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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ellen

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Clarissa (Saskia Wickham) struggles to free herself of the women who are imprisoning her, with Lovelace (Sean Bean) the POV (a scene in in Clarissa, the 1748 novel, by Richardson, from the 1991 film by David Nokes)

Dear friends and readers,

Since the New Yorker article by Adelle Waldman (for May 16th, 2016), “The Man who Made the Novel,” is presumably addressed to a wide audience, mostly made up of people who read little of 18th century novels, and have probably not read either Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, cited by Waldman), I write it here in my general blog rather than the one which focuses on Austen, the 18th century and women’s art. It’s precisely the audience such an article might hope to cavalierly misinform. Waldman (we are told) writes for “the Page-Turner” column of the New Yorker, and has written a novel. That is not encouraging as Johnson was right when he said (a phrase Waldman knows about) if you read Clarissa for the plot, you’d hang yourself. A page-turned it is only for occasional stretches of 300 pages or so. Then things slow down again to a glacial pace and you are expected to think and feel about small nuances as well as what has happened in contrast to so much that is being written and said dramatically.

To begin with, Waldman seems to know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the last 70 years of Richardson criticism, either academic or feminist or common reader style; her perspectives are drawn from a combination of the hostile burlesque text on Richardson’s Pamela by Fielding called Shamela, and some remarks by Coleridge evidencing Coleridge’s revulsion at the openly sexual point of view in Richardson’s work (sex presented in this way had disappeared by Coleridge’s era). There really are other points of view on Richardson beyond loathing and mocking him. I write though more because to treat a central text about rape which is a masterpiece and sympathetic towards the raped girl so hostilely and obtusely is to do a real disservice to attempt of women to end the acceptance of rape, of an attitude towards sex which defines it as violent aggressive genital sex, of misogyny towards women. On all three issues Richardson is among the first to defend women. He didn’t invent the novel, but he did make it possible for women to write novels about their experience of life intimately for the first time through his epistolary mode.

Very generally, Waldeman’s article resembles Adam Gopnik’s essay, “Trollope Trending,” in the New Yorker last year on Anthony Trollope around the time of his bicentennial (Trollope was born April 24, 1815). Gopnik was offering what is the common reader’s consensus view on Trollope; not one based on reading the majority of his novels, but the Barsetshire and Parliamentary (now called Palliser) novels, with a couple of famous ones still read, especially The Way We Live Now (there was even a film adaptation by Andrew Davies). Like many who have read more Trollope than this, and much of the criticism, I found Gopnik inadequate, and in a way misleading — at least insofar as he suggested Trollope is a more or less complacent writer of “novels of manners” whose purview is narrowly English. But he was not wrong, and he was not hostile. Tellingly, he resembled Waldman in a put-down and mockery of academic criticism. A colleague of mine asked me, why do these popular mainstream publications find it necessary to target better criticism? One answer is the jargon, but the other is the usual resentment, desire to tear down half-class based, of anything perceived as high-minded and difficult. Doing this makes some readers feel better.

Early on in the article Waldman does bring up to dismiss a new book on the new edition of the (for the first time) complete letters of Richardson: Louise Curran’s Samuel Richardson and the Art of Letter-Writing (p 86 in the print copy). Nothing new is learned says Curran, and it seems that nothing new has even been added to what we knew of Richardson since Anna Barbauld’s six volume edition of a part of the letters in the early 19th century since Waldman’s description of the letters reminds me of the way many have reacted to Richardson’s correspondence with Lady Bradshaigh (she flatters him and he condescends) which was the center of the old edition. Perhaps the new complete edition of the letters and this book occasioned this essay.

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Samuel Richardson as painted by Joseph Highmore (as a non-univesity man who has made a success as a printer, and writer, Richardson presents himself with the visibilia of a cultivated gentleman)

But the couple of paragraphs on this study and thus announcement that we have a thorough complete edition of Richardson’s letters for the first time is but minor turn in the piece. (see my response to a comment on this.) The major thrust is a thorough put-down of Richardson and his novels, all of them. The opening is sheer snobbery. Who would expect a carpenter’s son who attended school only intermittently to have written influential novels — I won’t use the word innovative, brilliant as Waldman doesn’t credit the books with this. How surprising that that this “obscure businessman,” a man of “strait-laced morality,” “defensive,” tended to brag (I’m not making this any more dense with slurs than the text) could have written Pamela, which we are told is about “the turbulent emotional life of a teen-age girl.” She does not go on herself to enter into this world; she takes out a little time to feel sorry for Mr B, the master (the man in the novel trying to rape Pamela or get her to have sex with him without having to marry her), and then moves on to Clarissa, which it seems is full of “harrowing binds” for heroines.

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From the Simon Brett illustrations to the Folio Society unabridged text of Clarissa — certainly a harrowing bind, drugged, held down &c&c — the unhappy character is even falling out of the frame

As with her first turn, she seems to feel far more for the rapist than than take his target seriously. Clarissa in this version is very faulty — lies to herself. Then we get this old canard: she is longing for, falls in love with her “dashing admirer.” Apparently no means yes in Waldman’s universe. She is then accused of being proud. How dare she not want this man? I cannot resist asking my reader to see my paper on “Rape in Clarrisa: ‘What right have you to detain me here?'”) Sigh. Poor dear. According to Waldman, Clary becomes mortifyingly dependent on Lovelace to marry her (!). It seems “the only obstacles to their [Clarissa and Lovelace’s] happiness are the ones they create themselves.” Waldman has not paid much attention to Lovelace’s character at all.

I wondered how carefully she had read the book. Did she know the rape was an aggravated assault type? she seems indifferent to the issue. Does it not matter that a man has tried to rape you when he asks you to marry him in a culture where he will have all power over you, your money, your future choices, your pregnancies? does she know that whenever asked Clary refuses to marry Lovelace and after the rape, he’s the last person whose power she’d put herself in. Which abridgement did she skim?. There is a 500 page Signet abridgement, far far less than a quarter of the book, one which seems to me to bring out most centrally the letters between Anne Howe, Clarissa’s friend, and Clarissa. On my website you may read very readable postings on the two principals, and the centrality of the money and property and rape issue “A year of reading Clarissa in real date time”.

