Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Edwardian’


Illustration from the original 1933 edition

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity — Woolf’s opening sentence, much Austen allusion in this fun book.

What is not biography — is nothing at all — Stanislaw Brzozowski

Dear friends and readers,

We might regard this as an unusual foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61). One of the people class asked me if I would recommend this as a biography. Yes, to start with. Perhaps for Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) too.


From the same edition, the way photographs of Vita Sackville-West dressed in costumes of different ages are scattered throughout Orlando

This and last week I read and discussed it with a class of older adults. We had a very good time with it. We discussed it as a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning through the eyes of her dog (anticipating Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid, about how EBB’s life impinged on, used up and was seen through Wilson, her lady’s maid). Thus it’s about the life experience of a 19th century woman attempting to be a serious writer and feminist and ruled over, contained by men and imprisoning conventions. It is also her ripost to The Barretts of Wimpole Street (as Mantel’s Wolf Hall is hers to Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons).

As the viewpoint is most of the time a cocker spaniel’s and every attempt is to make see and feel the world as a dog might — smell, feel, emotions of loyalty, attachment, sheer joy in bodily exercise. Why not call it an original modern animal study, about the marginalized, beings not thought worthy commemorating — as not sufficiently representing the general experience of men. Remember too the classic Canadian animal story, Beautiful Joe, and at the same time Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, and the great animal studies by women, Goodall, Galdikas, Fosse and Sy Montgomery.

Flush is also Pinka, a dog given Woolf and Leonard by Vita Sackville-West who figures so centrally in Orlando. Pinka became Leonard’s dog and was much loved.

It ought to be listed with the other original modernist biographies discussed by Andre Maurois. It fits his criteria: artful — it has exquisitely alive description all psychologized through the presence of a consciousness attributed to Flush. It is scientific, with documentable proof. Letters the life-blood of this form are its basis: EBB and Browning’s courtship correspondence as it’s come to be called. The autobiography of Miss Mitford is here. A complex presence in complex circumstances. Flush learns to discount hierarchy. He learns just around the solidity and middle class order, luxury beauty of the houses, lie dangerous slums, people waiting to prey on “innocent” men, come from say from the ballet.
Identification: the writer is reliving some secret need or desire. EBB’s illness began in Torquay (and Cornwall meant much to Woolf); she too needed to overthrow her father, both poets. Much fictionalizing: Flush’s dreams, his talk with other dogs, but also utterly convincing as he (dramatic irony) slowly lives through what we know is about to happen. Women poets, it’s been shown, identify with small animals.

And for its beauty of style, which is as lovely as Orlando.

There are five acts, from which I quote to convey something of the experience of the book.

1. Three Mile Cross: Flush’s genealogy, heritage (broadly satiric and amusing), a description of his younger years, of his attachment to Queen Anne. This includes a brilliant sketch of Miss Mitford herself, to whom Flush was much attached

[from his life with Miss Mitford] Since the Mitfords had fallen on evil days–Kerenhappock was the only servant–the chair-covers were made by Miss Mitford herself and of the cheapest material; the most important article of furniture seems to have been a large table; the most important room a large greenhouse–it is unlikely that Flush was surrounded by any of those luxuries, rainproof kennels, cement walks, a maid or boy attached to his person, that would now be accorded a dog of his rank. But he throve; he enjoyed with all the vivacity of his temperament most of the pleasures and some of the licences natural to his youth and sex. Miss Mitford, it is true, was much confined to the cottage. She had to read aloud to her father hour after hour; then to play cribbage; then, when at last he slumbered, to write and write and write at the table in the greenhouse in the attempt to pay their bills and settle their debts. But at last the longed-for moment would come. She thrust her papers aside, clapped a hat on her head, took her umbrella and set off for a walk across the fields with her dogs. Spaniels are by nature sympathetic; Flush, as his story proves, had an even excessive appreciation of human emotions. The sight of his dear mistress snuffing the fresh air at last, letting it ruffle her white hair and redden the natural freshness of her face, while the lines on her huge brow smoothed themselves out, excited him to gambols whose wildness was half sympathy with her own delight. As she strode through the long grass, so he leapt hither and thither, parting its green curtain. The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean-fields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any–a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories–the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind. He heard dark men cry “Span! Span!” He heard whips crack. He raced; he rushed. At last he stopped bewildered; the incantation faded; very slowly, wagging his tail sheepishly, he trotted back across the fields to where Miss Mitford stood shouting “Flush! Flush! Flush!” and waving her umbrella …

How distraught he was when she sold him (she couldn’t afford him) and the door slams in his face.

II: The back bedroom: this intensely limited life. Flush learns to live in close confinement. He gives up much for the love of EBB.

Why, Miss Barrett wondered, did Flush tremble suddenly, and whimper and start and listen? She could hear nothing; she could see nothing; there was nobody in the room with them. She could not guess that Folly, her sister’s little King Charles, had passed the door; or that Catiline, the Cuba bloodhound, had been given a mutton-bone by a footman in the basement. But Flush knew; he heard; he was ravaged by the alternate rages of lust and greed. Then with all her poet’s imagination Miss Barrett could not divine what Wilson’s wet umbrella meant to Flush; what memories it recalled, of forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants; nor did she know, when Mr. Kenyon stumbled over the bell-pull, that Flush heard dark men cursing in the mountains; the cry, “Span! Span!” rang in his ears, and it was in some muffled, ancestral rage that he bit him.

Flush was equally at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever, and robbed it of more than I can speak of here; do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.” But there was no sound in the room, no smell to make Miss Barrett cry. Then again Miss Barrett, still agitating her stick, burst out laughing. She had drawn “a very neat and characteristic portrait of Flush, humorously made rather like myself,” and she had written under it that it “only fails of being an excellent substitute for mine through being more worthy than I can be counted.” What was there to laugh at in the black smudge that she held out for Flush to look at? He could smell nothing; he could hear nothing. There was nobody in the room with them.

III: The Hooded man. The coming of Browning: Woolf imagines Flush imagining Browning. Flush is there, looking on, and participates in EBB’s erotic liberation, it will threaten the status quo, the 8th of July – we can’t know how hurt the dog was, but he is stolen, snatched, kidnapped (Tuesday 1 September), at the book’s end. Both chapters conclude with Flush distraught before human power. Browning did wear lemon-colored gloves (dandyish).

But one night early in January 1845 the postman knocked. Letters fell into the box as usual. Wilson went downstairs to fetch the letters as usual. Everything was as usual–every night the postman knocked, every night Wilson fetched the letters, every night there was a letter for Miss Barrett. But tonight the letter was not the same letter; it was a different letter. Flush saw that, even before the envelope was broken. He knew it from the way that Miss Barrett took it; turned it; looked at the vigorous, jagged writing of her name. He knew it from the indescribable tremor in her fingers, from the impetuosity with which they tore the flap open, from the absorption with which she read. He watched her read. And as she read he heard, as when we are half asleep we hear through the clamour of the street some bell ringing and know that it is addressed to us, alarmingly yet faintly, as if someone far away were trying to rouse us with the warning of fire, or burglary, or some menace against our peace and we start in alarm before we wake–so Flush, as Miss Barrett read the little blotted sheet, heard a bell rousing him from his sleep; warning him of some danger menacing his safety and bidding him sleep no more. Miss Barrett read the letter quickly; she read the letter slowly; she returned it carefully to its envelope. She too slept no more.

Again, a few nights later, there was the same letter on Wilson’s tray. Again it was read quickly, read slowly, read over and over again. Then it was put away carefully, not in the drawer with the voluminous sheets of Miss Mitford’s letters, but by itself. Now Flush paid the full price of long years of accumulated sensibility lying couched on cushions at Miss Barrett’s feet. He could read signs that nobody else could even see. He could tell by the touch of Miss Barrett’s fingers that she was waiting for one thing only–for the postman’s knock, for the letter on the tray. She would be stroking him perhaps with a light, regular movement; suddenly–there was the rap–her fingers constricted; he would be held in a vice while Wilson came upstairs. Then she took the letter and he was loosed and forgotten.

IV: Whitechapel. Now here we have the important kidnapping and the elopement: the London outside that upper middle class: Taylor the head. Flush like a hostage in a concentration camp. Filthy, bad food, no water, others dying around him. Each day added on. He fears for his life.

