Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘george eliot’

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.

jenny_wren-stoneblog
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.

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

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.

thetrumpetoftheswanblog
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

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

Read Full Post »

Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading.” — Logan Pearsall Smith

“I have lost friends, some by death… others through sheer inability to cross the street. — Virginia Woolf


Hans Holbein, possibly Katherine Howard (fifth wife of Henry VIII)

Dear friends and readers,

Do you find, gentle reader, that you sometimes remember the very first books you ever loved or read and realize that on some level you are still delving there? The first adult books I ever read — taken out of the adult library with an adult card were fat thick biographies of Renaissance queens. I still see the sturdy dull brown covers (they were recovered older books) of 2 books one on Margaret de Navarre and one on her daugjhter, Jeanne d’Albret. Many years later: how many years did I spend reading, researching Renaissance women, writing about them? I’ve now read Margaret’s long inward meditation Dante-like journey poem, Prisons, in an English translation, her spiritual “chansons” in French and literary critical books, one on her and Vittoria Colonna compared (Silvia Laura Ansermin), others on the Heptameron, especially good, Patricia Francis Chokalian, Rape and Writing in the Heptameron, and one of the most vivid insightful books on a Renaissance woman I’ve ever found, Francois Kermina’s Jeanne d’Albret: La mere passionnee d’Henri IV, and what I felt was its cousin Kermina’s study of Madame Roland or la Passion Revolutionaire.

It seems to me that part of my graduate study and the first 20 years of reading and writing after I left graduate school which culminated in my translations of Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara and my student of Renaissance women’s life-writing is another coming full circle.


A modern imagined idea of Sally Hemings from some contemporary descriptions, probably idealized

Well, I’ve been unexpectedly hooked by a book I can’t recommend but will blog about when I’ve finished it: Cynthia Kierner’s Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello, the oldest white daughter of Thomas Jefferson by his first wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. It’s remarkably readable, and reveals sufficiently a particular life of an 18th century gentlewoman at the same time as it consistently omits much about the second central player, Jefferson himself: his political vision as well as his private life apart from his white family and public life: the relationship with the woman who had she not been African-American and his slave might have been called his second wife: Sally Hemings. Sally certainly lived enough years with and bore many children by him.

I’m intrigued by a relationship I can’t delve: one of the first semi-adult books I remember reading, around age 10, was a slenderish (novella-length) biography meant for say an adolescent, Patsy Jefferson. I can’t recall the author. It was not a “young adult fiction” (or non-fiction), of the sort publishers produce today, deliberately written to a niche, simplified prose and somewhat naive realities, but a real reading book but in the young adult section of an old-fashioned library (in the Bronx where I grew up), one of several rows of books picked out by librarians. Many years later I picked up a copy of another book very like it, which I also read, slightly later (I was 11) LouAnn Gaeddert’s All in All, a biography of George Eliot. Produced by Dutton, I reread it when I found it and showed it to my older daughter, who alas did not show much interest. It is really suitable for a young adolescent or teen; it’s relatively frank telling of George Eliot’s life and career, how she left her father over a religious crisis, went to London, fell in love with Lewes who could not marry her, went to live with him, built a career, and when he predeceased her, her second marriage and death not long afterward. It even has some mild literary criticism.

I don’t know that I’ve come quite full circle with Patsy since what I have in my hands also and will read next is Annette Gordon-Read, The Hemingses of Monticello: the story not only of Sally, but of her mother who was a slave and had many children by Jefferson’s first wife’s father. These children all called Hemings are the subject of this arduously researched book. It’s both books that I need to read and I think I need to because I want to return to what I began when I was 10 and now read a fully adequate or adequate book on this Jefferson’s daughter — and second common-law enslaved wife.

Many years after All in All I can say that having read all Eliot’s fiction, a lot of her non-fiction, several biographies, her life-writing in various forms and lots of literary criticism, plus watched a number of great film adaptations, I fulfilled what I began when I read Gaeddert’s book.


Jodhi May as Mirah Lapidoth in Andrew Davies’ 2002 film adaptation of Eliot’s Daniel Deronda — May consistently appears as precisely the heroine type I bond with again and again — from Sarah Lennox in Aristocrats to Anne Boleyn in a fine BBC film

None of this is part of the reading I keep planning will be my whole occupation over this fall. I just couldn’t resist Patsy as over the years I’ve not been able to resist George Eliot, the Brontes, Austen, Renaissance queens and literary women, all begun when I was young.

A corollary is that I find I am very disappointed by women who write books with male heroes at the center. Reading about the gender fault-line in tastes this week I came across the common or at least familiar idea that women are willing to make the cross-over and read books with men at the center as happily as they do women at the center and enjoy identifying easily with the heroes while men are often not willing to make the cross-over. Some men are not just embarrassed to admit they enjoy women’s books and identify with women’s heroines (not just read them as one would about an erotic object); they genuinely cannot or will not enter into a book with a female at the center.

In my experience, as limited as it is (for how many friends have I had with whom I discuss this sort of thing and are willing to be truly candid), I’ve found a lot of women like me. I strongly strongly prefer a novel with a woman at the center and have found I often like them best when the book is written by a woman. You can get men who come close to writing heroine’s texts or whose heroes have a feminine sensibility, can encompass female obsessions, needs, roles (Trollope, Henry James, E.M. Forster, LeCarre) but I find I often find a greater satisfaction when this kind of novel is by a woman (say Gaskell or Oliphant). I don’t make the cross-over in movies with ease either.

And yet I’ve fallen in love with these historical Poldark fictions by Winston Graham where he has males at the center as much and more than his females, intelligent, complex characters. I identify with his males too. In the last Poldark, Bella Poldark I found I recognized my own kind of self-destructive needling of people and social awkwardness stemming from a background of rejection by one parent and over-possession by the other: Valentine Warleggan. How can this be? I want to understand. My idea is to explore historical fiction, long a favorite with me but also romance and mystery and how these two latter popular kinds blend in with historical fiction. I’ve already done some of this with my reading of Jerome de Groot and Helen Hughes, but I’m not satisfied. Why these books? of course I know it’s something individual in me that a chord is hitting, and that he keeps hitting it in his major characters and their fates. Can I find someone who comes near to discussing this chord as it comes out in historical fiction or these kinds? If nothing else, I’d be able to predict what book I should read next and not waste my little time left.

So I began again with Pamela Regis’s book about what’s called “romance novels” for women. Suffice to say I discovered that (what I already knew) while Graham has some romance patterns, his books do not at all fit into Regis’s notion. Still in reading the first half of Regis’s book I thought Pamela Regis did make visible a pattern that is true to many heroine’s texts, one most feminists overlook.

Regis suggests there are 8 essential motifs or events/occurrences found in romance novels that she defines as a heroine-centered novel about the falling in love and courtship of a woman which ends happily in marriage. According to her, this plot-design allows for the reading traveling with the heroine from innocence into maturity. The stages are: first a definition or description of a society (often flawed, disordered); the meeting of the heroine with the hero; a barrier which keeps them apart; an intense attraction; a declaration of love; a point where all is despaired of (ritual death); then recognition (that you are all in all to one another, you have found your deeply congenial mate); and, lastly, betrothal. The text (or film) can end here, but three more paradigmatic events often recur: the wedding, dance or fete, which brings all the characters together; the exiling of a scapegoat who represents the worst norms of behavior (e.g., in Austen’s P&P Wickham), and someone who behaves very badly converted to agree to the marriage of the central pair sufficiently (again in Austen’s P&P, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Miss Bingley, just).

I cited Austen’s P&P twice. Regis declares Austen’s P&P the most perfect romance novel ever written, and it seems clear that she just about derives her paradigms from this novel. Not altogether as her examples from the 18th and 19th century include Richardson’s Pamela, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Forster’s A Room with a View.