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Clarissa (Saskia Wickham) under pressure from her male relatives over the inheritance her grandfather has left her

After Waldman has finished what she has to say about the novel, she again feels surprised, this time over Austen’s partiality to Richardson, and especially Grandison, his third book (which however Waldman knows enough to doubt as this is an attribution of her brother). She turns to Fielding is a standard of comparison — after all he showed up Pamela so well. Having just studied Tom Jones with a group of student I was really startled by the totally inadequate view of Fielding’s book which is apparently the modern consensus (perhaps taken from either of the movies): it seems Fielding presents us with “healthy sex;” his satire is “congenial” “urbane”.

Needless to say, but I’ll say it Waldman has not read Hume’s recent essay on how at long last this enlightened easy-going complacent Fielding (frat-boy) has been put to rest (scroll down). I tried myself to do justice to the complex ambivalent sexuality vis-a-vis money and many other issues in Tom Jones as well as Fielding’s troubled personality and difficult life in a series of blogs I wrote after reading the novel with a group of intelligent older adults: “After teaching Tom Jones for 10 weeks.”

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A final still from the film: Clarissa’s grave — there she finds peace

Why break a butterfly on a wheel or even bother to write about this essay? To suggest that Richardson’s Clarissa has apparently become a book so rarely read by anyone outside a coterie of 18th century scholars. I did know the insightful humane and feminist scholarship of the 1980s, has been superseded with new challenges to a sympathetic reading of the heroine (I’ve heard demoalizingly anachronistic reactions to her behavior as that of a “freak”), as well as new deconstructionist, gender-oriented and “new historist” readings. For the reader of this blog, I recommend Terry Eagleton’s short Rape in Clarissa to start with; but here’s a select bibliography: for a book to read with as you go through Clarissa, you can do no better than Mark Kinkead-Weekes. There’s also an anthology of good essays by Margaret Doody and Peter Sabor with the intimidating title: Samuel Richardson: Tercentary Essays. If Trollope’s books have been available for 200 years, Richardson have been for 300.

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Clarissa is thrown into a spunging-house by Lovelace’s machinations (she is said to owe her rent) and finds more quiet and safety there than she has had in a long time — and so she writes on

It hurt me to see Richardson’s Clarissa treated in this manner. It’s distressing the writer is a woman. Is she just a particularly dense and careless reader? Or is the erasure of feminism in the public media a response to entrenched attitudes which the 1980s second wave of feminism (which saw the importance of sexual liberation) scratched only the surface of? I have been thinking of daring to do Clarissa with adult readers (people who are the New Yorker audience — they did love Gopnik’s essay). For readers who don’t examine sexuality much (think about it), the two books (TJ and Clary) were always difficult, but I take heart that the 1991 film did justice to Clarissa. I must refer my reader to yet another outside source (if I tried to argue any of this material it would make an egregiously overlong blog): my paper Noke’s film adaptation, “‘How you all must have laughed. What a witty masquerade!”. Maybe I ought to be take this New Yorker article as a sign that more people need to read the book than have been doing lately, and do it next spring at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University a year from this fall.

I did ask on the 18th century listserv I’m on how people find teaching Richardson’s Clarissa in either abridged or complete form. But answer came there none.

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Anne Howe (Hermione Norris) reading one of Clarissa’s letters — Anne is a favorite character for me

Ellen

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Klytamnestra (Waltraud Meier) and Elektra (Nina Stemme)

Friends and readers,

Perhaps I should just direct readers to where Virginia Woolf wrote, who could watch the story of Clytemnestra today and not side with her? she had probably read also Euripides’ version, though her “On Not Knowing Greek” centers on the anguished madness of Sophocles’ Electra. It’s in Euripides’ play the cowardly superstition of Agammenon choosing to burn Iphigenia comes out most strongly against the eloquence of Clytemnestra.

The problem is Strauss’s opera is said to be based on Hofmannstal, about whose version I know only what I read on wikipedia. In any case this too is a side-track as the last opera of the season was presented as Chereau’s parting gift to us — he’s another devoured at too early an age by the spread of cancer. (See my blog on his film adaptation from Conrad, Gabrielle.) All the reviews emphasize Chereau’s shaping presence. We are given specific details for each character and actor-singer by Anthony Tommassini but no sense of what Chereau’s actuating idea might be. To say it’s expressionist is to say nothing. Expressionist of what?

A cursory glance at the promotional stills tells it. A sad tale of the anguish of women in the context of our punitive public world. Dysfunctional family, super-bloody, says Bruce Scott. Except the murder occurs off-stage; only at about 2/3s the way through does Eric Owens as Orestes show up, and he’s catatonic, overwhelmed by the women, seeking comfort, effeminized like Hercules among the women:

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In any case he forgot his axe. That’s in the script. Unless the subtitles distorted the dialogue. Elektra is alert enough to notice.

Agamemnon, a tenor (here identified as a weak voice) only enters the drama near the close, and he’s done away with by a single knife thrust by Pylades. Orestes slinks off to the side. I saw no blood. The major presences are all women. The chorus is mostly women prisoners, women slaves, women who ready murdered bodies, a rare old man here or there. As far as I could tell the singing was superb; I liked best Owens’s voice; what melody I heard came from him. The women are too pained.

Chereau has returned the Hofmannstal rendition into a stark contrast, an adamantine stubborness between a mother and daughter who will not listen to one another, because, well, would it help? A conflict that in inward and cannot see to the source or will not admit it. What they have to say is in this Hofmannstal is as uncomplicated and unnuanced as Woolf’s essay on Sophocles’ play suggests. I was surprised that nowhere in the subtitles is Klytamnestra given words to justify herself. She treats her daughter like any cognitive therapist. No references to the past please. “What can I do to restore your sleep?” Elektra answers a sacrifice could free her from these intrusive nightmares. “Who shall we kill?” asks Klytamnestra.