He lay, not daring even to whimper, hour after hour. Thirst was his worst suffering; but one sip of the thick greenish water that stood in a pail near him disgusted him; he would rather die than drink another. Yet a majestic greyhound was drinking greedily. Whenever the door was kicked open he looked up. Miss Barrett–was it Miss Barrett? Had she come at last? But it was only a hairy ruffian, who kicked them all aside and stumbled to a broken chair upon which he flung himself. Then gradually the darkness thickened. He could scarcely make out what shapes those were, on the floor, on the mattress, on the broken chairs. A stump of candle was stuck on the ledge over the fireplace. A flare burnt in the gutter outside. By its flickering, coarse light Flush could see terrible faces passing outside, leering at the window. Then in they came, until the small crowded room became so crowded that he had to shrink back and lie even closer against the wall. These horrible monsters–some were ragged, others were flaring with paint and feathers–squatted on the floor; hunched themselves over the table. They began to drink; they cursed and struck each other. Out tumbled, from the bags that were dropped on the floor, more dogs–lap dogs, setters, pointers with their collars still on them; and a giant cockatoo that flustered and dashed its way from corner to corner shrieking “Pretty Poll,” “Pretty Poll,” with an accent that would have terrified its mistress, a widow in Maida Vale. Then the women’s bags were opened, and out were tossed on to the table bracelets and rings and brooches such as Flush had seen Miss Barrett wear and Miss Henrietta. The demons pawed and clawed them; cursed and quarrelled over them. The dogs barked. The children shrieked, and the splendid cockatoo–such a bird as Flush had often seen pendant in a Wimpole Street window–shrieked “Pretty Poll! Pretty Poll!” faster and faster until a slipper was thrown at it and it flapped its great yellow-stained dove-grey wings in frenzy. Then the candle toppled over and fell. The room was dark. It grew steadily hotter and hotter; the smell, the heat, were unbearable; Flush’s nose burnt; his coat twitched. And still Miss Barrett did not come.

We see the men and Browning too want her not to pay the kidnapper and argue, it is encouraging black mail. What emerges is they don’t care about the dog, the individual life. We see the courage and pluck it took Charlotte to drive away by herself and retrieve her (by that time) beloved dog.

We are told that Flush never mastered the principles of human society – neither have I — real debate over what this phrase means – is it principle or a life and lives that matter. I’m on the side of live and banks too, and so as EBB and Wilson, the climax of he book and prelude to elopement and Flush’s unsentimental education; what he wants is clean water – but there is now another world out there Flush knows about – a third world.

How slowly the dog moves from attack to attachment towards Browning; he notices the boots set aside; Miss EBB is gone all morning and returns exhausted; then the marriage in London and escape.

V: Italy. This is a long chapter which includes Flush’s re-juvenation, and so thethe birth of Robert whom they called Pen and the return to England and back is so intensely important. -– a new life, the new physical place, the new culture, new weather. Here dogs are different but not differentiated by status and class.

Flush’s new found independence, — they are all liberated now, her sewing heralds the coming of the baby (in life EBB had something like 4 miscarriages. Flush resumes the very happy adult dog life in Italy that he had with Miss Mitford — until he encounters flees. His hair must be shaved.

Flush had lain upon human knees and heard men’s voices. His flesh was veined with human passions; he knew all grades of jealousy, anger and despair. Now in summer he was scourged by fleas. [7] With a cruel irony the sun that ripened the grapes brought also the fleas. “. . . Savonarola’s martyrdom here in Florence,” wrote Mrs. Browning, “is scarcely worse than Flush’s in the summer.” Fleas leapt to life in every corner of the Florentine houses; they skipped and hopped out of every cranny of the old stone; out of every fold of old tapestry; out of every cloak, hat and blanket. They nested in Flush’s fur. They bit their way into the thickest of his coat. He scratched and tore. His health suffered; he became morose, thin and feverish. Miss Mitford was appealed to. What remedy was there, Mrs. Browning wrote anxiously, for fleas? Miss Mitford, still sitting in her greenhouse at Three Mile Cross, still writing tragedies, put down her pen and looked up her old prescriptions–what Mayflower had taken, what Rosebud. But the fleas of Reading die at a pinch. The fleas of Florence are red and virile. To them Miss Mitford’s powders might well have been snuff. In despair Mr. and Mrs. Browning went down on their knees beside a pail of water and did their best to exorcise the pest with soap and scrubbing-brush. It was in vain. At last one day Mr. Browning, taking Flush for a walk, noticed that people pointed; he heard one man lay a finger to his nose and whisper “La rogna” (mange). As by this time “Robert is as fond of Flush as I am,” to take his walk of an afternoon with a friend and to hear him thus stigmatised was intolerable. Robert, his wife wrote, “wouldn’t bear it any longer.” Only one remedy remained, but it was a remedy that was almost as drastic as the disease itself. However democratic Flush had become and careless of the signs of rank, he still remained what Philip Sidney had called him, a gentleman by birth. He carried his pedigree on his back. His coat meant to him what a gold watch inscribed with the family arms means to an impoverished squire whose broad acres have shrunk to that single circle. It was the coat that Mr. Browning now proposed to sacrifice. He called Flush to him and, “taking a pair of scissors, clipped him all over into the likeness of a lion.”

As Robert Browning snipped, as the insignia of a cocker spaniel fell to the floor, as the travesty of quite a different animal rose round his neck, Flush felt himself emasculated, diminished, ashamed. What am I now? he thought, gazing into the glass. And the glass replied with the brutal sincerity of glasses, “You are nothing.” He was nobody. Certainly he was no longer a cocker spaniel. But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch. It was as if the potent spirits of truth and laughter were whispering in them. To be nothing–is that not, after all, the most satisfactory state in the whole world?

Note the last sentiment. We are hearing Woolf.

At book’s close there is the joke Nero jumped out of the window because he couldn’t take those angry silences between Carlyle and Jane. In later years Woolf writes of this Jane and her relationship with Geraldine (Jewsbury) brilliantly.

VI: The end: Coda: Flush’s old age – Flush rightly suspects as frauds the new spiritual mediums Elizabeth enjoys. His care for her is too concerned, too for real care. Here we pick up on how Robert Browning and EBB had their strains. Flush’s aging, tiring, and then disappearance from the record. He predeceased her. The book ends with EBB’s poem to him. Alas, over-written:

You see this dog. It was but yesterday
I mused, forgetful of his presence here,
Till thought on thought drew downward tear on tear;
When from the pillow, where wet-cheeked I lay,
A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way
Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear
Large eyes astonished mine,—a drooping ear
Did flap me on either cheek, to dry the spray!
I started first, as some Arcadian
Amazed by goatly god in twilight grove:
But as my bearded vision closelier ran
My tears off, I knew Flush, and rose above
Surprise and sadness; thanking the true Pan,
Who, by low creatures, leads to heights of love.

Flush was buried beneath Casa Guidi; EBB’s remains are in the Protestant cemetery in Florence, and Browning’s in Westminster Abbey. Why is Flush’s life not set next to Maurois’s of Shelley, Scott’s of Zelide, Zweig of Mary Queen of Scots (just as deeply dreamed). Because “who is interested in a dog?” said another class member.

Woolf’s delightful annotations and notes follow: Wilson’s life caught here. Lily (fell in love with a guardsman who did not stay true to her. But marry she must so she chose a man-servant in the Browning’s house. No document about what happened to him. In later years she takes care of one of Browning’s ancient poet friends; very later as widow living with Pen. The safest thing was to be loyal. Why are there no servants’ lives in the ODNB?

So I propose to add Virginia Woolf’s brilliant tour-de-force of a modernist biography, Flush: A Biography to the canon. 1842-1858? I liken it to Anthony Trollope’s wrongly neglected When the Mastiffs went to Iceland, a political social and ethnographic study disguised a jeux d’esprit travel book.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

thehouseisnow
Final shot of the series: Highclere Castle depicted as in snow, night falling — it is dark note

lastcharactersseen
Antepenultimate shot: we glimpse Violet, Dowager Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) with Mrs Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) with Tom Branson (Allen Leech) —

Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville): “We never know what’s coming of course, who does?” (his last words)

Friends and readers,

What can one say about 90 minutes of scenes presented as about real human beings where except for the two over-the-top caricatures of Lord Merton’s eldest son and daughter-in-law (Charles Anson returned with his horrible fiancee, now wife, Amelia, an actress whose name I cannot find), everyone is actuated by the kindest concern for everyone else? and they cave so easily: “If reason fails, try force,” says Violet and she and Mrs Crawley snatch Lord Merton (Douglas Reith: “Marvelous!” says he) back. It’s again scene after scene of the usual intense emotionalism, with wry sayings transitioning into complacent on-goingness.

withmasterGeorge

Thomas (Rob James-Collier): “I think I might try to be someone else when I get to my new position … “

Yes Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is tart to Bertie (Henry Haddon-Patton) when they meet again: he hurt her. Lady Pelham (Patricia Hodge grown old) put up a protest against Bertie, her heir and son, marrying “damaged goods” aka Lady Edith Crawley who comes with her daughter, Marigold, born out of wedlock (because Michael Grigson disappeared in the conflagration of Nazi Germany), on the ridiculous grounds they have to keep the “highest moral standards up” since Bertie’s cousin, the man he inherited from may have been homosexual, and didn’t lead a mainstream life; but the unbelievable stilted reasoning soon collapses under the weight of her desire to be central to her son’s on-going life. This desire of all of them (except maybe Mr Carson, see just below) to not be rejected by anyone, not to hurt anyone’s feelings controlled the behavior of all by all.