I am bothered by several troubling elements in her book. First, she insists that the romance novel have a happy ending. If it does not, it cannot be a “good” or successful one. It will not have done its “job” or performed its “function.” The same idea was produced in Janice Radway’s famous study of romances as read by ordinary women in a mid-western commnunity. Thus DuMaurier’s Rebecca (courtship can also occur after a marriage) and Mitchell’s GWTW cannot be “good” romance novels as their endings are qualified. I cannot see this. I agree with Regis and others that a marriage at the close of a book need not be an imprisonment at all: it can provide real liberty within the terms a real society offers, contentment, security, peace. But I do not see that one must have a happy ending. It seems not to be important at all to Regis what are the particular inward values a novel promulgates (like the trade of virginity for high status in Pamela). I prefer a sad ending to one that is not believable or one based on ugly values the couple will then embody in their lives (be these competition, exploitation, greed, pride whatever).

This reminds me of how I’ve read repeatedly that good mystery novels are escapist and comfort book. To the contrary, when I’m really involved in a mystery novel where characters I care about are at risk of harm (murder, rape), I feel all anxiety, not comfort. I rise from a Susan Hill novel disquieted about society — as I should be, given norms of aggressive behavior allowed. What I like is the qualified happy, unhappy or making do ending.


Jodhi May as the feminine lesbian in Tipping the Velvet (Andrew Davies’ film from Sarah Walters’ marvelous romance novel)

Last in the last part of Regis’s book her examples of 20th century romance novels are all poor and trite: she suddenly shows herself enamored of glamor, of alpha males, accepts rape, does not at all demand complex psychology, will not tolerate truly vulnerable, sensitive, distressed hurt heroes or heroines who at the close are worldly failures.

So one must take the 8 stages and the three optional paradigms apart from the rest of Regis’s perspective and use them to understand genuinely humane, intelligent complex romances. For myself I have to have a definition of romance much wider than the courtship pattern, one which includes other patterns of woman’s lives after marriage and if they don’t marry at all. It must only have a happy ending that is warranted and one that does not celebrate meretricious or unexamined values. With this corrective, I find myself thinking back to so many of the novels by women (and men) with heroines at the center which I’ve loved very much and understanding their structures much better.

I have begun Ford Madox Ford’s famous Fifth Queen: about Katherine Howard and it seems to me superior to Hilary Mantel’s two-prize winning historical fictions set in the Renaissance, centering on the earlier Tudor courts and Thomas Cromwell. This Cromwell has fascinated fine minds: like Bolt for his Man for All Seasons.

I do need companionship and am finding in these books companionship and explanations for why I do find it here. I was not able to lead the 20th century careerist modern woman’s life nor am that of the socially active mother or wife, and these eras (pre-20th century) before the recent constructions of these roles emerged offers me women who feel the way I do. Friends. Instead of writing this blog I could’ve told you a personal story, reader, that ended badly for me, but that kind of thing is supposed to be reserved for my Sylvia blog and after all it is too painful and too much about cyberspace experiences for me to be able to do it.

I find myself reading today, more than 56 years after I was born and I first began to read books meant for adult and semi-adult readers, the same kinds of matter I read from the time I started reading, only I take a much more knowledgeable, sophisticated and I sincerely hope enlightened approach.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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.

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

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.

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

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

Read Full Post »

          Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret-room
Piled high with cases in my father’s name;
Piled high, packed large,­where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,
An hour before the sun would let me read!
My books!— EBB, Aurora Leigh

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Linda H. Peterson’s Traditions of Victorian Women’s Autobiography, [subtitled] The Poetic and Politics of Life-Writing as a sort of companion-accompaniment to a group reading on WWTTA supposed to be going on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. I’m a lover of women’s memoirs and letters, travel-books, life-writing. It includes many of my favorite books, deeply cherished ones (see Julia Kavanagh: disabled woman of letters). She shows how such books first came into print in larger numbers from the 17th and 18th century in the 19th century. Arguing (dialoguing) with this book reminded me of some beautiful books I’d read, informed me about others, and showed me the state of feminist and life-writing studies at the time it was written (1999). I recommend the book for its learning, bibliography and thoughtfulness — and the books it calls attention to.

There is (in my view) a serious flaw though: Peterson is concerned to argue against the idea that women’s autobiography constitutes a different separate tradition from men’s. Well. She’s right when she says both men’s and women’s autobiographies share many of the same structures and fall into other types (spiritual or religious is one) but there is a kind of deliberate erasure going on here which doesn’t quite work and is counter to her own book which is just about women’s life-writing int he 19th century. She does show that ideas about women’s nature and what her life should and must be about (private domestic life) generated the production of these earlier texts which also supports the modern feminist structural outlook and her “other” perspective brings out other qualities of the books, but her perpetual use of scare quotes for “feminine” (as if there’s no such thing) does not work.

She is probably worried lest her book be put into a “feminist ghetto” and ignored — by whom I wonder as her audience will be the same women and men who have been working on these life-writings.


Mary Robinson

Chapter 1: “Origins” of Women’s Autobiography; Reconstructing the Traditions

The first chapter concerns the republication in the 19th century of a group of 17th century women’s autobiographies — mostly by clergyman, sometimes antiquarians related to the woman writer, once in a while a scholarly historian. It was these books I first found in the Library of Congress in the 1980s when I returned to scholarly studies here in Virginia after finishing my dissertation in 1979 in NYC. They include the memoirs of Anne Murray Halkett who two years ago I finally wrote two papers on and delivered them at 18th century conferences, and whose text I put up on the Net to make it generally available in the form it appears in the 19th century copy.

There is much of value here. You learn how these books first came into print, which ones, a little about the editing and how this bringing into print of these earlier books facilitated the publication and influenced or mirrored 19th century productions of women’s life writing from Harriet Martineau’s autobiography and travel book to Barrett Browning’s imaginative autobiogaphical (Prelude-like) narrative poem, Aurora Leigh.

The last part of the chapter is of interest to 18th century people too. Here Peterson goes with some depth into Mary Robinson’s Memoir (finished by her Victorian daughter) and Charlotte Charke’s autobiography, apparently framed by the Victorian editor to be a warning lesson and end gloomily when the ms end cheerfully and is not presented as a warning lesson at all. Peterson’s perspective leads her to emphasize of Robinson’s memoir is more than about her life as a mistress, mother, and daugher but also about her as a professional actress and writer. While I know from reading the text there is precious little about these in the book, they are obviously the real background to the publication of such a book. Similarly Peterson’s perspective enables her to make more “sense” of Charke’s non-feminine transvestite behavior, Charke’s love of male roles and her rebellion: an ambiguous experience as unsuccessful if financial and other rewards are the measure, but successful by a deeper measurement, i.e., she lived the life out that was within her, the one she wanted to, choose her identity.

For a good recent study of 17th through 18th century women’s life-writing see Caroline Breashears’s The Female Appeal Memoir: Genre and Female Literary Tradition in Eighteenth-Century England, Modern Philology, 107:4 (2010):607-631. Jane Austen’s letters would be among these kinds of life-writings first brought out in the 19th century and it follows just the same sort of trajectory: censored, re-framed from the original, coming out of genteel milieus. Another Elizabeth Grant Smith’s Highland memoir which had to wait 100 years for the full powerful text to be published, along with several others shorter memoirs she penned.


Harriet Martineau when young (often used as frontispiece to her autobiography)

Chapter 2: Polemics of Piety: Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s Personal Recollections, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, and Ideological Uses of Spiritual Autobiography

The unsentimental truthfulness of Barrett Browning must’ve stood as a refreshing shock against the common life-writing of the day if Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s Personal Recollections are any measure. I read the first half of the second chapter of Peterson’s book last night and admire the temperateness with which Peterson describes Tonna’s melange of silence, outright lying — for what is it to present one’s wretchedness in life as the result of a spiritual conversation when it’s rather that the writer lives with a physically abusive husband who when she makes any money takes it ruthlessly by law from her, has to live in isolated horrible conditions whose minimal comfort depends on unscrupulous rent-racking of starving peasants. Peterson shows us how pernicious are these sorts of lies in effect — though she doesn’t say so explicitly and uses the surface content of the book to demonstrate her thesis that many women’s autobiographies do not make gender central.