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The confidante is Susan Neves

“Why you, mother,” and the daughter proceeds to imagine Orestes hacking her mother to death.

Klytamnestra exits, all silent dignity. Did I mention, Klytamnestra is dressed in a beautiful outfit with beads in good taste?

Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis has the usual thankless task, Ismene-like, to worry herself over conventional expectations not met: like not getting a chance to marry and have children. Gee. No wonder her face is frozen:

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Give in, she urges Elektra, give over. Then we can leave this prison, have clothes appropriate to our rank. Except in his case Elektra, a figure comparable to Antigone, a parallel experience Izzy and I saw at the Kennedy Center last spring, seems unconcerned with what she’s wearing. She cannot forget her grief, rage, terror. Stemme plays the role as a woman gone insane.

The contrast between the stories and the productions can help instruct us. The Kennedy Center design turned Sophocles’ Antigone into (or it is) a deeply anti-war, anti-totalitarian, humane statement where love did matter, could have flourished. Juliet Binoche played the role as a brave loving woman, speaking principle, speaking family passion, and yet all poignancy, oh the pity of this death and mine too. There are flashes of sanity about in the Antigone, even in Creon who becomes a quietly tragic figure. None of that in this opera. Stemme played it right as woman gone insane, a heart of darkness. “Hit once more, strike again.”

There is no sunlight on Chereau’s stage; it’s all grey steel and cement. The servants sweep and bring in water in buckets and sprinkle it about. This season and previous ones the Metropolitan Opera-goer has gotten used to stages that are prisons where torture chambers are suggested, people in impoverished garb, everyone cowed. It was another opera filmed by Gary Halverson, but here one felt that he was filming another man’s work.

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The poster for the opera — “Electra” “neglected, suffering, blunted, debased” yet “Clytemnestra is no unmitigated villainess” (from Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”)

We have too many references to cats on the Internet, but for once the vulnerable nervous proud, guarded weak predator, in this case in a poem offers a hint how to read or take this last experience of this season:

The Cat

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

— by Marie Louise Kaschnitz (1901-74), translated by S.L. Cocalis

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

Perhaps an antidote is in order: Strauss has three operas where picturesqueness and nostalgia (Der Rosencavalier, a pastiche), a self-conscious return to 19th century style Edwardian comic heroine’s text drama (Arabella, libretto Hofmannstal) and a subtle self-reflexive meditation on opera framing a love-in-death myth (Ariadne auf Naxos) are the mode. All highly artificial. Play-acting. I’ve seen them all — with Jim, sometimes Izzy with us.

And the point is, things need not be this way: treated with kindness, cats react quite differently

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Ellen

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The first shot of Tom Hollander as Dr Thorne in the film’s first scene with

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Stephanie Martini as Mary Thorne, where she asks the question [visible in the subtitle] as a prompt for Hollander, Prospero-like to tell us and her not just many chapters of history but what is held back until near the end of the book’s plot-design (ITV Dr Thorne, 2015, scripted Julian Fellowes, director Niall MacCormick)

Friends and readers,

Julian Fellowes has managed to turn the novel Michael Sadleir ended his ground-breaking study of Trollope on (the book that first attracted respectable attention to Trollope — with preferring Dr Thorne to The Way We Live Now) into an embarrassment. A telling travesty. Reviewers veer from lamenting the very existence of this throw-back to picturesqueness as a travesty to earnestly showing how it has eliminated just about everything that counts in the novel. Viv Groskop of The Guardian suggested we take a drug to forget this disgrace. The courteous and judicious Alison Moulds of the Victorian clinic demonstrated the central matter of the tale, medicine and illness, comic and tragic, is left out. As might have been expected, Philip Hensher of the Telegraph demonstrates that the point Fellowes gets across (and by implication, Trollope’s) is that it’s impossible to cross (ontological?) class boundaries.

As it happened when the film aired on British TV, I was teaching the novel to a group of retired adults genuinely engaged by the book. Two British, the rest American. Contrary to Hensher (and like a number of scholarly critics, e.g. James Kincaid), they are persuaded this is an obsessive attack on the mindset that erects uncrossable boundaries and about the hurt (Mary made a taboo person) and damage, indeed death (Sir Roger’s and Sir Louis’s) the behavior enacting this idea incurs. Miss Dunstable’s role is to expose the hypocrisy of the social codes as we watch money and power throw people away, ruin their lives (e.g., Mr Romer, the liberal barrister who tried to help Roger Scatcherd, the railway contractor and banker) into parliament). I had hoped to screen the film until I saw that (worse than Downton Abbey where all deeper issues may be skimmed over, but at least suggested) Fellowes was simply not going to allow any depth to this, among Trollope’s most emotionally direct of all his novels. I admit there was no character they hated more than Lady Arabella and Fellowes fed this by giving full vent to her as the villainess who experiences a mortifying comeuppance (rather like Miss O’Brien and other upper level servants in Downton Abbey). She is in many scenes endlessly repeating her mantra, but then she is presented simply as winning out, having her way in the end. Rebecca Front was given this thankless role as she was given an analogous sycophantic snob in Andrew Davies’s recent War and Peace.

Trollope’s novel utterly resists treating it as light satiric comedy or “fairy tale romance” (which Fellowes in the feature labels his film and by extension Trollope’s book).

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As Hollander squirms and twists his body to avoid the barrage, the scene becomes a tasteless joke

So why bother write about? Fellowes’s erasure and corrections reveal where the power of the novel lies and where there are cranks for us in Trollope’s attitudes.

In all the Fellowes’s films I’ve seen thus far he abjures all flashbacks, voice-over, soliloquy, montage, filmic epistolarity (where a character writes or reads a letter that is voiced by the actor who is played the character who wrote the letter) or any techniques that demands we go into the vulnerable psychology of any character to the extent of questioning a norm or value asserted. Trollope’s first four chapters are a daring retelling of deep, intermediate general past, and individuals personal histories (which he ironically apologizes for). He then recurs repeatedly throughout the novel to these pasts so that when the character in a social scene reveals his inner psychology, we realize the context which has given rise to this self normally hidden to us in our daily lives the social scenes. I had not realized how the novel is continually working through, back and forth, deeply layered intertwined time until I watched this film adaptation. In most of Trollope’s novels we recognize his gifts for showing the private self unable not to reveal itself in the social scene for those with eyes to see and understand (Trollope’s narrator and occasional preternatually perceptive characters like the Signora Neroni and Miss Dunstable). Here in Trollope’s seventh book he was consciously adding to that by making the character a product of a particular time, relationship, literal and social space.