I was reminded of an essay I tried to read by D.A. Miller where he asked why there were no police in Trollope’s Barchester Towers?

A paraphrase: everyone polices one another and themselves … we are invited to sit around and fret about how to take how a character given hardly any of life’s real alternatives is acting … thus are we drilled into accepting our lot …

MrsHughes
Mrs Hughes-Carson thinking about what she has seen

As usual Fellowes has a knack for surface realism: so we see that aging men sicken and move towards death much earlier than women. The “golden years” of Mrs Hughes-Carson (Phyllis Logan) and Mr Carson (Jim Carter) are going to consist of her selfless pragmatic and sceptical functioning as the friend, wise adviser and nurse of this rigidly martinet reactionary disciplinarian, worshipper of Debret’s as he subsides into Parkinson’s disease. Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) is not near death from pernicious anemia but he does have a serious case of anemia and will need his new second wife, Isobel Crawley, now Lady Merton, to care for and protect him.

dickie-and-isobel

Robert, Earl of Grantham did not die of a hemorrhage from his ulcers in the antepenultimate episode, and now has a new puppy dog to lavish affection on,

withdog

but he still clutches his chest in a worrying way that suggests angina pectoris, so it may be a good thing that (unlike her husband), Cora has found her metier in local politics at last: she is a soothing Lady Bountiful presiding over a remarkably anachronistically organized hospital system there in Yorkshire (it was Yorkshire the series began in?) where all will be taken care of. In their last conversation they acknowledge we cannot know what is to come.

lastadieu

It was well-calibrated not to make this last episode into a tear-jerker.

downton-abbey-elizabeth-mcgovern

A few liberal joke-y notes. It turns out we are to see Spratt (Jeremy Swift) as another gay butler — that’s appears to fuel part of the Dowager’s delight when our resident (thwarted) witch lady’s maid, Dencker (Sue Johnston) carries on her thankless task of attempting to get him fired backfires.

Spratt
Spratt’s stamp album now a cover-up for his notebook writing of his daily column of advice for young ladies love-lorn and wanting to know what to wear

Mr Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is just dew-y all episode long with gratitude to all for their concern for him when he tried to slit his wrists, and with determined sweet love for all. Lady Mary engineers Lady Edith’s marriage with so little ease I cringed to hear Lady Edith’s return to abjection: “you gave me my life back” — could she have done nothing? The actors did remarkably well under this perpetual pressure. I thought some of the lines downright corny and Michelle Dockery had some trouble in her dialogue with her new beloved. Rob James-Collier managed a little better because he was given fewer lines: if he couldn’t be married, he could smile at being included and replace Mr Carter at long last. If there have been any lesbians (say the lady’s maids) over the years, we were not permitted to glimpse this, though now and again we came across individuals who ended up going it alone.

stowellalunarmstrong
Does anyone remember Alun Armstrong as Stowell the butler in Scotland? — Durkheim says elderly men alone are a population most susceptible to suicide

shackleton9
Or how Violet attempted to secure Lord Merton for Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walters)? — but alas she was too old for his taste (I thought I glimpsed her for a split second at the back at Edith’s wedding but perhaps it was Henry’s as she is his family)

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

Why break a butterfly on a wheel at this point?

theladysmaidfixesthejuniorcookshair
The scullery maid the first season opened with now has her hair fixed by the housemaid now privileged lady’s maid and companion — Daisy (Sophie McShea) who saved a farm place for Mr Mason by her protests is all set to become Queen there, with Andy her tender-hearted king

Fixingtheroof
Andy Parker (Michael Fox) fixing the house roof

I direct my readers to two of several long-time bloggers on this series who offer the equivalent of Trollope’s ironically titled final chapter of Framley Parsonage: “How they all were married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever After:” Jane Austen’s world appeared to take it all solemnly, though she called it a “sugar spun bow;” Anibundel provided some salt while she went through it bullet-style: I add that even Mr Mason (Paul Copley) grins at Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol), and Edith’s editor catches the bouquet and so we know that soon she and Tom will be getting together. “All have won and all must have husbands after all.” Two children? Lady Mary is pregnant again, now that she’s got a Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) who is working out to be another submissive male, and in this episode is a woman who mends and heals and takes care of all. At first Henry seems depressed over this turn of events, but there is Tom to buck him up, and with effortless ease they start a Daimler business. His only worry is lest Mary be ashamed of him, but not in this episode where she is all calm beneficence:

lookingup (2)

lookingup (1)

There were years where I became intensely involved and bonded with some of the characters, Anna and Bates in the early years (Joanne Froggart and Brendan Coyle),

Inthechurch
In the church watching Lady Edith getting married

more recently Mr Moseley and Miss Baxter (Kevin Doyle and Raquel Cassidy). Servants on occasion educated themselves out of servitude: after all Moseley is not going to be a university professor.

MoseleyBaxter
The punctum (as the piercing feel of the image is called) was there for me

It did happen that children of people outside the family could be brought up in the family nursery: Here it’s enough to see Lady Mary bend down to take off Anna’s shoes to force Anna into her own bed to give birth:

LadymaryremovingAnnasShoes

And when the childbirth agon is over (hardly felt at all, hardly took any time) the new Bates son will be put in the nursery during the day with the Grantham children to be “followed by a young Talbot:” Lady Mary decrees:

Baby

baby2

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

akitchenscene
A typical kitchen scene, preparing food for the groups

In this last episode those still capable of being moved were so by the long years of “slow television” (individual scenes were not overlong but not a few seconds and broken up with interweaving with others as they played out), the images and dialogues repeatedly embedded in dramatised explorations of the neurosis of everyday life not gone into too deeply. In a world today where shallow relationships sustain daily communication in places where at any moment anyone may be ejected with no recourse, there can be no denying that finally the attraction was to this story of a group of people privileged to remain in a fractured-pastoral refuge. Community, safety, kindness is what is longed for after all.

close

So it feels inappropriate to dwell on close-up images of pairs or single individuals at this last: the episode is larded with scenes where the characters support one another and self-reflexively discuss their relationships, the past, and gently lament they like ordinary mortals must move into future time.

Isobel: “What else could we drink to. We’re going forward to the future, not back into the past.”
Violet: “If only we had the choice.”

Dec29th
The house was photographed again and again, three times in snow

This is but a blog, but it is mine own and effective soap operas weave themselves into our lives over time. When Downton Abbey began I was happily married after many years and at first did not watch, my husband did not care for TV in his last years, and I did not want to take over the front room where an old television was stationed. I succumbed to find common ground with Anibundel, caught up, became hooked, and over the years events, images, lines in these various seasons intertwined with what was happening with my life. My husband died as I watched the fourth season of mourning; now the quiet “exultation” at the close of this sixth saddened me, since I have no future I want to go forward into as do these “precious winners all.”

‘The only thing I’m not ready for is a life without you’ — Bertie to Edith

judi-dench-paulina
Judi Dench as Paulina (The Winter’s Tale)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

MissBaxterfindThomas
Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) finds Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) bleeding to death in the servants’ bathroom

Soon over. Not to worry. Not much to get through now.

The best framing of the last two “regular” episodes of Downton Abbey is probably Fellowes’s sneering bad-mouthing of BBC as this leftish outfit who would have hampered his coming hijacking of Trollope material for the elite in the form of an adaptation of Dr Thorne. (Part of a decade trend, explains John McCourt in The Irish Times.) The photo of this self-satisfied boaster (just click) is another where he resembles Hitchcock, maker of signally nasty movies, horrifically violent towards women. He is throwing stones at the BBC to support David Cameron and MPs of that ilk who (following the US gov’t’s attitude towards PBS), are doing all they can to destroy the BBC as we have known it. Bite the hand that fed his career.

There have been many Trollopian motifs in Downton Abbey: In these last two episodes we have in the story of Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) the young grown heirs who do all they can to prevent the older generation from fulfilling their needs for companionate and sexual love (one of many places is in Trollope’s Orley Farm).

bitchypair
Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) struggling against the pious hypocrisy of Lord Merton’s coming daughter-in-law who does not care how miserable she and her husband will make the older couple, just as long as Mrs Crawley takes over Lord Merton’s care as he ages

Fellowes may have gotten the Pelham story from the background to The Warden: a Rev Francis North, Warden of the Hospital of St Cross unexpected became the Earl of Guilford after the death of a bachelor cousin (see latest Oxford ed by Nicholas Shrimpton, Introd. p. xvii).