Well, duh, Tonna doesn’t but if you ignore the subtext then what can you possibly read Tonna’s book for? And it’s for the subtext that Peterson does read it — though as with Austen, one can’t get behind the veil to discover what were the real particular truths of what happened to Tonna — only that she was lucky enough to escape, had a brother who took her in, became for 10 years an editor of a widely-selling Christian magazine. What she did in the magazine also goes unmentioned, unwritten up.

All that counts. No wonder Aurora Leigh was so valued, such a stunner.

Peterson does take this way — a valuable nugget? Peterson suggests that books like Hannah More’s (whom Tonna modelled herself upon) and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s prove the worth, value and integrity of chronique scandaleuse. These do tell important truths; these do give us what we need to know for real about women’s lives — the pious books give us the illegimate norms and also the rationales women used to control, berate and (I suppose) solace and flatter themselves with.

I’d add unfortunately as to behavior Tonna’s book was the “ideal” and her novels sold widely. But chronique scandaleuses also sold widely and it may be that women readers of these understood them better than we give them credit for, at least intelligent women readers did.

Peterson is slightly (not very) comical in her perverse “take” on Martineau’s autobiography. She insists on reading it as a not conforming to female autobiography because Martineau rejects the inane domesticities and pious hypocritical cruelties of Tonna’s stupid book and instead presents herself as gifted, shows how she was put down and almost destroyed by her family, escaped them to London and built a career. To be sure the latter part of the autobiography is like male ones, and Martineau’s models are implicitly male (Wordsworth, though she anticipates Trollope).

But the point is she had this terrible trouble doing it, she had the breakdown, she broke the taboo, none of which the men had to do, and the shape of her life at the end shows a female friend published the book and how she carved out a non-family group to be with.

I’m troubled by this attempt at erasure of a female version of the genre. Someone read my treatment of Kathleen Raine as “as a quintessential autobiographer who enacted a myth of a return to a past that is still with her, that has never ceased to be, and for women, this is found in childhood as metaphor and reality before the development of an adult female sexual body with all the imprisonment, repression, and destruction of the self that society inflicts” and immediately countered that this is what men experience and is not at all particularly feminine. Did she not read the last phrase? I answered: Didier’s point is when girl develops into a woman, her sexuality inflicts a terrific blow on her self-hood and psyche because her society all around her does all it can to twist and repress her. A boy may find developing into manhood hard, but he is not pressured and, if he will not succumb to pressure, then driven and ridiculed and ostracized until he gives up his appetites.

She barely acknowledged this and then I got this pious type utterance from another woman: “Thank you, too, Christine, for seeing the un-gendered humanity of Raine’s themes.” This is the early 21st century version of Tonna’s self-congratulatory tones.

My project as I see it is to call attention to women’s poetry and try to suggest what an enormous and worthy body of art it is — though much has been destroyed and what’s left from previous history and is written nowadays continues to be ignored. It is also to put together many texts which show that women’s poetry and art is different from men’s and has to understood and appreciated as by women. If most men won’t respond to that, sobeit.

Post-feminism, indeed.


Zelah Clarke as Jane Eyre (1983 BBC mini-series)

Chapter 3: “The Feelings and Claims of Little People:” Heroic Missionary Memoirs, Domesticated Spiritual Autobiography, and Jane Eyre

The problem with Peterson’s chapter on Jane Eyre is signalled in the chapter heading: she is concerned to prove that Jane Eyre like other autobiographies conforms to male norms too, the male norm here being spiritual autobiography. What others have seen as contradictions in the trajectory — for example the daughter’s obedience to the mother, her ambivalent over sex, the disconnect between a providential design and radical doubts — are ironed out. Really the feminism partly erased.

It is true that one third or the novel or maybe a quarter is given over to ST John Rivers and his desire to make Jane into a missionary wife and by paying attention to this as a career option for women, Peterson brings out what Bronte consciously meant us to see: Jane is conflicted over living for love or living for a selfless career (not so selfless as it gives some respect and prestige and activity); the very recent movie takes this last third to turn the book into a conflict between two men over a woman or her conflict which one to take. That’s not the text here.

Still I find what interests Peterson is something that comes out of a desire to accommodate society and its offer of modified compromised goals (to be a missionary’s wife was very repressive, awful really — I read about one half of Catherine Hall’s book on missionaries in Jamaica recently), that itself mirrors the problem with her whole book.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning, posing herself in velvet and satin

Chapter 4: “For my better self: Autobiographies of the Poetess, the Prelude of the Poet Laureate, and EBB’s Aurora Leigh.

Peterson argues successfully that Aurora Leigh may be considered a metaphoric biography of EBB, and that it seeks to counter the image of the woman poet found in the autobiographical poetry and life-writing of Letitia Elizabeth Landon and to imitate and also correct the view of the poet we find in Wordsworth’s Prelude. Along the way Peterson quotes some of the best lines of the poem and shows how Eulalie is as important as Marion in the poem.

There is a real problem in the analysis though: again Peterson wants to show that we should not read women’s life-writing apart from men’s, and it is true that EBB has The Prelude in mind. However, the reason Peterson wants to show this in the case of Aurora Leigh is she wants to argue that EBB wanted a public role for the woman poet and she could only reach for this by making herself the equivalent of a male, seen as doing and feeling analogous things. All well and good but then Peterson has a problem: at the close of the poem Aurora marries Romney, she retreats, the lesson learned is the limits of socialism; apparently the social function of the woman poet is going to inhere in her publication of her poems which will have this influence.

Right.

This is deeply conservative stuff. Ellen Moers’s take on this poem as finally reactionary in a number of fundamental ways is the correct one. That Peterson wants to downplay the class element too is to me part of our present climate where class issues are not presented in the public media.

What is salutary about the poem is its creation and continuation of a woman’s tradition of writing and insofar as we can read against the grain when it comes to the fate of Marion Erle.


Margaret Oliphant when older

Chapter 5: Family Business: Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography as Professional Artist’s Life

This is perhaps the best chapter in the book; it’s the one which is closest in spirit to its book, and where the refusal to put the book into a female tradition works best — with the ironical qualification that the five books Peterson uses to illuminate this one are all women’s autobiographies. She shows that Oliphant meant her book to fall into a sub-genre where the woman shows how her professional activities arise out of her home milieu, her family and that the two are inseparable. She says this sub-genre has been forgotten — or ignored. Maybe. What we are making the mistake of doing is reading this book as tragic and about a failure; no it’s about how she tried hard to bring her two sons into her profession and did succeed. I’d almost believe much of this except for the long ending where the sons fail at the profession she wanted for them and she makes this clear and they die before the end of the book’s time frame and suddenly she gives over to deeply poignant re-framing of all that has gone before. The opening about her trip to Rome where her (partly failed) artist husband died and her struggle to become professional when she returned — she succeeded largely due to one man, Blackwood – and this close are the powerful parts of the book.

The conservative and careerist biases of the Peterson’s stance became explicit here. Peterson celebrates without qualification how wonderful it is that people’s professions emerge from their families. What about people who don’t have the family talent or don’t have a family framework which suits them. She is absolutely in spirit with the family piety of Oliphant’s approach, possibly because it suits Peterson to argue that there is no difference between private and public selves. She shows how Oliphant disapproved of the life writing by a woman where she goes forth on her own to carve out her career — Martineau, Eliot’s life.

I have found the reading of this book very unpleasant. IN this chapter Peterson’s insistence on how Oliphant’s is not a story of failure (it isn’t when it comes to her personally) reminded me of 2 incidents where I was asked would I contribute my life story to online magazines. In both cases I gave an outline of what I would say and was told after all it wouldn’t do because mine was not an upbeat success story. I didn’t end up with a big job or money from publications. Therefore they didn’t want it. I said my story was that of their readerships. They said their readerships would not want such stories; they want inspiration. Since this happened twice, I was struck with this evidence of why women’s magazines are often filled with phony stories which don’t reflect the average realities of women writers or readers. I’m sure Peterson would have been on the side of these editors.


Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter 6: Mary Cholmondeley’s Bifurcated Autobiography Eliotian and Bronte Traditions in Red Pottage and Under One Roof

This was a very interesting chapter and made me want to read a novel or memoir by Cholmondeley. Peterson analyses Cholmondeley’s novel, Red Pottage and her memoir, Under One Roof Peterson again is in the paradoxical position of beginning by saying we must put women in a non-gendered autobiographical context only to find her intertextual models in women, specifically Cross’s Life of Eliot for Red Pottage, and Gaskell’s Life of Bronte for Under one Roof. Peterson argues that Red Pottage shows a young girl whose gifts are destroyed because of the repressive norms and demands of her family; she does not manage to escape (as Eliot did). It’s the bookish account of a development that is the strongest parallel. It is also based on Mary’s sister, Hester, who died young. Her brother brutally intervened to stop her career

I do love one long passage Peterson quotes from another book, Rachel West’s passionate defense of a friend’s novel, Idyll of East London (ridiculed) by talking of how a relationship with a man did not sustain her where it counted, nor any of her family, but her friend helped give “affection” and understanding to “an empty heart” and “lighten[ed] the burdens of this world” for her.

How many of us would tell our life story by an account of what books we read and what they did for us when we were young. I do think I might were I to account for how I came to get a Ph.d. in English literature, but it would be strongly in reaction to my environment (escape from the Bronx into Mary Poppins in the Park) and not an argument that as a gifted person I deserved to escape. Which in part I certainly did. I am not part of that working class family or environment (father’s, Catholic) nor the eventually bourgeois one (mother’s, Jewish, now accountants).

There is a relationship between pain and personal achievement in Red Pottage and in George Eliot’s life — and maybe for some of us too.

Under One Roof is about the importance of female friendships, of sisters, of how much they meant — as is partly Red Pottage (if by its absence). As I recall May Sinclair has a novel Three Sisters where we see these bonds mean so much. In Gaskell’s book we see that Charlotte was the one who made the public achievement of her sisters possible; it was she who took Emily’s poems and some of hers and Anne’s to a publisher and got it published. She who posthumously published Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights. Whatever the flaws of Charlotte’s presentation, she did publish these. Cholmondeley is again vindicating and keeping her own sister alive through this memoir.

To conclude, this historically-rooted study is one which adds much to Victorian studies, (despite itself) studies of l’ecriture-femme, life-writing of men as well as women, and can provide many jumping off points for someone else’s study of life-writing. Peterson does make you think about genre, what is a genre, and see how many permutations there are under any given category. You could end the book thinking to yourself that genre thinking gets in the way of understanding what we write and what we read.

To all Peterson’s Victorian candidates, I add another of my favorites: Mary Smith, schoolmistress and governess, my study of her autobiography and poetry.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Nell Blaine (1922-96), The Cookie Shop (1986) — a favorite woman artist for me

Dear friends and readers,

On C18-l, a listserv I’ve been on since 1994 Jim Chevalier asked the question, “What were our research interests?” for the ostensible reason that then we could all know what areas we shared and what was the expertise or real terrains of the community. The motive was more to get people to write and thus keep the community alive with writing presences.

At first few answered, and there was an immediate tendency not just to cite pubilshed articles or books, but refer to a recent academic site where academic-style papers are published. One growing (it was asserted) by leaps and bounds: it’s a form of self-advertisement, face-book academic version. But, rightly, Jim said that he was looking for something different from the sort of thing allowable to articulate in papers. People did begin to offer a description, short usually of research interests conventionally understood (what X is publishing or working on right now or has done). But happily finally the listowner, suggested this was a hard question to answer and told of his research areas and interests as his life’s work over years of living, teaching, being alive.

So I wrote in too, and thought I’d put my posting here as a blog since this blog is turning into an academic-style one where I write in a familiar letter manner about my serious scholarly interests (as it might be put in describing a resume).

I agree with Kevin Berland that this is — or was — a hard question to answer as posed. Areas of research interest for people who do it as central to their lives over a long period of time morph as our lives morph so it’s not just a question of new areas of interest coming out of projects but the way we go about it changing. For me too some of the areas I’ve gotten involved in have been the result of relationships and events (meeting people and joining groups) so I was commissioned to write a book on Anthony Trollope for the Trollope Society and having spent five years on it altogether found myself a Trollopian and have stayed with it — going to two conferences with papers, and recently (last month) publishing a review of a book that emerged from one of these conferences. I do love the man’s books and have grown to like him too, but it was an external event or meeting someone that diverted or expanded my interests. And now I’ve published on George Eliot too (and love her novels and letters and criticism about her, and biographies) and moved out further to Margaret Oliphant.


John Atkinson Grimshaw, one of my favorite Victorian painters, this is Leeds, autumn 1893, Golden Light — a copy hangs on one of the walls of my room

While the career trajectory often demands that one stay within a given period or interest, it’s not been that way for me. Early on I changed areas too: I began as an Early Modern specialist with an interest in poetry, dropped that to move to the 18th century and wrote my dissertation on Richardson’s Clarissa and Grandison. There I can formulate it a usual way: I was gripped by the book (Clarissa), still am (!), but also interested to answer the question, how the modern novel with its deep subjectivity developed out of the earlier romance forms. I wanted to know how this creative mood whereby when a reader reads a novel she will think she is literally “in” the book somehow, lose a sense of the world around her, and imagine herself in this world to the point you have to be proded to half-wake up to reality. I thought it was located in the reveries of epistolary narrative. I’m still fascinated by epistolary narratives, but have moved on to gothic, female gothic, French novels (as important to this process of creating the modern novel). I love French literature, and especially texts by women from the later 17th into our own time. Never tire of them 🙂


Again Nell Blaine, this time Cosmos, Night Interior, 1976

No small joy for me has been 18th century picturesque and rococo art:


Canaletto, Northumberland House, 1752 (the wallpaper for this main computer I write on and look at all the time),

landscape poetry, but it also helped that Robert Adams Day advised me a paper I wrote on Clarissa had a dissertation topic in it and said he would be my advisor. It was that offer that drew me to the 18th century as the problem of finding an advisor and a topic to write about that would be acceptable by some authority was solved.

But I didn’t give up my poetry and in the end instead of writing a scholarly researched book translated the complete oeuvres of two Italian Renaissance poets; Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara, and kept up that one too — I wrote a review of a recent translation of part of Colonna’s oeuvre. I’m interested in women’s poetry and wrote a series of essays on “foremother poets” for a poetry festival online organized by a group of women poets, an offshoot of a listserv; we (a larger group) then published an anthology of poems by us (one a person in the book) called Letters to the World. Anna Barbauld belongs here for me as a central woman poet only now beginning to be adequately read.


Giovanni Volpato and Louis Ducrois, The Temple to the Sybil at Tivoli, 1750s (the wallpaper for my laptop on my library table)

And one develops new interests — one which is partly the result of teaching is film studies, film adaptations of novels. Students and lots of people “get their stories” from movies nowadays, and movies influence how books are read or make visible how they are read at a given time, and I’m now engaged in a book project, the Austen movies — as well as an article project on Trollope, the Palliser films. And now I’ve grown fascinated with the work of Andrew Davies. My respect for him increases daily — or nightly. The other night I watched a masterwork by him (and Tristram Powell, the director, son of Anthony who wrote Dance to the Music of Time), Falling, an adaptation of a novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard (and I love and read all the time women’s memoirs and novels, an interest which began to be scholarly back with Clarissa).

I keep up with publications on the science of medicine (its history too) because I teach continually a course called Advanced Composition on the Natural Sciences and Technology. Often as much as a third of my class is made up of young and older adults who work in the worlds of medicine.