Since Fellowes resists all deep wide explanation that filmic techniques can offer (including in-depth dialogue), all we have as opening for the film is some dialogue of nasty excluding of Mary from Frank’s coming birthday party by his (in this film) by his stupid dense and clumsy sister, Augusta (Gwyneth Keyworth) egged on by the apparently frigid manipulative Lady Alexandrina de Courcy (Kate O’Flynn). We then launch into Frank’s proposal to Mary to marry him, her “no,” and stay in the superficial linear time of the present, with the party, and Lady De Courcy’s nagging Frank (Harry Richardson, who plays the part of a privileged sheltered and thus idealistic male aristocrat — true to the book) to chase the rich Miss Dunstable (Alison Brie) now an inanely giggling rich American. (I read that the ITV people were told they would get no American funding unless they had an American character in the cast.) As in Downton Abbey Phoebe Nicholls is given the distasteful role of an utterly ineffectual despicable older woman bully. (She is paid well for it.) Fellowes just loves to invent this kind of female monster. But he must tell the important past or the present story makes no sense. How to do it? he is reduced to having Hollander as Thorne in the very first scene he appears, Prospero-like, tell Stephanie Martini as Miranda, just about everything in one go of her sordid Scatcherd family background. Since there is too much to tell, Thorne and Mary get together twice more (after the said party) and again in the second episode after her other uncle, Sir Roger Scatcherd’s death. What’s done for compression leaves the effect of a story turned inside out.

Far from admitting to anything serious in the novel, in the feature released on the DVD, Fellowes says he regards the book as a fairy tale romance. What he has done is chosen the scenes susceptible to being presented as light satiric comedy. I had not realized before what an experimental novel this is in its use of layered past and movement within different times and memories.

Then Fellowes has the problem of the book’s hinge points which he feels he cannot eliminate. Scatcherd must die so that Mary can win the property. In the novel Scatcherd dies from alcoholism and we read a rare protracted death scene in a Trollope novel. The man has drunk himself to death because he has not been accepted by his true peers because of his lack of surface manners, he regrets deeply what has happened to his son who has been similarly ostracized and exploited, but can do nothing about it. The unhappy man his son has become results from cultural realities beyond his reach. Trollope captures perfectly the mood of someone near death, and shows us that real kindness to such a person is to take seriously what they have to say and respond to it — as Dr Thorne does and Sir Roger’s son does not. He is devastated when the powerful remove him from the place in Parliament he has worked hard to win.

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Lady Scatcherd (Janine Duvitski) over-hearing her husband talk to Thorne

I’m told that Ian McShane is a great actor; well he’s thrown away here. He is presented as foolish jackass. His alcoholism is made a joke of in order to us to laugh at elections as such. The working and townspeople are of course fools, and McShane directed to play the part archly until he falls into a pigsty. (Fellowes might tell us, have you not been watching how popular Donald Trump is?) In the book’s death scene, the pain of Scatcherd’s isolation is made worse because Thorne himself has invested so much in Mary, he cannot get himself to allow Scatcherd to know or to see her after Scatcherd first offers all his money to her and his son, if Thorne will encourage a marriage with that son. This horrifies Thorne who is as exacerbated by the class structure of the place as anyone. He wants above all that his darling niece-daughter be a lady, live with ladies and gentleman and turn to him. And how does Fellowes treat this matter at the center of the second episode? For a moment I had a hard time believing that Fellowes was allowing Thorne allow Mary to come over and nurse Scatcherd so we could get this emotional bath of sentimentality instead and listen to McShane as Scatcherd say he is consoled for his “misspent existence.”

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“Very well,” says Hollander, and the puzzled angel appears, at which McShane says he thinks he will now cope better with “what is to come … ”

Beyond erasing all the material hung from the present time romance story (including its use of excruciating and satiric letter presences), Fellowes has done a Nahum Tate, a David Garrick! Nahum Tate was the man who rewrote King Lear to give it a happy ending; Garrick-like was the the man who rewrote Romeo and Juliet so as to make the lovers wake up to bid sentimental tearful farewells before they lie down to die. He reverses Trollope’s Dr Thorne’s refusal to allow Sir Roger to see or be seen by his sister Mary’s grown daughter, lest he, Dr Thorne, be dispossessed of what has made his existence meaningful, before he dies, even when Scatcherd threatens to leave all his fortune away from her (without which Mary has only the interest from 800£ in the funds, all Dr Thorne has managed to “amass” from his village doctor practice). Perhaps he thought no one reads Dr Thorne, or if we read it, we don’t remember it. Is there no limit to the man’s contempt for his audience?

Well yes.

Fellowes almost unexpectedly turns Scatcherd’s son, Sir Louis (Edward Franklin), the character pitied by Trollope’s narrator just a little, but most often despised, caricatured, sneered at, presented as a money-hungry creditor (as if he has no right to look into the arrangements Dr Thorne has made to keep Squire Gresham afloat all these years) — into the tragic hero of the film story. A chunk of its second episode and full third of the last was given over to a mortifying plangent rendition of Louis’s pursuit of Mary Thorne, his excruciatingly inept presence at a dinner party and then death (not from delirium tremens) but a suppurating bleeding lung (reminiscent in its stagy-ness of Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham near death for a few seconds in Downton Abbey) because he galloped across the landscape out of anguish at her rejection and fell off his horse and punctured his rib cage with the horse’s saddle. This subtextual slapstick is not in Trollope.