Afraidofhisinnocence
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) afraid of this man’s (Henry Haddon-Patton) sheltered life (we would not be asked to believe this in Trollope) cannot get herself to tell him on her own that Marigold is her daughter, and liking his sensitivity so cannot say no to the marriage

Yet just to say how smooth it all is to ignore the point. Fellowes wants to carve in cement the idea that this ruling class rides over all, and everyone fits in.

thecarefulmaid
In these two episodes our third heroine, Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart) falls back to where she belongs: the careful diplomatic lady’s maid …

Because that’s the way it is and ought to be. Your loathing is so much useless banging against a wall which he claims won’t come down.

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

To come to these two week’s salient themes and events, I thought again that Anibundel hit an important note when she remarked in her recaps of the last two episodes there’s something “emotionally horrific” about them (7: “But do they live happily ever after?”; 8: “The Truth about Mary”).

ryingtopulloutChalieRogers

So Episode 7 achieves true heartlessness in the exploitation killing off of a character invented suddenly as of rooted importance to our new suitor-hero, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode): what took my breath away was the overt kick Fellowes got out rubbing in the watcher’s nose that once someone, anyone dies, not only does just about everyone in the world carry on just as before (maybe one person affected, in this case the rival car driver in a death-race), but they are as happy, cheerful or occupied as ever. No one gives a shit — for even the grieving other car driver can’t resist asking the ice princess, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to marry him. She of course says no, being heartless herself — her ostensible believable reason that he has no rank nor money; he has forced her into this, it seems. She won’t admit to him the one legitimate reason: she lost her first husband to a car accident. What is she to be perpetually afraid to be widowed this way again. But no, not she, she won’t ask him to give this up.

HenryMary
At the races — he later tells her when it seems it’s money and rank alone that he lacks, that he didn’t think she was that small and she is electrified with nauseated resentment

Episode 8 multiplied this effect: we had a roller-coaster of humiliations and deaths of hope: Lesley Nicol as Mrs Patmore business is going to fail from public mortification; ho ho how funny this is everyone feels:

InspectorMrsPatmore
Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) upon being told her lifetime savings may have gone poof in a squalid incident — the risks to a woman of opening a B&B or boarding house

Kevin Doyle as Mr Moseley is made a fool out of by his students after years spent trying to get the right to stand in front of a classroom.

meanstudents (2)
Writing on the board

meanstudents (1)
Cold and indifferent to him, seemingly disdainful

And Lady Mary finally outdid herself in attempting to destroy Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael’s love affair) with such cavalier bitchiness that for a time she was excoriated by the decent people in the house. Tom Bransom (Allan Leech) rounds on her as a coward bully, for once sneering at “her maid” as her friend (of course she would show a respect sympathy). And her father (Hugh Bonneville) on her snide remark that he and Carson together led to Thomas’s attempt at suicide as even he didn’t expect such a “blow, low even for you:”

Lowblow

and the worm turned:

Patheticbitch3
Summing one another up at last: Lady Mary starting it: “You’re pathetic,” and Lady Edith finally, you’re a bitch … can’t bear to see anyone happy if you’re unhappy …

Fellowes is so true to the characters he does leave a line where Lady Mary almost implies she could go after Pelham now. Though as ever her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) overlooked it by treating it as trivia in her usual complacent way (“you wouldn’t want people to think you’re jealous”); and the Dowager, Violet (Maggie Smith) hurried back from her holiday in France to reassure the audience underneath Mary has a heart, she just pretends not to (as all worldly sensible people do and Fellowes’s high class heroine would).

Violettotherescue
Violet to the rescue

We did have to endure and cannot overlook the talk before and after Mary’s bombshell that Edith must tell Bertie Pelham, now Marquess (Henry Hadden-Patton). Robert had a good moment here to Lady Rosemary Painswick as she carries on insisting they cannot do this to this “other family:”

SamanthaBond
Lord Grantham asks Lady Rosemary (Samantha Bond) when she is planning to leave

We can remember how she tried to drive Edith to have an abortion and when Edith wouldn’t, to give up her child to strangers.

But such talk is in effect a form of blaming Edith for not telling him, and she says she might have tried to “trick” him (he’s another of the blind people of these 7 years who never once thought, Where does Marigold come from?). So Mary had to do it even if she did it so viciously. Tom is still half-used as a chauffeur by both Mary and Edith: so much for his views. Fellowes is so clever at getting the audience to accept this formula of resignation: Edith’s grating showing up at this ice princess’s wedding is accompanied by plangent speech about how someday they would be the only ones with shared memories of the world they had known so must not estrange themselves from one another.

But life you know carries on. Fellowes does what he’s so good at: involves you emotionally in realistically conceived and deeply felt characters’ deep crises and when the shit hits the fan, slips away. Snubbed and ignored, and sideswiped, and nagged to get the hell out of there once too often Thomas slits his wrists. But we are given no scene of him doing it, no over-voice, no aftermath: just what the public was told, a social scene of the upper class Master George showing some concern

nowreading

orange

and then Thomas at the wedding (looking a bit worn but none the worse for the wear) and it seems he is not going to be sacked after all. And suicide if it does not succeed can be hidden.

Here the arch enemy was Carson who once called Thomas disgustingly repugnant; we have later to endure Mrs Hughes’s (Phyllis Logan) calling his behavior to Mrs Patmore too as “curmudgeonly:” this is to trivialize the cold shoulder bully who behaves with repugnant words and active cruelty to real people in favor of upholding an abstract hierarchy of the rich

MrsHughesbetter
Here her forthright face-to-face response is the right one: to tell him he’s wrong and they won’t do as he wishes

************************************
The most unqualified good moments are in the secondary stories where Fellowes seems more comfortable:

picnic
The servants picnicking

Students
Mr Moseley succeeding with his students by telling who he is and about himself, and that learning is for itself, not lying that they can have anything they want as a result of this learning, Daisy (Sophie McShea listening)

And through stills:

Edithlovingherchild (2)
Lady Mary at Matthew’s grave just before she’s about to marry Henry — this can remind us Fellowes never meant to kill Matthew off, but used it, together with the rape of Anna, brilliantly in the fourth season ….

Edithlovingherchild (1)
Edith knowing she has done the right thing to bring up her own child, Marigold — the still closes the episode and so can remind us how often Fellowes has imagined unwed mothers whose raison d’etre becomes their child …

I agree with a friend that the dialogue, the scripts have been much less interesting the last two seasons.

I have read that the “final finale,” the last Christmas episode will not be aired for two weeks. If this is so, it shows a astute appreciation of how soap operas work in our lives. Their slow pace, the turning of their daily worlds punctuating our experience of our own once a week makes us react to them as we do to friends we see regularly. They enter our lives as part of the thread.

thenewdog
The latest family member: Violet’s present to her son, Lord Grantham of a puppy to replace Isis

Ellen

Read Full Post »

DowagertoIsobel
Dowager Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith) to Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), POV

Violet, Dowager Lady Crawley: “Dear old Lady Darnley. Always liked to stuff the place with royalty. She was addicted to curtseying! How we laughed. It’s sad to think about it. — Ah, Spratt (Jeremy Swift). Could we have some tea?”
Spratt: ” – Your Ladyship.”
Denker (Sue Johnston): “It seemed a little chilly, m’lady, so I’ve brought you a shawl.”
Dowager: ” – Oh, you are a wonder, Dencker.”
Dencker: ” – Thank you.”
Dowager: ” – I shall miss you.”
Dencker: ” – M’lady?”
Dowager: “Oh, I’m sorry. No, forget I said that. After all, nothing is settled.”
Dencker: “What’s not settled? I don’t understand.”
Dowager: “I thought you told Spratt about the staff being cut back here and at the Abbey.”
Dencker: “Well, I may have mentioned it.”
Dowager “Oh, well … As I said, nothing’s decided.”
Dencker: “But Your Ladyship couldn’t manage without a maid.”
Dowager: “Mrs Crawley does. Don’t you? ”
Isobel Crawley: “Indeed I do, but I don’t wish to upset poor Dencker.”
Dencker: ” But Mrs Crawley also manages without a butler, m’lady.”
Dowager: “That is true, but I don’t think I could break with tradition to quite that degree.
Shall we have some tea?”
Dencker: “Your Ladyship” [distressed, leaving the room]
Dowager: [Calling] “Miss Dencker? – (CLOSES DOOR) – [Louder now] Don’t worry, Miss Dencker. I’ve got a copy of The Lady upstairs.”
Isobel Crawley: “You don’t really mean to manage without a lady’s maid, do you?”
Dowager: “(SCOFFS) Certainly not!”
Isobel: ” – Then why did you — ?”
Dowager: ” – Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear.”