I see I forgot Austen. I first read her when I was 12 or 13 and have never stopped. She never fails me, and I keep my bookcase full of books by and about her, and essays and all sorts of things near my desk in my workroom. Close at hand, near to heart. In fact reading women’s memoirs and novels that come out of the Austen tradition or are like her books in their woman-centered point of view and interest in subjectivity and the private life impinged on by public are a need for me. I find comfort and strength in such books.


My favorite of all the heroines, Elinor Dashwood as enacted by Hattie Morahan in the 2008 S&S (by Davies and Pivcevic), in a moment where she sounds and has a facial and bodily expression like that of Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

And also feminism. In the middle 1990s I had a conversion experience. I realized I had misunderstood the feminist movement, had (wrongly) seen it as a movement of elite women seeking to improve their career prospects and create power and prestige for themselves. This was the result of being here in cyberspace online and reading many woman’s postings and being on all sorts of lists. I realized feminism could and would help me, free me, enable me to understand what had happened to my in my life better and also read literature in a new way that made it meaningful for me, so that I could and did find myself in books in ways I could not see before — and for the first time. This has not changed what I read, but the way I read it and how I write about it. I could never have written the paper, “Rape in Clarissa” in the 1980s nor delivered it in public the way I did. Nowadays I discern four phases, here outlined, and these influence the way I see books and writing today too:

The first phase: officially visible started in 1848, in the US, by a conference in upper New York State, familiar to us in the suffragette movement where women asked for what in the western world is mostly at least in lipservice granted:

the vote, for career and education equality, for prohibition, critiquing the family structure strongly as such for hurting women physically and financially; this phase includes a demand for prohibition because when men, husbands and fathers are drunk, they don’t work and make money for the family, and they are frequently violent;

The second phase I’d sum up as the most radical and what makes feminism an object for attack, and is still hotly contested (this area includes discussions of say rape). Voices here are Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Simone de Beauvoir, Lilian Robinson, lots of famous names:

they moved to a demand for freedom for their bodies, they analyzed the role of sexuality and wanted to change the terms of sexuality and indeed the experience and said society was structured to give men power over women in each particular (the analogy would be with Marxists showing the economic basis of oppression), so a strong socialism model underlies this. It is this group of women who are called man-haters and prigs and accused of not liking sex. Well, they don’t like to be raped.

Third-phase sometimes seen as a reaction against feminism, and a qualification by women in order to deflect the backlash; here you paradoxically also find people like Linda Hirshman so insistent on getting power, be in corridors of power and angry too:

Motherhood is power once again (at least to some), if women find power in sexuality the way it’s done, that’s power (the argument against is this is no power the way it’s experienced, or only fleetingly); strong individualism (a US value), seek power for yourself and use it as you please; pro-families (best or to me most valued argued on the basis of how lower class and working women only get their self-esteem through their function in a family or as a mother); here you find women trying to reach out too beyond their class and race and ethncities.

And now post-feminism:

Refuge seeking, eclectic, sometimes seen as no feminism and a retreat, if so a sophisticated one. Examples found in Karen Joy Fowler’s Sister Noon, also Austen.

I say least about the last since the last has been least written about — as far as I know. I’d be grateful for any discussions of “post-feminism” others know of.

One more aspect of this morphing. Funny that I thought of Austen only at the end — so fundamental is she to me. I should also have brought out how we read and write differently about books and art over the years, so that not just areas of interest but how we go about them changes. Again there’s a conventional way of putting this: one takes up with say deconstruction or book history as this emerges in the scholarly world. But for me at least my engagement in such things does not come because they are there or fashionably spreading and bring up new ideas to use as perspectives. So if I nowadays bring in film studies perspectives, it’s not something external, or just that.


Emma Thompson, still my favorite actress, in a recent movie with Dustin Hoffman, Last Chance Harvey

So (I concluded on C18-l), I know lots about different things that are intertwined but also sometimes seem divagations … but are anything but. They are my life.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Gwendolen Harleth (Romola Garai) at the roulette wheel (2002 Daniel Deronda)


J. W. North (1841-1924), “The Home Pond” (1860s illustration to Round of Days, magazine carrying novels like, say, Oliphant’s)

Dear friends and readers,

Here I am for the last of 4 blogs on this past post-Christmas MLA at Philadelphia. As I promised, it’s a miscellany: summary accounts of a paper on Margaret Oliphant, and sessions on George Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir (with a description of the new translation of La Deuxieme Sexe), and Margaret Atwood.

I end on dining in central Philadelphia, and the nights spent in our hotel room watching Andrew Davies’s Little Dorrit on my laptop wrapped up in a blanket.

Monday noon, I attended the panel on “Writing Race and Scotland” and listened to Elsie Browning Michie read a paper called “Scotland, England, and India: Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen (published 1890). I’ve read Kirsteen, having acquired it in a Kessinger Publishing Reprint, and what I remember most about it is how Kirsteen was so independent minded, didn’t want to marry at all, and ended going to London to support her family (left back in Scotland) and makes a life for herself as a successful indeed fashionable seamstress-businesswoman.


Perhaps this recent Virago cover for another Oliphant heroine will do to evoke something of the way this novel was then and is now regarded

Prof Michie wanted to set the novel (as apparently so many do nowadays in Victorian studies) in a context of a larger empire. So she began with reminding us that Kirsteen’s lover had gone to India where he died. While there are echoes of Walter Scott (Jenny Deans goes to London in Midlothian to save her family). The novel is set earlier in the century and undercuts the idea there is a hard fast difference between the prseent economic and older chivalric worlds. The lands surrounding Waterloo, Scotland itself and London are all commercial arenas where money and power are on offer to those who can seize them. Brutality in these three is linked to brutality in the colonies, all backed up by military violence, but commerce is what individually saves and helps creates the identities of the characters in the novel.

7:15 Monday night I made it to a panel entitled “Alterity [oh dear] in George Eliot’s Ethics of Sympathy.” In “Foul-Weather Friends” … Empathy in Adam Bede and Middlemarch, Rebecca Mitchel demonstrated that a failure of empathy and communication is what we find in both novels. Victorian beliefs in norms of sympathy are shown not to go far at all. Proximity does not assure any awareness nor recognition. Dorothea collapses versions of herself into others; Dinah cannot see that Hetty tells the truth when Hetty says “I cannot feel anything like you.” Hetty’s insistence on her otherness and Lydgate’s recognition of this are the bedrock of these novels’ greatness.


Douglas Hodge as Lydgate registering discomfort (1994 Middlemarch)

Tina Young Choi’s “Probable Feelings” began with the rattle of the roulette wheel in Daniel Deronda.


2001 Daniel Deronda

Prof Choi showed how chance determines what’s to come in Daniel Deronda; it’s a novel where the accidental makes the major happenings: Gwendoleth’s poverty, Daniel saving Mirah and through her meeting Mordecai, Grandcourt’s death. Eliot multiplies daily encounters, ambiguities, and breaks the providential even if the latter ending of the book is insistent on the prophetic.

That is all I managed to take notes on from the session and don’t remember what was said post-papers, but would like to record how enjoyable the whole session was, how the talk afterwards was rich somehow. That I’m not dreaming this is confirmed by an email Ms Choi sent me afterwards, thanking me for coming and joining in so enthusiastically.

What do we go to conferences for? Why I do record them? A hunger for being with our own tribe for real: for me to find myself among those who care about books, who spend their lives on art and research. While these mass parties have their careerists, the graduate students and people seeking tenure, others jobs, there are many people who come year after year well after they have made a successful career (or not). The poignant drawing in ever hoping for that authentic moment in these over-structured formal presentations leaves you connected though you may know no names in the room.

I don’t usually mention the names of those people I look forward to meeting once again at these conferences, but this means a lot to me as well as new acquaintances I make. But this happened again. That it does shows how people want to get together.