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Among the character’s last lines is “she thought me a buffoon,” but Fellowes has not lifted him out of that

Fellowes has highlighted a problem his predecessor film adaptors managed to finesse. What are we to do with Trollope’s shameless stigmatizing of lower class males trying to “ape” gentlemen as ultimately slime to be expelled? In 1983 Alan Plater, scriptwriter of Barchester Chronicles (and thus the linchpin person) cast the part against type by hiring Alan Rickman and then had Rickman play the part with a self-controlled dignity, guarded rage, subtle manipulative ability (though out-maneuvred by Susan Hampshire as the irresistible erotic Signora Neroni). Before that a full 40 years ago (1975) in The Pallisers Simon Raven similarly endowed Trollope’s anti-semitic depiction of a Jewish hypocritical murderer, the Rev Emilius (Anthony Ainley) with a seething intensity of ambition that the amoral Lizzie Eustace (Sarah Badel) was too stupid to flee from. Fellowes, though, wanted to grant the character a full burden of human gravitas earlier, but could not pull out enough depth to invent longer scenes to show this. All we get is his screeching at his mother, Lady Scatcherd, how could you prefer Frank to me? Lady Scatcherd (as in Trollope) is otherwise mostly caricatured but as Lady Scatcherd’s preference for the heir is too much even for Fellowes (and he feared too much for pious viewers) Fellowes made her feeling acceptable by having her much earlier on insist how she loved both equally. To this low is Trollope brought and for those who know the text exposed.

I grant Fellowes much of the dialogue used in the film is in the novel — he chose the surface dialogues. He transfers the powerful epistolary narrative chapter where Augusta is treacherously persuaded to give up a possible happy marriage with the De Courcy solicitor, Mr Gazebee (Nicholas Rowe) on the grounds of his lack of rank into pantomime comic moments of dramatic startle. Her great cousin-friend, advisor has grabbed Gazebee for herself.

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Augusta is made into an “old maid” buffoon

There are a lot of silences. Another actor-character thrown away is Richard McShane as Squire Gresham; he wanders around looking sheepish by the end behaving as if by not cold-shouldering others he’s doing enough. In the book it is his unexamined snobbery and self-indulgence in the book that wasted the Gresham fortune; the ambivalent and interesting friendship with Thorne and their dialogues are gone. Istead Fellowes has Hollander as Thorne giving Brie as Miss Dunstable sly glances. Yet the man avoids montage so the explanation at the end must be gone through in words character by character.

As a side note the production did not pay for the the use of the houses. We never see anyone going in and out. They were filmed from afar and then we found ourselves in the usual sets. One reminded me of the set from the 2009 Sense and Sensibility for Norland Park.

Ironically the film adaptation vindicates Trollope from being seen as simply material which lends itself for hijacking from the elite. Last year John McCourt asked why the bicentennial celebrations were so muted? He suggested that the kinds of things done were not the sorts of events a larger audience, especially one not equipped with tuxes and gowns could easily join into. As has been said before (John Letts among those saying this), Trollope has partly been hijacked by his elite mainstream fans. I’d maintain that more than his academic readers lean to the left. Plater wrote brilliantly radical 1970s style plays for TV and stage; Simon Raven was radical in his outlook; Andrew Davies is a humane left-leaning liberal; Herbert Herbert’s gem, “Malachi’s Cove” shows just how down-to-earth is Trollope’s appreciation of humanity.

So while I regret very much this opportunity to film another Barsetshire book was botched, it’s salutary to see the material of this Trollope novel resist the kind of treatment Fellowes tries to give it. A friend said to me this film adaptation is something Popplecourt (from The Duke’s Children) might have written. Perhaps that’s too strong, but pace what I’ve heard some fans say, Trollope’s novels are not at all like P. G. Wodehouse.

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A rare far shot of the bedroom scene: Winterbones taking notes, Scatcherd helped up from his bed by Thorne, Lady Scatcherd leaving …

Ellen

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Ross and Demelza (Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees) trying to mislead prevention men looking for smugglers

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Jim Carter (Stuart Doughty) dying of an unjust system, Jinny (Gillian Bailey) grieving (1975 Poldark)

Dear friends and readers,

Though I wrote most of my earlier blogs on the 1970s Poldark mini-series and quite a number of my more recent blog here on Jim and Ellen have a blog, Two, I switched to Austen Reveries last year when I began to teach the novels as historical fiction set in the 18th century, with my accent on the content as about the 18th century. Consequently, the list of the new blogs is on Austen Reveries, as well a summary of the paper I wrote comparing the two mini-series for a recent ASECS (American 18th century society conference), the panel: the 18th century on film. I put Marriot’s book, The World of Poldark here, but linked the paper into Austen reveries.

But since I know a sizable number of readers here used to be interested in this series, I offer this short blog announcing that a beautifully formatted abbreviated version of the paper (complete with stills) has been published by ABOPublic: an interactive forum for women in the arts, 1640-1830. I also took the liberty of publishing the full paper on my page on academia.edu

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Morwenna Chynoweth (Jane Wymark) falling in love with Drake Carne (Kevin McNally) — her coerced marriage shown to be a form of nightly rapes (1977 Poldark)

I demonstrated a plethora of 1960-70s films have been re-made within this time-frame and that with a couple of exceptions, the new films are using real or fantasy history to create a past with different emphases from the one realized earlier in order to project and/or construct an imposed or perceived group identity intended to allay insecurities of our era. I used the Poldark pair as a particularly lucid example of typical changes: the 1970s mini-series series dramatizes exploitative inexorable conflicts along class, political and gender and generation lines. Far from from presenting a strong community identity as way for individuals to solve their lives’ problems, the older mini-series centers on characters presented as individuals escaping – or failing to escape from – invisible coercive and sometimes unjust norms (prisons). The 1970s films identify with the radical, the rebel, and take a strongly feminist (sometimes anachronistically so) stance. The 2015 series reveals a single script-writer using film technologies to make mythic matter for an idealized perceived indwelling heroic community identity as a solution to individual problems. The women are now subordinated to, work for their families and working businesses, and their children, wherein they find their meaning and safety. The mine has become a central site with which almost each episode begins. Horfield adds incantatory speeches like Jud’s:

Jud: ‘Tis in the blood your father‘d say mining tis in the blood … the vein of copper ‘tis the bread of life . . . eat sleep live and breathe it, she’s your salvation and your downfall, make you bold, many a friend did break and many more will follow … Tis a fool’s game … twill end in tears … your father died before his time … So his mining did for him… Well he won’t be the last neither, if he were here today he’d tell you not to make the same mistake …

The parallel for the first series is The Onedin Line, where there is much trust in existence itself, high scepticism towards religionm trust in technology; the parallel for the second Outlander where characters live in a spiritualized landscape, what happens in life mysterious, often monstrous, and the future something to be guarded against, potentially dark and grim. The actuating idea is people need to hold together, stay in a single imaginary space, and yet experience is centrifugal, now and again the strength of community as powerful when united against single or small groups of much more powerful individuals is shown to be a delusion.

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Robin Ellis as the Rev Halse and Aidan Turner as Ross (2015 Poldark)

“Halse: “No doubt the common people you mix with have blunted your faculties as to what may or may not be said in polite society.”
Ross: “No I agree they alter one’s perspective, sir … have you ever been in a jail sir it’s surprising the stench thirty or forty of God’s creatures can give off when confined to a squalid pit without drains, water, physicians care.”
Halse: “The matter of your performance at Bodmin jail has not gone unnoticed, sir. There will be shortly be a meeting of the justices of whom I should say I am one … You offensive young drunkard. You’ll be hearing from us presently.”

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Ross and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) seen across a spiritualized landscape

Ellen

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Sondra Radvanovsky as a ghastly aging Elizabeth in the final moments of Roberto Devereux

Dear friends and readers,

If the play itself, the acting and singing, production design, direction, even most of the costumes (not all) had not been so splendidly pitch perfect, I’d have rested content with Izzy’s take on what we saw and heard yesterday. This is another of these opulent yet pared down presentations. She offers insights into so many of the choices of casting and camera shots by viewing the opera as being done to be part of the New Met Opera Experience on display for most of this year’s operas: The Modern Opera Experience II. While the stills available on the Net are except for a very few resolutely of Sonya Radvanofsky in her most trussed up and be-wigged moments, and concentrate on the heterosexual antagonistic lovers:

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Matthew Polenzani as Devereux making up to the Radvanovsky’s creepily over-made up butterfly winged Elizabeth

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Marius Kwieccien as the seethingly jealous Duke of Nottingham threatening Elina Garanca as his adulterous Duchess (in corset and shift and underskirt),

what the production did was show the aging woman declining and thrillingly bring back the homosocial pair of males from Les Pecheurs de Perles transposed to the Jacobean world:

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It is my argument that Tudor Matter has been so ceaselessly popular because it undermines the usual male stereotypes and rips apart its taboos to show us vulnerable, emotional, woman-like men subject to strong women (see my Tudor Matter: Overturning Gender Stereotypes). This subversion and transgression is so unusual in any where but high opera, it’s no wonder people flock to The Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, Henry VIII (where even Ray Winstone crumbles before the onslaught of his obsessive insecurities. Nottingham as played by Kwiech, Devereux as played by Polenzani broke many taboos on the way males are supposed to  be self-controlled, all guarded triumph and conventional domineering strength. There was but one strong woman in this one: Elizabeth, but it’s an opera and must pare down the number of characters. Notably too Radvanosky played the character not as a Machiavellian frustrated malicious old maid (which from Scott on was the way this magnificent queen was seen), nor the recent sentimentalizations we’ve seen (as in Helen Mirren’s film or before her Bette Davis with Errol Flynn in Elizabeth and Essex) but a woman of genuine feeling that has been searingly violated and betrayed and is now shattered, can barely walk, is bald, near death. Radvanosky was not at all ashamed to mime death.

As Izzy remarks, one has to divest one’s mind of much that is known of the real Elizabeth and Essex’s relationship at this point and why she executed him: he was incompetent militarily but he made up for this by networking conspiracy, and he was ambitious. He attempted with a group of understandably rebellious Irishmen to take over England as its leader. But there are more than grains psychological truth in story of Elizabeth’s self-indulgent demands for erotic adoration from her courtiers.  I would now like to re-see Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena with Radvanosky under McVicar’s direction.

Roberto Devereux is (as I”ve just alluded to) the third in what has since Beverly Sills revived the Donizetti “three queens” as a series (Maria Stuarda, ultimately from Schiller; Anna Bolena, the product of an Italian poet from the 19th century working on sensibility romantic poet’s vision of the 18th century). Radvanofsky sang the tragic heroine of all three. The excellent New York Times review by Anthony Tommasini has a slide show and links.

What they have omitted to say though is wherein this opera differs from the other two beyond the sources. It is a deeply melancholy work, the music eerily distraught by end of the second act. Yes, the libretto for Devereux is based on an early 19th century romantic play, itself drawn from a later 18th century sentimental French subjective novel whose ultimate source is La Calprenede; that is, one of these enormously long 17th century French romances where a woman is made into a sort of goddess, who exists to be worshiped and emotionally tortured. But the source of the emotion is Donizetti himself. In the two years before this opera was produced (and while he was presumably writing it), his parents died, his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby and then herself died. This autobiographical origin is the source of the strange beauty of much of the music, even in the less inspired first half. I felt more genuine emotion in it than I ever have before. The translation of the libretto left thoughtful lines one didn’t have to stick to that story to respond to. Not everyone can respond to depth of grief (see James Jorden’s snark in the Observer).

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One of the reviews I read complained about the stage as boring. It is modeled on the Wanamaker theater in London, newly brought back to life (where Izzy and I saw Farinelli and the King last September in London) in all its original later 17th century proscenium stage glory. As in that play, the rest of the cast, here the chorus, acted as an audience to the main action, so suggestively we saw the faces of these nameless courtiers and ladies watching the faces of these too-often named characters. Another friend who goes to opera frequently (in England) says more attention is paid to innovative and allusive production design than even the acting and trying for stars who look right, which nowadays can trump superlative singing. (Deborah Voigt is a perpetual hostess, sings no more because she is deemed too heavy and old for the mezzo-soprano roles her voice suits.)

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Still Eric C. Simpson is surely right when he praises this latest product of the new mode of opera as much for the historical detail, symbolic figures and replications, striking costumes: McVicar has outdone himself and that’s saying something.

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Garanca

We were in a theater where the equipment has not been kept up, so while most of the time, I disagree whole-heartedly with the reiterated absurdity the HD-Met hosts and hostesses repeat obediently that there is nothing like experiencing these operas in the opera house live (yes, especially when you are at the back of the orchestra or anywhere from the second tier up), this time we were at a disadvantage and may next year go to a different movie-house. A second assumption voiced now and again is that these operas are not staged with the film audience in mind. Patently untrue. The staging is inflected to give the cameras full opportunity to do close-ups at climactic moments, far away shots as the opera say comes to a transition, medium range for allegorical effect. Again it was Gary Halverson who was listed as film director. We’ve one opera to go for this season: Strauss’s Elektra, directed for the stage by Patrice Chereau, a great film director. Doubtless he was chosen for his fame as well as expertise in film.

As we were talking about the opera over our supper later on, I wondered to myself if there is some way I could commemorate Jim’s love for opera that would somehow center on him. Alas there is not except if I regard my continual going now for the third year without him, and plans to keep this up and keeping the writing about this up as originally actuated by him and partly kept up to remember him. He would have loved this one.

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Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

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There are, who to my person pay their court:
I cough like Horace, and, though lean, am short,
Ammon’s great son one shoulder had too high,
Such Ovid’s nose …

The Muse but serv’d to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life …
— Pope’s Horatian Epistle to Dr Arthbutnot

Dear friends and readers,

I’m glad to be able to report my review of Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture has now become available on the Victorian Web. I single out Trollope’s depiction of Madeline Neroni’s ways of coping with her disability as unusual and worth thinking about.

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Susan Hampshire as Madeline having stage-managed this, Alan Rickman as Slope at the center (Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater)

Although published some 6 to 7 years ago, the book has not been superseded. It remains as relevant as it was in 2009; sadly, what is described and analyzed are attitudes of mind and feeling towards those labelled disabled widely prevalent today.

I am personally and academically interested in this topic. Just now teaching Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, I hope eventually to write and to publish either here on the Net or conventionally in paper an examination of Gaskell’s treatment of mental as well as physical disability in her fiction. Her perspective is that of the caregiver. There are quite a number of essays on disability in Gaskell’s fiction, e.g., by Martha Stoddard Holmes herself: “Victorian Fictions of Interdependency: Gaskell, Craik, and Yonge,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 1 (2007): 29-42. (“Well at Pen Morpha”). Deborah Fratz has written one out of Ruth, as well as an excellent review of Holmes’s book: “Fictions of Affliction,” Nineteenth Century Gender Studies 3:3 (Winter 2007); “‘A feminine morbidness of conscience’: disability, gender, and the economy of agency in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth.” Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, 127 (2015):4ff.

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Chris Hammond, illustrator for Mary Barton and Cranford: a scene from Mary Barton where a female character is too weak to stand

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I took extensive notes on Holmes’s book as well as other essays, secondary studies and the novels of the era discussed by Holmes. A sample of some themes in Holmes I was not able to include in my review:

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William Lindsay Windus (1822-1907), Too Late (a rare depiction of TB in its last stages: Windus was attacked and the picture hurt his career badly)

Preface: Holmes asks, What cultural texts inform the meanings we give disability? what kinds of bodies raise our hackles? Which ones evoke fear, pity, desire, disgust? How does all this end in our limiting the way our bodies are allowed by us to feel? She tells of the tension, awkwardness, and cant she saw in classrooms trying to discuss disabilities. The students could not see themselves as disabled — among those who spoke. It usually ended in everyone expressing compassion, inspiration and then defensiveness and boredom.

Dickens is so typical in his drenching of such a character in melodrama, sentimentality and healing. She instances the movie An Affair to Remember and how it was alluded to in Sleepless in Seattle. Holmes wants to disrupt this connection of melodrama with disability. Apparently a trope of Victorian novels is the disabled woman who cannot marry and becomes a conduit for another woman to marry; tremendous emotional excess surrounds the figure because she cannot marry or should not. How terrible (Victorians thought) to transmit disability. Orphans of the Storm a silent film that harked back to a popular Victorian story. Why was, is it so dangerous to imagine a disabled woman as desiring or a biological mother? In the body of her book she provides extensive detailed analyses of the novels and/or novelists’ work, and of the those people with disabilities who wrote memoirs or about whom biographies were written.

Holmes connects the treatment of disabled people to perceptions of disability as an issue about work: who works and who doesn’t. One problem, what is work anyway? What people then (and today too) look at is who is an “imposter” (thus villainous, not deserving) and who “really” disabled; what is cared about is the relationship of such a person to income and work as “innocent” or “guilty.” Disability is not cared about as such, but only as it impinges on what’s thought important. Mayhew’s London Labor and the London Poor is a major document.

1870 Education Act included a provision that poor law guardians were to send blind, dumb, lame, deformed, idiotic, insane children to charitable institutions to be educated; no money was provided and in fact nothing done. In 1893-4 a provision making it compulsory that blind and deaf children go to school. Not clear if it was enforced (I know what services are available cease in the US when the person finished high school — so 12th grade, around age 18.) Raymond Williams makes short work of nostalgia over Elizabethan treatment of crippled, disabled.
Holmes’s book makes Foucault emerge as not only irrelevant and unreal but doing yet more harm to attitudes – justifying simply putting the disabled on the streets after you close their “prison-asylum”. (In many 18th century historical studies, his evidence is said to be wholly inadequate).

Is disability less speakable today? Holmes seems to think so. The disabled person not recognized as disabled is freer – but at the same time, it’s the person who is “near normal” but needs help that is the person most people resist recognizing – lest it threaten their own self image.

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Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_ReynoldsReading
Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson reading

Chris Mounsey’s superb collection of essays: The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century. (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2014).

Disability is used as a perspective to examine culture – as we examine culture from the perspective of class, gender, race, sexuality. All these different groups are made to define themselves negatively against the hegemonic “norm”. The norm defines itself by what it is not. We find that excluded people either acquiesce or they become victims. People look for activities whihc bring about change to improve the excluded person’s experience. He maintains this way of defining the self does not help disabled people create better attitudes towards themselves

He made me remember distinctly — though I know it to be so — that Pope was a crippled person, called a cripple, ill of a central disease in his body frame, disabled, and that Johnson was disabled too. The two men after whom ages have been name: as in The Age of Pope (alternative: Augustan) and The Age of Johnson (alternative: Sensibility). The only novel I can think of which from the 18th century which has a disabled or crippled character is Burney (in Camilla) and it’s she who left the most graphic (unpleasant) pictures of Johnson. Austen only presents disability fleetingly in an encounter in her letters (if the man she makes signs to is that). She also has Mrs Smith. Mounsey discusses Helene Deutsche’s books, Resemblance and Disgrace and Loving Dr Johnson – both are book length studies of a disabled person

He argues we must talk about and think about disability in terms of limitations; how it limits the person and help them cope with these limitations . Accept that these are their limitations. Antidiscrimination laws for both people marginalized importantly helps. Not worry ourselves about hegemonic norms.

He distinguishes this way: Homosexuality is socially constructed, blindness is not. Sexuality is partially socially constructed; so too racism . You want to imagine the lived experience of the disabled person irrespective of abled people. You don’t worry yourself about their lack of intersection with these large acts or events that are said to be normal.

On some histories of disability: Kim Neillsen’s history cannot divest itself of this binary of abled versus disabled people no matter how rich her refusal to fall into generalities and abstractions. David Turner on disability in the 18th century focusing on deformity (probably because that is what was recognized) but still uses class race and gender as tools of analysis. 1999 Elizabeth Bredberg said that accounts of the live experience of disabled people is underrepresented. There is more work published about deaf people than any other disability – we need people with “interpretive competence.” Much of their history has been a fight to use sign language as their means of communication. Now sign language is ephemeral and individual —

William Hay (1695-1755), was small man with a deformed spine, a poet, politician, husband and father, Whig member of parliament. Hay tells of mocking terms for himself: did he take them seriously, Mounsey asks, The ODNB by Taylor does not mention the man was a “born a hunchback dwarf” until penultimate paragraph. We are not told of the marriage beyond it was one showing loyalty to Whig party. Hay wrote treatises on laws for the poor with suggestions for better relief, a long poem, on principles of morality and Christianity, on civil gov’t, left extensive diaries, translation of Martial. Hay published his essay on “Deformity” a year before his death when he said he was never free from casual abuse, and says we cannot treat disabled people as if disability were marginal to their lives. Hay attacked Bacon for saying people with irregular bodies have twisted minds. At one point he scorns a woman who is deeply sick and allows someone to marry her for her money (Lady Mary Belair).Meanwhile the Critical Review called Hay good-natured and ignores barbed Martial epigrams where Hay took Pope as a his model. Why? Hay waited until he was dead and his victims too to publish. Hay wrote about how he waited.

Mounsey was partially sighted when young and is now wholly blind. Blind people have fought for more braille texts ;now Mounsey could read when a child and now he uses audiobooks and text-to-voice mechanisms. He now relies wholly on aural and finds the experience itself very different and equally valid 15 – it took 2 years to learn to do well. He is disabled in reading the way a deaf person mostly is not – he is stressing people are variable and we should all help one another He has a friend who will not accept her blindness; refuses to go places, insists on reading using a kindle with the letters hugely magnified but soon tires 18. This reminds me of many widows who refuse to go out. People need to build a capability to live with an altered capacity – to find alternatives. Yes I agree.

Then come the essays in the volume.

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brbarnaby
Barnaby Rudge and his one friend, a raven (Phiz) — seen as uncanny

A few notes on Janet Lyon’s extraordinarily insightful “On the asylum road in Mew and Woolf:”

I can’t even begin to do justice to this essay. It is a deeply anti-asylum argument. This is just one small note from it, and a recommendation to read it yourself (bibliography included in the review). Lyon includes the startling cruel insults Woolf will hurl at disabled people (such as when she sees a group of downs syndrome people walking down a road they are “idiots” who ought to be “killed”. These remind me on tone and intensity of Austen’s harsh jokes — women in childbed and dead babies. I wondered if Austen’s closeness to disabled people, to the wretched of her society,her own lesbian-spinster or just spinster state formed part of her alienating way of presenting human bodies in her letters. Both acutely sensitive people.

Lyon quotes the great and powerful poems of Charlotte Mew that Penelope Fitzgerald’s late 20th century biography grew out of. Fitzgerald wanted to look and to look away. She identifies vulnerability with disability. Woolf identifies the disabled on the street with the wretchedly poor and miserable there too. With old lone women.

The early history of asylums in the 19th century not only went about to lock up unwanted people but would ferret them out of neighborhoods to fill these places. The strongest thrust of these places and the culture that produced them is to control the person defined as disabled, to keep them apart from everyone else, and then to dismiss them from life. Unlike Holmes and even Chris Mounsey Lyon concentrates on mental disability which is more threatening to the average person — thus the horror, the assertion of something uncanny.

From Charlotte Mew’s “The Changeling”

Sometimes I wouldn’t speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel’s feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat’s black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell’s sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That’s why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn’t do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything …

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MrBatesdisabled
We all remember the early treatment of Brendan Coyle as the disabled Mr Bates (2010, Downton Abbey)

As a general final note here: There is a problem when one uses novels or films as evidence for serious psychiatric or neurological or sociological problems. We do this so often since it’s become an accepted way of reading novels, as part of cultural studies. But novels are written to sell and to a wide public and obey conventional plot-designs. We should remember that the writer no matter how perceptive, humane, acute, is a product of his or her era, is making up the evidence, and the novel is intended to be read as a novel, the film (with actors playing parts) seen as a film.

Ellen

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