DowagertoIsobelFarshot
Far shot of Dencker unnerved, tottering off, Spratt, the butler, Spratt, supposed gratified)

Dear friends and readers,

The Sixth Season’s 1st & 2nd episodes make a telling parallel with Sherlock’s Third Season’s last episode: in both the originating material and ideas having been long exhausted, what emerges is raw actuating core: for Moffat and Gatiss a clever (modern, ever-so self-reflexive) gay subversion of a favorite hero series; for Julian Fellowes, a reactionary push-back by a male Mrs Miniver. I’m one of those who feels the first season was Fellowes at his (dreadful word) charming best: what more characteristic of the man than that flower show (a direct borrowing from Joyce Anstruther’s Mrs Miniver columns as well as the 1941 movie) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and her old suitor at the fair where she ever-so-delicately tells him no; and its analogy in a pig show and Mrs Hughes and her present suitor (Mr Carson aka Jim Carter) where she ever-so-delicately tells him (though an intermediary), well yes, but for once on her own terms:

NotaServant

“I just don’t want to be a servant on my wedding day.”

What is making this happen? ratings, advertisements, money. You don’t cancel or allow to go off-stage a cash cow. Which mini-series have been re-booted with great fanfare forty years on? The hits of the 70s.

For recaps I will be referring the reader to Anibundel (full disclosure, my daughter): The last days of Downton; March of the Pigs. For previous blogs over the 3rd, 4th, 5th seasons; the 1st through 3rd and miscellany and 4th, from my website.

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

Jinxed (2)

JinxedLadyMary
Miss Rita Bevan (Nicola Burley) from on high jinxes Lady Mary

Downton Abbey has the advantage over Sherlock in that its mode is naturalistic (the term TV critics use for TV realism) so one need only follow the rhythms of how night follows day, probable consequence from action, and voila, you have your story’s structure. The difference between this year’s 1st and 2nd episode is that in the first it did seem as if Fellowes preening over his success (seen in a recent interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS reports which now acts as an advertising vendor for PBS programs); and having been grated on when it came to doing yet another — he decided for an in-your-face program. Stories circulate that he wanted out after the fourth season, as witness how he was at his wit’s end for matter in the fifth, resorting to repeated scenes of excruciation of our true heroine, Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart). This is alluded to by Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) with a solemnity that hides the ludicrous narrow perspective: “Anna, no woman living has been put through more of an emotional wringer than you.” As an hour it had all the spite of Violet Dowager Lady Crawley (aka Maggie Smith)’s insouciant threat of a dismissal to Dencker, who has replaced the misogynistic role of resident female bitch hitherto Miss OBrien’s. How Fellowes must’ve hated lady’s maids in his male childhood (little master’s thoughts: “giving themselves airs, who do they think they are?”).

In the first episode Fellowes incessantly punished all the servants. I do just hate how Fellowes punishes these people with continual humiliation and has them all so grateful for not being humiliated and punished yet worse. Not much comfort in Mr Carson’s “Nobody’s going to be flung into the road, I can assure you,” to Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) worried he will be fired since he has not been trained for anything but “service.” There was an increase in humanity in the second, in that a kindly solution seems in sight for Anna and Bates (Brendan Coyle) at last: now fully exonerated by the simple expedient of the murderer of Mr Green coming forward to confess (telling enough, one of his victims), our true heroine’s latest theme for self-hated and immiseration: she has an incompetent cervix (it’s almost comical). On the other hand, the solution for Daisy (Sophie McShea) having precipitated the new owner of her Mr Mason (Paul Copley), her father-in-law’s farm (Mr Henderson) into irrevocably throwing him out, because she dared, dared, to speak up against the systemic injustice of the private property system is to push out the Mr Drewes (the ever-patient all-heart Andrew Scarborough) with Mrs Drewes’s (Emma Lowdnes) happiness (!) as Lord Grantham’s rationalization and Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) surfacing plan to replace them with Mr Mason.

TurnedOut
The Drewes, finally tenants turned out

Granthamsremorse
Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)’s remorse — the last stills of the 2nd episode; in the first season Grantham’s remorse led him to keep Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), not now

It’s remarkable how these phrases all coming down to the same idea, echo and repeat with variations throughout both episodes: the break-up of the old hierarchy was unflinchingly destructive of all.

The key word being surviving (Lady Mary)

You sound like a governess in fear of dismissal … (Dowager to Isobel Crawley)

Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy): At least you know you won’t be asked to leave until you’ve got somewhere to go.
Barrow: I don’t know anything of the sort.

Interviewer: – Why are you leaving now? –
Thomas: It seems like the right time for a move.
Interviewer: Does it? Does it, indeed?

That’s from the work interview in the second episode, which Fellowes knows as much as anyone else is a form of suppliancy at best, hazing being not uncommon, where Thomas submits to sneers, mortification. What are the duties of an “assistant butler?’ he can ask; he cannot ask for how much on the first go-round. (The first.)

I mean who wants to work in Woolworth’s? Certainly not the Dowager who in the first season couldn’t get over Gwen wanting to go out of “service” to become a typist. Well, in real life my mother-in-law: she traded in a 7 day a week, 11 hour a day job (half day off every other week) for miniscule literal money as a lower governess in a great house for a 5 and 1/2 day week, with a wage that she could just about pay for a flat and her own food on in Woolworth’s. It was much more liberty and money, her own space to live in.

We must give them time to gnash their teeth alone (about the change in power structure of the hospital).

One servant to another: – Did you drink at luncheon? – No, I did not.
Reply: One wrong move and snap, you’re out on your ear.

Consider how Mr Mason grieves when he sees a box he contributed to for some wedding (where he contributed a small sum, so expensive was this box, that took him weeks to save from his income) now on auction. I will be told that I am to read this paradigm and all these utterances ironically, e.g., this is ironic:

Lady Mary: Don’t worry, Carson, your reception will be in the great hall if it’s the last thing I do.
Mr Carson: How reassuring, My Lady.
Edith (Laura Carmichael): How very reassuring .. (Edith was given a few good ripostes)

It’s impossible in context: in the first episode the continuous thread juxtaposed through (until we have our culmination in the auction) is the story of a seemingly smug, remarkably nasty, sneering financially aggressive female hotel servant who lies to intrude herself on Downton Abbey, in order to harass Lady Mary for money because she knows Lady Mary went to bed with the present married Lord Gillingham and can shame Lady Mary in the newspapers. No understanding is given this woman whatsoever. She is like some mean witch a glance at whom leads Lady Mary to fall off her horse. She is as weak though against Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) as — let us recall — an exactly analogous intrusive aggressive female was in the opening episode of the fourth season. Has anyone forgotten the sexually voracious Lady Ansthruther (Anna Chanceller, previously Miss Bingley, her name a perhaps unconscious allusion to Mrs Miniver) who sought to make Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) a kept man. In this former story an startlingly old (and some might hope) forgotten stereotype about the sexual appetites of thwarted (i.e., single) women came out.

The most scintillatingly alive moment of the second episode, the most pungently delivered line occurs when the Dowager Lady Grantham revels in a yet another moment of spite: yes her excuse is she is getting back at Denker for telling all the other servants they may be let go (Dencker has replaced Miss Obrien for resident female bitch) by carelessly letting her know she may be fired at any moment.

Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear, Maggie quivers with a spurt of glee. That says it all. Gives the game of inequality away: the 1% enjoy their power. It’s not enough to be rich, you have to be above others and how can you experience this?

But as to costumes, Maggie Smith won hands down.

Indoors
Indoors – the dark red suits her very well

LightBluesandGreys
Light blues and greys were favored for her coloring

It seems to me a great effort was made to dress in her a series of exquisitely flattering dresses and place her in angle that favored the outlines of her face, her coloring, caught her body gestures and face. She had so many changes and so many lovely hats, it’s hard to pick. As in previous seasons, Fellowes’s control led to the camera making love to McGovern, so here our aging princess of great actresses. From her career and what I know of her life, Maggie Smith is stuff of the finest spirit.

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

servantsentrance (2)
Barrow walking into the new intimidating place (don’t miss those lions)

servantsentrance (1)
He of course goes into the servant’s entrance

Scene
Interviewee not making eye contact

Fullgaze
The employer’s unashamed full gaze

So wherein was the 2nd episode superior to the 1st? It returned to the rhythms of the first season. The quiet diurnal feel of every day life. Yes in both of these latest hour concoctions, as he does everywhere, Fellowes slides over the deeper disquiet one should have over any number of incidents in both episodes. The man has an uncanny ability to put his finger on suppurating wounds in relationships and systems and then pull away to safety. It’s safe to dwell on Mrs Hughes’s shyness in marrying Mr Carson who loves her tenderly. Edith’s story and desire to go live in London is told blandly; I’d love to know what Rosamund (Samantha Bond) really does in London. We never do, only that she goes out to plays only when she has friends visiting.