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

Simone de Beauvoir in 1949

Tuesday at 1:45 I was at the Simone de Beauvoir panel. There was one good paper by Bansari Mitri where she outlined the enthusiastic reception of La Deuxieme Sexe, a few of its basic premises (women’s lives are spent in immanence), and showed how its depiction of how women are treated and cri for justice is not at all obsolete.

I bring up this panel to say that the two other presentations and showing of few people were tellingly bad. The first paper was by a woman who analyzed a work by Arthur Miller (not a woman the last time I looked), which she said exemplified a central idea in Beauvoir: that we must live up to our social responsibility and live in solidarity with those around us. I was relieved when the question time came and several women said this thinking was precisely the kind of thing Beauvoir showed imprisoned women in sacrifice, and I asked what a male playwright who wrote masculinist socialistic dramas had to do with Beauvoir and women.

The second paper, by the chair, was made up of meandering assertions about her personal reactions to Beauvoir’s fictions presented without any principled argument. The idea seemed to be these reactions must be feminist as she’s a woman. Online feminist forums ceaselessly show women backtracking, trying to bring male writers into list meant for women writers (you don’t see the opposite), become embroiled in quarrels because the personal is taken as an (unexamined often) principle and some women define feminism as what any particular woman wants. There were no men and indeed few people in the audience and the talk quickly became abruptly argumentative.

The sad state of feminism is also seen in the recent translation of La Deuxieme Sexe. An article in the most recent issue of London Review of Books by Toril Moi tells us this latest one is a great disappointment. The older or original translation by a philosophy professor from the mid-west Pashley was abridged and has now been replaced by an unabridged text translated by two women teachers of English who have lived in France for many years.

Moi says this new English text is very disappointing. The new tanslators are a pair of English teachers in Paris (since 1960s), Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier; their translations hitherto are two essays for catalogues. Basically they produced a bad crib: it’s the sort of text which is literally often right, but awkward, hard to read, translationese; further they make errors in the French, get words which have the wrong connotation and when it comes to any philosophical points make such a hash it seems they didn’t understand Beauvoir’s points.

By contrast, Pashley produced a lively, an alive, a readable text. He did love the original but did not get help from Beauvoir and the publisher pressured him to cut, and he did cut the more philosophical-physiological or radical thought passages, just those which are centrally about sexuality. He is sometimes inaccurate but he is very good at getting the right English words in general for the French even though his area is not French but philosophy

Moi says that Pashley did love the original but did not get help from Beauvoir and the publisher pressured him to cut, and he did cut the more philosophical-physiological or radical thought passages, just those which are centrally about sexuality. He is sometimes inaccurate but he is very good at getting the right English words in general for the French even though his area is not French but philosophy. The new tanslators are a pair of English teachers in Paris (since 1960s), Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier; their translations hitherto are two essays for catalogues. Basically they produced a bad crib: it’s the sort of text which is literally often right, but awkward, hard to read, translationese; further they make errors in the French, get words which have the wrong connotation and when it comes to any philosophical points make such a hash it seems they didn’t understand Beauvoir’s points

Borde and Malovany-Chevalier did not produce an abridged text and for someone like me it would be a convenient dictionary — all the words looked up for me as I go along. Apparently the two women got the job because the director of foreign rights at Gallimard is their ex-student. This is so typical of what passes for translation, and that the people who get to do it are those who know the right people and it fits in their career plans. The great shame is probably Beauvoir will now have less and less readers if this new translation replaces Pashley’s for English readers.


A critical study

While at the MLA I saw copies for over $40 of the new translation of Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe. On the last day when I came to buy books (prices drop precipitiously) I found none were left. I have a two volume copy of the original French text, uncut and unabridged and have read in it and sometimes great swatches. But it’s eaiser and much swifter for me to read it in English and the first copy I read straight through in the mid-1970s was Pashley.

And so the world rolls along; merit, ability mean nothing — Moi mentions four highly competent good translators of French text who would have been glad to be the translator of such a famous broad-selling book. Probably the translators in this case got a decent sum.

******************
The last session I attended before we left to pick up lunch in a nearby huge outdoor covered market (where we ate each day) and go to wait for our train home — was on Margaret Atwood’s latest science fiction novel, The Year of the Flood. There were six panelists, all intensely adoring lovers of Atwood who all seemed to know one another very well. They kept to 10 minutes a piece.

I put into one summary what they all said: The Year of the Flood is a sequel to Oryx and Crake. it’s apocalyptic, with a speech by Adam at the close, predicting the end of our world because we have ruined our environment. Male insecurity is at the core of very bad male behavior; they are victimizers, sexual predators. Women experience searing heart-break; Irsula Le Guin has talked of how we experience the events of the book through powerless women. Much of the story is violent and cruel. The book laments much that is good in human beings is ground down or out by crazy hate-filled competitive deceivers. The novel nonetheless exhorts the reader to forgive to find or create inner peace; the novel is dedicated to St Julians, who advocated peace, forgiveness.


Margaret Atwood, Eden Mills Writers Festival, 2008

Desperate times, desperate measures. This is a speculative fiction meant to speak to us. Can we do anything to improve our lives, save our planet. Jeannette Winterson writes about speculative fiction that it models futures for us. There is a porn collector, a gardener who shows us to share work, respect one another, and raise vegetables; so too a digital technologist: cellphones and digital technologies serve the cause of liberation. It’s also an eco-feminist novel which uses the archetype of the cleansing flood; and a dystopian satire where we see corporate men living lives of high luxury. There are fairy tales and folk remedies (as the best cure for what ails you).

I didn’t stay for the talk afterwards. I can’t get myself to read science fiction as I’ve little patience for moralizing allegory; but I do love Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace (realistic women’s novels), her literary study of Canadian Literature (it’s rooted in survival and a hard landscape), and her poetry cycle, The Journals of Susannah Moodie, and her essays.

*Variation on the Word Sleep*

by Margaret Atwood

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

******************
While Philadelphia is not in as desperate a condition as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (where Jim and I attended the EC/ASECS conference), the center of the city has only few good restaurants. Many stores are discount types, and once you leave the main streets, you find empty ones gone out of business. The first night we were so tired, the wind was felt mortal and raw and we ducked into an Irish pub. It was pleasant, with plain edible Irish food and a healthy variety of drinks. Soon it was filled with locals, lots of single people in their 20s, pairs, groups, and we relaxed and talked.

The second and third nights we fought the even colder air and found two of the recommended places and while I don’t remember what we ate, I do remember both meals were scrumptious, the wine flowed, and while both places were very crowded,with more and more tables brought out and sometimes lone people squeezed in here and there, the noise level allowed us to talk and hear one another and be comfortable. This time the crowd was older, some families and what looked like out-of-towners and people from the MLA conference like ourselves. Lighting is important and in all three places it was soft; none had a TV going.

All around the streets we saw homeless people. We had intended to try to get to the museum, but the weather and street life were demoralizing. So at night we came back to our hotel where Jim soon fell asleep. I cheered myself intensely with Davies’s Little Dorrit: the good people of the story lifted my spirits, I felt for and with them. I did meet and struck up a conversation with a nice woman scholar around my age while waiting for the train with Jim; she looked like Juliet Stevenson and had apparently just written and published a book on Anne Enright. She was headed for a college in Lynchburg, Virginia. I told myself I would read Enright’s The Gathering and it is sitting on one of my TBR piles even now 🙂

When we were finally in our train on the way home again, I rewatched 2/3s of Little Dorrit on the train home once again, relieved to be fully absorbed.


