worlds of women are also the public worlds of men. but we are not simply given a gendered female world as well as the class, industrial/agricultural, economic and religious worlds and conflicts; at each turn the plot-design is set up to thwart the usual expectations.

In each phase of this early part of the book room is left to dramatize experiences of life that don’t usually come up as important in the conventional plot-design. Gaskell here, and again later concentrates on what it’s like to move from one home or place to another, how traumatic this can be. The family will have to live on a small income and find aplace to live they can be comfortable in and afford. Margaret has bad dreams the night before they go off to Milton: these are partly sexual in nature and show that she refused Henry Lennox out of an inability to face her sensuality and sexuality. Late in the book when so many deaths have occurred as to make Margaret’s place and life in Milton no longer viable, she has a similar hard time moving back to London.

Thornton (Richard Armitage) arguing his side (North and South, Part 2)

Then the book is organized as a series of conversations or debates on ideas that control the character’s behavior and the options their society allows everyone. There is no climax but ideas are debated and we are left to think for ourselves, comparing the ideas the characters have to the dramatic scenes in which the debate occurs and placed nearby. One is about the responsibilities of owners to workmen: these are dialogues about power, about recognizing obligation, about how people regard one another when they are part of groups in conflict. When the book’s romance hero, Mr Thornton, stands up for rigid “political economy” (laissez-faire ideas) and denies he has anything to do with the time allowed his workers when they are not working for him, we see that he is not admitting to his power, but neither he or Margaret, or the workman, Nicholas Higgins, who presents the chartist and burgeoning socialistic point of view of the union, take into account Bessy who we meet in the next chapter. Beyond how ill she is, why she became ill, how she spends her life, there are her religious mystical visions from the Bible which give her what comfort she has. These so irritate Higgins as they are presented as making lived life unimportant, that he produces an atheistic vision of the world, one pessimistic, cynical, grim: how could any good God or rational consciousness have produced this world? The book may be read as a series of tableaux, debates, dialogues, dramatic scenes – or dream thoughts as in the presentation of Bessy, a kind of deep or hidden self for impulses and feelings in Gaskell herself in debate with the scepticism and disillusion of her father, Nicholas.

Matty (Judi Dench) and Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) read Matty’s brother, Peter’s letters together (Heidi Thomas’s 2007 Cranford Chronicles)

It also drives towards primal scenes that repeat across Gaskell’s oeuvre. For example, the way the theme of injustice in the military, specifically naval world, is brought forward is through primal memeory dream scenes. First, letter-reading — just as in Gaskell’s Cranford where Gaskell’s Matty and her niece, Mary, are enacting Gaskell’s own loss of her brother when he went to sea as a young man. He was the only member of her nuclear family who remained loyal and alive and wrote her letters from far away, encouraging her, a deeply congenial spirit; when he died at sea, the loss was profound. In North and South, Margaret and her mother go over Frederick’s sea-stained letters to introduce why Frederick cannot come home to England ever again. There is another letter scene in he film where Margaret is remembering when they first got news of the mutiny: through her memory’s eye (flashback), we see Mrs Hale frantically tear up the newspaper.

Margaret’s father who himself felt he must buck church authority and lost his position now has to persuade Margaret that Frederick cannot go to court to explain why the men aboard ship mutinied and he deserted (a cruel captain who needled and risked his men’s lives, causing one of them to nearly become crippled, flogged mercilessly for minor infractions): the authorities will support their tyrannical control by never admitting to any wrong. There is no debate here, only another primal scene where Margaret is standing on a train station, attempting to help Frederick flee to London, and they are accosted by an angry embittered man who thinks to turn Frederick in for a ransom. Frederick sees him as insulting Margaret and as drunk, hits him back and the man falls down the steps, hurting himself sufficiently so that he dies soon after. Meanwhile Frederick vanishes into the dark night of the train. The scene at the train station is deep with longing – Gaskell’s dream thoughts well up. No film adaptation of North and South could leave out Frederick, the train scene.

Margaret’s terror as she realizes she and Frederick are seen and are about to be accosted (North and South, Part 3)

For the rest of the novel Gaskell has Margaret brood over this scene ostensibly because she tells a lie to a police magistrate that she was not there and knows nothing about this man to protect Frederick (“strange, wild, miserable feelings”). She is suspected of a sexually clandestine relationship with a strange man by a possessive Thornton who has asked her to marry him — she refused him too. She is deeply attracted to Thornton and intensely regrets that she seems to have lost his respect. Hated by Mrs Thornton, the mother, for having rejected her son at the same time as Mrs Thornton is bitterly possessively jealousy, Mrs Thornton takes the opportunity of supposedly warning her to frame Margaret to her face as possibly unchaste. What an extraordinary way to present the idea give people power and they abuse it – it’s understood how desertion is bad, and discipline needs to be maintained but it should not be disproportionate, not torture (which flogging was). And how vulnerable Frederick is to someone who wants a bribe. We see how vulnerable women are to perpetual sexual suspicion.