Moments
Lady Edith emerging from her manager’s office where she has lost a round, Lady Rosamund Painswick waiting outside — Lady Mary says she and Anna have had so many moments together, so too Lady Rosamund and Edith (over Marigold) but they are kept superficial where we most want to know

In the first episode Fellowes uses the juiced-up faux crisis in thread after thread become so common in film stories (often disguised by having them linked up to some mystery-thriller conclusion). In the second he does not. There is no juiced-up crisis moment in the interview scene of Thomas Barrow. In both he depends on us caring for the characters and I do for a few: Anna and Mr Bates, Daisy and Mr Mason, Miss Baxter and Mr Molseley, and yes even Thomas, so that another of his gift’s — for plangent dialogue and aphorism were effective.

Anna
Anna and Mr Bates — camera on her

Some might say he overdoes this in the concluding incident of the Drewes — but then we are made to feel a real wrong is done them when from the car, clutching the child, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) smoothly agree ever so quickly with the removal of the Drewes: “it’s for the best.”

One of my commentators recently wrote in response to a couple of my blog remarks: “he refuses to develop his characters in more sophisticated adult ways and deal openly with complex politics”; “fan fictions and postings and blogs too expose the nasty undercurrents of his portrayals, his fatuity“)

Comment; He exposes the weaknesses of his storytelling. I thought the first series of Downton Abbey was brilliant, but I have been progressively more disappointed by subsequent series. As I continued to watch the show, I repeatedly saw him squander enormous potential for emotionally-resonant storytelling.

This emotionally resonant story-telling (thrown away or perverted in the final message or not) was given more play in the second episode. We saw some of it towards the end of the first when Lord and Lady Grantham go down to the kitchen and talk about the food they find in the new refrigerator. The scene quietly epitomizes the theme of changing times: I do not remember either hitherto coming down to the kitchen to grab a snack. Nothing was juiced-up here. After they ate, to bed upstair they retired. In the second episode Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) acquiring test exams for Daisy to practice with. For all its slithering cruelty, the way the Dowager handles Dencker is done without juicing the turns. Lady Mary’s reciprocating decent behavior helping Anna to bring a pregnancy to full term.

(Using my crystal ball I predict the birth of a child in the Christmas episode, one who like Lady Mary and Sybil’s child is legitimate with a loving father and mother and assured future.)

The development of the fight over who will control the hospital. Mrs Hughes’s stubborn resistance of a take-over of “her day” by the hegemonic order she has lived in all her life. Not that she escapes it much: I foresee the wedding will be in the schoolhouse (like everything else, as the Dowager would doubtless tell us, standing on the extensive property of Lord Grantham) during this moment of (for her) liminal transition.

The two continuous threads of the second episode concern the question of where the latest wedding (in the series) is to be held and the question of the hospital. I found the dialogues over the hospital improved as the characters (the way they do in soap opera structures) recurred and re-formulated their positions over and over, bringing in new aspects as they went. And will end on two of these from the second episode:

The first intertwined with the thwarted marriage of Isobel Crawley and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith):

Walkingandtalking
Walking and talking

Isobel: ” – Do you post your own letters?”
Merton: ” – Ha! It was vital it went off today and I’m never very good at delegating. As a matter of fact, I’m glad to see you. I’d value your advice. I’ve had a letter from the Royal Yorkshire Hospital, asking if I’d head the new Board of Charitable Donors. We’d be working alongside.”
Isobel: “Well, that’s if I stay the almoner, once we’ve amalgamated.”
Merton: “Well, of course you would.”
Isobel: “When we combine, we’ll avoid duplicating our efforts. The whole thing would work a lot more efficiently than it does now.”
Merton: “So you don’t disagree with the plan? Well, don’t you see what it could mean? How old is our X-ray machine? Does Clarkson really know how to use it? What advanced surgery do we offer? None.
If a family at the Abbey has a cut finger, they go to London, – but what about everyone else? – I bet you’d go to London too. – (CHUCKLES) I probably would, but I shouldn’t have to. And what about people who don’t have that option? So the battle lines are drawn and now we must fight it out.”

Upon Lady Grantham visiting the hospital (she is leaning towards giving control to a larger authority): part of the context is Isobel and the Dowager’s on-going vexed relationship

Dowager: “I don’t want Cousin Cora to feel outnumbered.”
Isobel: “It isn’t friendly, you know, to stir her up into opposition.”
Dowager: “It’s not very friendly to squash her into submission either.”
Cora: “Excuse me, but I don’t need to be stirred or squashed.”
– The facts speak for themselves.
– Your facts or mine? – What’s the difference? – Mine are the true facts.
Dr Clarkson (David Robb): Shall we continue this in my office?
Dowager: “I wish we could persuade you to help us stem the tide of change.
cora: “I’m just not convinced it’s the right way forward, to go backward.”
Dowager: “I do not understand you, my dear. – Are you saying Dr Clarkson is a bad doctor?
Cora: ” – Certainly not.”
Dowager: “And the other doctors that use our hospital — are they no good either?”
Cora: “I’m sure everyone does their very best, but there are new methods now, new treatments, new machines. Great advances have been made since the war. – Can’t we share in them?”
Isobel: ” – Hear, hear.”
Dr Clarkson: “Of course. I intend that we should.”
Isobel: “- We haven’t got the money.”
Cora: “- I see I’m not needed to lend you strength.”
Dowager: “You’re fully in command of the argument. Have you no pride in what we have achieved with our hospital?
Isobel: “I don’t think pride comes into it.”
Dowager: “Well, I warn you, Dr Clarkson and I will fight to the last ditch.”

And so the Dowager will. So did the aristocrats as a group, including those who lost much property. But these super-rich people, they keep making a come-back. It’s a big deal when they come down to breakfast:

vlcsnap-2016-01-09-21h25m40s68
Cora putting together her own meal:

Ellen

Read Full Post »

ShouldertoShoulder1
Angela Down at center as Sylvia Pankhurst (Episode 6 of 1974 BBC Shoulder to Shoulder)

Suffragettegroup
Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter as Violet Miller, Maud Watts, Edith Ellyn (2015 BFI Suffragette)

Dear friends and readers,

You have two tremendous treats to avail yourself of this November where we are enjoying a spate of significant politic films. It’s another one of these re-creations of an excellent, original and effective mini-series of the 1970s 40 plus years on (e.g., Upstairs and Downstairs, Poldark). It’s also another riveting new woman’s film, the kind scripted, directed on some woman’s issue (e.g., Bletchley Circle to The Crimson Field, scripted Sarah Phelps).

On-line at YouTube you can watch six 75 minute episodes of Shoulder to Shoulder, (without commercials), and hear the theme song Ethel Smyth’s grand March of the Women:

Episode 1: Emmeline Pankhurst (Sian Phillips); Episode 2: Annie Kenney (Georgia Brown); Episode 3: Lady Constance Lytton (Judy Parfitt); Episode 4: Christabel Pankhurst (Patricia Quinn); Episode 5: Outrage! (it ends on Emily Davison’s suicide by throwing herself under a group of race-horses, Sheila Ballantine as Davison and Bob Hoskins as Jack Dunn); Episode 6: Sylvia Pankhurst (Angela Down).

And in cinemas, there’s Suffragette, screenplay Abi Morgan (who wrote Truth), directed by Sarah Gavron with a cameo peformance as Mrs Pankhurst by Meryl Streep. It also has the theme song, but it only comes in towards the film’s close (as uplift).

I have no reviews of Shoulder to Shoulder to offer; I knew of it by word-of-mouth from other women, especially anyone who has written or read about the suffragettes. I suspect it’s not available as a DVD for the same reason as the Bletchley Circle was cancelled after a second successful year.

Suffragette has been reviewed, not altogether favorably (see Variety). Perhaps since it is a woman’s film, and also about the woman’s movement, the critics have been very hard on it (see the New Yorker especially). A. O. Scott of The New York Times Suffragette justice.

This one has an argument to make, or rather a series of arguments about the workings of patriarchal power, the complexities of political resistance and the economic implications of the right to vote. You might come for the feminism, stay for the class consciousness and arrive at the conclusion that they’re not so distinct after all.

Probably the re-booting (as in the case of the others this year) of Shoulder to Shoulder into Suffragette will please modern audiences more than Shoulder to Shoulder, with its 1970s staged dramaturgy, slower movement, longer scenes and speeches, less closely graphic violence (though Shoulder to Shoulder is as unbearable in its force-feedings and it has several not just one), and I hope people will be drawn to Suffragette. Both movies show how vulnerable and frail are individual revolutionaries and movements against the power of a gov’t with military and legal powers to control, punish, silence, and kill people. Still over-praising something (I believe) in the end is seen through by people and distrusted so upfront I’d like to say that good as Suffragette is, Shoulder to Shoulder is finally superior art.

