Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

The best moments are the quiet ones: characters walking and talking, so here are Mr and Mrs Bates off to work (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggart)

Mr Moseley in the village square self-reflexively selling tickets to come see ….

Mr Carson: “Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?”
Answer: No, but most are not part of moribund mini-series.

Friends and remarkably patient readers,

Despite outbreaks physiological and psychological of intense distress, surely you’ve noticed we are on our way to as happily ever after as human beings ever know:

I take out my crystal ball developed out of not-so attentive watching (I would open a book and take bets only that I don’t understand betting):


Our princess Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is going to marry the self-indulgent drone Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) and run Downton Abbey efficiently as a cross between a tourist attraction and generous farm rental site; Barrow will become head butler and spend his declining years indulging all Lady Mary’s children; our secondary heroine Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) will marry Bertie Pelham (Henry Haddon-Patton, a double-moniker there) despite Lady Mary’s final spiteful attempt to use her knowledge that Marigold is an illegimate child. Pelham is not a prince in disguise, but he is not the total shit Lady Mary had hoped. Mr and Mrs Bates (the one truly aggressive man in the series and his very long-suffering wife) will have that baby, which will be healthy and retire to their property to become prosperous landlords. Lord Grantham will not die young because Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) is just too soothing and complacent a presence to allow an early death once Violet Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) despite her Methuselah-like great age settles down to supporting Miss Dencker (Sue Johnston)’s matching spite and Spratt’s stamp-collecting habits (Jeremy Swift).

A single housekeeper, skeletal staff, and “day help” will replace “downstairs”

Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) will show yet more extraordinary patience as she endures married life with that self-indulged prig of the patriarchy, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) who is not capable of going to bed without looking to see if the sheet corners are expertly done nor eat if his dinner is not eternally hot and as exquisitely cooked as if he were a Shah of Saudi Arabia. Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) will marry Mr Mason (Paul Copley), bringing to his tenant farm her dowry of her property. Now married, a highly educated Daisy (Sophie McShea) and Andy (reading and writing too as the best of them, certainly no one knows pig theory better) will come to live with them.

Have I left anyone out? Tom Bransom (Allen Leech)’s fate is as yet obscure. Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) have been granted an intermediary in the person of an astonishingly kind prospective daughter-in-law (what I can’t figure out is how she can marry that vicious son of his?).

While I just know in the longer run Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) will marry Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle) who will become a teacher in a school (he takes a test next to Daisy in Episode 6), there is another bit of a twist and turn down the road as it seems after all she had some feelings for the crook who arranged his theft in such a way as she went to prison. Both such good souls, they will work it out.

How easy some of them have it now? Lady Edith’s interviews of prospective women employees are without tension? No rivalry whatsoever. How is it that this newspaper is so easy to run?

Interviewee (2)

Interviewee (1)
What a gentle time of it they all have

As to Talbot, are there no aggressive males left on the planet? When with Lady Mary, he behaves as if he were in school assembly.

In Downton Abbey only servants are harshly treated …

So why are we carrying on? in this excruciating slow motion? (For recaps see Anibundel: 5, Who would have thought the old man had so much blood?, 6: Downton Abbey as Antiques Roadshow lacks information). Because the ratings were so high and potential audience and money from advertisers were too tempting.


On Episode 5: I admit to being a viewer whose emotions have at times been deeply engaged with these characters, so when the hospital debate came a crisis with Violet’s coercing Neville Chamberlain himself to come to luncheon in the hope he will not permit the local hospital to be amalgamated to a county-wide organization and yet another of these tension-filled meals became too much for Lord Grantham — and his ulcers burst. What a comment upon 6 years of these dinners and luncheons, not to omit the occasional strained breakfast. I found myself distractedly distressed, tears running out of my eyes, to see this man coughing up huge goblets of blood.

Lord Grantham’s ulcer bursts — he has clearly had enough (Hugh Bonneville enters fully into the role assigned every time, DA 6, Episode 5)

So the first time I watched, I was started into upset, and my emotions rose strongly; but if a movie has real depth in it and has earned belief, adherence, the second time through should be stronger as you notice more. Alas (almost), the second time through I felt indifference; the contrived nature of the scene once the shock wore off and especially since Fellowes had relied on this melodrama. I read somewhere that the genuine shock on Elizabeth McGovern’s face came from her gown, face and hands being spattered with the false blood from across the room. That was not supposed to happen and you can do only so many takes with such a scene. In the event, they did two takes only. I could see how it neatly ties up with the hospital debate in such a way as the Dowager must lose, but I felt that a sensitive fine actor (Bonneville) who let himself go into the part was exploited by this use of him.

Mr Moseley helps Miss Baxter put on her coat after she has learned her ex-lover has pled guilty thus sparing her a confession of her complicity on the stand

As to Miss Baxter’s continuing agon, with the ever compassionate sensible Mr Moseley (who can put things into perspective with the joke — do you want me to go back and see if he will plead “not guilty”). What saves this series is not the humor (which is often not funny) but that continually as an undercurrent and some times rising to the surface (in coughed up blood?) are tensions, strains, disappointment, conflicted desires beneath the tranquil surface of life for these privileged lucky characters.


Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs HARRY HADDEN-PATON as Bertie Pelham
The people on line are beginning to think somehow one group waiting has been favored over another, and the staff is doing what they can to push out such thinking from their minds.

On Episode 6: One of my favorite PBS shows has long been the Antiques Road Show on PBS as done in Britain; there is an American version, but for me not as much fun as these visits to large country houses and estates. And I have come to expect as a matter of course, that detailed knowledge of the most obscure objects will be forthcoming.

Taken as a gentle satire on the usual display of conjectured (they are careful to say it’s conjectured) information with prices that make the sellers unexpectedly happy, Episode 6 was worth a watch. There was a mild pleasure to be had in seeing how people really don’t know the facts wanted (or bogusly invented). Lady Edith couldn’t say who was in the picture; Cora, Lady Grantham did not know why one set of imitation shields over a fireplace had not been carved with any letters but over there was a bona fide Reynolds.

She never thought to ask why the shields are not carved — the false importance such tours give to brick-a-bracks, making them numinous because “gazed at” in this ritual way is felt

Robert: “What on Earth can we show them to make it worth their money? Lady Grantham knitting? Lady Mary in the bath?”

The dialogue where a tourist boy stumbles into Lord Grantham’s room to ask why he doesn’t get somewhere much more comfortable to live a bit heavy-handed but not all that improbable — if you think children are not alive to class and how rich people live differently. Mine and I knew by kindergarten.

Lord Grantham will soon tell the boy he lives this way because that’s what he is used to

What was registered was Fellowes’s looking askance at those people who come to gawk; and his quiet sneer that to keep such places going you have to let people in who envy a style of life they have misapprehended as exciting but who are really endlessly thinking of whether their egos have been assuaged.

Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs MAGGIE SMITH as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Miss Dencker comes near to be fired for too much loyalty. When Dr Clarkson (David Robb) defected, she accosted him. He writes a letter of complaint to the dowager. So we see whose feelings count. Whose life matters. The Dowager’s response is not gratitude. What? did Dencker think she had a right to be loyal. to have any feelings at all? On the spot, the Dowager will fire her. The way Dencker holds on is to threaten to tell the Dowaer that Spratt hid his crook-nephew, so Spratt must go upstairs and ask for her reinstatement. When Spratt succeeds (so quickly it’s probable the Dowager did not want to sack Dencker), far from promising never to threaten again, Dencker says she will use short blackmail whenever she has to.

Thomas Barrow contemplates suicide as his utterly selfless teaching of Andrew Parker is sleazily misread (Rob James-Collier and Michael Fox, DA 6, Episode 6

Thomas is beginning to have had it. After all these years of faithful service and self-control on his part, he is still not trusted enough so that if he strikes up a friendship with a footman the first thought all have is he’s buggering him. And he is continually nagged to find a job where he might have something useful to do. Had this been imitative of life either he or Andy would have said he was teaching Andy to read.


Lady Edith and her suitor stroll through St James Park — or is it Kensington Gardens we are to suppose we are entering into (Episode 5)

So what have we gained from Episodes 5 & 6: And they all headed to live happily ever after despite the occasional strong strains

I did remember this poem while watching some of the quietly strained moments amid the engineered systematic indifference of most to most between characters who pass through much splendor and have who at times have something to me:

Musee de Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
— W. H. Auden

Mrs Crawley facing Lord Merton’s persistence registers on her prudent face fear of what her marrying Lord Merton might cause them to experience


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Olivia de Haviland as Catherine driven wild by the implacable Ralph Richardson as Dr Sloper (Wm Wyler’s The Heiress, 1949)

As Dr Sloper, Albert Finney grim, determined to put a stop to Townsend’s courtship of his daughter, with Jennifer Leigh as a seeming sullen puzzled Catherine (Agnieska Holland’s Washington Square, 1997)

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past 10 weeks or so, a few of us on Trollope19thCStudies read and discussed Henry James’s Washington Square (1881) and then Anthony Trollope’s Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblewaite (1871) as remarkably parallel texts. While what proof there exists for a source for James’s chilling novella suggests he drew upon an anecdote he heard over dinner, people who have read both texts (and know how James faithfully followed Trollope’s career, reading novel after novel as they came out) have repeatedly drawn such useful insights from the comparison, it’s hard to give up the intuition that James remembered and rewrote Trollope. At least three of us also watched one or both of the admired film adaptations of James’s novella, and suggested readings of one or both of the novels out of these films. I can in the space available for a readable blog only suggest some of what we wrote.


As Catherine Morland, Olivia de Havilland climbs the stairs to her room (a hard equivalent of Catherine “picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again — for life, as it were” — ending of book & film)

We began with Washington Square. James’s story may be read as a parody and exposure of the way heterosexual romance and marriage are conducted in upper class society of his era, but the power of the paradigm emerges from his breaking all taboos by giving us a father who hates his daughter for not being wittily clever when she’d replaced her mother (we are not sure she was these things) because her mother died in giving birth to her. She makes him cringe that she’s his. In the way of families at the time Sloper has taken his penniless widowed sister, Mrs Pennimman in, but sees her simply as an idiot, not someone who can do Catherine harm because of her own selfish exploitation of everyone around her. Both women are naive but Catherine’s comes from her goodness of character and innocence. Morris Townsend is capable of appreciating Catherine’s sensitivity and intelligence, but he also wants her money. Among the many disquieting elements in the book is how James mocks Catherine too; she is an intensely poignant figure, cowed by her father’s long derision of her, unable to actively fight him.

The metaphor of drowning kittens is what the doctor is doing to Catherine at the same time as we are given enough ironies and flat statements in the rough scene between Dr Sloper and Morris Townsend to get the point that Townsend does want to marry Catherine for her money. For the reader who persists in believing in companionate marriage and that Townsend who appears to recognize how vulnerable and soft Catherine is will be kind to her, Mrs Almond’s comment, which embedded in these ironies, is to be taken straight (it takes a great deal of tact to read James even at this early stage) that she feels sorry for Catherine pings back to Townsend’s, don’t you care that she will be miserable for life. At the close of Chapter 11 he says he likes to inspire “a salutary terror” in her.

We have the problem of separating the narrator from Dr Sloper: the free indirect discourse does not make clear all the time whether it’s Dr Sloper’s thoughts that show such contempt of women or the narrator’s. When I go over it, I find again and again the nasty reflections are Dr Sloper’s. The narrator will say “poor Catherine” at least. The narrator says that Mrs Penniman is “perfectly unprepared to play” the part of explaining what’s happening. We might say Dr Slope is doing the right thing to check out Townsend by interviewing his sister, Mrs Montgomery, but the whole feel of the chapter is insinuating: he wants bad news; he does not want to hear anything good, and anything he hears he turns it to the worst. Why is Mrs Montgomery so reluctant to speak. She could have defended her brother at the assaulting words and does not. Why not? The words “salutary terror” the Dr uses of his relationship with his daughter lingered in my mind. He sees Catherine from the worst side. Whatever she does, he turns it to her discredit. She is patient and seems obedient, so he reflects “his daughter was not a woman of great spirit.” “Paternity is not an exciting vocation.” One feels he wanted scenes, wanted her to flee – -and thus be hurt. He’s an expert at rejection. He makes her feel terrible. Ironically in Morris’s dialogue with Mrs Penniman he resembles the doctor – curt, skeptical, and (for the reader caring for Catherine) singularly unsentimental. He is as grated upon by her as Dr Slope.

Maggie Smith as Mrs Penniman interfering destructively in Catherine’s thoughts, and relationship with Townsend (Holland’s film)

While in Europe, the Doctor lets his rage come out. Catherine is justly frightened of him. She cannot quite believe he would kill her, but he could and lie about it. He does admit just a little that he is prepared to hurt her badly; “I am not a good man.” He is warning her. When they get home, we see her reaction was to move another step. When he derided her desire to be honest and not stay under his roof while seeing Townsend, she grew angry and knew he was abusing her and that gave her strength to distance herself from him. She tells her aunt this year has changed her “feelings about her father.” She feels she owes him nothing now because of how he has treated her.

Dr Sloper’s sister, Mrs Almond, sees Sloper’s continued enjoyment of Catherine’s misery. He’s a very intelligent subtle Mrs Norris (from Austen’s MP), subtly abusive. He gets a kick out of saying things like; “We must try and polish up Catherine.” He thinks her a dense dullard not capable of polishing — he’s sneering. The savage irony of the book is Townsend resembles Sloper in his scorn of people. Catherine is a tragic heroine. There is no one around worth her, no one around who could reciprocate on his level of love or strength — for we shall see she is strong. Not to act, but to hold out. Holding out counts. Anger becomes a healthy emotion here, and it carries Catherine through.

Then the doctor pulls it out to the nth degree: he accuses her of waiting for his death. She is going to wait and ask Townsend to wait in the hope her father will change his views. This makes him accuse her of wanting his death. She goes sick and faint with this. There is nothing in Catherine or Townsend’s behavior for that matter to substantiate this accusation. It’s not done to stop her marrying Townsend; it’s done to hurt her – to accuse her of the foul feelings he has. And he keeps this accusation up. What is a girl like her who we’ve seen is so moral to say in reply? she finally sees he despises her.

When she finally leaves the room – after he mocks her for saying that she ought not to have a farthing of his money by echoing that with “you won’t,” we are told “he was sorry for her … but he was so sure he was right.” He does not admit to himself he hates her. Of course not: he is amused; “By jove. .. I believe she will stick … I believe she will stick.” Is this a way to talk about her intense and complete abject anguish? He is looking at her as if she was some horse he was betting on and enjoying its suffering.

After Catherine spends a “dreadful night” (and it is dreadful even if she can get up and control herself in front of her father), Mrs Penniman meets with the doctor and he tells her not to do as she had been doing, which is not to practically help but and not to give any emotional support. If she does either, he reminds her of “the penalty” for “high treason.” I don’t think she is the quite the fool the doctor thinks: she says that her brother is “killing” Catherine. Sloper though is into control and possession.

How will Catherine fare if she does marry Townsend. We worry for her — he does not inspire enough confidence. Both her aunts say she is strong, but what if he is a total liar, and once married would betray and hurt her

Ben Chaplin as Townsend irritated by Mrs Penniman’s hypocritical sentimental pretenses — to him she is a jackass (Holland film)

We begin to see Townsend is not worthy Catherine. The chapters at this point leave me shaking. When Catherine tells her father she should not live under his roof (very pious and James as narrator finds her absurd (I see this in my edition in Chapter 22, p 118, the paragraph beginning “These reflexions,” especially the line: “this was close reasoning — James finds her hilarious …); when Catherine tells her father this, he accuses her of bad taste. He disbelieves she really thinks that.

Catherine does not end in an invisible prison; she ends seeing what’s in front of her for real. And then (my view) she does like Millie at the close of the Wings of the Dove — for those who’ve read it. I don’t mean she dies — she does not die (her father has told her she won’t die of this …. ). ? It’s like watching a specimen in a fish bowl writhing. It’s as dark as Daisy Miller (written around the same time, also a novella) whose actual death is caused by the careless sinister minds of those around her.

I see the ending as Catherine ending up in a unlived life, turning her face to the wall because she cannot bear what she has been made to see. This is Milly in The Wings of the Dove, the hero in The Ambassadors, in The American, in “The Beast in the Jungle.” She will do a little good with the money she has. Death has at least freed of the corrosive father and she may live without someone near her who despises her. I had hoped for that for her and she got it without having to leave her home and cope with Townsend for the rest of her life instead.

The two film adaptations

The Heiress

Rare moment of pleasure in one another (Montgomery Cliff as Townsend)

There are great actors here in this film. Wyler directed both Ralph Richardson and Olivia de Havilland to act or become as half-mad people. Richardson’s eyes are half-wild once he is told that Catherine has engaged herself to Townsend. The only way Wyler could understand such a flash of anger and years of hatred and punishment is that the man was not right — and like the other movie, much is made of the death of the wife in childbed and his bitter disappointment at the difference. Miriam Hopkins is Mrs Penniman (and as with Holland with Maggie Smith playing the part), Mrs Penniman has intelligence (James’s character doesn’t). Maybe it’s unreal to make her so gratingly fatuous — except that Bogdanovich pulled that for for similar character in Daisy Miller and Chloris Leachman did that black comedy to a “T.” Catherine begins in such innocence and vulnerabilty I felt intense pain as I waited for her father to come down hard. Haviland plays the part as an adoring sweet girl. It’s was heart-breaking. And then she seems to crack, also goes mad, more obviously.

Wyler couldn’t face that Catherine just caves in — the audience might think her weak (I suggest above I don’t and I hope explained why). Wyler knew we should not have a semi-happy ending, so he has Catherine become deeply angry after Townsend does not show up to take her away to marry him. She goes into a cold rage of hatred for her father herself. And the ending is her refusing to show the father any affection after the scene where she says he despises and dislikes me.” She stays outside the house when he dies — the scene of his demanding her promise again is there, and fuels this hatred. When Townsend returns she plays a trick on him: says she will be ready at midnight; he comes and she won’t let him in. She goes upstairs in grim triumph of cold hatred and anger. The mood is grim for the last ten minutes, dreadfully grim. Haviland pulls it off — she was in Snake Pit around that time where she played a woman put in asylum and gone mad because of this.

Wyler does not get the humor or mockery of the text (neither does Holland)– Bogdanovich did make Daisy Miller as a pathetic heroine also ditzy and we laugh at her at least in the first half of the movie.

This is a remarkable and bold movie for the time — the black-and-white is used to make a nightmare of the house in the second half, not gothic, realistic. One of these Victorian mansions that is a prison — rather like Cukor managed in Gaslight. The angles are remarkable. At the first half of the movie we see Catherine full face, soft focus; in the second half Haviland hard nose is caught again and again; she looks bigger and stronger in the cased-in dresses she wears. She is on guard the way I saw it — but to say she is angry and getting back is to lose the tragedy. A beautiful soul is still there is the poignancy of the piece.

Holland’s Washington Square

An interlude of quiet understanding between Townsend and Catherine

A disappointment. It’s more than that both the father and Townsend were softened, and Mrs Penniman made smarter and more decent (so the portrait softened too), and that the essential attacks and mockery of the original were lost. It might be asserted, How can movies do this? It’s very much against the grain to present characters from an ironic point of view in the film media: it somehow invites intense identifications, strong emotionalism, and is realistic, but it can be done. I’ve seen in the 1972 Emma and in a 1972 Golden Bowl where it was achieved through the use of a brilliantly ironic narrator (Cyril Cusak as also the husband of Fanny Assingham). Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller shows how the characters contrive to destroy Daisy — but then the ending is tragic and as long as you keep to it the point is made; Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady is not ironic, but she exposes James’s fallacies (like it’s good to have all these suitors persecuting you), and is truer to the instincts of James’s story — with Isabel ending with a sadist she is subject to, and Touchett a closet gay or someone unwilling to risk sex but wanting to himself control Isabel, vicariously live thorugh her which is a form of preying. I’ve seen two Turn of the Screws, one by Nick Dear which seemed to me absolutely true to James’s text, and he other by Sandy Welch showed up James’s text as lending itself to misogyny at least.

Dr Sloper (Albert Finney) is still a bully and cruel egoist, but he does not hate Catherine nor is he scornful or derisive; rather he’s possessive; his idea is for her years from now to mary an older man (like himself you see), and sit by him and knit or read — because she is too ugly and stupid to attract an attractive one. What’s wrong is Holland could not get herself to realize the ugly emotions involved. In both movies (as in the book) Townsend is sexually attracted enough and at first finds Catharine’s goodness sweet. We do see Townsend’s frustration at being caught between the father-daughter struggle in this movie, but the emphasis in the movie is on her obstinacy which is not made central to her strength. Holland is no sympathetic to Catharine and in an opening scene makes fun of Leigh as awkward. Holland does make the scene between father and daughter on the mountain scary and you really do feel and she does too Dr Sloper tempted to throw Catharine off.

Townsend simply both wants Catherine and her money. He says, Is that so bad? He does have a business; he is not preying on his sister (in James it’s not clear he’s doing that), and like the James story, basically he grows tired of waiting, feels he can’t take this relationship between the father and daughter and wants out. Maggie Smith is Mrs Penniman and while she does spoil the relationship of Townsend and Catherine while the two are away for a year, she has a lot of Mrs Almond in her.

Catherine (Jennifer Leigh) does have the devastating moment where she realizes her father despises her. When he suggests she will do best to marry years from now an older man, she pushes back and describes how she sees the years of his coming home to her all eager and love — that he was destroying her bit by bit by the way he’d greet her and live with her sarcastically. They do have the dialogue where she says she should not stay with him as she is disobedient and he lashes out with strong sarcasm that this is the final bad taste. She as a creature seems to him altogether in bad taste at that moment — here the movie does edge towards the text.

Courtship and marriage are validated. Catherine has a cousin who marries and is ever so happy, endlessly pregnant and towards the end of the movie Catherine is gaining satisfactin from caring for them too. Courtship and marriage as such are fine – as Townsend shouts, what is so wrong with wanting sex and money? is not that what all want? The framing of the movie is Sloper’s loss of his wife at the birth of Catherine so obviously he has been made so mean (this is implied) because he didn’t have this happy marriage. In the text we really are not told what the marriage was like, only that it grated on Sloper to have his abilities as a doctor shown up.

Apparently the studio was still unhappy about the ending which shows Catharine making do with having a school and bringing love to other children’s lives and finding fulfillment in her cousin’s children. They wanted Catherine and Townsend to marry and be seen as happy. Holland does not do that; it would be to make no sense of the story at all. Not that the ending of James’s story does not imply that social life is what a person must have and enter into to be happy, but James’s story shows it to be hell because of typical human nature’s selfishness, stupidity, predatory aspects — and Catherine needed something better to cope and survive for real. She’s not a saint but she far finer than all around her.


The wealthy father and daughter walking in a park (Holland film)

We then went on to read Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite and discovered it has the same paradigm and some of the same themes and outcomes. Sir Harry himself is imagined as a chivalric ideal male: there is irony as Trollope as narrator tells us Sir Harry spent his life as a grand seigneur in his great house spending money in order to be a central linchpin for the good of his community and by extension England. A respectable moral man, and married an obedient (conventional) wife 20 years younger than him. As the novel begins, a great tragedy: his only son, the heir dies, and the next heir is this — right away we are told — ne’er do well, Sir George Hotspur. Sir Harry has a daughter now 20.

Sir Harry then discovers “too late” what a bad prospect for heir, for the community, for his daughter, Sir George is: gambler, wastrel, idler, but even worse things …. When I read it first I did imagine a mistress, maybe illegitimate children (which is what Gwendolen discovers Grandcourt has). Why too late? he invited him to stay and he is immensely likeable as company, witty, handsome, plausible and it seems perhaps Emily has fallen for this. Not clear — she denies this to her mother and a new candidate, 10 years older than her is to come for Christmas. It’s made clear Sir Harry loves Emily: “he respected his daughter …” He is really concerned over the property as he has made her complete heiress of the property but Sir George will be legitimate head of the family. Her mother is in the position of Aunt Penniman, but very well meaning, not vain jackass

Chapter 3 ended Part 2 in the original instalment publication and it’s a deeply picturesque description of Humblethwaite. It reminds me of Ullathorne only much more so and not at all mocked. It’s Trollope’s adherence to this dream of an ancient seigneurial contented hierarchical world, rooted in Tudor times. Lord Alfred comes to court Emily and there’s nothing wrong with him — he fits in perfectly; he would have made a good husband. The point is made he wants her money and estate, but he would have taken her to London, given her a good life. We are told he did not somehow set her on fire — no erotic enthrallment

(Cont’d in comments). Chapters 7-11; Chapters 16-20; Chapters 22-finis.


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We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.


Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.


John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her


Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.


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Kate O’Hara of An Eye for an Eye by Elisa Trimby

Dear friends and readers,

More than a week ago now a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies finished reading Trollope’s powerful Anglo-Irish novella, An Eye for an Eye. We’ve been having a sort of Anglo-Irish year and a half, having now read (in this order) just before (but not directly after one another), The Kellys and O’Kellys, Castle Richmond, The Macdermots of Ballycloran. The links I provide will taken the reader to group reads of these books a different group of us read on the same list-serv some ten years ago.

The Macdermots of Ballycloran was the first novel the first list-serv group for Trollope I ever was on read together (we chose it because it was Trollope’s first novel), and the reading and book is the subject of the first chapter of my book, where, with its second chapter on all the other Anglo-Irish books of Trollope (excluding the Phineas books) I argue this set of books is a powerful sub-genre, a series whose books share a group of characteristics and repeating motifs; Trollope maps its landscape (and thus Ireland). I wrote in my book it’s:

a place apart, filled with characters who have little hope, who encounter cruelty, hardship and indifference with a combination of pragmatic acceptance, stern heroism, mythic gestures and extravagant fantasies. It is a place ‘especially unhappy’, rural, archaic, primal in customs. When it is realistic, we explore paralysis. When it is romantic, we find ourselves in providential, picaresque or gothic worlds, in the latter of which uncanny happenings are at home. Sutherland remarks that when an English novelist turned to Ireland he evoked ‘a vein of Celtic romance and pathos’ unavailable in English novels.

Well it won over a new set of people (plus me, and any other old-timer). I’ve assigned it twice to my students, have read good student papers on it, and I again wrote about their reaction, how they identified with the young hero and heroine whose lives are destroyed by ethnic, religious, class prejudice.

The best of Trollope’s critics, Richard Holt Hutton, who identified Trollope when he tried to publish anonymously, saw the novella as one where: that two decent people are destroyed by the inhumane twisted mores of our society. Hutton writes: “Of all the strange perversions of which the moral nature of men is capable probably none is stranger than the tendency of certain socalled “social obligations” to override the simpler personal obligations in certain men’s breasts, an dyet to work there with all the force of high duty, and all the absoluteness of an admitted destiny.” Hutton goes over all the characters and how [the hero] Fred is led by them and the place in England to do what he is ashamed of [not marry Kate after he has impregnated her], to tell himself he owes more to “society” than his conscience or God; a “sacred promise” become a thing of “contempt” when what is contemptible is not making Kate is true wife. Hutton does not blame Fred but he shows how he is hardened.

This time I will quote from my book:

An Eye for Eye is a small masterpiece. Nearly all those who have read and written about it have pronounced it a stark, passionate, and poetic romance of surpassing merit. Richard Holt Hutton, Trollope’s contemporary, and still one of his best critics, thought An Eye for an Eye would ‘take a high place among Mr Trollope’s works’. He said ‘there is something in the atmosphere of Ireland which appears to rouse his imagination, and give force and simplicity to his pictures of life’. Holt analysed the novella as a ‘tragic story of mastering passion and over-mastering prejudice, — of a great sin, and a great wrong, and great revenge’ and ‘family pride’, one with a full array of subtly observed real characters’. An Eye for an Eye is a ‘story which no man without a very powerful imagination could have written’.

Lady Scroope, Fred’s adopted stepmother has prided herself on her austere Christian life, but ‘the strange perversion of which the moral nature of man is capable’ leads her for the sake of her family’s prestige first to hound Fred to break off with Kate, then to forbid him to marry her. When Kate becomes pregnant, Lady Scroope hints to him if he cannot desert Kate, he can live with her without marrying her (Eye for An Eye, pp. 156-64). The novel teaches us — most unusually says Holt — that moral justice demands that its hero, who feels contempt for the girl he has seduced, shall still not desert her.

John William North, “Requiescat in Pace,” for Jean Ingelow, Poems, 1867 — it could be Fred wandering on the Moher cliffs

What gives An Eye for an Eye the power to astonish and keeps the reader compulsively turning pages is the dilemma the book turns on — the struggle between Fred’s pragmatic and proud ambition which prevents him, a young man upon whom rank and money have been unexpectedly thrust, from offering to marry Kate, and his equally intense desire to escape reponsibility and social ties in order to lose himself in a wild landscape of dreams. There is something deeply appealing to him in the tender love of a wholly undemanding girl (pp. 62-64, 66-67, 71, 81). This is also one of Trollope’s many novels whose meaning cannot be understood apart from, and whose events could not have happened anywhere but in its particular landscape (pp. 189-94).

A suggestive photograph by Carleton Watkins (1865-66)

Trollope’s uncanny insight into Kate’s mother’s character is absorbing. Mrs O’Hara married against her family’s advice and found herself isolated and married to a betrayer, a low-life drone. When her husband deserted her, she came to live in a cottage on the Moher cliffs; her only friend is a Catholic priest, Father Marty, who encourages Fred because Father Marty thinks Fred a great prize, especially for Kate (pp. 52-60). Mrs O’Hara allows the courtship to continue because she is moved by her daughter’s silent plea that before Fred her life in isolation was no life (pp. 42-43).

Trollope presents Mrs O’Hara as a woman who has been driven to the edge of desperation by a hard cold society; Fred’s refusal to marry Kate awakens in her a latent ferocity created by her past, one of which Fred was only half-aware and which frightened him (p. 65). Fred cannot foresee this last blow to her pride will be one blow too many for Mrs O’Hara to sustain without resorting to some form of crazed behaviour.

An Eye for an Eye is structured as an explanation of how Mrs O’Hara’s mind came to disintegrate suddenly — it opens with her madness. After I read it for the first time I compared it to Elsa Morante’s 1974 La storia, a fictionalised history of Italy in the first half of the twentieth century as experienced by Ida [Iduzza] Ramundo:

An Eye for An Eye is written as a flashback. It opens with a one and one-half page ‘Foreword’ in which we met a woman in a private asylum ‘somewhere in the west of England’ [in the manuscript Trollope wrote ‘Ireland’]. She sits quietly all day, occasionally uttering the same phrases over and over, ‘An eye for an eye . . . and a tooth for a tooth. Is it not the law?’ And her attendant agrees ‘An eye for an eye, madam. Oh, certainly. That is the law. An eye for an eye, no doubt’. The book isan unraveling of this opening image, an explanation of who the woman is and how she came to be there, of the meaning of her formula repeated ‘a dozen dozen times’ a day. Morante takes 656 pages to get us to a remarkably similar page and one-half where Iduzza similarly goes mad when one day she comes home from work to find all she had left to value gone. Her beloved disabled young son lies dead on the floor. We are told she spends the rest of her life repeating and muttering a strange series of syllables no-one understands. They are the words of the child who was an epileptic and thrown out of school because he was thought an idiot. When nine years Iduzza finally dies (the last paragraph of this book), we are told she had really died the day her son died. Iduzza has been shattered and destroyed by four years of terrible war, isolation and despair.

In a book of one-quarter the length Trollope presents us with a similarly desperate woman who has severed herself from all other people because she has been scorned as well as betrayed, and when her treasure, Kate, is betrayed by Fred, we watch her gradually strained beyond endurance lose all control until on the cliff, when she is once again asked to listen to Fred refuse to marry Kate, she pushes him to his death.

In Trollope’s and Morante’s novels we are made to feel what the hierarchies of society cost the vulnerable. The epigraph of Morante’s novel is a comment by a Hiroshima survivor: ‘there is no word in any human language capable of consoling the guinea-pig who doesn’t understand why she died’. This epigraph applies to Thady in the Macdermots and the lovers in An Eye for an Eye.

The novella ends tragically; it is intense as are Trollope’s other novellas. The one closest to it for poignant ironic romance is Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite whose stories show strong resemblances, and which itself is a closely analogous story to Henry James’s Washington Square, with the daughter dying unfairly turns against her own father and her maid. Since James was so hard on Trollope, it’s not that often noticed how James reads Trollope assiduously as each Trollope novel is published and how much James owes to Trollope as a source.

A scene found in Agnieska Holland’s Washington Square which has an equivalent in James’ and Trollope’s novellas alike

I can’t recommend it too highly.


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Woolf’s working desk at Monk House

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve four more sessions to report on from this year’s MLA (see a rejuvenating time, the 18th century, public poetry, audio books, films): two on Virginia Woolf (one with Katherine Mansfield as part of a dual subject), one on Mark Twain and Henry James, and a fourth on the Victorian marriage plot.

Duncan Grant (1885-1978), The Coffee Pot (1916)

“Everyday Woolf” (No. 31, Thurs, Jan 3rd, noon to 1:15 pm) was the first I attended and (as sometimes happens) it was one of the best. All three papers were superb. Adam Barrows talked of “Mrs Dalloway and the Rhythms of Everyday Life”. Mrs Dalloway is confined to one day is a polyrhythmic sympohy felt in the body of biological rhythms, social patterns intersecting with the irreducably local and yet it all fits into a cosmic pattern. Discordant uneasy rhythms which function as disruptions. The text covers sleeping, eating, a continual melange of noise, visual perception, silence. We hear an irregular heartbeat. Septimus is made ill by what is imposed on him from war and now work. Mr Barrow read aloud great reveries from the novel. Kayla Walker discussed To the Lighthouse; each character is at work, Mrs Ramsay cooperatively, carving out space and time; she close-read the text for its rhythms and imagery.

In his paper, “Virginia Woolf and the Modern Blessings of Electricity,” Sean Mannion suggested that modernism begin when electricity began to spread. At first it was written about as a disenchantment, and Woolf shows nostalgia over fire- and gaslight. Newspapers found the world now looked like an amusement park; moonlight would not have the same function or meaning; light is now separated from fire. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of he warmth and radiance of gaslight. There were dangerous and fatal incidents early on as people had to learn how to use electricity. Woolf’s Night and Day captures a love of firelight lost in the glare of electric light; her Jacob’s Room has a mixed assessment. Of course the power of what electricity could do more than compensated for the losses, and there is an ecstatic feel too (in The Voyage Out), among other places, the library.

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), a friend reading in a library

A second session on Virginia Woolf, this time with the Katherine Mansfield Society, was about their personal relationship and aesthetic and professional interactions (No. 338, Fri, Jan 4th, 3:30 4:45 pm). I missed the paper on their reaction to the newly formed theories of psychoanalysis, but I did hear part of Bret Keeling’s talk on their dealings with masculinity in their work and men in their lives, and Kathryn Simpson on their differing attitudes towards gifts (also in the sense of talent) and desires. She defined a gift by its function: it can consolidate social bonds, be an assertion of power and identity and authority. What was the central focus of all I heard (including the discussion afterward) was how the two women were different in background: Woolf the daughter of the Victorian intelligensia, and then a member of the Bloomsbury intellectual art-radical group, a highly defensive writer; Mansfield a colonial who needed money more desperately than Woolf and was treated badly by men, plagiarizing sometimes, radical, adventurous in during her tragically short life. Writing was central to their identity and their styles and aims were coterminous; they were rivals.

James Whistler (1834-1903), The Giudecca (chalk & pastels on grey paper, 1879)

The joint-societies’ session of Henry James and Mark Twain (No. 377, Fri, Jan 4th, 5:15-6:30 pm) was filled with unexpected perspectives. Kaye Wierzvicki’s paper focused on James’s The Bostonians, Book 3 set in Cape Cod. We encounter a post-civil war US, a central nub in a global network as well as tourist attraction. James explores its geographic identity, what places in the world it brings together through culture and characters; it figuratively projects other places like it. Kathryn Dolan taught me that Twain was anti-imperial. Twain wrote several travel books, and one (1866?) about Hiawaii exposed how the product sugar led to cruel exploitation of imported (coerced) efficient labor patterns. In his later travel writing he reported on British islands in the South Pacific, Following the Equator, then he traveled to islands in the Indian ocean. He sees forms of slavery in the transported. I just loved Harold Hellwig’s paper which he read very fast as it was long: he covered the many images, myths and stories, and visions of Venice found in Twain and James’s writing. Both show that the allure of Venice is a cover for its ruined condition. Venice provides an inner journey of the mind; Twain presents a place false, destructive marketplaces yet its people with strong self-respect. Both have famous character sketches where they capture qualities of life (James an American Mrs Bronson, Twain an escaped black enslaved man). He recited powerful passages by both writers and had a continual montage of images of Venice from the Renaissance until today when few can live there because of the continual floods.

Christopher Eccleston as the hopeful aspiring Jude at the begining of the film (1996 Jude directed by Michael Winterbottom; see my blog on Hardy films)

The last session we attended (suitcases under our chairs) was “Rethinking the Victorian Marriage Plot” (No. 745, Sun, Jan 6th, noon to 1:15 pm). Despite an apparent contemporary emphasis on women characters looking to be useful, do real work in the world (for which they are paid in some way), a professed interest in disabilities and people in need, the underlying perspective was that of women reading for love stories that teach the female reader what she wants to hear as relevant to her. Talia Schaffer suggested that Jane Eyre scorns St John Rivers because his ideal of meaningful work represses private satisfactions. Ms Schaffer looked upon Rochester as disabled and needing Jane’s help and love. Maia McAleavey discussed how the bigamy plot in Victorian novels substitutes for an argument on behalf of divorce: in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd a female bigamist makes choices she escapes from; in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Arabella marries bigamously and finds more opportunity while Jude and Sue by behaving ethically find themselves bound and destroyed.

Sue (Kate Winslet) in a similar hopeful moment (1996 Jude)

As I sit here tonight I find myself going through the MLA book of sessions and wondering why I didn’t go to this or that (tonight seemingly) far more interesting session than those I chose. In these four blogs I have omitted a lot I did try because the time turned out dull, or jargon-ridden and phony, people posing, or the topic actually preposterous. Some were hard to write about or take notes: like a session given by companies who have put huge dictionaries on line. I went to no sessions on translation; none on intriguing odd topics (“Denis de Rougemont and appropriations of the troubadours”); there were sessions on dubbing and subtitling in movies, on animals, on psychoanalysis in literature, prison architecture, the poetics of death, global Shakespeare. It was a matter of guessing, try what I knew and where I might meet friends and acquaintances, try to go to some with Jim, leave a little time for going out and eating (it was too cold to explore Boston much). I can’t prove this but I had a sense there were fewer sessions than there used to be, and consequently a greater proportion of sessions on job hunting, careers, teaching and scholarship politics (all of which I’ve learned to avoid, especially anything for contingent faculty which often are semi-acrimonious).

I need tonight to remind myself that when we left we were exhilarated by our time away, and said we would go again the next time the MLA came to the east coast (as long as it was not too far south). We have two planned for this year already (ASECS in April and EC/ASECS next fall) and I’m going to one on Popular Culture here in DC in March where I plan to spend a full day listening to sessions on film adaptations, films and hear a paper on Winston Graham’s historical fiction from a feminist standpoint.

Inge Morath (1923-2002), A Park Bench


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Colm Toibin when much younger

Dear friends and readers,

Last night we went to a local bookstore which regularly hosts talks and classes about books (as well as a weekly storybook hour for children and tours too), Politics and Prose. We’d never been there before, and to the area only once, when last July we were invited to come to a fourth of July barbecue (what a treat for us). A member of the Irish embassy asked all those who came to read James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloom Day. We heard about this because Jim got an email from the Irish embassy which now has his name.

A large old-fashioned bookstore, two floors (!), where books are actually set up by their categories and within that the author’s name (like a library, like Borders once was). A couple tables upfront with latest sellers, and in the back audiobooks on CD. You can wander about and come upon treasures just like this. I saw Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman (a biography of Lillian Hellman) on display, but had decided for Toibin’s Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, a book of somewhat rewritten essay-review meditations published elsewhere (the LRB, the NYRB and other places). If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how much I like his essays, and how I’ve loved those of his novels I’ve read thus far. It turns out I’ve read 4 of 7 (In praise of Colm Toibin: Un-put-downable).

Last night he was there to promote his latest novel (apparently the 7th), The Testament of Mary. Yes the central character is the Virgin Mary (does she have a last name like the rest of us?). It’s a really a novella, a short one at that, and from what he wrote a retrospective meditation by Mary some 20 years after the brutal crucifixion of her son. She is now living in safety, relative peace, left to herself by all and two visitors show up, one Lazarus. Yes he takes liberties — good historical fiction often does. The core idea is the irretrievableness of what happened and how she cannot forget and if she could change it, do it differently somehow, how she longs to. It’s memories poured out. As a subjective narrative by a women it harks back to his great The South. He seems to have a predilection for writing heroine’s texts (Brooklyn, Henry James in The Master is a kind of male heroine).

What a large crowd. It did not overwhelm the store, but it was much larger than we’d expected of such an intellectual sensitive author. There were not enough chairs for all.

He began by telling us of his trips to Venice and two paintings of the Virgin he had stood before repeated: a Tintoretto, perhaps The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and a Titian, The Assumption. What he seems to have liked especially about the latter was her red robe and how she soared above reality. He is himself getting older.

Recent photo — he does look like this, only he is a small man, somewhat bent, light brownish-white skin, light brown hair

Today I see that the Tintoretto has Mary in a red robe too, and the picture’s content against the reason for its festival, takes us across her life.

They were the inspiration for the book. He did not tell us why he wrote it, only that he would like it to be taken seriously and he didn’t mean it as a mock. He didn’t think the church would bother notice it — he said this in answer to one question afterwards. He does read very well, and his voice was how I’d imagined it, Irish lilt but not too heavy. I stayed awake and listening for much of it, though when his register came too low I couldn’t hear it all. We were in the back, having arrived only ten minutes before the “reading” started.

It was obvious he’d done this many times. He was smooth, and seemed such a sweet man. These sorts of things are part of what makes an author successful. The book launch. He’s learned how to do it. Among questions asked were does he have a routine, a place he always writes, what does he write with. He said he writes anywhere and with any thing (mostly a pen) and no he’s not a routine type. He does sometimes have to write a book quickly or whatever quickly lest he forget it; get it down, and then he comes back to work at it. He is not a man who has written a lot of very long books, say like Dickens, Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Wm Dean Howells, and they all had fixed routines and places they wrote. He has made his career through socializing too and his oeuvre (in pages) most actually be preponderantly non-fiction.

I wanted to reply to something he had said before starting his readings. He said that other “classic” fiction novels, 19th century, were no help “here.” He comically alluded to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, they could not help him. Nor Henry James. Perhaps Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother, isolated, alone, an “odd” woman.) While he was reading I thought of Daniel Deronda’s mother, Eliot’s older heroine who returns 25 years after giving her son up to another so she could have an operatic career, a life of her own. Now bitter, not remorseful, but regretful because after all she ended up marrying and having children anyway. The dreams she had had not been realized and how here was this son reproaching her.
But the mike was too far away.

I didn’t try to buy anything directly afterwards. The line became very long. Instead we walked three stores down to the Comet, a pizza place with ambience. A large screen played over and over the poignant short Italian film, The Red Balloon. No sound just the images before you. The walls gray. The tables ping-pong, the seats benches. Soft lights. We had two pizzas, small, a white (all cheese, garlicky nothing else) and a red (just tomato sauce topping, more spicy, reminding me in its heavy dough and yummy surface of pizza in NYC in the 1950s, so-called Napoles-like). A carafe of chianti. The place was moderately full.

We talked. We realized this was probably the first book reading we’ve ever gone to as such. Play readings by a group, lectures, maybe a book reading within a performance of other things, but not alone. Jim said we never went to the Folger poetry readings because they cost. This was for free. Also the people were less known and there was obviously time for too much talk. So too much egoism would be on display he felt. I remembered going to listen to Empson read his poem in the Graduate Center in the 1970s. How he read little and talked much of his poetry. But the talk was splendid, really insightful (as Toibin’s was not quite, though not deliberately misleading as say Andrew Davies on his films), and how John Hollander got up to ask questions, all admiring and how Empson (spiteful in this but perhaps made uncomfortable) cut him down, half-mocked him. Also a lecture by Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. All I can recall is how intelligent and humane she was and ever after have reacted to all dismissals of her work, denigrations of her with a memory of this seeing her and knowing they are unfair to her.

We decided we would try some more at this place. Then to support the bookstore, we went back. That’s when I bought Love in a Dark Time. All the Testaments to Mary were gone. To tell the truth, I was not sure I wanted it, as I felt it would be wrapped up in Catholicism as some level, and I’m an atheist. I was sure it’d be feminist in intent. If Toibin had said he found out or invented a last name for her, and told us of it, I might’ve. They had only had his most recent novels: (Blackwater Lightship two copies, one still left, and mostly Brooklyn and The Master, latest and best known. I have them all plus The South and Homage to Barcelona (not there). But there was suddenly one copy as if from deep in a basement (the girl at the counter said it was “a backlist” book), this book of essays. So I snatched it. His essay on Wilde’s exposure of his homosexuality as “found out,” as a person wanting to be “found out” has influenced my thinking ever since.

We got home by 10ish, not too long to write one final blog on Jane Austen’s letters. I’m not going to give them up, but maybe go yet slower and do it by myself. The prompting from Austen-l helps, and the sense (however deluded) of reaching people, but the flak, the continual cliched readings and occasional either preposterous or theoretical agendas don’t help me at all. I waste time and make no friends refuting them.

Earlier that day I had talked on WWWTTA about Temple Grandin’s film about how animals form bonds, friendships, and people’s perception of them, and the trajectory the film belonged to. Really worth while and gotten into other debates on the growing dissemination of how it’s okay for women to subjugate themselves to sadism, even light fun … ), but I’ll add these as brief comments here later today.

We wished we could have more such nights. People are only gradually becoming aware of what a delightful city DC is slowly turning into. The neighborhood around there is small houses, apartments further off, and some shopping blocks. It’s marred by a large street which traffic streams through daily and that obscures the quiet ambience of the play otherwise. I’ve vowed to myself to read Love in a Dark Time, Homage to Barcelona, and (connected to Toibin and the project on book illustrations to Trollope which I’ve just finished — a blog this weekend), Amy Tucker’s The Illustration of the Master.

Reprinted by Tucker, it was chosen by James as a frontispiece for A Portrait of Lady, and could serve as frontispiece for Toibin’s The Master.


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

Dear friends and readers,

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


So, to begin this morning,

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

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

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

From The Prime Minister, “Tenway Junction”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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