Osborne Hamley’s death, Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon) and Molly (Justine Waddell) (Andrew Davies’s 1999 Wives and Daughters, Part 4 of 75 minute episodes)

Everyone who reads Gaskell knows that many of her character die. She once joked the best title for her book (North and South was Dickens’s choice) would be Variations on Death. The characters learn about life through their encounters with death. All the deaths are linked to depression too. Margaret’s mother dies of cancer — brought on by stress; Bessy of her illness and wild dreams; Mr Hale of grief after his wife’s death and a sense that he has lost all occupation and meaning when he begins to lose his pupils; Mr Hale’s mentor, friend, and a third man attracted to Margaret (who Gaskell meant to make an older suitor), Mr Bell of an inexplicable but real depression. Early in the novel we are told Mr Thornton’s father killed himself when he became a bankrupt failure from gambling and alcohol. Shortly after the strike is over, one of the workers, Mr Boucher, kills himself, driven by his wife’s grief over her children’s “clemming” during the strike, and his own despair. Gaskell’s belief that death brings people together, makes their individual humanity plain to one another is shown over and over. I tried to get at some of this material by explicating a few of Gaskell’s epigraphs.

Gaskell quotes from the 4th chapter of Job. “Man that is born of women is of few days and full of trouble.” First half insists that all nature renews itself, but the individual person does not come back. “A tree may sprout again, a flower. Question is where does his “ghost” go? Job wishes to hide himself, everything washes away, ends on how man grieves and mourns. No answer given. She quotes Wordsworth. People tend to remember these things how they want to. Traditional one would be from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (Book 5)

What though the sea with waves continuall
Does eate the earth, it is nor more at all:
Nor is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.

Margaret in mourning (North and South, Part 4)

But Gaskell’s references are to sceptical works. At one point she alludes to Byron’s poem called The Island; or Christian and his comrades. It’s a satire on Pilgrim’s progress and Robinson Crusoe rolled into one. I read aloud the whole of the epigraph for the chapter (33) from the poem by Henry King is one of the most moving poems in the English language I know of where a spouse mourns the death of another. Exequy is a funeral rite or ceremony. There’s a stanza where he says he will soon overtake her and that’s what he lives for

Stay for me there, I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay;
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
Each minute is a short degree,
And every hour a step towards thee.
At night when I betake to rest,
Next morn I rise nearer my west …

I loved the ending of the book. Yes Gaskell was forced to cut and probably would have given us far more of a courtship for Thornton and Margaret. But look at what she didn’t cut, what she took out time to dramatize. There are the debates between Mr Thornton and Mr Bell, with Mr Thornton emerging sympathetically as the person openly taking life seriously. The second is the development of a relationship of respect and friendship (for what else is it) between Thornton and Higgins, however improbable. Gaskell shows how comforting Margaret finds it to be alone, not to have to answer to anyone, she finds herself growing firmer and she can tell herself if only Thornton weren’t so cold and they could be friends, she could live with his not knowing – what she can’t see is he feels he must be cold or he will allow his feelings for her to surface and he’s had enough too. She reads Francois de St Sale, the passage is French is from one of these religious meditative books people, especially women read before their were novels. Disguised as religious exhortations, they are often about coping with depression and seek to help someone all alone, no one to talk to, they had no language with with to discuss depression without blaming someone as having done wrong. She sits on the beach at Cromer looking out at the sea and thinks again. When she returns to London, she refuses to give up all her time to the rituals of shallow social life, and instead becomes a female visitor Gaskell writes: “she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it and she tried to settle that difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.” I daresay for the modern reader the first idea (utterly merged) will get a strong “none,” and the second seem to lack enough sense of pleasure. In one of her letters on the ending of the novel in swift romance, Gaskell suggests that the relationship could easily “go smash,” and has the last words of the novel Margaret’s remembering she will have to deal with Mr Thornton’s mother.

A dream-like moment of Margaret in Helstone (North and South, Part 4)

Lest we read the book too hopefully there is more primal matter: Gaskell also brings us back to Helstone (to show how it’s again changed), also a re-enactment of her childhood brought up in county by her single aunt Lumb and disabled cousin. Gaskell takes out time to tell the story of how Margaret discovers that the neighbor of one woman she visits boiled a living cat until it died in an agon of pain while drowning. Why: the neighbor was afraid her husband would be angry as she gave his clothes to a fortune teller. The story is even worse in this sense: the woman telling it is not indignant and horrified for the cat, no she’s just bothered that it was her cat. Gaskell sees the horror that people are too – what they are capable of. She puts it down to ‘a want of imagination … and therefore of any sympathy with the suffering animal.” When one attributes the vast evils people do or tolerate to a failure of the imagination it seems so mild a thing to say, but this failure is central.

I hope this series of notes on the novel has conveyed something of its nature (the kinds of texts it offers), the sources of its power and content too. I strongly recommend watching Sandy Welch’s film too. North and South is, as are all Gaskell’s texts, deep l’ecriture-femme, whose forms, motivations, and greatness are not well understood. Feminist criticism talks generally about this faultline in books, but hesitates before specific examples. I’ve presented a specific 19th century example which passes muster in the male worlds of publishing and respectable books as a condition of England novel about a series of outwardly objective themes.


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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock

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

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


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

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

From Trollope’s Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more blog report to come.

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


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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

congratulatinghim (1)

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

And when Smeaton is taken away, Cromwell to Richard:

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

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

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

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


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

Purefoy thrown on the hard stones, bleeding to death

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

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


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


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

So to Brereton’s outrage he takes him back:

Retort (1)

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

Retort (2)

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

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

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

My favorite one:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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



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


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


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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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



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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Saskia Reeves as Johanne

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

Opening shot of Devil’s Spit

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



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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Percy has no credit card you see.

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





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


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



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

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


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

The last still of Part 4


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