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

demonstration
Police breaking up the women’s demonstration and starting to beat them up

Suffragette‘s central problem is it’s too short and it has been influenced by the use of gimmick and juiced-up plots in mystery-spy thrillers common in mainstream films. So the focus in Suffragette comes from a little climax-ridden plot-design where we are supposed to care intensely if a police officer, Steed (Brendan Gleeson) turns our heroine into a mole on behalf of a gov’t bent on surveillance headed by the heartless monster, a fictionalized side-kick of Asquith (Samuel West) and his henchmen. Scenario familiar? Here is Steed trying to secude, frighten, & bribe our heroine:

Brody-TheToo-EasyHistoryofSuffragette

We then enter into thriller-like story arcs where our heroines outwit the police in planting bombs, breaking windows, and finally managing to reach the newspapers when unexpectedly Emily Davison (Natalie Press, the daughter in Bletchley Circle) throws herself under the horses in a race course watched by the king.

EmilyMaud
Emily Davison contemplating what to do to reach the king, or attract attention (Maud is unaware of the lengths Emily is prepared to go to)

This is not to say that Suffragette doesn’t do ample justice deeply even (partly due to superb performances) to the human feelings among the women and in delineating the break-up of the marriage of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) — though it chickened out in showing us the scenes of harsh domestic violence clearly visited on Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) off-stage. Since a punch-shock element was what the film partly relied on, this was a loss.

In fact though Suffragette also delivers a kind of history lesson. It may be said to be equally organized as moral paradigm. Maud is a factory worker doing hard labor ironing in a laundry for years, during much of it in her earliest molested by her employer continually as a condition of remaining employed.

Mulliganagain
Given an extra job to deliver a package at the end if the day, Maud rushes for a bus

Maud is therefore naturally attracted to a hope of some better life she intuits the women’s movement offers; when she agrees to go along to listen to Mrs Miller’s speech, she finds herself persuaded by one of the MP’s wives (Romola Garai) to read a prepared speech. Instead she ends up answering questions put to her by the prime minister, Asquith (Adrian Schiller). He asks her what does she think the vote can do for her. She can come up with nothing; she does not know how it could improve her life. The film’s story then proceeds to teach Maud and us why the vote influences women’s lives. Why votes matter.

Maud is slowly radicalized for the same reasons the women in Shoulder to Shoulder are (see just below), and becomes a suffragette. She demonstrates and is beaten and punished. At this her husband, Sonny (Ben Whislaw) becomes humiliated, shamed, and his manhood so threatened, that he throws her out of their apartment. He has the undoubted right by custom. He clearly also despised her when he married her because he knew she had been molested for years and so he regarded himself as “saving her,” putting her on the “right path.” His attitudes are all screwed up by his society’s norms. They lead him to destroy her and the marriage. Worse, he has the legal right to refuse her any access to her child and the right to give the boy up for adoption, which he proceeds to do when he finds he cannot care for the child himself.

Had women had the vote, laws would not give him such a complete right over her and his child. Could she get the vote now, she could vote against such laws and customs. At the film’s close a series of intertitles tell us that five years after a portion of women were given the vote, the custody laws were changed and women had a right to keep their children. Sonny could no longer punish her, himself and their child like this.

Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) works as a doctor, and apothecary in her husband’s druggist shop: we learn she was not allowed to go on to professional school as women were not allowed; the story at the close implies that with the vote, such schools would have to open their doors to women.

Edithapothecary

Mrs Miller has nowhere to turn from an abusive husband; she will if she can change parliament. There is no help against the employer-molester; there are not enough jobs and those available to women are mostly dreadful hard work. We see a motif in other women’s films, like Water where an older woman saves a young widow who is being coerced into prostitution: Maud rescues a girl from sex harassment and degradation: she knows Mrs Miller’s daughter is submitting to sexual aggression by the boss, so daring arrest, she shows up at the laundry, takes the girl to the house of the MP wife (Garai) and the wife hires her. She is now protected insofar as the system allows: based on a decent kind individual. The movie-viewer can think to her or himself the equivalent of what legislation can provide today: women’s shelters from domestic violence and abuse.

These stories of the fictionalized characters are said to be partly based on real women, but they are enunciated in such a way as to show the viewer why the vote matters.

The only historical women we see are (briefly) Emily Davison and Meryl Streep as Mrs Pankhurst, posed to recall Sian Phillips in the same role:

Streep

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

There are no explicit paradigms or lessons taught in Shoulder to Shoulder, the cast for Shoulder to Shoulder are not working class women (the “foot soldiers” of the movement, as the policeman tells Maud who her “masters” will dump when they don’t need them, after their lives have been ruined), but the elite types who ran the movement. Except — and it’s a big except — the lesson in the grinding nature of the experience of proselytizing, punishment, political in-fighting and finally prison which we are given a full brunt of, and our heroines (except Mrs Pankhurst the highest ranking) are force-feed repeatedly, humiliated by the clothing they must wear, put into solitary confinement.

christabel
Christabel starting out (her first speech)

In comparison to Suffragette our heroines’ sufferings are intangible. Respectability, loss of society (but they don’t want that), companionships, acceptance of a much harder life where they do strain to support themselves by teaching, working in shops (or owning them). As in the other 1970s mini-series, our central characters are drawn from the elite, while in 2015 they are drawn from working people. So it takes a little imagination to enter into what is presented.

OTOH, just about all the characters in Shoulder to Shoulder represent real historical people, much of what is presented is accurate (if much must be left out).

AnnieKenney
The real Annie Kenney

GeorgiaBrown
Georgia Brown exuberant as Annie

There is therefore much less false melodrama, and because of its length, we get a long arc of the whole movement from the later 1890s to when Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel supported WW1, and the aftermath of that war.

SianPhilips

The most moving episode in Shoulder to Shoulder focuses on the real Constance Lytton (described in my previous blog this week, Victorian into Edwardian, scroll down) who takes on a working class persona and the treatment meted out to working women in prison is inflicted on Lytton.

janewarton
A photo of Lytton dressed as Jane Warton: remarkably Judy Parfitt comes close to looking just like this

shouldersideview
This is the only still I could find on the Net of Parfitt — she is to the left, feeling utterly wretched after having been beaten and force-fed and is now forced to wait for a judicial hearing

The focus in Shoulder to Shoulder is on the human relationships among the characters, and the drama comes out of ideological, political, psychological clashes, its power on how the characters are transformed, variously destroyed, shattered, turned into ruthless political machines who show no gratitude towards those who helped them, especially in the case of Christabel Pankhurst

PatriciaQuinn-ShoulderToShoulder-Pt2
Christabel fiercely waving her flag

towards the Pethick-Lawrences, a couple who gave up their fortune, respectability, good and moderately useful lives to the movement only to be thrown away, and towards her sister, Sylvia who persisted in wanting equally to fight for social justice for all people, including working class men, immigrants, issues like civil liberty.

Sylvia
Sylvia setting up a shop in a working class neighborhood

Both movies make the point strongly that the prison experience is the second reality the women’s movement contended with that radicalized them, and I now realize this is a central theme of Lytton’s book. Lytton’s book is as much about prisons as it is about the suffragette movement. She makes the point that one way you can gauge your success as a political movement is if the establishment puts its leaders in jail.

PoliceMaud
The police have kept an eye on and take Maud away

Lytton’s book appears in both Shoulder to Shoulder and Suffragette as Dreams; the title today is Prisons and Prisoners (Broadview Press, edited by Jason Haslam). (I am now in the middle of Constance Lytton’s memoir of her life from the angle of her conversion to the womens’ movement and radicalization through her experience dressed as a working class woman, Jane Warton, in prisons.)

Lytton opens with showing the reader that the votes-for-women movement emerged as a possibly effective force when 1) the upper middle and middle class women enacting leading, and making connections for it realized after 3 decades they would never get the vote unless they severely disrupted the workings of everyday society; and 2)the women were radicalized into real empathy with working and lower class women by their experience of the harsh indifference, cruelty, even torture of the prison system with its principle mechanisms of violent punishment (including force-feeding which led to further pain in vomiting), humiliation, brutalization, and destruction of personalities through alienation. This is what Lytton shows the reader; as a person with a bad heart, she died not long after after her release from the treatment she had received.

Lytton may not appear as one of the characters in Suffragette but her words provide a voice-over as Maud Watts reads her book; and she is the central character of the crucially effective episode of the mini-series.

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

suffragettes
The group early on in Suffragette

thegroup
The group towards the end of Shoulder to Shoulder

The sense of life as on-going, a cycle, so characteristic of women’s art ends both films, in this case politically appropriate. Lytton really emerges only in one episode (3), and Davison in another (5), and of the on-going characters my favorite was finally Sylvia, partly because I’ve loved other characters Angela Down played at the time (she was Jo March in a 1970 Little Women) A long talk with the inimitable Bob Hoskins (very young) precedes Sylvia’s final walk off onto the street with her latest ally, Flora Drummond (Sally Miles). When I get the book (I’ve bought it from a used bookstore site, I’ll blog again). We are made to feel we have gone through so much (6 times 75 minutes is a lot of experience time), and the photography of the two inside the crowd makes the point they are just two women inside a larger group.