Claire Foy and Matthew Macfayden as hero and heroine

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Melmotte (David Suchet) staring at us, shutting us out by a sliding door (The Way We Live Now, 2001)


Gwendolen Harleth (Romola Garai) hitting a bull’s eye, thinking she’s winning (Daniel Deronda, 2002)

Dear Friends and readers,

I carry on writing about Andrew Davies’s film adaptations (see also Davies’s Six Austen Movies). Tonight I’ve chosen his brilliantly dark renditions of Anthony Trollope’s saturnine satiric novel about what he saw as the emerging modern world, The Way We Live Now (BBC/WBGH, directed by David Yates, produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark) and George Eliot’s equally dark and daring assault on modernism, but from a realistic/idealistic standpoint, Daniel Deronda (BBC/WBGH, directed by Tom Hooper, produced by Louie Marks). TWWLN was published 1874-75, Daniel Deronda 1876. I treat them as a pair in one blog because Davies makes them resemble one another in mood, a kind of glittering gothicism, filmic techniques, both using driving music and ending plangently, somberly. They were also completed a year apart.

I have written about Davies’s film adaptation of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now before: a detailed comparison each of the 4 parts of the film compared to what is found in Trollope’s novel. There I showed how the film designer and costumer used the original illustrations by Lionel Fawkes, many of which may be found on my website. The most striking are the railway station, the women’s costumes, Lowestaff and Melmotte’s collapse in Parliament.


Marie accosted by hired police and detectives

Here I will concentrate on the filmic techniques that make the mini-series a masterpiece of the adaptation kind.

The Way We Live Now is 4 episodes of 75 minutes each. The filmic idiom or grammar of TV has changed utterly since the Simon Raven’s Pallisers and the older series (1974) might seem more tame than this new ones. Both point out the political relevance of Trollope’s fables, yet Raven’s Pallisers is a commentary, frequently departing in hinge-points as well as themes from Trollope’s roman fleuve while Davies, although changing the dialogues in Trollope to become more humanely persuasive, psychologically penetrating, feminist and candid, nonetheless is the more faithful to literal events and thematic inferences.

I’d say Raven interprets and gives us a personal reading of a Trollope text; Davies exposes and argues with it. We can see this in latter procedure in two key scenes of TWWLN. Davies takes a striking sceen from the novel, where Roger Carbury (Douglas Hodge), the older and moral friend of Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy) argues with Paul upon meeting Paul at a seaside resort and beachfront (Lowestaff) with Mrs Hurtle (Mirando Otto), whom Roger assumes is Paul’s mistress.


Mrs Hurtle (Miranda Otto) in front of a sea-filled sky

Trollope has Roger accuse Paul of indiscretion, infidelity to Hetta Carbury (whom Roger loves and Paul claims to love), and (probably) fornication (though this word is not used), and Paul simply deny all this, saying he is accompanying this friend and that’s all. By contrast, Davies gives Paul sudden cruel and insightful words saying that the older man’s love for the young girl, Hetta, is disgusting, puts him off; Roger is infantilizing Hetta and attempting to own her (and by extension himself). The reader of Trollope knows he has many such couples: the older man yearning for the younger woman and only with intense reluctance giving her up (“Mary Gresley,” An Old Man’s Love come to mind). Davies is exposing Trollope’s own predilections in this novel and his blindness to male hegemonic tyrannies. There is an analogous contrast between Trollope’s depiction of a scene between Mrs Hurtle and Hetta (Paloma Baeza) where Davies substitutes a modern definition of good and honorable behavior not based on virginity and sexual abstinence for a woman; Davies critiques Trollope’s exemplary fables of females under control.

What’s striking is in both cases Davies reveals he’s been reading a lot of Trollope and thinking alertly, perceptively, humanely from a contemporary and psychological/social standpoint about it. Raven knows Trollope just as well but he does not see into Trollope’s limitations, but rather produces his own analogous ones.

I can’t see this kind of thing when I watch film adaptations of Eliot or Gaskell because I don’t know the original works as well. I can see them for Austen and Trollope.

Unlike Raven, Davies also confronts Trollope’s antisemitism head on. He gets away with showing the strong antisemitism of the 19th century English upper classes then (and perhaps nwo) by making the individuals who are antisemitic just awful, snobs, phonies. He daringly presents the Jewish characters as lacking upper class manners, and being crooks too (e.g, Melmotte’s clerk, Croll [Alun Cordoner].


Melmotte consulting Croll

Davies does have Trollope’s portrait of Breghert as noble and great-hearted and focuses on this strongly.

To turn to Davies’s TTWLN as a whole: he sustains evenly the complicated satiric mood and plangent sympathy for the humane and self-destructive obtuse and even prejudiced narrow characters, e.g., Anne-Marie Duff as the fool Georgiana Longestaffe who treats the noble Jewish banker, Breghert as a subhuman convenience:


Georgiana (Anne-Marie Duff) hysterical at her selfish father while the mother (Joanna David) silently complicit sits passive


Jim Carter plays Breghert (this is from another production)

The withering disdain and funny mockery of the hopeless selfish, complacent, and bossy (of his sister’s honor!) Sir Felix Carbury (Matthew MacFayden brilliant in the part) is one of the continual delights of the mini-series

RefusestoDiscussitwithCarburyblog
Macfayden as the unshameable Sir Felix in front of Douglas Hodge as Roger Carbury

ShesRelievedblog
Cheryl Campbell as Lady Carbury’s relieved by David Bradley as Mr Broun

MrBrounwilltakeCareofitPart4blog
Leave Sir Felix to him

When last scene, a remittance man, drinking and playing cards, and getting up to follow yet another woman into a back room somewhere in Europe, we see he has gotten his just deserts and yet is living much as he would were he had stayed in England. It’s a very Fieldingesque scene.

The tragedy is great, due in large part to the direction and acting of Suchet. I really entered into Melmotte’s case as someone who is suffering from the hidden injuries of class. Suchet took a stance of intense desire to be fitted in and defiance and mockery of the moral hollowness and stupidity of all around him: this defiance connects to the American heroes of the 1930s and 40s movies, but the popular films lack this self-mockery and derision of normative values; they are taken seriously even if from a traumatized standpoint. Melmotte’s trauma is drowned in gleeful laughter and alcohol. His clown outfit derides the world he is the joker of.

Suchet makes a brilliant use of his hands. They are ever there in front of him and us, gesturing, fleshy hooks pulling on us, holding our attention, distracting us.

He is brilliantly supported by Shirley Henderson as his neurotic half-crazed because utterly isolated daughter, Marie; and Helen Schlesinger as his wry self-seeking (she reminded me of Austen’s Lady Bertram) wife, also alone, whose reply to much that she says is the appropriate “domage!” The series ends on Marie staring at and shutting us out with the same sliding doors her father had used.


Her strained face

How prophetic it felt to watch Melmotte boast of his cheating and chichanery and watch everyone adulate him. The campaign speech resonated in 2009 (when recently in the US bankers have literally gotten away with stealing taxpayers money outright) the way it could not have in 2001 (or even Trollope’s age).

In Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies (Manchester University Press, 2005, pp. 177-85), she shows how the use of camera shots, mise-en-scene, music, and decoupage all work to undermine the complacency and nostalgia of film adaptations in this film so that we have an appropriate richly glittering grotesque variant on the genre.


Marie nervously aggressively accosting Sir Felix, a reversal of what we usually find in these films

Davies creates a film not just analogously appropriate to Trollope’s book (which I wrote about in my Trollope on the ‘Net and “Partly Told in Letters”), but one which comments on and refuses to function the way many other costume dramas do to anesthetize us at the same time as it absorbs, amuses, and presents much beauty before us. For my part I loved the waltzing and though the way Davies used dancing to present romance showed his experience of Austen’s books.


Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury waltzing

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

I probably can’t begin to do justice to Davies’s Daniel Deronda: if I say it suggestively comes up to the book in complexity and feeling filmically even if the kind of verbal content available to a book (debates over nationalism, Judaism, music, careers, psychological inwardness) cannot be reproduced, the reader will see my problem here. I will again concentrate on visual and oral filmic techniques, mise-en-scene, shots and acting. If the reader would like a comparative analysis of events in the story and themes, there’s “Reflections on the BBC Daniel Deronda: A Symposium,” George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies, 44-45 (2003):106-22, which alas are mostly done from a literal fidelity perspective and complain really this is not a verbal text but a film (e.g., “Michael Alpert, “A Missed Opportunity), but are detailed in areas I cannot try for here.

I’ll begin with the film’s ending: it took me a while to calm down. I wept so — not quite as much as when I finished Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala’s The Remains of the Day (from Ishiguro’s book), but coming close. It was the line given romola Garai as Gwendolen that put me “over the top:” “You must live out the life that is in you, and I must live out mine.” It was a semi-joyous grief instead of ravaging in the way of The Remains of the Day, which the ending’s thematic inferences and gestures nonetheless reminded me of.

I don’t know if the line is in Eliot — it sounds more like Henry James, but it spoke home to me as validating self-acceptance and living with what we became and can do. Perfectly equipped failures Nafisi says are everywhere in James; a world where success is an indice of collusion with the sinister (here embodied in the sick Grandcourt group, from Grandcourt (Hugh Bonneville) and Lush (David Bamber) to Lydia Glasher (Greta Scacchi). As we saw in his Middlemarch, Davies has a real feel for Eliot’s compassionate psychology and interest in political history; here we see his ability to make alive amoral unsympathetic unadmirable characters (like Melmotte too), which also is seen in this final scene with Romolo Garai as Gwendolen in a meadow with her mother (Amanda Root, very troubled) with that quivering smile of hers on her nervous face.

Strange beauty: here like Davies’s The Way We Live Now, we have gothic images of dark places and unknown haunted people, scary. The kind realism and romance of Daniel’s Meyrick friends are given less room and even they are made strained, more enduring and frustrated than contented:


Mrs Meyrick (Celia Imrie)


Mrs Davilow (Amanda Root), Gwendolen’s mother

Instead the emphasis is on precisely what critics in earlier generations said was the problem part of the novel: not just the Jewish part, but the most harsh sardonic aspects of the Grandcourt, Lush, and Lydia Glasher.


Jodhi May as the suicidal lost singer, Mirah


Greta Scacchi, the ghastly monumental Lydia, an angry vengeful revenant


David Bamber, the cravenly sycophantic Lush, like Grandcourt’s dogs, nothing is too punitive or mortifying for him to serve as

The mini-series creates images of dark strange beauty to match the high romance and sadism of the Deronda and Grandcourt stories. Davies does not attempt realism in the dialogue but resonant language: death is, for example, “going into the darkness. There is a heavy use of browns. For the English half of the story (realism is what it might be called, nostalgia sites are closer to the truth) we get these bright pictures of hunting, men in red suits, the green landscape of houses — the same house used for Norland Park in Davies 2008 Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is Rylands here.

The use of neolithic stones is original (though Stonehenge does turn up fleetingly in the same Davies S&S) and utterly appropriate for the scene of Gwendolen’s meeting with Lydia. Scacchi is a glaring ghost and in the background her outcast children; the non-diegetic music which accompanies this is just what I’ve heard so many times in the BBC gothic Shades of Darkness ghost series. The scene is a dark interlude in the parade of arrow-shooting, revealing how this frivolous superficial game is a play-display-parade of barbaric practices then and now in history.

The opening and closing paratexts with their wide angled shots are memorable and remarkable: glittering water, the casino, the wheel, close ups of hands with jewels on the table (the same wheel of fortune turns up in The Way We Live Now). A flowing river and water (as in Dickens) is used throughout the mini-series: Deronda is seen doing masculine things (rowing), but also he finds Mirah about to drown herself in the Thames,


Daniel saving Mirah, they look into one another’s faces deeply

and Gwendolen rids herself of her incubus, Grandcourt in the waters of Genoa.

Hugh Bonneville was scarily sadistic. We actually watch him tease and torment one dog while feeding another (I hope when the scene was over the poor dog was fed). Gwendolen loathes her attraction to Grandcourt at the same time as she cannot resist his wealth, glamour, seeming savior-faire, this worldly complicity and preening

They both love rough riding horses. Yet The sadism of their sex as suggested goes on between them when it is real off-stage in their bedroom is clearly horrible to her by her behavior before and aft. He insists on taking his rights and as she goes into the bedroom, all abjection, I don’t like to think of what he does to her.

I think Davies takes Eliot’s brilliant characterizations taken further in the area of sex and loneliness (why people want to be identified in nationalistic groups). Gwendolen likes to bully and her mother is vulnerable to her bullying; she herself is though susceptible to being controlled by people more ruthless than her, like Grandcourt, and when push truly comes to shove (in bed) she does much worse in the sexual arena. The Kind (to her mother) bully is bullied fiercely.

The parallels between her and Daniel are somewhat different than Eliot’s novel. Davies emphasizes the literal story: Daniel has been deprived of a real father and his mother. Davies gives Contessa Maria Alcharisi (Barbara Hersey) a full feminist statement which is backed up when we see what marriage does to Gwendolen; at the same time we see how lonely Daniel is so that the kindness of his guardian, Hugo Mallinger (Edward Fox) is not enough. He feels insecure without certainty.


Edward Fox as the well-meaning Sir Hugo who by keeping secrets from Daniel left him frightened


The aging princess mother, brittle, distanced


Daniel amid other Jewish men

Hugh Dancy was just wonderful in this film, so good and at the same time believable. I do love such kind good characters (like Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson in Davies’s Bleak House, a film for another blog).

The film opposes several worlds: the decency of the lower to middle middle class Meyricks (good art and decent feeling); the snobbery and ambition of the Arrowpoints into which Herr Klesmer (Alun Corduner) marries. This love story is a little lost from view; in the novel it has the line of two people who almost lost out on this precious life of sharing together. The traditional Jewish ritual life of the Cohens who take in Mirah’s dying brother, Mordecai Lapidoth (Daniel Evans) who contrasts to Daniel’s mother, for he contracted TB and his dying out of his hard work and loyalty to his family. And finally the power of Sir Hugo Mallinger who is a good man but part of a milieu where we find cruelty, exploitation and infliction of torment of of the Grandcourts, Glashers and Lushes. As with The Way We Live Now, the different sets of characters and worlds are a simulacrum of the later Victorian world out of which ours emerged.

Davies makes the parallels meaningful: Gwendolen is a slave to Grandcourt just as Deronda’s mother is talking of how she refused slavery of wife-, mother-, daughter-hood.

Further powerful performances here include Nicolas Grace memorable as Vandernoodt, so too Alun Cordoner; Jodhi May is perfect in these deeply felt depressed disquieted parts (she was Sarah Lennox in the Aristocrats taken from Stella Tillyard’s book.)

Along with these fine actors, there are the felt resonant lines, for example, Deronda to Gwendolen: “Why you gamble and then lose [deliberately]? and then Gwendolen’s recognition: “Yes.” At the close, her final line: “I shall be better for having known you [Daniel].” This is very like Esther Summerson’s function in Bleak House, book and film.

I don’t want to omit some Davies: motifs, the young vulnerable man seeking his identity, this time Stephen Dakar is im Deronda; joke words like “domage,” the use of Edward Fox as Sir Hugo as a kind of Lord Brooke (from Middlemarch). The figure on a cobb or seashore seen grieving from the back as he/she looks at the sea.

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

To conclude, in mood, type and style, Daniel Deronda is very like The Way We Live Now. Each film invents its own world, but I can imagine characters from The Way We Live Now stepping out and walking into Daniel Deronda. Look at the expression of the ordinary heroes and heroines of both, the hard ivory white colors of their costumes, the way they hold their bodies tight:


Hetta Carbury reading


Daniel Deronda walking along the quai in Genoa

Both hard guarded faces in an anonymous corrupt environment they both seek to and do escape from at the close of the films. And both films have many references to this wide corrupt world in visuals, words, and what happens, our world which I for one turn from too — to such films.

I would say, though, that Davies so takes over both texts and the filmic techniques are themselves so striking and meaningful that these films trump their source texts to become his rather than an adaptation of an Anthony Trollope text or a woman’s novel about history/social life in the way of Middlemarch.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »