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Florence Lacey, Kaleidoscope (A review)

Friends and readers,

Probably a coincidence which I’m noticing because I’m aging, but aging was and is the topic of the two plays and films I’ve gone to or been watching this week: this past Thursday, Matt Connor and Stephen Gregory Smith’s moving musical (a world premiere at Creative Cauldron, an Arlington night-club, place for musical and other events), Kaleidoscope, about an aging successful (Broadway?) singer now degenerating because of Alzheimer’s. Florence Lacey, the central singer-actress, had a long distinguished enough career on Broadway and now works in the DC area: it began strong with her singing effectively in a musical, and takes us through the early stages of a journey into loss of her memory, mind, abilities. An especially moving number came from the character’s memory of her mother: Mother Stayed Home Alone. The audience had a lot of older people and I saw tears on faces. A friend was ushering; that’s how I heard about the production.


A rehearsal photo of Foucheux as Lear, Magee as Gloucester, Sara Barker Edgar

Tonight, Saturday, I’ve just come back from Gunston Center, a local American pair of theaters set in a local junior high, where I saw a bare and simple and all the more powerful acting out of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The acting company now call themselves Avant Barde, another Arlington group, who have a long history (30 years), going back to theaters around DC, then a theater in a garage on Clarke Street, then briefly in an arts building where an arts center is slowly filling the place, coming to life now and again. they once called themselves the Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC). I was sitting next to another older woman who became friendly and we shared memories, reminiscences of the WSC over the years.

I assume I need say nothing about the story and characters. This is another quiet (non-spectacular) winner: sheer acting, appropriate costumes and a minimal set (using lighting and music effectively). The great local older actor, Rick Foucheux was Lear, Christopher Henley was there as the fool and one of the kings suing for Cordelia’s hand. I was struck by what a gentle soul he is. Dylan Morrison Myers (Edmund) and Sara Barker (Edgar) could have memorable careers ahead of them. Some of the most effective black actors from this winter’s The Gospel at Colonnus, provided ensemble interchanges of characters. Myers grinned at me, we exchanged eye contact when I stood up to clap. They all worked very hard. I was very touched by the older actress, Cam Magee (she’s been in 19 Avant Bard productions now) played Gloucester (now Duchess); the change of gender fit very well in this production. Alas, the auditorium was less than half full. You had to want to listen to Shakespeare’s words and this time (I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Lear) I felt comforted towards the end by Gloucester’s occasional stoic lines:

This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out

And over the past week and one half, I’ve watched the five episodes of the first season of the deeply effective, rich, nuanced, beautifully acted, costumed, written, BBC mini-series, Cranford Chronicles (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed by Simon Curtis, adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s marvelous book of short stories of the same novel, little known but superb novella, My Lady Ludlow, and thrown in to have a love romance interest swirling about a young man, Gaskell’s long short story, Mr Harrison’s Confession), illustrated by my favorite Posy Simmons (yes I have The Cranford Companion). Although there are several story lines, and two are about young men beginning life, with some hope of success, pride, self-esteem (Alex Etel as Harry Gregson has to break through Lady Ludlow’s prejudice against an agricultural poacher’s son learning to read; Simon Woods as Dr Harrison establishing himself in the community, gaining his love, succeeding in medicine), much of the production is about aging single women. Not that I do not bond with Philip Glenister as Lady Ludlow’s wise well-meaning, powerless steward and Emma Fielding as Lady Ludlow’s milliner, Miss Galindo (the couch-ridden narrator of Lady Ludlow, another disabled person). Thomas is aware of how central disability is to Gaskell as she had Lady Ludlow declare she is supporting a mute person by keeping her household very large (justifying expenditure to her steward). Cranford Chronicles is not only woman-centered but aging-centered. Matty (Judi Dench) and the poetic soul, Mr Holbrook (Michael Gambon) begin to become a couple too late: he dies before they can marry.


A favorite moment: Gambon as Holbrook, Dench as Matty, Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith (our narrator in the text)

All three gain their focal strength from their depiction of aging in society. I fancy though that the choice of all three to concentrate on crises de-emphasizes but cannot omit what is hardest about being old, looking at time past, with limited choices forward. Judy Dench is particularly effective capturing that in her still contemplative face she sits in her parlor after her sister, Deborah (Eileen Atkins)’s death. In all the works several characters die. A story about aging is a story about the irretrievable. Thomas has softened this by bringing all the characters who left back to the knit community at journey’s (mini-series) end.

I’ve written about this mini-series elsewhere and more than once (Return to Cranford). I began re-watching it because I’ve had another proposal for a paper accepted, giving me a summer project: this one for a volume on Animals in Victorian Literature: my contribution will be “On the interdependence of people and animals in Elizabeth Gaskell”

Several still unusual and dominant concerns across Gaskell’s fiction come together when we study her fiction from the point of view of her depiction of the interdependence of people and animals. Scholars have written about disability in a few of Gaskell’s fictions, but not its pervasive presence (part of her awareness of our continual risk of death), from blindness to illness, from birth conditions and a baby’s needs and aging, to specific variations of need or limitation, to a condition of mind or body brought about by economic and social causes. Similarly, readers have noticed her exquisite humor when it comes to how people treat beloved animals or (conversely), her appalled horror at Emily Bronte’s wildly brutal reaction to her dog having dirtied a clean counterpane on a bed, but not her characteristic awareness of the presence of animals, of startling abuse and (conversely), and their valued place in human (often single women’s) economy. Nor has it been brought out how the two are present together because Gaskell views our culture from her woman’s experience. Martha Stoddard Holmes has suggested an intransigent discomfort with investigating human dependency is one reason for the silence; another might be trepidation at re-stigmatizing Gaskell’s fiction as “feminine.” I propose to write an analysis of Cranford, Cousin Phillis, and Gaskell’s lesser known fiction and characters to show that this triangular interest is central to Gaskell’s achievement and important in understanding why 19th century texts seem to speak so crucially to us today.

There are some exquisitely funny incidents involving animals in Cranford: the cow whose life is saved by covering her in flannel, the cat who swallows a piece of lace and has gently to be made to barf it up. I had tried to find something beyond fox-hunting in Trollope (as “horses” was taken by someone else) but could not find he ever took an interest in animals for their own sakes; on the contrary, shows an indifference bordering on utter dismissal (he makes jokes of breeding foxes), except an occasional deeply felt metaphoric use (then he is creating pity for or criticizing a character). He is also not interested in disability.


Claudie Blakeley as the strong servant girl, Martha, and her loving “follower,” Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan)

So I will continue my love affair with Gaskell and read yet more of her fiction and in a new way; I’ve listened to all of Graham’s Black Moon read aloud in my car and am near the end of The Four Swans. I delight in Claude Berry’s extraordinarily sensitive effective Portrait of Cornwall and can hardly wait for the BBC to begin the third season of Poldark.

Today was a hard day for me to live through: more or less solitary, not yet up to, unable able to travel alone (go on a Road Scholar tour which is what I shall have to steel myself to learn to do if I want to see any more of the world), bereft of the very basis of my security, and my “enabler” (Jim), I ought to have avoided the happy pictures on face-book, but could not, so much do I need to be in contact with friends. Gentle reader, I remember the woman at the window across the way from Mrs Dalloway’s party, glimpsed by her at the end of her novel.

Ellen

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John O’Connor (1830-1889), Pentonville — looking west (1884)

A Syllabus

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Household Words

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The Cornhill with an illustration of Framley Parsonage by John Everett Millais as frontispiece

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Literature and Language 641: Pivotal City and County Victorian Novels & Victorian Gothic
Day: Ten Monday early afternoons, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm
4801 Spring Valley Building, near American University main campus, Northwest, Washington DC
Dates: Classes start March 6th; last class May 8th, 2017.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We’ll read 3 best-sellers: Gaskell’s North and South (1855), Trollope’s Framley Parsonage (1860), and Dickens’s “The Signalman” (1866) plus Margaret Oliphant’s ghost story, “The Library Window” (1896). Gaskell’s “Tale of Manchester Life,” published in Dickens’s highly politicized and socially concerned Household Words, is a radical graphic tale of the life of factory workers, based on a strike and time of near starvation and unmitigated depression, and by a woman. Trollope’s 4th Barsetshire concoction, commissioned by Thackeray at The Cornhill for its first series of issues made The Cornhill, which may be called the New Yorker of its day, enormously popular; Framley Parsonage was intensely as Downton Abbey: Gaskell said of it she wished he would go on writing it forever; she did not see why he should ever stop. FP, seen today also as a complacent pro-establishment book, is a Thackerayan ironic pleasure, wider ranging in its perspectives than is usually noted. Dickens’s short story, unrivaled as a psychological study over a response to machinery from an old world and gothic perspective was the Christmas tale his periodical, All the Year Round, is autobiographical, and was in 1976 adapted into a gem of a BBC film by Andrew Davies. Oliphant’s “Library Window” was serialized in Blackwood’s and is a self-reflexive account of authorship. We’ll explore how these fictions intersect with one another, mirror their shared era, and connect to our own.

Required Texts in the order we’ll read them:

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, ed, intro. Patricia Holman. 2003: rpt of Penguin 1995 ed. ISBN: 9780140434248
Anthony Trollope, Framley Parsonage, ed. David Skilton and Peter Miles. Penguin 1986. ISBN 0140432132
Charles Dickens, “The Signalman,” found in The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, ed. Peter Hanning. New York: Franklin Watts, 1983. Contains A Christmas Carol and several other gems, plus has original illustrations with stories. It is online in at least 3 places: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=1289
http://commapress.co.uk/resources/online-short-stories/the-signalman-charles-dickens
Margaret Oliphant’s “Library Window,” https://archive.org/details/Four_Stories_of_the_Seen_and_Unseen. Or from Blackwood’s the first publication: https://archive.org/stream/blackwoodsmagazi159edinuoft#page/n5/mode/2up

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John Constable (1776-1837), Stoke-by-Nayland (1835/6)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion (essays mentioned will be sent by attachment or are on-line).

Mar 6th: In class: Introduction to course: the era, genres; shared themes. Introducing Gaskell: life & work; conflicts with her publisher Dickens

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Medium range shot of Thornton’s cotton factory

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Anna Maxwell Martin as Bessy Higgins (both from Sandy Welch’s North and South, BBC 2004)

Mar 13th: In class: Gaskell’s North and South, Chapters 1-17 (“Haste to the Wedding” through “What is a Strike?”
Mar 20th: In class: North and South, Chs 18-34 (“Like and Dislikes” through “False and True”. Beyond the novel, read for next time: Rosemarie Bodenheimer, North and South: A Permanent State of Change,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 34:3 (1979):281-301
Mar 27th: North and South, Chs 35-end (“Expiation” through “Pack Cloudes Away”); . Beyond the novel, for next time Michael D. Lewis, “Mutiny in the Public Sphere Debating Naval Power in Parliament, the Press, and Gaskell’s North and South, Victorian Review, 36:1 (2010):89-113.
Apr 3rd: We begin with clips from the BBC 2004 North and South (scripted by Sandy Welch) and discuss the film adaptation. Then Introducing Trollope: life & works; the Barsetshire series and The Cornhill; read for next time: Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, Chapters 1-15 (or Instalments 1-5, “Omnes Omnia bona dicere” to “Lady Luftons Ambassador.”

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Michael Sadleir’s Barsetshire drawn by a sketch made by Trollope

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The Geroulds’ map of just Framley Parsonage

Apr 10th: Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, Instalments 1-5 (Chapters 1-15: “Omnes omnia bona dicere” to “Lady Lufton’s Ambassador”). For next time read Framley Parsonage, Instalments 6-11 (Chapters 16-33, “Mrs Podgens’ Baby” through “Consolation”); Andrew Maunderley, “Monitoring the Middle-Classes”: Intertextuality and Ideology in Trollope’s “Framley Parsonage and the Cornhill Magazine,” Victorian Periodicals Review (33:1, Cornhill Magazine II, Spring, 2000):44-64.
Apr 17th: Framley Parsonage, Instalments 6-11 (Chapters 16-33, “Mrs Podgens’ Baby” through “Consolation”). Read for next time Instalments 12-16 (Chapters 34-48, “Lady Lufton is taken by Suprise” to “How they all Married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever after.” Read also for next time, Stacey Margolis, Trollope for Americanists,” The Journal of Nineteenth-Century, 1:1 (2013):219-228; Mary Hamer, “Trollope’s First Serial Fiction,” The Review of English Studies, New Series, 26:102 (1975):154-170.
Apr 24th: Framley Parsonage, Instalments 12-16 (Chapters 34-48, “Lady Lufton is taken by Suprise” to “How they all Married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever after.” Full context for Trollope. Read for next time Dickens’s “The Signalman.” Read also Jill Matus, “Memory and Railway Disaster; The Dickensian Connection,” Victorian Studies 43:3 (Spring 2001):413-36

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William Parrott (1813-69) The Great Eastern Under Construction at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs (1857)

May 1st: Introducing Dickens, Victorian gothic, the Christmas story; his life & work. For next time, watch YouTube of Signalman online (if you can); read for next time: Norris Pope, Dickens’s “The Signalman and Information Problems in the Railway Age,” Technology and Culture, 42:3 (July 2001):436-461′ Tamar Heller, “Women’s Reading and Writing in Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Library Window=’,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 25:1 (1997):23-37
May 8th: Final discussion of all four texts, the mid-Victorian era, our authors.

Suggested supplementary (outside) reading (the assigned essays will be sent by attachment) and good sources:

Gerould, Winnifred and James. A Guide to Trollope: An Index of the characters and places and digests of the plots of all Trollope’s novels. Princeton UP, 1948.
Halperin, John. Trollope and Politics: A Study of the Pallisers and others. NY: Macmillan, 1977.
Hughes, Linda and Michael Lund. Victorian Publishing and Mrs Gaskell’s Work. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: Wm Morrow, 1988.
Nayder, Lillian. The Other Dickens: A life of Catherine Dickens. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2011.
Overton, Bill. The Unofficial Trollope. NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Sadleir, Michael. Trollope: a commentary. 1961: rpt London: Constable, 1927.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. New York: New Amsterdam, 1975.
Steinbach, Susie L. Understanding the Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th Century Britain. London: Routledge, 2012.
Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Very good short life and works.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. The best.
Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. London: St Martin’s Press, 1986.

Films:

The Signalman. Dir. Lawrence Gordeon Clark. Screenplay Andrew Davies. Producer: Rosemary Hill. Featuring Denholm Elliot and Bernard Lloyd. BBC, 1976.

Barchester Chronicles. A 7-part BBC mini-series, 1983. Dr. Gilles. Scripted Alan Plater. Featuring Donald Pleasance, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman, Eleanor Mawe, Barbara Flynn, Susan Hampshire, Geraldine McEwan, Clive Swift
Dr Thorne. A 3 part IVT mini-series, 2016. Dr Niall McCormick. Scripted Julian Fellowes. Featuring Tom Hollander, Ian McShame, Stephani Martini, Phoebe Nicholls, Richard McCabe, Rebecca Front.
North and South. Dir. Brian Perceval. Screenplay: Sandy Welch. Producer: Kate Bartlett. Featuring Richard Armitage, Daniela Denby-Ashe, Brendan Coyle, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sinead Cusack, Tim Piggott-Smith, Pauline Quirk, Lesley Manville. BBC, 2004.

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Beyond “The Signalman,” Dickens published much of his own fiction there: you see the 1st Instalment of A Tale of Two Cities

Ellen Moody

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Maggie Smith between scenes

Dear friends and readers,

I somehow suspect my phrase of praise for Rebecca Eaton and Patricia Mulcahy’s Making Masterpiece that it fulfills the once famous goals of Lord Reith or the BBC to “educate, inform, entertain” might make her uncomfortable: its connotations have become stuffy, elite, even dull; but in fact her book covering a history of PBS’s most famous and long-running Sunday night prime quality (the term now used) serial dramas from the era of the powerful and fine film adaptations, original dramatizations, and multi-episode serial dramas from just before the 1967 The Forsyte Saga up to the 2010-14 Downton Abbey does just that. We learn a lot about the commercial, financial, filming, roles different people play, the TV channels who air the shows, Eaton is unashamedly working for quality in her purchases and commissions and is surprisingly candid.

Along the way she gives satisfyingly step-by-step believable accounts of some well-known to lost forever cult and individual favorites (some never got beyond the arduous planning and early deals) and she lets drops phrases that characterize swiftly how this or that aspect of this complicated art is viewed by its practitioners: such as the eponymous book or novelist-memoirist’s vision is “the underlying material” for the films. While Eaton’s explanations for why the program has held on for so long (they are “family stories, sagas, about love, betrayal, money, infatuation, illness, family deception &c&c) are wholly unsubtle and could be said of poor programming, and she shows that she reflects the commonalty of viewers; nonetheless, now and again for this or that specific series, she also shows she understood very well a political vision, how it fit into a contemporary sociological moment. She lets us know how some of the corporate funding after the mid-1980s when it seemed all but Mobil and the oil companies acted on a new realization that corporations did not need to appear civic-minded or anything but ruthless, and that when their agents discoveed that Eaton would not re-shape a program to fit an ideology (standing firm, sometimes almost alone — she tells instances and names names) she was in continual danger of being fired.

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Rebecca Eaton with Russell Baker, the host for the show after Alistair Cooke retired — they are on the set for the introductions in the 1990s — note the fire in the hearth, comfortable easy-chair …. library look)

It is also an autobiography, a seeming Horatio Alger paradigm, écriture-femme style. It’s cyclical. She opens with a photo of her mother, Katherine Emery Eaton, who she presents as a successful serious actress and “glamorous movie star” who gave up her career to stay at home as a mother and wife: its in an old (built in 1800) house, her home for many years in Kennebunkport (labryinthine, spooky), which she cherishes, whose image and memories were part of her core impulse to work for and support Masterpiece Theater, but which she tells us on the first page no longer contain her parents, daughter or husband. She closes on her present apartment in Cambridge, Mass, a divorced woman whose daughter she reminds us was named after her grandmother and is now in theater and close to her. This private story of a husband who adjusted his career to bring up, be more at home with the one daughter (someone had to), and her distant relationship with that daughter until the girl grew up is woven in for about 2/3s of the way.

I say seeming because the story is also a justification, an explanation for why nowadays there are so fewer multi-episode (3 is become common) expensively produced carefully meditated productions from literary masterpieces. She is telling us how she did the best she could, how the recent spread of violent thrillers, cynical reactionary adaptations of contemporary novels (something in the vein of Breaking Bad, British style), seems at times to take over the time slot; her lot is fighting a continually uphill struggle where she lurches from acquiring, purchasing BBC and British productions, to producing them with the BBC and from the 1980s alonside or in competition with increasingly tough competition, in the UK, the ITV (Granada) channels, London Weekend, and in the US, cable, A&E, HBO, new technologies which allow viewers to curate and watch programs according to their own schedule (using DVDs, streaming, Netflix). It’s told in a peculiar way. A single person (named and the boss who wanted to get rid of our heroine) theatens a wasteland. Each curve ball or crisis is averted by the sudden unexpectedly widely popular good quality, subtle, intelligent adaptation. So the book reads like a series of rescues. She is not so much the rescuer as the person on the spot when circumstances come together so that a product (most often only a mini-series can provide the amount of ballast needed) is on offer which rescues them.

According to Eaton, Masterpiece theater as “the home for classy drama” (Alistair Cookie’s phrase)

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began when the first The Forsyte Saga developed a visible passionate following (fanbases made themselves felt before the Internet too), and attracted a man from Mobil, Herbert Schmertz (who loved dramas set before the 20th century); at the time Mobil was competing with other oil corporations in the 1970s who thought that they need to be seen as civic-minded (no more). The result: a stream of progressive superb mini-series from the 70s,enough of which were as avidly watched (Poldark, The Pallisers) until well into the later 1980s (The Jewel in the Crown). Eaton does not say this explicitly, but the re-creation of Poldark in terms similar to the 1970s is a bid to create a new and bring along the old fanbase for the Winston Graham historical novels (due Spring 2015); so too the filmically innovative Death Comes to Pemberley just before it (fall 2014) is a carefully calibrated appeal to the changed expanded Jane Austen audience

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A new Demelza who looks like some of the 1960s illustrations from the Bodley Head Poldark edition — Eleanor Tomlinson is also the new Georgiana, sister of

A genuinely tried Darcy and Elizabeth:

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The film does interesting things with Darcy, makes his character more understandable, Elizabeth’s more mature, and as to film: voice-over entangling with shot-reverse shot, scene juxtaposition

The later 1980s, the Thatcher years were the first set back with destructive re-organizations and competitive contracts of packaged dramas at British TV; an occasional return to the old model using new film techniques taken from commercial theater (the 1991 Clarissa) did not seem to help, until the new “savior” appeared: Middlemarch and the art of Andrew Davies.

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I still find it painful to watch the failure of Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) unaware how another’s supposed weak view of the world, Rosamund’s (Treveyn McDowell) can wreck dreams no one else can appreciate

I am aware that there are sheaf of essays on the filmic Middlemarch, that it was admired and is still loved — its exquisite historical feel, a breathe of wide humanity, great acting, relevance (the failed career of Lydgate). Eaton recounts losses: how could she have been so stupid as to let go of Davies’s Pride and Prejudice to A&E. It was then she did bow to corporate pressure: a one-time quickie Poldark denuded of all politics will stand for one resulting flop.

But amid these “dark days” she did not forget her job — she attempted to bring into Masterpiece adaptations of good American books. Maybe that was what was needed. If American producers and funders could not begin to understand a British Cornish regional novel, this they might get. She had successes but there are more sad stories, of fine projects that never got off the ground amid a protracted process: The Glass Menagerie with Meryl Streep didn’t happen. She wanted to call her dream The American Collection. Those who helped included Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, and they did Our Town for which Paul Newman earned an Emmy. About the size of what she could achieve was Mark and Livy, the story of Mark Twain and his wife. It seems that Anglophilia is the fuel of Masterpiece and Americans don’t value their own great books. At one point she was told “not to be ridiculous.”

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Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Henry Tilner (J.J.Feilds) approach Northanger Abbey

Then another fortuitious rescue occurred. Most people seem unaware that the evolving Jane Austen canon came to the rescue again. Since they were done on the cheap, each only 108 minutes at most (depending on where you watched them, it could be as little as 83 minutes) the 2007-8 Mansfield Park (not noticed for Wadey’s take in which the men are ritually humiliated instead of the women), Persuasion (daringly shown to be the trauma of loss it is), and Northanger Abbey (a delightful Davies product) have not been paid serious attention to by film studies people. But these one-shot Austen films were, according to Eaton, central in reviving film adaptations of classic books subtly and originally done again. The three were great draws. By that time she had gotten the rights to Davies’ 1995 P&P so they were accompanied by this P&P and Davies 1996 Emma. She is a great friend of Davies. The next year ahe was able to execute produce Davies’s Sense and Sensibility (with Anne Pivcevic, a long time associate of his), and Gwyneth Hughes’s Miss Austen Regrets. And she used her technique of purchase and cooperative funding to make a 4 part mini-series once again: the Australian Lost in Austen, better liked than people have been willing to admit.

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Michael Grambon, Judi Dench and Lisa Dillon as Mr Holbrook, Matty Jenkyns, and Mary Smith

I was surprised by her then singling out Cranford Chronicles, to which she also attributes the resurgence of whatever is left of the older Masterpiece theater film adaptation and serious domestic drama impulse. The chapter on Cranford Chronicles is the richest of the book. We go from first idea and objections: whoever heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, much less Lady Ludlow? (Cranford was dropped as a school text in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.) Constant trips, lunches, deals sealed with a famous actress on board (Judi Dench), then unsealed, then lost from view, then picked up again, the whole process of acquiring screenplay writer, of writing with her, the sets, how dissatisfied people are with the first rushes, and how they try again and finally have a winner.

When at the close of the book she talks of Downton Abbey trying to explain its draw she identifies what I’ll call a communitarian ideal (she’d never use that phrase) — it’s this sense of loving socially conscientious community where most of the characters in Downton are well-meaning or basically good, with the exception of over-the-top monsters (Vera Bates) or one violent rapist who we know would do it again, no one is ejected, everyone treated with dignity and concern. Well this is the great appeal of Cranford Chronicles too — and Heidi Thomas does one better by allying the stories with progressive ideals. Eaton though singles Cranford out because not just its wide audience (after all Davies had trumped with a new Little Dorrit, Bleak House, a deeply moving Dr Zhivago rivaling and rewriting Pasternak’s novel against David Lean’s reading) but because she does see how it speaks to our times, fairy tale fashion. It must be admitted in this book she spends little time worrying whether a given mini-series reflects its era or particular author — perhaps she leaves that to screenplay writer, producer and director. I note the same film-makers recur for movies made from the same author (e.g. Louis Marks for Dickens). For her warm-hearted Cranford led to warm-hearted Downton.

Her book is meant to function today, 2014 and that too is why two chapters on Downton Abbey are devoted heavily to Downton Abbey, its lead-in, production, aftermath. She talks about why she thinks the program became a sociological event, and now an adjective: it appeared at the right time that year (before the new Upstairs/Downstairs which she says was found to be too dark, too pessimimistic, to much a mirror of our era); the house matters (as did Castle Howard for Brideshead). I’ve just written a paper on Andrew Davies’s Trollope adaptations as part of an anthology on British serial drama and found it distorting to see its purview (it too begins with The Forstye Saga and ends on DA) skewed by too many references to this program. The book is typical; I’ve seen this over-emphasis repeatedly. After all filmically it’s utterly conventional; if it is liberal in its attitudes towards sexuality and the human topics it will broach, it keeps the old decorum up. Its political outlook is one which looks upon the French Revolution as unfortunate, providing only an amelioration; now if only the Granthams had lived in France during the famine. They’d have provided jobs and meals. Nowhere does Fellowes show us that such a house was a power-house, a linch-pin in repressive controlling economic and political arrangements from the which local magistrates and MPs emerged to conscript soldiers and sailors. Everyone who knows anything about country houses knows this.

She does explain why the fuss. The outrageous ratings — it easily beat out Breaking Bad and Madman the first year in the Emmy prize race. It’s a selling card when you want to pitch a new fine series. And to give credit where credit it is, it is high quality; the characters are (as Eaton would no doubt tell us) compelling, psychologically complex; no expense is spared, the actors superb. It is great soap opera and as a woman defending women’s art, I too cry it up (with all the reservations above) as using brilliantly what this individual form in structure can do. She describes the series as a community — that’s soap opera. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) rescues Mr Carson’s Jim Carter) old time colleague form the music hall from the local workhouse is a single anecdote, but it gathers all its strength by how its embedded in four seasons of memories about these characters. She does not mention that one of its strengths is it is not limited by a nineteenth-century text censored by Mudie’s Library. We can see how a rape plays out.

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Did Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) have a baby out of wedlock and give it up before she married Painswick — soap opera communities license us to look beyond what we can see and hear, to a past to be unearthed

How does an executive producer spend her days. Ceaseless socializing, phone calls, pitches, deciding. She does tell much of this throughout the book and in the chapter on Cranford, but she characterizes her job in another chapter again. She’s in on the film editing, how long the film can be, how its final scene plays. Along the way we learn of how she finally found some stable funding. She garnered as a well-heeled contributor Viking Cruises because a survey she did showed a surprising percentage of people who take cruises to Europe also watch Masterpiece Theater loyally. So she pitched this customer favorite to the running the cruises. She created Masterpiece Trust where wealthy people contribute and get to be named and also introduce the program. Perhaps the unashamed commercials for Ralph Lauren clothes (all expensive artifice) might jar more than the old more discreet pitches for oil and gas companies (but we should remember when we shudder at the anorexic women that they are not encouraging others to drop bombs to ensure Lauren’s profit). One of my books on women’s films has a whole section on how even costume dramas — those set say in the 18th century at any rate and after influence women’s wear. In the 1970s many of the costumes were Laura Ashley like creations — somewhere half between the 18th century and elegant clothes in the 1970s. I note that a certain kind of shawl is now popular since it became omnipresent in the costume dramas of the 2000s Obviously the Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other stars influenced people — remember Annie Hall, the Annie Hall style … This has long been known and at the close of films nowadays you will see little icons for fashion designers and makers of clothes who the costume designer worked with. So Eaton asked herself who has their product been an advertiser for …

A smaller strand of the book is her relationship with the people who do Mystery! and how and when decisions were made to bring Mystery! material over to Masterpiece. Sometimes it seems as if Masterpiece gets the best of Mystery! they took Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren), and now the new Sherlock (Bernard Cumberbatch). Sometimes a book that one might expect to be on Masterpiece turns up on Mystery!. We are not told why all the time.

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With Diana Rigg on the set of The Heat of the Day (Elizabeth Bowen’s masterpiece on a Mystery! set — but then she was hostess for Mystery! for a while)

The book ends on what she called “the Downton effect” and returns to her personal motivation, satisfactions, and present. It does sound a bit lonely in that apartment. She likes to think of this program she’s served for so many years as she does her life, intertwined memories. The book has flaws; it does not begin to tell all. A full history would be a couple of thick volumes. What has made her the success she is, her rough-and-ready way of seeing things broadly, as some common denominator of intelligent person might, her upbeatness still don’t get too much in the way of sufficient candor. She describes behavior on the sets as no love-fest, and in the various stories of programs that never made it it’s often someone’s ego or a demand for a higher salary that got in the way. She says spontaneous group scenes for photographs are rare. The book never drips; it moves on and has a hardness. It’s apparent she’s not retiring yet. She won me over at any rate. The originating impulse was to do all her mother had not been able to do — she sets up the black-and-white photo near her bed on its last page.

upstarsdownstairs
She gives credit to where it’s due: Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins’s conception of having downstairs get more than equal time to upstairs after watching The Forsyte Saga.

Ellen

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Adam and Beth go looking for racoons
Adam (Hugh Dancy in key role): a movie about an autistic young man

Dear friends and readers,

There’s a major area completely undiscovered – as it were — in Victorian literature. A way of making genuinely humane sense out of all sorts of works. We need to stop (first of all, a minimum first) stop using terms like “cripples” or “monstrous” as these feed into misunderstanding of what the experience of disability is to the person and those immediately around him or her, who live with and next to them.

To answer a request to cite a few such characters and comment on Victorian characters already cited:

MadameNeroniblog
The first shot of la Signora Neroni (Susan Hampshire): Mrs Proudie asks, “what’s so special about this lady beyond her preposterous name?” Rickman as Slope replies: “She can’t walk.”

Madame Neroni in Trollope’s Barchester Towers is not a monstrous figure, but her crippled state is described as grotesque. She refuses to try to walk is to do that would expose this aspect of her body. If we move away from the word “cripples” and an insistence on physical disability as the key to disability, Elizabeth Gaskell has quite a number of disabled characters across her oeuvre, especially the short stories (a number of which are gothic in feel). It’s mostly mental disability and she shows real empathy for the disabled character and her or his caretaker, mostly women. By contrast, there’s Eliot’s really cruel Lifted Veil where a “mentally retarded” young man (whom today would be labelled low-functioning autistic) is treated with horror, as an unendurable mischievously savage burden. I would count Tarchetti’s Fosca as an Italian Victorian gothic novella — in the modern translation by Lawrence Venuti it’s retitled Passion, the influence of Sondheim’s musical-opera.

It doesn’t take much to see many of the characters in gothic mysteries and crime stories as disabled people stigmatized as “other.” A reading of recent disability studies might open up a whole new area of humane investigation from this point of view, and this has been already begun. An issue of Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies — 6.2 (2012) — is dedicated to disability studies. The central point is made that disability is partly in the eye of the society who defines a series of traits as disability and then sees the person with these as “others”; then the purpose of the issue is to explore how disability is presented in literature. There are essays on “Late Victorian Gothic,” disability in romance, disability in crime and mystery novels.

The claim is persuasively made that crime and mystery novels have often centered on disabled people seen as villains, freaks, or the detective him or herself (mentally different you see). This kind of insight is fueling the new British Sherlock, arguably both Martin Freeman and Bernard Cumberbatch play high-functioning autistic or Aspergers characters who find deep friendship and a metier in helping other outside the cultural norm.

NewWatson
First shot of Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) home from war

Moving slightly away from Victorian texts, it’s argued in these essays that there are far more openly disabled characters in popular fiction than ever before, but the question is whether there has been really a development of understanding or empathy or it’s a reinforcing voyeurism in the service of enforcing normalcy. I know everyone is tired of hearing of Downton Abbey, but the presence of a character like Mr Bates is part of this new openness. What’s remarkable about Gaskell for example is by the end of her presentation the central characters have not been re-coopted into conventional patterns; they are not made “all well.”And to give Fellowes his due for once, Mr Bates is not co-opted back into “all well.” He remains outside the “norm” with his menacing dignity. The actor, Brendan Coyle, was given a central role in the film adaptation of Gaskell’s Cranford Chronicles.

I suggest a study of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights from the point of disability studies (her verse too) might open whole new points of view on Heathcliff and Emily Bronte herself, the occasional half-hysterical violence of that book, the apartness of her poetry and various stories about Emily herself. Isabella Linton Heathcliff may well be a portrait of a woman unable to cope with social demands, and reacting grotesquely.

There’s also Fictions of Affliction by Martha Stoddard Holmes: her figures in include Madame Neroni, Dickens’s Jenny Wren (Our Mutual Friend), Tiny Tim, Wilkie Collins’s Lucy Finch she also studies Henry Mayhew’s interviews with disabled street vendors; autobiographical writings of Harriet Martineau and John Kitto, both deaf; and biographies of two public figures who were blind, the postmaster general Henry Fawcett and the disabled-rights activist Elizabeth Gilbert.

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Contemporary illustration of Dickens’s character by Marcus Stone

Holmes is said to be interested in the melodramatic way most of these figures are presented; it’s an emotional and moral, not a medical and social struggle. Thinking about this, for Madame Neroni I would say it is a social struggle. For example, her decision not to be seen walking, the way she re-interprets what happened during her marriage. She’s not presented melodamatically either. Not that I am arguing Trollope’s portrait is of a 20th or 21st century enlightened sort, but he does bring in that she was physically abused by her husband.

Though not on Victorian literature, the insights in Rosemarie Garland Thomson: Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring disability in American literature may be used for Victorian literature.

Deafness is also often brought up as a central “type” of disability — partly because of the strong self-advocacy by the deaf, & I suggest Leonard Davis’s Enforcing Normalcy ought to inform any work done in this area; its subtitle Disability, Deafness, and the Body brings out its central focus on deafness. One of the chapters is on the first recording and understanding of deafness as a disability (not a monstrous irreversible condition) in the 18th century; this revolutionary change began in our enlightenment and its work has never been wholly undone. Another chapter makes Quasimodo a central figure.

Laughton, Charlesblogsmaller
From Charles Laughton’s brilliant performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Going back in time a century, Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices also has a long eye-opening chapter on individual courageous and insightful 18th century philosophes who developed and taught sign language to deaf people, miraculously it was thought at first, turning them from imbeciles into functioning members of society — by those who would let them function. Sacks goes into the first schools for the dear, unfortunately all too quickly in the early 19th century an attempt was made to enforce talking on the deaf in such schools, to take away from them their sign language, to beat them into submission even. One of the most moving accounts of seeing the change in deaf people once they are treated as human beings like ourselves with another way of communicating is found at the close of Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands writes: if he that speaks looks towards them, and modifies his organs by distinct and full utterance, they know so well what is spoken, that it is an expression scarcely figurative to say, they hear with the eye … It was pleasing to see one of the most [hitherto] desperate of human calamaties capable of so much help.

I’ve not published any conventional articles on this for Victorian studies. It would take such work for me — partly because I’d have to really dig into Gaskell. She seems to me a rare spirit in the Victorian period to show sympathy, but to be accurate, her empathy is with the care-taking women. One limitation of her gothic stories is she tends to show sympathy simply for the care-taker and we see the disabled person as violent or sullen from afar; a rare instance of one of her attempts at a disabled perspecive is Lady Ludlow’s Story where the story is told by Margaret Dawson; however, soon after the narrative begins and not until we get near to the end are we reminded our narrator is a crippled girl on a couch.

I also dream of writing a study of the Poldark novels and Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General. Placed in the 17th century civil war, the latter’s about a heroine crippled from a fall from a horse: DuMaurier said she began it when she saw near Menabillies (her great house) a home-made wooden wheel chair from the later 17th century in a barn.

antiquewoodenwheelchair

This would take me back to the eighteenth century.

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FridaKahloSelfPortraitblog
Frida Kahlo, self-portrait with doctor

Thinking about Gaskell’s approach, disabilities affect women centrally as care-takers and as disabled. I’ve now gotten myself 3 books on disability studies in the humanities, two wholly devoted to how disabilities affect women, one of which I’ve begun: Michelle Fine and Adrienne Asche’s collection: Women with Disabilities. See Fine’s Disruptive Voices: Fine is the only person I’ve read to do justice to the class bias that ostracizes women who are raped when they come into clinics for help.A little from the introduction.

Because of the way society is structured, women experience disabilities much worse than men, and are much more ignored — the two go together, experienced much more excruciatingly in the area of sexual experience, so crucial to women’s lives. . I now have statistics and essays arguing what I’ve long felt to be so: the only reason it’s said more men are autistic is people care so much more about men not getting jobs or “doing well” socially; women need only be married off and have babies; plus people are more ashamed of reading women than reading men. A reading man might become a scientist, a professor, a lawyer, what is the use of a reading woman?

Why has there been little work done among feminists for women with disabilities? shamelessly, one female academic said: such studies would “reinforce traditional stereotypes of women in need, dependent, perhaps passive.” (Can’t have that.) I’ve just begun the essay in the volume on friendship between women one of whom has disabilities and the other not.

How few the conversations with people about disabilities and how even then when confronted with an individual there’s a turning away and intense discomfort, a desire not to have the burden, fear of contagion: you’ll catch it, you too will be ostracized. Disabled characters, open and disguised, are found among classic children’s books, more often than you might suppose.

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One of Yvette’s favorite books: E. B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan: a mute swan carries a trumpet and writing slate

Two further well-known texts include Elizabeth Spencer’s Light in the Piazza (made into a musical): the daughter is autistic. Lucy Greary’s Autobiography of a Face.

I’ve only begun Women with Disabilities but already the texts bring home to me aspects of a set of texts I’ve been studying for over two years now: Austen’s letters and the experience of discussing these with other people. Again and again I have to watch people continue to misread the emphases in these letters and ignore say Jane’s relationship with Martha Lloyd. Insist that she didn’t marry was a default option not a preference. Ignore the very real peculiarities in her character.

Recently I’ve added and compared Frances Burney D’Arblay’s life-writing and found some aspects of her compulsion to write come out of her disabilities as a child. But her life-writing is not as useful as Austen’s — she hides her disabilities since much is self-praising fictionalizing: she makes herself the central heroine of romances, the adulated, the envied, from George III’s madness to Hastings’ trial. It’s rather in her third novel, Camilla, where one of her two heroines, Eugenia, is lamed and her face disfigured early in the novel that we get an early rare example of empathy for a disabled woman in early literature: what happens to her: Eugenia ends up married to an abusive man.

For studying disability as such (not in literature) I’d much prefer to write about life-writings than novels

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How did I come to write the above? whom am I speaking to?

On the large academic literary listserv, Victoria, there had appeared a query where for a second time someone requested examples of “cripples” in a disquieting way. The person requested “gothic images of cripples” and used the word “monstrous” of such a character without any sense that she (or he) was treating a whole class of people as obvious freaks, taking aboard as it were what one would have hoped in such a place would be an outdated attitude.

I waited a while and when no response beyond that of listing such supposed characters emerged, which then morphed into citing “deaf” characters, I sent a posting which was at first rejected or over-looked as insufficiently Victorian. A little rewriting enabled it to go through the next day and then off-list I got a number of thank yous, remarks about how slow or small has been the progress of understanding of people with disabilities,and descriptions of experiences, that I decided to put the above posting on line to reach more people in the form of a continuation of a blog I wrote about a debate in articles in a humanities journal which covers popular literature as well as disabilities: is the increase in depiction of characters with disabilities creating real understanding or effective help for real people with disabilities? I asked how far fandoms prevent such growth in sympathy and how far authors and film-makers found themselves pressured into creating alienating depictions or enforcing normalcy.

And I discussed the dramatization of the experiences of characters with disabilities in the last 5 of the Poldark novels and Downton Abbey.

MrBatesblog
The third shot of Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle, the first two show his face in the window of a train arriving at Downton, !:1)

The first time a startlingly prejudiced posting was put on Victoria I answered it too excitedly, but if I could find that posting, I’d put here on this blog now too.

Ellen

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Irene Soames (Gine McKay) as old Jolyon (Corin Redgrave) comes upon her in the grounds of Robin House for the first time (2002 Forsyte Saga, Part 5)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not had time to blog here again since Saturday. I’ve been off-line from Hurricane Sandy: I hope all who read this blog and are in the area affected by the vast intense storm. are now safe and have access to power again or know when they are going to have access and in the meantime have somewhere to go for sleep, rest, comfort, and food. And that eventually you are compensated and helped out of your losses again insofar as this is possible.

And for been weeks busy with my own tales of upstairs/downstairs (house improvements DIY). Not to omit writing some portraits (Henry and Eliza Austen, Aunt Jane) and about Austen’s letters on Austen Reveries.

I’ve a new plan I hope to go through with. Preparatory to the third season of Downton Abbey, I will at least post my blogs on the episodes from last season, culminating in the Christmas special, as well my continual watching of the two Forsyte Sagas, both 1967 and 2002, a pleasurable and instructive comparison: both are superb. I mean to return to serious film studies, to go through the first and second; the still at the head of this blog is one of Irene Soames shortly after the death of Philip Bossiney, her lover, and her escape from Soames. She wanders in the idyllic Robin House grounds where the idyllic interlude with the old man begins.

I’ve been reading Gaskell (Mary Barton, North and South), Trollope (Castle Richmond), Dickens (Bleak House and now Little Dorrit), not to omit Charlotte Smith (Ethelinde, and just finishing her first novel, Emmeline, or, The Orphan of the Castle), and about historical fiction. I do hope to share some of this with you, as well as translation studies and foremother poets to come.


Where I spill my life, much I love close at hand, near to heart

Cheers,
from Ellen and Jim

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Stuart Wilson enacting Lopez just before he gets on a train to go to another station with the intention of throwing himself under an oncoming engine (Pallisers 11:23)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, and write blogs that are not only shorter but not worked up as much. Hitherto I’ve been taking postings I write to list-servs and developing and elaborating them before putting them on my blog. Since that takes time and energy (plus often finding the exquisitely-apt picture or exemplary passage), I don’t write as often as I could and many of my postings remain in list-serv archives. I’m going to try to put an end to this over-wrought sense of standard and blog more freely.

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So, to begin this morning,

Over on Victoria (Patrick Leary’s list-serv, mostly academic in content, a forum for discussing every and all Victorian matter), someone asked for suicides in novels and people began to list them. I was prompted to write this because there was one longish posting about a Kipling story (“Thrown Away”) where the person writing the posting seemed to condemn the suicide, especially for having told the truth of what people had done to him, and what he felt. This bothered me. As the person wrote it up, it would seem she was reflecting Kipling who condemned this unhappy male character too.


Original vignette by George Housman Thomas to the chapter in which Dobbs Broughton shoots himself through the head (Last Chronicle of Barset)

Trollope has quite a number of suicides as well as some near-suicides. Many of them fit into Barbara Gates’s default positions (so to speak) in her Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories. Speaking generally, the men kill themselves because they have been or feel they have been publicly disgraced and cannot bear to face people, to live with the position they would not be put down into. These include Melmotte (The Way We Live Now), Ferdinand Lopez (The Prime Minister), and from Last Chronicle of Barset, Dobbs Broughton; from The Bertrams, Henry Harcourt. Lopez is a rare instance where we actually witness the suicide and while it may be hard poetry, I’d call the power of the scene, a huge railway station, anonymous in the modern way and the depiction of the smash poetry.

From The Prime Minister, “Tenway Junction”

Trollope depicts a modern railway station with power. Slowly he builds up a scene familiar to many of us:

After a while he went back into the hall and took a first-class return ticket not for Birmingham, but for the Tenway Junction, as everybody knows it. From this spot, some six or seven miles distant from London, lines diverge east, west, and north, north-east, and north-west, round the metropolis in every direction,
and with direct communication with every other line in and out of
London. It is marvellous place, quite unintelligible to the
uninitiated, and yet daily used by thousands who only know that
when they get there, they are to do what someone tells them. The
space occupied by the convergent rails seems to be sufficient for
a large farm. And these rails always run into one another with
sloping points, and cross passages, and mysterious meandering
sidings, till it seems to the thoughtful stranger to be impossible that the best-trained engine should know its own line. Here and there and around there is ever a wilderness of waggons, some loaded, some empty, some smoking with close-packed oxen, and
others furlongs in length black with coals, which look as though
they had been stranded there by chance, and were never destined
to get again into the right path of traffic. Not a minute passes
without a train going here or there, some rushing by without
noticing Tenway in the least, crashing through like flashes of
substantial lightning, and others stopping, disgorging and taking
up passengers by the hundreds. Men and women,–especially the
men, for the women knowing their ignorance are generally willing
to trust to the pundits of the place,–look doubtful, uneasy,
and bewildered. But they all do get properly placed and unplaced, so that the spectator at last acknowledges that over all this apparent chaos there is presiding a great genius of order. From dusky morn to dark night, and indeed almost throughout the night, the air is loaded with a succession of shrieks. The theory goes that each separate shriek,–if there can be any separation where the sound is so nearly continuous,– is a separate notice to separate ears of the coming or going of a separate train.

I like his sense of how people order themselves. This is something human beings are good at. Like so many small animals in a maze. The way it’s done is each person does attend intently to his particular destiny. My analogue is Penn Station at 34th Street or Heathrow airport.

Trollope then enters the mind of the man who notices that Lopez is not getting on a train. From the outside we watch the man march, walk this way and that, getting ever closer to the trains. It’s not until the last moment we realize he has worked his way to get as close as possible to the smash. We are (at least I am) led to sympathize since we realize how hard this act must’ve been to him and yet how determined he was. Very efficient. Very businesslike:

Now, Tenway Junction is so big a place, and so scattered, that it is impossible that all the pundits should by any combined activity maintain to the letter the order of which our special pundit had spoken. Lopez, departing from the platform which he had hitherto occupied, was soon to be seen on another, walking up and down, and again waiting. But the old pundit had his eye on him, and had followed him round. At that moment there came a
shriek louder than all the other shrieks, and the morning express
down from Euston to Inverness was seen coming round the curve at
a thousand miles an hour. Lopez turned round and looked at it,
and again walked towards the edge of the platform but now it was
not exactly the edge that he neared, but a descent to a pathway,
–an inclined plane leading down to the level of the rails, and
made there for certain purposes of traffic. As he did so the
pundit called to him, and then made a rush at him,–for our
friend’s back was turned to the coming train. But Lopez heeded
not the call, and the rush was too late. With quick, but still
with gentle and apparently unhurried steps, he walked down before
the flying engine–and in a moment had been knocked into bloody
atoms.

In some of these cases, Trollope’s attitude towards the man who killed himself is ambivalent: he feels for them, he enters into their cases, and Lopez is one of these, so too Melmotte. He does this by conveying critiques of those who showed them up or despised them or dropped them. He also has characters who apparently killed themselves for similar reasons (again males) before the novel opened: this time the loss of an estate, an inheritance, the brother in Belton Estate. In some of these he brings out how important it was to hide the suicide both out of public shame and (apparently) for fear somehow the property inheritance might be endangered (as it would have been in earlier times).

Women kill themselves too, and sometimes violently. Here it’s because they are being driven to marry someone they don’t love, often intensely distasteful to them: the girl in “La Mere Bauche” throws herself off a cliff rather than marry the aging captain her protectress has picked out for her. She cannot be brought back. But sometimes it really is left ambiguous whether a young woman actively killed herself or died of intense harassment and misery: Linda Tressel for example (a kind of Clarissa character). We have a fascinating instance of watching a girl about to kill herself (throw herself from a bridge) and draw back: Nina Balatka. (Their novellas are titled with their names.) Another young woman appears and in part helps Nina not to do it, but we are in Nina’s mind as she’s about to do it.

She had always been conscious, since the idea had entered her mind, that she would lack the power to step boldly up on to the parapet and go over at once . . . She had known that she must crouch, and pause, and think of it, and look at it, and nerve herself with the memory of her wrongs. Then, at some moment in which her heart was wrung to the utmost, she would gradually slacken her hold, and the dark, black, silent river should take her. She climbed up into the niche, and found that the river was far from her, though death was so near to her and the fall would be easy. When she became aware that there was nothing between her and the void space below her, nothing to guard her, nothing left in the world to protect her, she retreated, and descended again to the pavement. And never in her life had she moved with more care, lest, inadvertenty, a foot or a hand might slip, and she might tumble to her doom against her will (Nina Balatka, pp. 183-4)

And there’s a parallel in Trollope’s Autobiography where he describes himself as dreaming or plotting of suicide and going up high somewhere but thinking the better of it and coming down). I can’t think of any young woman who kills herself because she has discovered she is pregnant outside marriage and will have a baby or has had a baby (which would connect in trajectory and motive to women forced to marry someone they don’t want — which would result even if not called that marital rape) — is that not the case of Hetty in Adam Bede in effect? They suffer badly (Kate in An Eye for an Eye); also women ostracized because they have been divorced or lived with someone outside marriage (Mrs Atherton in Belton Estate) but they are not driven to destroy themselves.


Oliver Dimsdale as Louis in his last moments in Italy (He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

A couple of these cases of “of was it?” do cross gender lines. Louis Trevelyan (He Knew He Was Right) driven by his sexual anxiety, shame, jealousy, may be said to bring his death on himself as he drives himself mad. Lady Mason (Orley Farm) who herself faces public disgrace for having forged a signature to keep her son’s property for him so he can be a gentleman holds on, just, and partly by telling someone. There is one remarkable scene of her brooding depicted by Millais (a picture Trollope pointed out as seeing more into the character than he had).


John Everett Millais’s original full-size illustration of Mary Lady Mason deep in thought (Orley Farm): Skilton shows Trollope was criticized by his public for having such woman (who gets off by the way) for his heroine

I would say Trollope might well disapprove in a novel of a character telling the full truth of what happened to him or her and leaving it in a letter. Just about all of his suicides do it without telling. But the near self-destroying tell; Josiah Crawley (Last Chronicle) for example, a genuinely tragic figure in letters described by the narrator as noble in intent.

It’s in these moments in his fictions that Trollope (as Henry James puts it of the closing sequence of He Knew He Was Right and Nina and Linda) that Trollope does himself justice. Had he ever written this way … I am not sure that today we have gone as far from Victorian condemnations as at least I would like to think, so Trollope’s empathy really speaks home to us.

I’ve written this to counter an implied spirit I felt from some of the postings on Victoria of self-distancing and judgmental evaluation from the point of view of social status of those left or the person’s reputation among them after he or she has died. There were excellently informative ones too of course.

I’ll try to find a similar posting I wrote about disability in Elizabeth Gaskell where I was startled to see on this list reflected a lack of understanding (much less sympathy) for what a disability is and how its worst aspects come from how other people respond to the person’s particular disability (how they won’t let the person be him or herself otherwise). Like Trollope on suicide, Gaskell on disability is still well above the narrowness and blindnesses of our as well as their own time.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

What do you mean summer’s here? It’s the beginning of May. Well, arguably from the point of view of weather, here in Northern Virginia we have two seasons: the cold (or maybe it would be more accurate nowadays to say the mostly cool and chilly) where days are short, and the light is ruthlessly husbanded to make it last as long as possible in the later parts of the 24 hour cycle; and the hot (sometimes fiercely) with long enough light, so those of us who find demands we awaken in the darkness so hard to take, have the relief of a lit sky by 6 am. And we are in the latter season now.

But that’s not how I’m defining summer. I’m defining summer as the day when teaching ceases, and my schedule turns into a summer one for the next 3 or so months. As I teach in a college where the semester’s classes ended for me yesterday, that’s what happened today. Some people don’t feel the term is ended until the literal work is & I understand that. In a way I’ve a third of the reading of students’ papers to go. They hand in their last (3rd) paper and do a final (which has 3 short essays in class as part of it and outside class answer about 20 questions) but for me once my summer routs begin the summer begins. And while I like it, indeed find it exhilarating, sane or larger perspective-giving, what I find hard is the teaching itself. That’s the ordeal, that’s the strain.

And today I began to develop my summer’s reading and started to develop the trajectory into my summer’s writing. I sent off a final copy of my review of the Later Manuscripts of Jane Austen, a Cambridge book edited by Janet Todd and Linda Bree, and am finishing the last of the reading for my on-going project of reading and writing about a letter by Jane Austen each week: Mary Brunton’s 1810 novel, Self-Control and Brian Southam’s Jane Austen and the Navy. I began my return to Sophie Cottin to see if I can make a proposal on infamous novels for the coming EC/ASECS, using Cottin’s Amelie Mansfield and Charlotte Smith’s Manon Lescaut. I’ll write more about this as time develops — I have no deadline as I’ve also decided to go down to one section a term starting this fall so this new group of ever-revolving routs is not going to end come late August, only diminish somewhat. Over on my Sylvia blog I’ll try to work out my plan every so often. I do need order so I feel I have meaning and if only to know what to read and what to write next.

For tonight I thought I’d say here what I’ve been listening to over this past year in my car — using MP3s as CDs which I have to buy. I’ve tried the librivox recordings: Mil Nicholson reading Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend is probably among the better as she really reads dramatically, but I found I couldn’t enjoy it. She just tried too hard, went excruciatingly slowly in order to pull the voices and imagined scenes off, seemed after all to miss the larger implications or meanings and it strained my patience how at the end of each chapter I had to listen to a full announcement once again that this was librivox, in the “public domaine”, by whom, who reading and where we were. I was told this was to try to stop those who are unscrupulous from selling these readings by informing anyone who bought it they need not have. To my mind all this did was allow the private property and personal profit system to invade the world of the imagined books naggingly.

Audible.com and other venues where one can supposedly buy (or perhaps rent) many kinds of recordings are set up to cheat the customer, to trap him or her into spending huge amounts of money (see “Stay Away! it’s filled with traps!”). So my plan to use my new ipod this way didn’t work. And there’s nothing for it but buy what one can find at Amazon.

I checked out how much it would cost to turn my audiocassettes into tapes. I might do this eventually — a little at a time though. It costs $9 a cassette. That doesn’t sound overmuch, but what happened when you have 18 tapes for one of the book so Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. That’s $180 for the book. You see the problem, especially as I’m not sure the book’s tapes are not dried out and will transfer well.

For me that means mostly older books and what’s called classics and better fiction when it’s on sale. A sad decrease in what I can choose from. The old books-on-tape used to include read books that sold only to relative minority of people — good non-fiction, history, biography, science, e.g., David Case reading abridgements of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which were not savaged but long enough to include a lot; Donada Peters reading Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Anthony Trollope. When the demand for big profit and wide sales as the criteria for what would be read aloud took over, mostly trash or this year’s fashionable book for an elite is all one can obtain — and by buying, not renting.

Still I made do. Why? I still spent a lot of hours in my car, often driving Izzy somewhere. These hours were cut down as of December when she got her good full-time job as an Information Technologist. Yes she did. I still though have many as there is no good public transportation in Virginia. And, as I’ve mourned as Sylvia, I can no longer read much or even at all at night. My brain gives out and at best I can watch movies — or write blogs. Summer being here I will be much less in the car (twice a week for 90 minutes to and from GMU was a central time), so I thought I’d record what I read this year — or listened to which comes down to the same thing sometimes better as books brilliantly read aloud are true to many authors’ purposes.

Unless I’m misremembering (which I don’t think I am) I began with Donada Peters and David Case alternating the two narrators of Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This was so good, especially the soft brogue Case used for Gilbert Markhan, I sometimes could hardly wait to get into my car. This was late spring just after my tape deck broke and I never finished David Case reading Fielding’s Tom Jones.

Come June I was into Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset read aloud by Simon Vance. While he is good, his interpretation was grating: he read Josiah Crawley as not tragic but veering on the comic-ridiculous (or contemptible). Hot or true high summer (August) I began and through the early fall (much of this with Izzy) listened to Donada Peters reading Daniel Deronda (we loved it, especially the Jewish half of the novel or intertwined stories), Middlemarch (I don’t think it could have been better read) and Romola (a book that fails but nonetheless has some great, riveting sequences — Izzy found it so as well as I). One might call it a George Eliot year.

I tried to post regularly in the morning on some of this in order to keep notes and remember. Only for Romola did I have anyone reading with me (on Trollope19thCStudies).

Then we turned to Dickens. I regret to say I succumbed to an abridged version of Dickens’s Little Dorrit. I thought I’d try it as the complete was so expensive — so many CDs. Anton Lesser was superb and, with a little help from Davies’s film adaptation and interpretation of Amy Dorrit (and memories of Christine Edzard’s), I felt we were in the presence of preposterous genius. The book is prophetic of today. Still we missed much I know. Then the ill-fated Mil Nicholson of Our Mutual Friend. Sometimes the book felt stillborn and if it had not been for Sandy Welch’s brilliant film, I would have gotten nothing out of it; with Welch I did feel I reached the pith and electrifying core of the book. I do think Dickens was tired or made a wrong decision to recuse himself as narrator for his characters in this novel are not sufficiently rich in imaginative thoughtful subjectivity, to carry the book.

Just now I’m into David Case reading Bleak House; if I’ve heard or read this one before, I forgot a lot of it and again the problems in it (and there are a number as in all Dickens’s books) are counteracted by Davies’ film. Next up will be Juliet Stevenson (what a treat) reading Gaskell’s Mary Barton.

So I’m not doing too badly, you see. Probably though since from here on in I’ll be relatively rarely in my car, I won’t be posting all that much on my reading since much this coming summer will be in the 18th century and surrounding Austen (I mean at long last to do a full paper on Bad Tuesday).

I do try to read at night and have managed over the past couple of months to return to Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and have read at a leisurely pace (when I could) his Ross Poldark, Demelza, and now Jeremy Poldark. I’m finding these books reward re-reading and I’m seeing new rich elements in them I had not realized before. I know there are older tapes of these read aloud, but nowadays a reading must occur on MP3s as CDs to be listenable to for me in my car and affordable.

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So let me take time out to say here that I’m relieved and delighted to be able to say that for a second time Ross Poldark, No. 1 of this historical novel series, went over superlatively well. Last year I was so nervous going in on the first of the 3-4 days set aside for this (like other) books. But I got what were undoubted two of the best talks I had all term. This time a talk was given on the treatment of Demelza versus the treatment of Verity which got the whole class discussing these characters, their scenes, issues involved. I was startled to see a student I fully expected not to show, not only turn up for the talk, but bring a thoroughly marked up book. A fourth had gone through the mini-series and put on scenes for us to watch and then directed our attention to the book. She didn’t have a real thesis, but her choices were such, it left us a lot to talk about.


Ross (Robin Ellis) talking to Pearce (John Baskcomb) at the opening of the first episode; the young man just returned … (Part 1, 1975-76 Poldark)

It’s a tribute to the 18th century too. The last speaker (in my other class) was just chuffed to find feminist talk/discourse in the 18th century — and “by a woman” said she amazedly. She found a passage by Anna Barbauld’s niece, Lucy Aiken. I did have quotations from both Paine (Rights of Man) and Wollstonecraft (The Rights of Woman) ready. Several said how they felt there was not the resolution at the end that they wanted; that they were just beginning, hardly in medias res as they closed Ross Poldark.


When Ross first sees Demelza at the fair: she is being beaten (Part 2, 1975-76 Poldark)

Graham catches the reader with his slow drawn appealing characters we believe in and identify with. There is this intensity of concern with the characters; Graham is in them and utterly involved with their fully imagined situation. This fourth time round I see that the core of the novel which dominates it is a continual intimate delineation of the two central personalities melding and not melding together in an early phase of their marriage.

I’ve read on to Demelza and finished it last night for a fourth time. Ross Poldark incites a riot over two ships coming into and wrecked on the shore and a savage mob action ensues, a Walpurgis night to match the splendor of the night catching pilchards. The last two times round I really didn’t read slowly or carefully enough to see that indeed the hero is presented as psychologically half-crazed over the failure of all his schemes, the death of this baby daughter, the abysmal poverty around him closing in, and the enfeebled wife who to free his sister, Verity, unknowingly brought this on them — she was loyal to the individual not the group, a no no for which she is harshly punished. Nor that there are striking Jacobin sentiments given him at the same time. The book rewards re-reading in the light of the other books.


Demelza (Angharad Rees) says he has become her whole life, she loves him for all he has done (Part 3, 1975-76 Poldark)

Winston Graham will be one of my continuing projects for a long time to come.

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So all this is to explain why I’ve not been posting on books here of late and or when I have it’s been retrospective (as in my Praise of Colm Toibin). I’ve fallen back on operas, movie-going or watching at night, what I’ve read and watched with my students (my lecture notes turned into blogs). And Downton Abbey — beloved older mini-series too. Now I’m ever hoping to do better and if I can muster up the energy to make sense of the morning notes I took on the above books or from my morning posts this summer, or find something new or genuinely interesting to say about what I have managed at night or in Jim and my coming summer activities (we are going to go to plays, operas, the Fringe festival again, the occasional lecture, dramatic reading aloud), I will. Spin offs from my later day-time routs will come in here too. In my brief discussion of Ross Poldark and Demelza I’ve given an example of what I hope to be able to do on occasion on reading-as-life.

Ellen

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Beth Hardiman, from Tamara Drewe


Alexandra, from The Night Bookmobile

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of years ago now I became aware of how graphic novels have grown up; they are no longer fancied up comic books; the art and words can be as complex and moving as many a sheer verbal longer novel. What happened was I went to see Tamara Drewe, a film adaptation of one of Posy Simmonds’s marvelous graphic novels, and I so liked the movie, I wrote a blog about it, then bought myself a copy of the book so I could really take it in, and discovering it to be a satire on literary life:


Posy Simmonds, from Tamara Drewe

as well as a moving account of several characters’ lives over one year (loosely based on a Thomas Hardy story), went on to get myself a copy of Gemma Bovary, which I liked just as much, again a moving account of a modern Emma Bovary who lives in London and moves to France, truly empathized with:


Gemma learning to shop sensibly in Normandy

Then I went on to buy myself a copy of a group of graphic novels called Gothic Classics, which included witty and pleasing re-dos of Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho (!), Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (female vampire story):


Emily St Aubert writhing from nightmare


Catherine Morland and Henry and Eleanor Tilney take their country walk

an Edgar Allen Poe story; and, for Izzy, Nancy Butler and Sonny Liewe’s Sense and Sensibility (strongly influenced by Andrew Davies’ 2008 film adaptation),
See interview with one of the authors

and a friend bought me Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of growing up in Iran, originally in French, whose strong content goes into real world and nationalistic politics:

.

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Monksted, the ideal conference place (Posy Simmonds)

Now a few weeks ago someone on my WWTTA (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) list pointed to an article which suggested that while the typical graphic novel, even by women, had been over-sexed, done from a masculinist point of view, they were all beginning to change to be more like those I had so liked:

Ker-pow! Women kick back against comic-book sexism

The Guardian article also provided a list of graphics to find on the Net, published in periodicals, to buy, to find in libraries. A friend recommended Audrey Niffeneggar’s The Night Bookmobile (I had tried her Time Traveller’s Wife and Izzy and I seen the film adaptation). First I read the strips as they appeared in an online newspaper, and so liked them, got myself the book.

Tonight I had intended to plunge into writing just about The Night Bookmobile, thinking I had written before here on this or my other blogs on Posy Simmonds as well as my other three treasures. And these would provide context. No such thing. I know I have brief and longer postings I sent to WWTTA over Gemma, Tamara, Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe (who I am chuffed to be able to say the authors’ treated in the more empathic spirit I did in my paper), Emily St Aubert, not to omit Marjane. But I can’t pile it all in here — something I used to do by mistake, make overlong blogs — I’ve already strained my readers’ attention with what I’ve referred to. So I’ll just begin with Niffenegger’s Night Bookmobile

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It startled me:


Back cover left side

It was even more melancholy than Simmonds (it was deeply so) and reminded me of Guy Andrews’s free adaptation of Austen’s P&P as Lost in Austen and had allusions to Jorge Borges’s, depictions on the shelves of the covers and titles of the heroine’s favorite books from childhood, adolescent, young adulthood, and didn’t leave out books I read to my daughters in early childhood, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon one of them. and just hit home too.


The titles are not my favorite ones, more fantasy and far fewer of the heroine’s text and Anglophilic books I loved

It doesn’t matter. What I really loved was how it made no compromises with what the world says we are supposed to be made happy by and accept.

It takes one through the stages of a heroine’s life, each of which are marked by her simply being older and finding the book mobile again.

Each time she is drawn as much older.

Each time the shelves are stuffed fuller. Each time the librarian (a male) is more welcoming and she is led into other parts of the book mobile.

Towards the close there’s a version of a book reading room that reminds me of the one at in the Jefferson building in the Library of Congress, what I’ve seen of the old British Museum, a Jorge Borges circular place of rows of seats around a card catalogue with everyone reading.

No irony, no pretense of her being a misfit. The opening reminded me of Lost in Austen. Our heroine has such a boy, dressed so down, so flat, so lank, so unimaginative, watching TV. She wanders far grimmer streets.


She seeks out Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone

Amanda Price in Lost in Austen lives in London; this woman lives in some more provincial city or suburb of the US: nothing but malls, cheap stores, empty streets. She leaves said boyfriend. Who wouldn’t? But there is no Mr Darcy and fantasy land to escape too, only this book mobile with this librarian. Each time the books added are those she’s read though sometimes we hear of children’s books she’s read. Pat the Bunny (which I didn’t read as a child but I read to my children). Gradually she begins to ask if she can stay; and then can she be a librarian too. Alas, he cannot give her this position and he can only stay the night. We see the book mobile drive off in dawn.

By this time the model is Goodnight Moon in feel and several of the frames evoke it.

It seems the only way to become a librarian in this novel is to die; but upon taking a bottle of pills, the book mobile appears once more. The page has small frames of bottles and slippers and her looking at us surrounded by books she can’t reach, her in middle age.


Almost there (the title of the second volume of Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir)

And then there it is. The last line of the book evokes it, only the reality is she has died and yet at the same time become a librarian at last:


Note the words resonate with our present heartless economic system which leaves huge numbers of people unemployed or underemployed or menially employed or make tiny sums of montye. The words of congratulations in our world are: “You’re hired.”

At heart it’s partly a disguised suicide story.


The cover shows her cradling her book

I was so surprised as the open sadness of it. Also at how comforting it was at the same time.


She is reading for two

The Night Bookmobile made me remember my love of girls’ books and how much they had meant to me — even though my choices were so much different from Alexandra’s: Judy Bolton was the one I loved.

One problem is Niffenegger is not as good a visual artist as Posy Simmons. Not as lovely and pleasing. She also lacks Simmonds’s undercutting ironies that are so saturnine and capture our world just as surely. Still … this is so much better than most one comes across in steely feel and has its strong truth with no pandering or compromises.

It makes me want to try Niffenegger’s The time Traveller’s Wife once again. I have faced up to my not being able to read seriously at night and if I want to do this — and read other books I long to — I must go slower and do less projects, interweaving them with projects, papers, books, and teaching during the day.

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A Heraldic map of Cranford by Posy Simmonds!

Thus do these things all come together. A tentative sort of conclusion: womens’ graphic novels keep the patina of humor, wit, jokes and/or fantasy on the surface and when they are advertised, that’s what emphasized. But the predominant mood in these all is semi- or outright protest, a quiet sadness to devastating melancholy. This fits in with a certain kind of woman’s novel that remains my favorite — and often wins the Orange Prize.

So, for example, Simmonds has done her typical artwork to illustrate the town of Cranford in the companion to the film series.

Did you know gentle reader and viewer she made the map and envisoned one of the stories woven into the Cranford (out of Elizabeth Gaskell) mini-series.


Posy Simmonds’s illustration for Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow

Now the film adaptation called Cranford Chronicles brings together a group of stories by a woman so tyipical of girls’ and women’s books: a self-reflective ironic re-do of My Lady Ludlow (also sympathy for the disabled narrator), Mr Harrington’s Chronicles, (the doctor whose first concern is the patient’s health) and the second season brings in Mary Smith, who left a governess autobiography.

As time and the spirit permits, I shall go on to write more of Simmonds and lesser known graphic illustrators and novelists.

Ellen

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An illustration for Gaskell’s Ruth

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m sad to have to report we seem to have come to an end of our not quite a year of reading Elizabeth Gaskell on my two listserv communities.

What had enabled us to keep on came to an end: three volumes of short stories (Cousin Phillis and other tales, The Moorland Cottage and other stories, A Dark Night’s Work and other Stories), which included two novellas, plus one longer or separately-printed novella, My Lady Ludlow, all of which were online, about which I’ve written two blog: Elizabeth Gaskell festival and Still Going On. About a quarter into her brilliant historical novel, Sylvia’s Lovers, postings ceased altogether. One of the causes of my dereliction was I got caught up in writing a paper on film adaptations of Trollope’s novels with a short deadline; what made the others cease altogether I know not for sure.

I proposed that we return to our original scheme which had been read Cranford (really a fourth volume of short stories) and Mr Harrison’s Confessions (another separately reprinted novella) before going on for a longer novel. As of tonight this is not happening.

So I thought tonight I would write a third and last blog on My Lady Ludlow and Sylvia’s Lovers, since for me this three season journey has been enjoyable: I enjoyed and feel most of the stories (as well as aspects of Sylvia’s Lovers) are fine, authentic, good art, feel I have understood some core aspects of Gaskell’s writing for the first time, and gained a good deal from the postings of listserv friends.

I did love My Lady Ludlow & was exhilarated to find Sylvia’s Lovers so rich in history and downright radical. Alas its heroine & her parents were insufferable (to me) and the book was not at core a melancholy one … I should say the powerful inset story in My Lady Ludlow takes place in the 18th century and Sylvia’s Lovers is a novel set in the later 18th century — just the period of the middle Poldark novels. If you look at my other two blogs on Gaskell, you will discover that this is an era (long 18th century, from later 17th to later 18th) Gaskell returns to repeatedly.

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Francesca Annis as Lady Ludlow (Cranford Chronicles)

My Lady Ludlow, Chapters 1-4

I started My Lady Ludlow and found myself charmed by the picturesque quality of the description, the sweetly appealing (nostalgia) tone. It’s very much a tale by a woman again, as the outlook is a compound of a widow left with so many children and desperately writing for help, getting none until a cousin agrees to take Margaret, the eldest into her household.

The introduction of Margaret is done in two voices; that of the young girl come there for the first time, and the older woman looking back. The older woman looking back softens considerably the asperity of this crisply hard experience.

I did see the first six of the Cranford Chronicles and know threading in this novel into the Cranford material gave some hard backbone to the series. Francesca Annis was Lady Ludlow and Philip Glenister, Mr Carter, her male servant who tries to persuade her to give a chance to a little boy.

What strikes me this time though comes out of my experience of reading Trollope: this is a remarkably kindly and benign way of describing a woman who while she will give a few people a chance to survive has principles and behavior which are very cruel in their effect. She is against education for anyone but the highest ranking. She would deprive most people of any opportunity to fulfill their gifts. She sends a young girl away for daring to speak eagerly. Trollope does the same thing, takes a woman (often it’s a woman) and make as almost a sweet joke of these pernicious attitudes. I wonder at this impulse and why writers do this — to get themselves to accept this? to exorcise pain this way. The effect is to justify the present order because humanly speaking to make the fiction palatable they frequently show such a woman giving in despite herself. It is despite herself.

As I moved into the novella, I remembered what I liked so about it: the narrator, Martha, becomes a crippled young woman on a couch whom Lady Ludlow takes in for life. It’s her tone and outlook that shape the book and make it (to me) appealing.

The stories of Mr Horner and Joe Gregside carry on this justification of cruelty. This is where I saw the intersection of Dinesen while the fable like presentation and love of old things, old aesthetics, fine, good taste is Cather.

It also has an embedded tragic back story — like gothics. A story that has a hard time getting told and it’s the Marquise de Crequy. That was (terrific loss) omitted from the TV presentation, instead the back story of Lady Ludlow — loss of husband, so many children, living alone now was built up. it’s a secondary novella, a powerful melodramatic tale of the French revolution recounted in My Lady Ludlow. Could this have influenced Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, as the dates tie in well. I haven’t noticed any strong similarities between the two in terms of the plot or characters – but the dark emotional atmosphere is quite similar. We see she is on the wave length of Carlyle and those who read about the revolution because it remained hotly relevant even in the UK, certainly in France (1830, 1870 – when a slaughter of people was done by the French government which equaled the Reign of Terror so talked about so much.

This inset novella adds to the weaving of the poverty and despair of some of the inhabitants into its portrait of small-town life. There was a powerful moment in the the TV episode where Lady Ludlow comes face to face with just how some of her tenants live, and is lost for words

The result is a back story put before the public that upholds the present order, and the erasure of the novel’s true back story that give it its real grit and subversive critique.

Like Dinesen, Gaskell has a narrator (Margaret Dawson on her couch) who then gives way to narrators. It’s an intricate fiction with levels of pastness and memory. Stunning that it was forgotten until this film adaptation. Also the very interest in the French revolution which one finds in women writers as disparate as Suzy McKee Charnas (Dorothea Dreams) and Isobel Colegate.


There is a servant, Martha, in Cranford: Claudie Blakeley played the role in the film adaptation

Chapters 7-9: An inset story from the past: a Paul et Virginie tales of the French revolution

The inset novella is very moving towards the end: I said last time it made me think of people in concentration camps waiting for death, people fleeing pogroms; at the close when both young people are in prison together, find comfort in their last days (even though he is badly wounded) and then guillotined reminded me closely of the atmosphere of Bernardine de Saint-Pierre very late tragic romance tale, Paul et Virginie. It was translated by Helen Maria Williams and influenced Sand (Indiana). There is an English translation online; I don’t know good it is, I can vouch for the beauty, poignancy of Williams’s.

It’s a tale which insists on the cruelty of people to one another casually and at large, on how much chance played a part in who died — as well as personal vendettas, anger, greed (just like in the 1950s in the US against socialists, communists and France in the later 1940s against those who were high up in the Vichy regime). I find myself identifying and in a way (perhaps this is intended) having a La Rochefouauld response: maybe I should not lament my troubles for how far worse is this (“there is something in the misery of others &c&c). I’m drawn to this material too because of my interest in the 18th century.

It does help justify the cruelty of Lady Ludlow for being this utter snob and considering anyone of the lower orders ontologically different from those in the upper she sees all the betrayals of the two young aristocratic lovers as facilitated by their lower class keepers knowing how to read and write. She puts the revolution down to education — which perhaps is a real cause of it.

Gaskell does immediately enough show that Lady Ludlow’s refusal to allow Mr Horner to make a clerk of the gifted little boy and her wanting to put him in the fields is keen cruelty. It made me think of communist and other revolutions where people of gifts and middle class are forced to work in the fields — spite is behind this in these regimes (like spite is behind some of what the Tories, Republicans and other new reactionary masters around the world are doing to their people when they rack up the prices of colleges out fo reach of most young adults without horrendous debts).

Then we get a return to another paradigm of hers: Miss Galinda takes in crippled people to serve and work for her, providing them with a decent place. We saw in her early short stories how often she recurred to the pattern of a mother-figure taking on a disabled child/brother. Miss Galindo takes in one such person, deformed, who had a very ill temper — Gaskell is not an idealist. Again My Lady Ludlow has to be lied to about this. It’s a very curious center for a book. I’ve seen Trollope do this but not so relentlessly and admit I much prefer a Mr Harding.

Linda wrote:

Lady Ludlow seems to believe that only chaos and bedlam can result in giving the underclasses their due. She doesn’t believe for a second that they will be better off–she thinks the world will be turned upside down and the natural order of things will be destroyed. It is not only that she wants to hold onto her position and wealth that makes her deplore the idea of education for the underprivileged. She really believes it is a bad idea all around. In a way it resembles those in the South before the Civil War who didn’t believe that blacks could take care of themselves and handle freedom. Yes, there was economics involved but also a terror of changing the social order.

To which I replied:

I might be suggested this dreadful woman is put at the center of the fiction to make us see how the mind of aristocrats worked. Well, it doesn’t quite wash or convince since Lady Ludlow is idealized. She has really no mean, sordid, envious, jealous, ordinarily spiteful (&c) characteristics a realistically conceived character would have; plus many of the aristocrat emigres, counter-revolutionaries had anything but high principles to motivate them. Read Stael’s Delphine and you come across the same kinds of ruthless horrors that once in a while take off their masks in public: say that CEO who came before Congress last year.

My Lady Ludlow like Dinesen and Cather’s books of this type is fable. Dinesen gets us to accept her reactionary point of view that way, and Cather her nostalgic dwelling in the aesthetics of the past.

From Fran:

The line that stood out for me in Lady Ludlow was her comment, ‘I always said a good despotism was best form of government’ and the story was indeed reminiscent of the cult of personality built up around some of the so-called ‘enlightened’ despots of the past.

Interesting to me, too, was the fact that while she had been so adamant about not wanting to educate the masses, Lady Ludlow’s own increasing enlightenment was furthered by the lessons she herself was taught by the example of her presumed inferiors.

I brought up Trollope’s Mr Harding because he too is an idealized exemplary center: he is given a few more unadmirable traits: he’s a coward (a big no-no), he’s (albeit comically) super-sensitive, but he is made lovable because all his principles tend to strict real justice and kindness. He’s capable of overlooking principles to do a kindness too (which Lady Ludlow is not).

I was chuffed to find that Uglow saw the inset story as in the French tradition — and her account reminded me the heroine’s name is Viriginie. I should have thought of that: yes, an allusion to Pierre de St Bernardine’s tale then. Uglow’s account dwells on the present time story and contrasts Lady Ludlow with Miss Galindo, and apparently what is to come is an awakening and change of heart in Lady Ludlow. Finally when Lady Ludlow personally encounters rural misery and poverty she is against the laws of the time that keep all this in place. Uglow admits the story is “a gentle rural wished-for revisions of history.” Then Uglow looks at some of the comedy at Lady Ludlow’s expense — ironies.

The novel reminds me of modern Booker Prize type books where we have these inset embedded novellas from the past which contrast to an ameliorated present.

We might see it as a counter to stories like “Lois the Witch,” “The Grey Woman” and many others we’ve read of strong injustice perpetrated without recourse.


Philip Glenister, Lady Ludlow’s steward, a good man (Mr Horner in the novel becomes Mr Carter in Cranford Chronicles)

Chapters 10-14: The conclusion

Back to the present time story and Lady Ludlow begins to retrieve herself: when confronted with real misery, her instincts are at least right when it comes to an individual. So Harry Gregson has had a bad accident, is miserably crippled and now it’s clear to put him in the fields would be monstrous. It took that, though.

I’ve been ignoring the narrator: Martha Dawson, it’s her love for this woman who has been kind to her that makes for the tone.

I finished the novella and by the end finally saw that the whole book should really be seen as Margaret Dawson’s story. I suppose we might say the book qualifies as a gothic because it has taken all novel long for me to realize what is the back story, what the story that was trying to get itself told and finally did.

The tone of the novel — finding Lady Ludlow lovable, the buying into Lady Ludlow’s values (or at least not critiquing them) is to be put down to this narrator who is not Gaskell. We read several stories by Gaskell where she takes on the tone of arristocracy worshippers, naive people we are to see. I have to say it still can and does function to support the present hierarchies of our world.

She is writing from memory and present life up north with a brother who while he is kind is nothing like the one in My Lady Ludlow. There are hints that her life now is one of loneliness, deprivation and hardship, particularly as a cripple. We might say this is another disability story, one told by the disabled person for once.

The last part of the novel has Mr Gray emerge who ends up marrying Bessy, the illegitimate daughter of Gibson who is rejected by the snobbery and narrow-mindedness (very like Lady Ludlows) of the Galindo family. The daughter who is led to reject him suffers in the sense that she has been deprived of a lived life. It’s all done by indirection — this last section is startlingly kept off stage: we only see the characters as Margaret sees them, but enough is told to show us what sensitive decent hero Mr Gray is and Captain James. At the end of the story after all the little boy who was crippled for life and Lady Ludlow would have deprived of education and put to work as a laborer ends up the rector and happily in a home with loving wife.

Fairy tale which exonerates Lady Ludlow by how she is individually humane – and she is and by the fact that our author (who is Goddess of the book, the presiding spirit) gives everyone happy endings. At the end all the Lady Ludlow professed to believe in has been overturned and she is accepting. Illegitimate children grow up to marry well; people marry out of their order, are educated.

She also took Margaret in and would have kept her all her life if Margaret had wanted to stray. quietly we are to wonder if biology should trump deep friendship. Lady Ludlow is a Sergeant George figure after all — I’m thinking of Dickens’s Bleak House and how the Sergeant is in a tender companionship relationship with Phil and supports him utterly. (Ours is turning back to be a world where this is all the safety net there is for lots of people).

Miss Galindo is a parallel to Lady Ludlow: another of these apparently narrow, bigoted women who turns out to be a kind fairy godmother to a few people. Now I feel she’s a parallel to Margaret: Miss Galindo is herself a cripple, ugly (we are told) and has built herself a happy life by serving others, especially Miss Bessy, child of Gibson.

The one person we do not hear of except by indirection is Bessy’s mother. An unwed mother who presumably died — or what? I cannot believe Mr Gibson would have thrown her off.

I loved the tone of the ending, the kindness of the book. I can see why it was threaded into the filmic Cranford now, for it belong in its matriarchy, attention to the vulnerable and hurt, to women especially.

The structure of the story (not the length of installments), with this weaving process whereby the effect is cyclical is typical of women’s art. I have Hughes’s book too and Dickens’s complaint was that there was not enough suspense and not enough action: one of the things that makes for the present situation where some 75-90% of what is published by men is that men are the editors, publishers, and owners, and they want structures that are what you are calling dramatic: high drama. Dickens pushed Gaskell to change her “Old Nurse’s Story” to make that lurid ghost scene at the end.
The structure Gaskell opted for is a repetitive one where things are held back, indirect; the outline Hughes gives is the “conscious” narrative but even that is this gradual inward kind of thing.

It was not my point what either of us liked or not, but that the art here is l’ecriture-femme as the French women critics have described it — the most classic case is Virginia Woolf and the book about this (alas just in French) Didier’s L’Ecriture-Femme. She has a long chapter on Woolf.

This idea is a commonplace now when Hermione Lee defended Ian McEwan’s Atonement against the ridicule of the critics she said (what the narrator in the book tells us) it’s an imitation of Woolf, and (Lee’s words) a man writing in female drag.

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Winslow Homer, Early Evening (1881), cover for edition of Sylvia’s Lovers

We see two women in the dark light, waiting on a rock, with a fisherman sitting near them, perhaps like Trollope’s Mally (“Malachi’s Cove”), they are remembering someone who did not come home alive.

Sylvia’s Lovers, Chapters 1-6

I began this today and just fell in. The last time I read a book which so gradually puts you into a landscape, step-by-step, first physically, then socially, then economically, was Hugo’s Les Miserables. I could picture Yorkshire, northeast, the seacoast, the agricultural farm land redolent of whale oil, the bridges, the different levels of houses, with outlying ones avoiding “contamination” of the smell of the source of wealth.

She enters into the outlook of sheep at moments, and then in passing what whaling is about: it reminded me of how cruel it really is: the people are killing whales for the oil. No crueller than this pressing where you snatch people (as in slavery), imprison them and then flog them into obedience.

A sense of the 18th century landscape and its typical size, amount of people and places — very like what I’m reading at the same time in Miller’s Dance, the Cornish coast, mining and its worlds (that still include smuggling through Stephen Carrington).

Trollope has a slow build-up like this for American Senator where he builds up Dillsborough, its environs, its hunting clubs, and then its people.

It seemed Scott-too, high romance is not forgotten through memory: as the new castle are looking at replaced one where a throne-less queen landed — clearly Mary Queen of Scots, and before that a monastery. A sense of the wildness of this world is on the first page, but this granddaughter of Scott does not have a man glimpsed coming down the landscape.

Gaskell ends on the chapters with an analysis & description of those classes of people who supported the press-gangs: the landed gentlemen who didn’t have so much money as the merchants and commercial and whale-fishery men below them — and liked to see them in distress. Gaskell puts it nowhere as bluntly as that, but it’s what she means. Their wives who were glad to see the upper class types who ran the snatchers as possible husbands for their daughters.

Of course those in the gangs. Everyone professed to despise the actual snatchers but Gaskell says of these, whatever else they were, they were brave and daring and led an exhilarating life of adventure — she appeals to us to remember how human nature has “this strange love of chase,” of “outwitting” others.

In the film adaptation of Graham’s novels (set in the later 18th century in Cornwall) by Episode 6-7 we have the militia — corresponding to their appearance in the last half of Graham’s second novel, Demelza, and there we get these exhilarating clashes — but also the deaths they cause, the great misery, how they do prey on the locals and rationalize it as patriotism. Donald Douglas is superb as Captain MacNeil.

Chapter 2 zeroes in on the women’s matter or romance part of the novel if I may be allowed: both working class girls out to sell butter and eggs, but Sylvia the darling, an only child, and Molly (Mary) one of many. I’ll stop here as I didn’t get far, only remark the way to read this for me is to try to hear it aloud. Then I get the dialect — otherwise I’d have trouble.

The book is very good: in Chapters 3 and 4 we learn why it’s called Sylvia’s Lovers. Yes we have one of these supposedly charming heroines in Sylvia: I’m not charmed, no more than Molly. But the context is what matters: it reminds me a bit of Les Miserables where the characters were in effect emblems and types. They did appeal to me deeply (especially Jean Valjean) but like this it’s the larger picture they are part of that’s compelling. Gaskell recreates the place of Whitby in the previous century and she is drawn to the wild shores — as a southerners she was released by these; as someone who saw the mean streets of Manchester she saw an analogy up north too.

We have a scene of sudden pressing by the gangs; we are not at the scene, rather experience it as heard of by the women not far off and then the men, what they see of ravaged and distressed and betrayed people who were waiting for men relatives, friends, lovers to come off a whaler.

There’s an argument about pressing between Sylvia’s father and Philip Hepburn, his nephew, the man who works in the shop Sylvia and Molly patronize, and takes her home. Hepburn, our normative gentleman produces an argument which defends this cruelty. Hepburn does it by this reification: the underlying idea is individual belongs to some entity called a nation, and if X is good for the nation, so the individual must obey. So if the nation feels it needs to win a war in France, it must take (kidnap) men. If we cannot pay in taxes, we must pay in person.

Sylvia’s father retorts laws are made to keep people from harming one another.

I’ve no time or perhaps inclination to work out an argument, only say that there is no such thing as a nation that is unified by one interest. There are individuals who share an interest and can act as a group. The war in France would not help the poor individuals it murders one bit, none of the wealth that would accrue to those winning would be shared with them as at this time there was no decent progressive income tax and no social services worth the name.

Groot and Fleishman (two critics) argue that the historical novel of the 19th century is a serious instrument for presenting political visions in debate. Gaskell’s certainly is — let us see if she brings in issues of political moment which affect women as individuals and people, not just as the sisters, wives, daughters of powerless men


G. Morland, Smugglers

Ch 5-6: what a quiet radical is Gaskell; a film adaptation would be terrific

Chapters 5-6 are powerful and how Gaskell to be a radical, however quietly. She has thus far shown us the political context and who and why press-gangs were supported. Rather ugly some of these. Then how press-gangs are experienced by those who are waiting for and dependent on the men coming home from a long journey. Then who are these gangs. We meet our two heroines and go home with one, Sylvia Robson and a young man who produces a philosophical argument defending them. Our heroine’s father, Mr Robson knows a thing or two of that: laws are made or should be to protect people. If his representative votes for the gangs, he won’t get my vote. A man after my heart voting for his interest.

Then we get this uneasy slightly comic intimate scene where Mr Robson is this restless person who has no intellectual life but is himself old and partly crippled and in the bad weather has no where to go. The mother and daughter contrive to make him feel he’s the boss and the daughter concocts a scheme where a tailor is induced to visit on the supposition he’ll make a sale. Gaskell is quietly showing how superior the mother and daughter are to the father in many ways but she does uphold this way of keeping this man in charge. Still she makes their subservience visible and how in order to be comfortable they are pushed into being devious.

When the tailor comes in, he is induced to talk to entertain the old man and what does he tell but of the experience of being pressed. What a violent horrific scene. We see the intimidation, the deceit and treachery, the killing and vicious shooting to maim, and the men giving in rather than be maimed or die. I’ve not time to scan it in or try to paraphrase.

It speaks for itself.

This is the era of slavery, of ubiquitous wife-beating too, high drunkenness, mass wretched poverty. Most men are not the sweet mythic manipulatable man Mr Robson is. He succumbs sweetly to his wife removing his bottle. Oh yeah …


The problem with this modern illustration is it makes the pressed man altogether too healthy and strong

Chapter 7-15

I looked up “Specksioneer.” This word was one of Gaskell’s choices for her title: The Specksioneer.” Naturally the publisher would not hear of it. It refers to the chief harpooner, who also directs in cutting up the speck, or blubber; — so called among whalers. By chapters 6 and 7 we realize the specksioneer Gaskell intended to title her book after is Charles Kinkaid, the man who attempted to fight with force the press-gang, was shot at, kicked viciously, beaten down and left for dead so they could by threats of murder kidnap the men come home from whaling.

They did kill his friend Darley a mass funeral on whose behalf we go to in Chapter 6. (Does anything ever change? a mass funeral can spark a mass protest). This funeral is overseen by the vicar who knows in his gut he ought to keen for Darley and cry out against the press-gang, if only to comfort the impoverished father and mother whose son this was. But that morning he gets a letter from the head of the press-gang telling him they were within the law, why this is needed (it seems “the English” need to go to war with the “French” and haven’t enough men, and so partly intimidated and (Gaskell would have us realize) partly persuaded, he gives a banal generalized speech.

This continual sticking up for the vicious is continued in the off-hand speech of Philip Hepburn who is Sylvia’s follower — quite literally. This kind of thing is partly put there to make us experience how these false voices nag at us.

Philip and Sylvia visit her cousins, Hester’s parents, the Coulsons and we watch the mother make out her pitiful will on Hester’s behalf. Women did make out such wills; Jane Austen has one. They try to give their little bits of property and money to someone who meant something to them, who helped them. The mother wants to help her daughter, Hester in case she marries her suitor, Will. A woman’s novel: we are made to feel how women experience time in the home: Sylvia’s mother feels how time slips by (p. 60

The scene of the funeral is powerful — the seacoast, the church on the high rocks, the crowd, and especially we are led to “dwell on the tall gaunt figure” of the specksioneer.

Unless I’m mistake Molly is in love with this specksioneer — our secondary heroine. And we see her home too. What is it bout gauntness. By Poldark Novel 9 Ross Poldark is continually described as gaunt.


Emma dancing with Mr Knightley at the Crown Inn (2009 BBC Emma)

Sylvia’s Lovers becomes a kind of Emma, Chs 11-12

Despite the sweep of the pictures, the analysis of economic, political and other angles on reality, and the action-adventure, not to omit radical sceptical politics, the book shows its roots or origins as a courtship novel in Chapters 11-12. And here it reveals Gaskell’s limitations. Sylvia is not just too good to be true, she is that way because she is ontologically superior to those about her. One cannot say she is above most others in class, but I feel in Gaskell’s core being, that’s it. And why we are supposed to be on the side of this catering to the husband no matter how distasteful his behavior apparently potentially is, how obtuse and at times ignorant or determinedly dumb his outlook, is beyond me. The fiction in this vein cloys.

Sylvia’s friend, Molly, marries a man much older than she for his status, wealth, and just triumphs over all. Perhaps we are to feel that Sylvia’s romance love of Kinkaid will not bring her a necessarily happier life, but it’s the condescension and thus falseness of the portraiture that is the problem too.

Why Gaskell “sides” against Philip Hepburn puzzles me too. It appears she too finds something lacking in him — insufficiently macho male. Oh Elizabeth I am disappointed there and begin to be on his side against the heroic harpooner.

I am enjoying this read though: I’m reading another book set in nearly this period (Graham’s Miller’s Dance is set in 1812-13) and also about people who make their living occasionally by smuggling and are threatened by pressing, and just at this turn have gone to a social occasion where there is dancing, gaiety and games, and presents a parallel to Gaskell’s A New Year’s Eve. However, Gaham’s Truro Races (Bk 2, Ch 6) do not feel at all like Emma because the focus is ont a young women “just out” (or its equivalent) going to rare chance at a ball/dance from life in a tiny community where she cares for a parent and knows only a very few friends. When Sylvia entered the ballroom, it was distinctly Emma entering the Crown Inn for her ball, and incidents of embarrassment, awkwardness ensue. I wondered if Gaskell was remembering Emma at all or if this was rather the result of two similar women not so far apart in era, type, genius and fundamental attitudes towards sex and marriage.

One striking quality of this book — now making me realize how it’s also found in North and South and Mary Barton is its radical political vision. For that it’s enormously valuable because she’s so intelligent and brings in a large picture and explains.

If I just praised the book, what I would say would be valueless because it’d be unreal.

I agree too that Philip is a hero. In the above chapters what I thought about was how real he is; he is much less a stereotype than Sylvia. He does not conform to stereotypical heroes; he’s given far more interesting and mature and believable thoughts than anyone else thus far. He’s not over-sentimentalized and genuinely somehow individualized — especially in the dance as this semi-outsider. Gaskell enters into his feelings and thoughts as someone not appreciated or understood because he feels (as a psyche) cleverer (being less a stereotype) than just about all the other characters whose minds we have been given access to.

His lack of macho maleness is in Austen’s tradition: a redefinition of manliness which is not based on appetitive rakes and glamorous sexuality (the ultimate of this might be Richardson’s Lovelace) but is first seen in the 18th century in grave heroes and then Grandison, but most appealingly in some of Austen’s heroes, especially Mr Knightley.

In fact when it comes to Philip I thought she began to side very strongly in these chapters — seeing his profound valuing of quiet domestic stable life and his kindness and tenderness and generosity. This has nothing to do with his political vision; that is critiqued. Gaskell can use a character consistently in various ways — as in life a man can be very good in private life and yet have real lacks when it comes to wider understanding. The voices she wants us to hear are also Kinkaid, Sylvia’s father especially and the narrator’s.

For a female reader a real woman at the center is more valuable – and Sylvia is a virtuous stereotype. Cynthia in Wives and Daughters is more valuable. These fictions are supposed to be exemplary. Gaskell’s heroines in this novel show the same compromises as George Eliot’s — not quite as self-sacrificing but as “innocent’ sexually and when not we are supposed to dislike or distrust or reject them. Yes it’s Victorian fiction.

But this does trouble me: again and again in her fictions she will endow the male with depths and originality of feeling (nothing coy) and not the women. We see this especially when the narrator is a male — it’s seen in Cousin Phillis for example. Men are not presented cloyingly. She respects them too much. So there is in spite of all her woman-centeredness and proto-feminism a dis-valuing her own sex in this book. It’s not in all of them (e.g., “The Grey Woman” does not).

In terms of the story it seems that Philip is in line to inherit the shop and so is in a position to ask Sylvia to marry him.

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I stopped here. I account for one aspect of my stopping in the comments. Another was no one was posting with me regularly. The fun had ceased.

Ellen

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Elizabeth Gaskell (1865 watercolor)


Elizabeth Spencer (1921-)

Dear friends and readers,

My listserv community (mailing list) WWTTA has embarked on a four month “Elizabeth Gaskell festival.” A group of us propose to read two short stories by Gaskell each week alternating occasionally with a novella over two to three weeks, at the end of which a few of us will read her historical novel, Sylvia’s Lovers and a few others, her powerful biography, The Life of Charlotte Bronte. What enabled this was most of her works are online.

What prompted this? Her fame, we like 19th century women novelists. Some of the people on WWTTA have read Gaskell with other people on line on this and my other list before, _viz_, Cousin Phillis, Cranford (twice), Wives and Daughters (twice), North and South, two ghosts or gothics, “The Old Nurse’s Tale,” and “The Grey Woman.” Recently I had read Jenny Uglow’s wonderful biography, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, many of us had seen and loved both Cranford mini-series (Cranford Chronicles,


Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith, a stand-in for Gaskell herself from first series

and Return to Cranford)


The community of women from the second

I set up the order for reading by using my books, anthologies and individually published books. For the stories and novellas: Cousin Phillis and other tales, ed. Angus Easson, The Moorland Cottage and other stories, and A Dark Night’s Work and other Stories, both edited by Suzanne Lewis Lewis, Lady Ludlow, Mr Harrison’s Confessions, Cranford (numerous editions), to be followed by either the novel or biography (depending on what the person wanted to read).

Well, we have begun and I’ve now read three masterpieces in the short story genre, and one at least telling or candid story about illegitimacy and unwed mothers in the Victorian period. “The Old Nurse’s Tale” is one of these and I’ve written about it before (and taught twice too), but I’ve never before read or written about “Half a Life Time Ago” or “Lois the Witch.” These two, together with (more briefly) “Lizzie Leigh” and Elizabeth Spener’s “Light in the Piazza” are my subject tonight.

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“Half a Life Time Ago”


Whistler, “Reading by Lamplight” (1858)

I compare “Half a Life Time Ago” with Elizabeth Spencer’s great novella, “Light in the Piazza,” a modern masterpiece about how a mother to provide her beloved mildly disabled daughter with what’s called a normal life sacrifices much in her life and then her mildly daughter herself by giving her up to a young Italian husband embedded in a traditional family — though we have enough evidence to suspect it will go hard with this girl when her mother had to leave her to a new husband and his family. There’s a popular musical adapted from it nowadays. (For more on this one see the comments)

To the story:

“Half a Life Time Ago” is intensely moving story. It differs from Light in the Piazza” because the young boy, Will is not mildly disabled. Clara in “Light in the Piazza” seems to many people just fine; it takes time to see she is not quite like others. Will is mentally feeble gentle and sensitive and a target for ridicule, worse yet, a target for beatings by Michael Hurst, the young male apprentice betrothed to our heroine, Susan Dixon, before the story opened. The story centers on Susan Dixon’s consciousness. Her mother dies and asks her to care for this boy, specifically not to put him in an asylum.

The descriptions of the asylum are really mind-pausing. The people there know how to stop these disabled people from giving them trouble. I’ll bet.

I was at first bothered by what seemed to be Susan Dixon, the heroine’s acceptance or ignoring the cruelty of Michael Hurst, her suitor (how he enjoys triumphing over her too) and for me part of the anxiety of reading the tale was the worry lest she marry this man, Michael Hurst.

She didn’t: slowly he begins to want to marry her for her money and property and not herself. In reality he never appreciated her character at all and would probably have been much less happy with her than he was with much more ordinary, stupider woman he marries in the end. Michael stands for more than the world’s view: he is cruel. We are to believe this cruel or hard character of his attracts Susan. I wonder about this. I read a piece by Sade yesterday where he argues for masochism and sadism as central to sexual experience. I think Trollope is closer to the mark when he presents a more prosaic dominating-submissive interaction between people and I have not known anyone who likes to be hurt, bossed, or used.

Susan was lucky in that Michael brought his hard tactless mean sister to see her. They make a demand that he won’t marry Susan (they think she’s desperate) unless she puts Will in the asylum. In reaction to this ugliness, she refuses.

I can’t say she was better off herself being faithful to her disabled brother but she was doing right and until her servant-friend dies and he does become more violent she had the love and comfort of his presence. I can imagine Michael would have beaten and destroyed her brother if she had not allowed him to put the boy in an asylum.

At the same time I really admired the hardness of the tale. Will does become violent and hard to deal with later in life. In the 19th century they had no calming medicines and such a person would be so frustrated with his life as he grew older and take it out on those nearby. Susan’s servant-friend had died long ago and when Will dies young (as happens with severely disabled), Susan is left alone. One night she can’t bear not to look once more at Michael and follows him home drunken from a pub. We are told she watches him beat his horse and act as mean as usual. We are not told she is relieved not to have married him. I can’t understand this. Surely she would see how miserable in a different way she would have been.

We are told this is a community where women accept men’s drunkenness. But Susan has differed from others in refusing to put her brother away.

The story closes with Michael once more coming to Susan’s house — perhaps he too hankered after her, but so drunken in the cold, he falls hard and dies. She goes to Micheal’s wife and tells of his death, and in her own trauma over her long desolate existence, has a heart attack. The wife at first put off by her feels for her, and in the end Susan takes the broke widow and her children in so she is no longer alone.

We are to think she is now better off not being so alone.

“Half a Life-time Ago” is as good as “Old Nurse’s Story” because it is not a neurotic dream and breaks through censorship. Gaskell doesn’t quite break through to reject the sadomasochistic patterns still inculcated today but she does show the hardship and misery of isolated existence. Susan’s real lack was she never had a chance to meet anyone like her. All she ever had a chance for was Michael.

This reality lies behind not just stories like Jane Eyre but many other women’s stories until say the early 20th century when they could for the first time break away from a local community — if they were lucky find people they could have a bearable existence with.

But of course the real burning center is is the disabled child and what it takes from a mother. I know of a third: Elsa Morante’s Storia (History) where the last quarter is about her and her elliptic son and how he’s treated by the world (horrible) and his dog killed and he dies of the heart attack at 7 and she is taken to an asylum for 9 more years when her body finally dies. her soul did upon the death of the boy and dog. Funny Gaskell in comparison is much more realistic.

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“Lois the Witch”


Emigration

“Lois the Witch” anticipates our journey into Sylvia’s Lovers for its a historical fiction: set in the later 17th century in the US among American puritans. I find it just rich, embedded with knowledge of the era, especially a feel for recreating the US and the scary fanaticisms of the religious types who dominated early Massachusetts. Lois has the misfortune to be not just an orphan (no one to protect her for real) but to have been born to those who fought for the king — high church.

The story is a study of the impulse to and acting out of great cruelty religious fanaticism masks. Gothic here becomes an issue of vital life for women: witch accusations arise from the worst impulses of human nature directed towards women who are unprotected. When it comes to the enlightenment, Gaskell is on the side of secularism from her background.

I got beyond the first chapter of this story and by this time had become so anxious for the heroine I had to peek ahead. This is a terrifying tale centering on the heartlessness, cruelty and stupidity of human beings, and especially how risky fanatical religion is to anyone who is powerless, particularly a woman.

The center as the previous tales have been is women. In the first half of the tale when Lois arrives in America she listens in on a tale told in a censored way but sufficiently clearly that we realize a woman was allowed to be tortured, raped and murdered by a band of her fellow men rather than their risk their lives to save her. The hard stupid (for he probably doesn’t quite see that he’s justifying the women’s friends’ cowardice) older man who listens immediately begins to justify the men for doing nothing and among other things he comes up with the idea the whole thing was a vision sent by Satan. The obvious evidence that the woman existed and this all happened is put in front of him, and he pauses for a moment, but (like many people in juries) only long enough to dismiss this and come back to insist on his theory. What poor Lois doesn’t realize is she has awakened his ire by contradicting him.

As she arrives at her uncle’s — her mother has died and she has no relatives to live with and she is sent by the mother to the uncle for him to take her in — she sees a child whose beauty strikes her. The child see her and slips on a stump; the mother sees this. Ominous. This reader (me) knows what Gaskell is suggesting. I had a grandmother who believed in the “evil eye.” She would get it into her head that he neighbors had “poxed” her plants if they didn’t grow or sent an evil spell on her if something she wanted didn’t work out. My knowledge of this woman and what she would have been capable of if she had lived in a village with people like her has ever prevented me from sentimentalizing peasants or traditional cultures or rituals/superstitions. They are not pretty.

Her aunt is hard and mean, and immediately dislikes her for being a relation of a family which stayed loyal to Charles I. Again Lois makes the mistake of sticking up for her parents when she sees them bad-mouthed. They are after all recently dead. And we see a son is sexually hankering after her almost immediately

Of course the parallel is the woman tortured, raped and murdered and then dismissed as a vision of Satan with Lois accused of being a witch and then being murdered in some horrible way. It’s brilliant of Gaskell to align them.

Oh how I wish that sea captain who first brought Lois to the US and this biological family of hers had removed her from these people and taken her back to the US to starve. This is a hard story to read. It’s the remorseless terrifying story of a cruelty to a young woman with no one whose interest it is to help her.

As I read to the end, I found myself remembering what I’d read about people facing the cruel death penality, from Victor Hugo’s Last Day of a Condemned Man to descriptions of people waiting to be guillotined en masse. It’s the latter this story is about: a mass delusion which overtakes an ignorant fearful community. Lois dies because she gets caught up in the jealousies of the household she was placed in where no one had any feeling for her at all; she is loved and wanted by two men who her female relatives wanted for themselves. Her cousin goes mad and her aunt loathes her in order to have someone to blame. So when in a hysterical mass meeting Cotton Mather lights on her, she is lost.

Lois herself believes in witches and our narrator says when she finds herself in jail she half-believes others may be witches in other jails. When she sees them, she knows better. She finds herself chained and in quiet powerful moment is brought back to sense because she realizes how ludicrous and cruel this is. She lives on because she is so young and has a urge to survive.

A number of scenes where she refuses to confess to being a witch; she is helped to die because the old Indian woman who lived in the house with her ends up in her cell. In her impulse to control and cope for herself, she acts as if she’s doing this for the Indian woman. Only when the woman is taken from her and hung first, does she go mad, lost it and scream a horrified “Mother!” a call our narrator tells us went through people. (As other calls did).

It was the next autumn before the Captain returned with a young man who had loved Lois to bring her back to England. Too late. The young man when others present mass apologies, prayers, and the graveyard as comfort can only say, she is dead, cannot be brought back and there is no retrieval.

For myself I am bothered this far by the tale: Gaskell seems to me to ask that I understand and thus (implied) forgive. No better misanthropy than accept this with quietude.

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“Lizzie Leigh”


London Woman, Street Seller, Gustave Dore, from London: A Pilgrimage

I did find “Lizzie Leigh” a demoralizing one to start with I admit — from its outlook where it seemed to buy into the making a pariah of someone who has had a child out of wedlock to its morbidity (so many die) but can see it as revealing tellingly the same kind of tones and impulses we find in Bronte’s Shirley where there’s a story of an unwed mother now a governess whose daughter died when she was finally able to be near her, having been parted from her at birth, a kind of neurotic compensation daydream where the intense sadness allows the person to experience what she is really experiencing and validate it without breaking through censorship and telling the truth.

“Lizzie Leigh” breaks through the censorship. I’d argue it does so more than Susan Hill’s Woman in Black which allows readers and viewers to blame Jennet Humphrys. I’m aware the story turns her into a monstrous witch and only through careful reading of the text does the inner story come out. All three Wharton tales are far more feminist in structure than even the written Women in Black. Given our period’s misogyny I fear to think what a film feature might make of Hill’s work today.

For Light in the Piazza, see comment.


Photo from Lincoln Center performance of musical adaptation of Spencer’s story

Ellen

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