In Suffragette after Emily has thrown herself under the horses, we see Maud, shaken, but walking off. She must live on; she has shown she will find her son and communicate with him; Edith’s husband locked her in the bathroom to prevent her from joining lest she be arrested again (she has a bad heart we are told); we see the police officer, Steed, his employers; Maud, Violet Miller and Edith get together again in the WSPC office.

The writers for the 1970s series are among the best of the era: Ken Taylor, Hugh Whittemore, Alan Plater, Douglas Livingstone (originally they wanted women scriptwriters but the era just didn’t have enough of these); its creators were Georgia Brown, Verity Lambert, Midge Mackenzie, directors Waris Hussein and Moira Armstrong. If their characters are too harmonious and well-bred to begin with, by the end they are strongly pressured, conflicted, angry. Suffragette has a woman script writer, Abi Morgan, woman director, Sarah Phelps, three women producers Alison Owen, Faye Ward.

The title Margaret Mitchell wanted to give her famous historical novel, Gone with the Wind, was Tomorrow is another day. It’s a saying that captures the underlying structural idea of many a woman’s art work

Ellen

Read Full Post »

OFMaryDeepinThought
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.

forbesschoolroom
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.

Isdoggedasdoesit
“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.

EmilyCarrWalkatSitka
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.

hangingrock
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.

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

USSCairo
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.

Broadway,NY1860
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.

MadameNeroni
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.

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

‘What the deuce is it to me?”‘ he interrupted impatiently: ‘you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Mr-Holmes-train.jpog

Dear friends and readers,

Mr Holmes has a couple of obstacles or problems to wide-spread acclaim. It is melancholy. Its themes include how to cope with aging and its losses, death, stigmatized class status (a no-no). For those brought up on the action-adventure of Robert Downey, Jude Law, Michael Strong and Rachel McAdams, it will not answer your expectations; for those still wedded to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (to say too little of the justified paranoia of WW2), it will make fun of the 1943 fanatical adherence to the deerstalker hunting cap and pipe (Holmes goes to a black-and-white simulacrum of such a movie and just cannot sit through it); it lacks the giddy pace and surrealism of the first 2 seasons of the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman Sherlock concoctions; but to say it’s not Holmesian (as the New Yorker guru critic in residence, Anthony Lane means to insinuate) is just not so.

I concede fully that the perspective is post-modern (conventional thought and cant, especially about death and grief be damned), that there is something deliciously Jamesian (Henry) about it. Characters have deeply traumatic encounters on park benches while wearing impeccable hats.

MorahanMcKellen

Hat
Close-up of hat

They fail to understand one another, cannot bear one another’s emotions. It moves slowly, with shots that capture a poetry of stillness and costume drama in its green landscapes, seascapes, the sina qua non steam train rushing serpentine and noisily through. More than twice, though in one climactic instance it matters as someone is (reminding me of a Trollope scene in The Prime Minister) voluntarily smashed to smithereens.

But that it’s not Holmesian is unfair. Once you try to drill down to what could be the psychological or thematic or even political motive or moral explanation of at least two of its flashback and front story plots, you end up with ideas that will not bear any scrutiny. Convention defeats me here: I do not claim to be writing a consistently post-modern blog so allow me to explicate and show at least miminal story consistency.

There are three time frames: the present, 1947, Mr Holmes, aged 93, losing the last vestiges of memory from the past, living on the south coast of England, cared for by a housekeeper (natch) Mrs Munroe (Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (Milo Parker) who turns to Mr Holmes as father figure because his own father died in WW2: a bitter moment of memory has Linney as Mrs Munroe remembering how, like herself, her husband, was corroded by the stigmas of lower class status, and for his efforts to become a pilot in WW2, was blown to bits immediately (his mates, content to be menial mechanics all survived the war).

laura_linney_in_mr-holmes

Miloparker

A story from thirty years ago is painstakingly put together (& dramatized as flashbacks) by Mr Holmes about Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) who had two miscarriages or stillborn children, cannot accept this and whose grief is only moderated by lessons she eventually finds for the glass harp (Frances la Tour, the crook teacher), whose intensity bothers her husband to the point he cuts off her money-supply and refuses to set up stone monuments for the never-developed nor born children. It is not giving away the story to say she plots to kill her husband.

Mr-Holmes-Ian-McKellenHattieMorahan
Holmes (McKellen) remembering (a difficult feat in the this story) Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan)

It’s not true though that there is no sense to this story. The moral is the husband was wrong; he should have allowed his wife to be deluded by the crook teacher — this reminded me of Woody Allen’s frequent defenses of fortune-tellers in many of his movies and there is a fortune-telling scene here.

mr-holmesfrancesdelatour
The glass harp medium (Frances de la Tour, aka Mrs Western in the 1997 Tom Jones)

Another backstory told through interwoven flashbacks is set in Japan: Holmes has gone to Hiroshima (1946?) to obtain a promised solution of which is said to restore the memory, only to find himself confronted by a Japanese man who accuses Holmes of seducing his father away from him and his mother through the stories of Dr Watson (The Study in Scarlet is the culprit), all the while we know that Holmes now deplores Watson’s fictions a providing false gratifying endings and heroism, with many details so wrong they are embarrassing. Of course this story “falls to pieces in your hands” (as Lane says). Worse, the explanation is reactionary defense of “national” and family secrets, of absurd honor which one sacrifices one’s life for? What Conan Doyle story does not do something like this?

mr-holmes

It is Holmes’s self-imposed mission in the film to retrieve: to retrieve the memory of who his Japanese man was (until near the end Holmes believes the man a liar, coward, and that he never met him — the man just deserted his family); to compensate for how inadequate, insensitive, absurd, selfish was his Jeremy Brett-like behavior to Anne Kelmot (the way this Kelmot thread is dramatized is closely reminiscent of the 1980s BBC Holmes movies), something which depends on memory and rewriting Watson’s story.

Much of this is done through the techniques of filmic epistolarity: voice-over with Holmes writing out new texts to replace Watson’s. Part of the fun of this is withholding. We do not see Mycroft (who explicates the Japanese story) until near the end of the film and it’s John Sessions (for me memorable as Henry Fielding, also in the 1997 Tom Jones); we do not see the bumbling inspector (played by Phil Davis, great in sinister, threatening roles in Dickensian film adaptations, now Jud in Poldark), until near the end. There is fun in recognizing these character actors from other costume dramas quietly semi-parodying the roles.

mr-holmes-2015-003-holmes-with-beekeeping-boy

Indeed the uplift at the close is the same fantasy Dickens plays upon in A Christmas Carol. We are asked to believe that people can make up for what they did wrong in the past, find a new person like the one you so hurt now to do better by. We do come near searing calamity in the present, brought on by both Mrs Munroe and Mr Holmes. I can’t deny that sometimes people (as characters) are lucky. The film is as Dickensian as it is Jamesian.

Hattie Morahan was once again “emotionally aflame” — Lane talks of her in A Doll’s House in BAM, but she was astonishing in Duchess of Malfi and I still watch her as Elinor refusing solace. I felt bad for Laura Linney(unbeatable in Love Actually, unforgettable in Hyde Park on the Hudson) that she was given the howling role. I found myself crying at the close because I couldn’t believe in the self-reproach and better behavior of our principal trio: Mr Holmes and Mrs Munroe, to say nothing of the maturation of Roger.

If I had anything to object to in this film it was that both Ian McKellen (too many great films and plays to begin to cite) and Laura Linney could have been given much more deeply nuanced moments. She is literally kept behind bars, looking out from windows:

laura-linneythroughbarsmr-holmes

The film-makers were chary about releasing stills of McKellen showing the ravages of old age in the film, as he falls, eats, puts down stones for those who have gone before him. There was a pandering to the sub-genre of old man-and-hopeful worshipping-boy

OTOH, the beautiful loving feeling at the close of the film was authentic. Doyle’s ever-cool, ever witty, impatient Sherlock is now taking the risk of giving of himself; entering into loving relationships directly. Mr Holmes will leave the property to Mrs Monro and her boy when he dies. We see Mrs Munro and Roger in the garden working together and we see them walk off hand-in-hand too. The boy is now respectful of his mother under an eye of approval by Mr Holmes. He is 94, and we last seem him putting down stones (as Ann Kelmot did) for each of his friends now gone to the earth. He bows before them murmuring a lullaby. McKellen himself is very old now. It is a summer movie because through Jeffrey Hatcher’s marvelous screenplay McKellan as Mr Holmes is believable and comforts you.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »