Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘heroine’s text’


Norwegian Wood

Friends and readers,

I braved or endured a 7 hour trip (counting to and fro from my house in Alexandria, Va, on July 16th, to the Ripley Center of the Smithsonian buildings on the National Mall) to enjoy the (as I discovered) privilege of listen to Saul Lilienstein for some 6 hours and 45 minutes. A tough travel experience (it was one of these supremely super-hot days in DC with humidity making the experience of difficulty breathing) amid crowds not decently serviced (not the fault of the Metro staff who actually drive and are on the stations of the Metro). See what goes unreported: mass prayer meeting in DC July 16th. But all this seemed no trouble at all in comparison to what this unusual man was able to say, convey, teach a small group of people willing to sit and learn.

He talked of the original and continuing British sources of Beatles’s music, its then immersion in American white and black music), accompanied by videos and sound tracks that moved me deeply for themselves and taught me generally how the Beatles came to have power over vast general audience, not only of young people.

lilienstein

Lilienstein’s ostensible plot-design was not chronological and throughout he used tapes, videos, UTubes made since the 1990s technological revolution to exemplify themes. But there was an ever-inching forward in time across a life-story in time, which seems to be inevitable when one tries to account for works of signally high genius.

For the first half of the day, morning before lunch (at 12:30) he covered the sources of the Beatles’ deep early appeal, what was original and yet so utterly British and traditional in their music, and how they began to break away musically and thematically.

It’s easiest to tell something of their joint career. Music comes from 1957/68 when Lennon and MacCartney first met and started to play. They brought into their pair, Harrison at age 14 late in 1958. They played everywhere in Liverpool and back and forth in Hamburg. They had trouble finding a drummer once they wanted someone for a commercial style recording, and it was 1962 when Ringo Starr joined them

the-beatles
Photo from early phase: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul MacCartney

For the first hour he showed us how the earliest Beatles music in Liverpool and Hamburg was rooted in Irish, Scottish and music hall English aesthetic traditions and ethical-class outlooks. This hour-long part of Lilienstein's talk was the least accompanied by vocal tapes, and visual videos and at the same time the most startling. The cheerful music of acceptance of one's lot in the mainstream working class culture of later 19th and early 20th century entertainment is conveyed, but also how one belonged to this milieu captured once for all by Richard Hoggart in his famous The Uses of Literacy. Lilienstein would play a rendition of familiar early Beatles hits (before they came to the US), then an Irish/Scottish ballad or musical hall song. Lilienstein pointed out that “It was 20 years ago today/Sergeant Pepper taught the bland to play”constitutes an innovative reprieve of the deeply male upper class suave dominated music of the the later half of the 20th and into the 21st century by working class, soft shoe (American black) and effeminate plangent elements.

Lilienstein put a large image of a poster of a circus coming to a local music hall pre-WW1 and showed us how lines of the song “For the benefit of Mr Kite” are all taken from this poster. “The Long winding road” is another startlingly innovative harking back. The tune of “It was 20 years ago today” is from an earlier time utterly re-orchestrated. If we would listen to the lyrics of their songs, these tell us these truths: “I read in the news today, oh boy ..” If you begin to trace these lines, you find a genuine radical critique of history. One song about 40,000 holes takes us back to WW1 and horizontally to the number of seats in the Royal Albert Music Hall. Lilienstein played an early parody by Paul of this kind of music in a song my notes tell me ran “She was just a working class girl from the north.” I cannot over-estimate how startling and unknown to me all this was.

The second phase (another hour) was to trace the American roots of their songs. Americans had no trouble connecting with the Beatles as their songs imitated, were re-creations in a urban idiom of famous songs by Buddy Holly and his Crickets (whence the name Beatles), Little Richard, Chuck Berry. He would play an originally deeply American black song popular on black stations in the 1950s, then a semi-white rendition for a more widely-popular rendition on mainstream white radio, and then the Beatles, re-injecting black American words and rhythms. “Peggy Sue” became “P.S. I love You”. Mo-Town Smoky Robinson songs were re-injected into Beatles “This boy wants you back again.” They loved Chuck Berry, and combined his song with Blue Grass from white country music, giving it an urban edge either by imagery or quick pace. He played for us the Beatles’ rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Mr Postman.”

They had an ear to pick up the most remarkable of American songs: Barnett’s “Give me Money, that’s what I want,” adding to that their own personal intensities (Lennon screamed at a wild moment the lines about “give me money”), using darker chords. Wilbur Harrison trying to make some money re-made his “Kansas city,” rubbing out all black and Detroit references; the Beatles put these back in with lines about a “black beat” which referred to their imitation of music coming out of Detroit and Negro Spirituals. Lilienstein ended this section of his talk with “A Ticket to Ride” and “Day Tripper.”

Lilienstein’s talk was not just a matter of showing likeness and repetition of lyrics and tunes. He also showed transformation of blues structure quite early on in their music. 12 bars, each subdivided into 4, from C major into subdominant F and back to major C. They broke this up, turning to minor keys, bringing in sudden other unexpected chords (Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” became “You’re gonna lose that girl”). They never tried to hide what they were doing so you can use names and titles and lines to discover affinities and transformations. An early name for Lennon, MacCartney and Harrison was “Johnny and the Moondogs,” a term which has reference to performers of blues in the US. He discussed “She’s a woman” and “Help!” — for the first time I noticed the plangent nature of the words

Then a much shorter phase was “In a rebellious generation.” While towards the end Lilienstein played some of the music the Beatles recorded specifically against the Vietnam War, his subject was their rebellion against the musical forms they had been tinkering with, imitating, urbanizing. They began genuinely to expand what was meant by the term “rock’n’roll”. Norwegian Wood (which my daughter, Izzy, recorded a version of) was among these; also “Tomorrow never Knows” where they begin to bring in the drug culture through a psychedelic sound.

They imitate the sounds of technological machines, include lots of extraneous sounds, the point was to be haphazard. The song about the LSD experience was called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in order not to be too much in your face.

At this point Paul MacCartney began to pull back, and we see him returning to Western modes, and in Victorian stories like “She’s leaving home,” about grief and loss with the music leaving traditional cadences in a way expressive of descending sorrow. “All you need is love” is memorable because it’s rhythms are off-kilter. By contrast, experiment for John Lennon meant embodying his troubled spirit, his angst in quick moving rhythms, modern songs whose lyrics showed a deep critique of the society they were living in as in “Revolution.”

Asked whether “Revolution” was an anti-war song, Lennon replied all their songs are anti-war.
******************************

In the first half, the long morning, Lilienstein brought in how their career as a group developed, telling of their first successes with a British audience, the coming to the US, the first TV appearances and concerts (Shea Stadium). The second half, he moved into showing us the inward musicians: the composition process as recorded on pirated tapes of sessions where we see them move from a first version of a song (mostly brought in either by Paul or John, sometimes as a lyric and sometimes as a song without words), and how they hammered at these to develop a full sound with all four playing, altered the lyrics and often the very character or mood they began with. This reminded me of how Jane Austen’s few ms’s show she often began with something very coarse and conventional (in her case burlesque) and gradually revising, turned the passage to something with an almost diametrically opposed mood and character, though some core in the original idea is brought out memorably.

It’s not true that they didn’t know musical notation; MacCartney and Lennon both studied music in college. Lilienstein showed them bringing in a line from Hal Arlen’s “Somewhere over the rainbow” in one of their songs, and how they began to softly linger at a song’s end. George Martin had taught them much: how to use a recording studio; he brought in discipline and “cleaned” up songs, but Lilienstein maintained that someone else could have contributed what Martin did, and by the end (1966-69) he was just standing there recording expertly.

In this hour and one half about process we listened to at least 3-4 versions of each song. A first and last, and two intermediary. “Get Back” started out (possibly dismayingly) as an anti-immigrant song with Pakistani people told to “get back to where they once belonged: we heard them free-wheeling with chords sounds, and that Jo-Jo was originally aimed at “Yoko Ono” whom John had begun to bring to recording sessions

At the same time, Lilienstein began to show us the distinct differences in the type of music each of the two major creators, Lennon and MacCartney did, and the growing conflicts and clashes of outlook, how they wanted the group to develop, attitudes towards life (Paul was the more upbeat person, adjusted to realities, imagining stories of families, while John projected anger and despair, and self-doubt). They were fighting over who would dominant, over “ownership” of themselves and the group. In the Abbey Road album we have a group breaking apart: they can make joyful music while they are at one another’s throats. Songs combine the wild despair with the story element as in “She came through the bathroom window.”

Some of their best work came out of this period of raucous interaction. Lennon had become increasingly dependent on drugs; at least he used them to the point he’d come in stoned; he protested against the bowing to commercial demands; MacCartney was more controlled and began to write astonishingly beautiful ballads: “Yesterday,” “All the Lonely People,” “Eleanor Rigby.” “You think she needs you” could be by Brahms. We listened to the evolution of “Let it Be” (one of my favorites) which began with the essential familiar lines but it took a long while for the three who had not made the lyric to accept it, and develop it into a kind of hymn. In their earlier phases.

Lilienstein said single were often the two opposing points of view: one one you had Paul’s “Penny Lane” on the one side (pictorial, surreal reality, memories of happiness as a child, nostalgia for the past, hopeful)

On the other John’s “Strawberry Fields” where he doesn’t want to get out of bed, where life is hopeless and to be avoided, nothing to get “hung about,” easy to live with eyes closed, “It doesn’t matter much to me,”as in his song “Nowhere:”

Sometimes an album would end with a song by Lennon and characteristic of his depression, to be contradicted by the first song on the other side by MacCartney. Lennon’s “I am The walrus” (see below) makes no literal sense, an ode to personal doubt and lack of identity, and is followed by MacCarthney’s “Yes no stop go goodbye hello,” making fun of Lennon as posturing. They were not only increasingly disenchanted with one another, but their careers. George Harrison had up until this point followed these two as a guitarist; as they withdrew he began to fill the gap with a few remarkably great songs (“My guitar gently weeps”). He began with ABA structures, but soon we hear unusual things brought in: Spanish or flamingo music (“I me mine”). He wrote much less than these two, but a couple are among the best songs of the 20th century, like “Something:”

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

I am aware I may not have conveyed the excitement, and cannot begin to get down the passing remarks Lilienstein made about the music as we went along. Remarkably the four went from “I wanna hold your hand” and “Love love me do” to “Hey, Jude” and “Here comes the sun” in 7 short years. It’s about what happened during these 7 years in the music that Lilienstein accounted for, went into deeply. He has all sorts of tapes, among the more moving was a beautiful tape of “Love is all you need” as surreal; the song not one of those I’ve favored as until now all the renditions I’ve heard were so sentimentalized.

As literary and art so musical creation comes of the author’s lives — how could it be otherwise? Lilienstein told of how individual songs were events in these four people’s lives — he did discuss Ringo Starr less, saying Starr said of himself, he had been so lucky to come along for the ride because he was a very good drummer and worked well with the other three. He told mainly of Lennon and MacCartney’s personalities.

Here Lilienstein seemed to me to be too critical of Lennon’s outlook as if it were wrong but as he talked I realized for the first time that Lennon abused his first wife and other women. Lilienstein played a song, rarely heard, by Lennon about his male jealousy where he says remorselessly he’d rather murder the woman he is with than see her with another man, and he was (I had not known this) violent, ruthless towards people, and domineering over women until he met Yoko Ono. (This is not necessarily a tribute to her moral nature;she was part of the reason for the break-up of the quartet.) I saw Lilienstein meant to register that Lennon never fulfilled his gifts; he was still finding himself when he was gunned down (as so many are in the US). I was after all glad of the condemnation however brief.

He then showed Lennon’s work was the more continually interesting and troubling. His description of “I am The Walrus” as filled with nonsense phrases, unreal words, and just sounds thrown in that Lennon heard as he was composing made the song into a kind of small Finnegan’s Wake:

Almost inevitably then MacCartney came in for the highest praise: he sustained himself, lived longer, as far as we know lived more ethically with regard to other people, kept writing and singing, and a few of his songs are among many people never tire of hearing: Lilienstein seemed to feel Hey Jude was a favorite for re-hearing for most people.

Lilienstein did not go into this but implicit in his talk was the idea the Beatles utterly transformed what rock-n-roll was thought to be, its potentials, its possibilities. At the time there were other highly original groups — who I’d say came out of the ferment of new ideas, radical, and liberating of the 60s: folk (Peter, Paul and Mary), more soft versions of rock-n-roll (Simon and Garfunckel), new kinds of country (Willie Nelson and the groups pf Austin, Texas), music coming from Nashville. So like Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater, they came out of and were part of a movement, but they were a leading force. Their records sold tremendously, they topped all charts continually. Popular music has not been the same since. The only successful parody I know is from Love Actually: Bill Nighy’s inimitable, irreverent, mock-on-the-sexism, “Christmas is All Around Us” (it’s telling the original YouTube was pulled and there is now a much tamer one, minus the electrifyingly stupifyingly-sexualized girls and salacious gestures of Nighy).

Left out by Lilienstein except at split second moments, was the band’s sexism. They’d never have a woman singing with them one of them said. It’s a strongly masculinist point of view; the stories of young girls fleeing parents are done from the parental point of view. What the girl might have been feeling in her escape beyond a desire to “have fun,” and how she would feel years later when she was thoroughly punished by her society there are no songs about. As I listen to these I feel such sorrow over what I was as a teenager at age 16. My parents had no idea how to help me, nor did I how to help myself.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

CornhillMagazine (Medium)
The Cornhill Magazine opened to the place where installments of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage was appearing, prefaced by an illustration by John Everett Millais

Dear friends and readers,

Since I’ve had an unusual number of people subscribing to my blog as followers since I put up the summer syllabus for reading Trollope Small House at Allington together, and a couple of people have said they look forward to it, or compliment me by saying they wish they were in the class, and the opening lecture of the term was (for me) unusually coherent, I thought I would share it here.

I reviewed Trollope’s life and career up to the success of the Barsetshire books, and his move to London, the first four Barsetshire books, and we discussed “The Parson’s Daughter of Oxney Colne” as an introduction or framing of one of the central issues in The Small House. I find knowing the author’s life and experience central to understanding his art: Trollope’s books emerge from his imagination and experience and abilities of their author. What I call seeing them as lamps. They reflect, rework and comment on the era they are written in. Books as mirrors. (From Abrams’s famous The Mirror and the Lamp). The Small House has another kind of source: a previous literary work: I’ll show that SMA is a re-working, a more realistic and full and frank maturation of the characters and situation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and how Trollope’s art relates to Austen’s.

Sisters
The sisters: Lily Dale as a re-worked Marianne Dashwood, Bell Dale, Eleanor (Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett)

lonewidow (1)
The lone widow: Trollope brings out Mrs Dale’s loneliness, sacrifice of herself (1995 S&S, scripted Emma Thompson, directed Ang Lee)

Authors and what they write are also constrained by the place they are published in, the imagined audience that is to be pleased — and, in the case of a periodical, buy again. I’ve discovered ordinary readers don’t think of that enough; they remember it in the case of movies — but books are a commodity too, paper, ink, printers, costs of distribution, stores to place books in matter.

goodwordsimage
Lilies, illustration in Good Words (from The Victorian Web, scanned in and text by Simon Cooke)

I’m just now reading on line with a group of people Trollope’s two volume somewhat idyllic novel, Rachel Ray. “The Parson’s Daughter of Oxney Colne” (1861) is one of two short stories written just around this time that dwell on love, sex, marriage — as The Small House does (begun 1862) and Rachel Ray, the novel he wrote next (1862). He had a contract or understanding from Good Words, a magazine intended for evangelically-minded readers run by a Rev Dr Norman Macleod; Trollope submitted for Macleod’s perusal about half the first volume, and Macleod was shocked, wrote back, how could you write this for my audience? Trollope had warned Macleod that he thought the kind of novel he wrote and his outlook might not be suitable to an evangelical audience. It appeared Macleod thought that Trollope would alter himself almost radically. In the event, Trollope had to find another publisher: happily, he was doing so well by that time that Chapman and Hall, a very respectable publisher took the novel on. But there was a 2 year hiatus between the time of writing Rachel Ray and its publication.

MillasRachelRay
It was intended that Millais would illustrate Rachel Ray; he did but one: Rachel meditating

In the case of The Small House, the Cornhill started to serialize it before Trollope was finished so the ending was not written until well after readers had begun to read and react to the book. In the fourth week of this course I will send along another essay on the connection of the Cornhill to The Small House. I sent one last summer on the Cornhill and Framley Parsonage. The Cornhill I remind those who were here and tell newcomers was the New Yorker of its day. Framley Parsonage helped make it. It was a central text for an imagined community aimed at mostly middle class financially well-off or genteel at any rate (like the Dale women) people, many complacent about their world. They like a little intelligent criticism but don’t want to be too disturbed or disquieted. The New Yorker has articles which ought to disturb and disquiet (say conditions in prisons in a May essay, how we treated mentally distressed people), the drone killing program. But you don’t have to read those. It’s upbeat entertainment. It puts you in the swing of things: the first article in the Talk of the Town tells you what was this week’s important story to “everyone:” everyone in a narrow group who can afford to, reads, and enjoys this magazine.

The Cornhill was perhaps more intellectual, hard to say. It was a different time: but the Crimean war was not a central topic for the Cornhill, nor workers strikes in Manchester. That was for Dickens’s Household Words. Happily and I’m going to say this there was no vocal social media on the Internet to object this or that, and reviewers first wrote about The Small House in 1864, 2 years later. So Trollope had no vocal interference. But he was writing for his audience and making himself a career precisely through this series, and his success in this endeavour may be seen: these six books are those most readers who know Trollope know first — or at least. Last summer when I read Framley Parsonage with many of the people I made the point several times that FP was shaped, its tone, what Trollope could present by a mostly middle class financially fine audience and that it differed considerably from some other novels he wrote at that time. Trollope’s others were much franker, one questioned religion centrally, another autobiographical, included Dickensian attacks on institutions. Nonetheless within its limits So too SHA.

It matters that “The Parson’s Daughter” was printed in the London Review: Captain Broughton is a Londoner, a man about town with whom male readers might identity.

For example, maybe this will whet appetites as you might feel yourself wading through the minute description of Squire Dale’s house and the roads around Allington and Guestwick, with the sentimentality of the love of the mother and her daughters in the book’s opening: a few modern critics argue that Lily Dale lost her virginity well before Adolphus Crosbie took off. It’s presented very discreetly but I agree it’s there and it explains a lot of what happens and understanding this shapes how we see Crosbie, at least ought to. In 1862 when a couple engaged it was understood they might indulge sexually, even going (that old fashioned) phrase “all the way;” that’s why when a man jilts a girl her family can litigate. But the pressure to remain a virgin was strong and in some circles (doubtless the evangelical readers of Good Words) this would be utterly unacceptable. For all the novel is so fat it’s a set of simple stories that delve very deeply young love in all its varieties, sex, and what marriage is in their and today too our society — for the very deep feeling, to the shallow, from the socially conventional to transgessors. Trollope questions marriage as a solution to anyone’s desire for happiness given how it’s conducted: this book offers no (blessed relief to me) no wedding. We watch people haggle irritatedly over the price of carpets as what’s necessary for a marriage. An indirect presentation. “Parson Daughter” printed in the London Review, so city people is a lot more downright. Only one story where in The Small House we have at least 7 couples, 8 if you include Plantagenet Palliser, Lady Griselda and her Dumbello as one triangle with Lady Glencora and Burgo Fitzgerald just introduced as the engaged couple made to break it off, the core opening of the Pallisers.

pnd2
John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” for the London News, 20 December 1862

So Trollope’s inner self his experience, the era, and its ways of doing things, and the magazine will form our context for this book. If you look at our online syllabus you’ll find I’ve added the Barsetshire map drawn by Trollope himself late in the series. It includes where Allington is. I’ve also offered a choice at the end, instead of the hard-to-read article on the Cornhill I’ve linked in the second short story on love and marriage written immediately before Small House, “A Journey to Panama,” a colonialist story, in my view one of his greatest – as is “Parson’s Daughter” so fine. As with “Parson’s Daughter” “A Journey to Panama” is short, on the Net, and about how marriage is practiced in the era, the pressures to do it, and an escape.

emigration
Contemporary illustration of a story about emigration

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

So an abbreviated version of Trollope’s life up to the time of Barset and a little after this time to remind some some – people need more to be reminded than informed – and to situate others, with a brief resume of the four Barsetshire books before The Small House .If you’ve seen the mini-series called Barchester Chronicles (1983, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman, Susan Hampshire) you will at least have been introduced into a close enough version of what is in the first two. Fellowes’s Dr Thorne is a travesty, but it sort of gives the essentials of the outline of the story, and most of the characters — leaving out alas the doctors (Fillgrave, Reerchild, Century, and there has never been a film adaptation of FP. There was a BBC mini-series of Small House in 1960 but it was wiped out. Video tape was expensive then, and the BBC simply wiped out or recorded over brilliant dramas, hard-worked earnest mini-series with popular junk (sports shows).

AT40blog
A photo of Anthony Trollope (age around 40?)

So Trollope’s life quickly told.

Born April 24, 1815.  He was the fourth son, in a age of primogeniture that’s not a good number; the fifth child of six children, four of whom barely lived into adulthood, ie., all but two died near young adulthood, one after she married, all of TB a terrible disease. When Trollope was in his later teens Frances Trollope began to support them as best she could — because the father was incompetent to do this – by writing. So Trollope had her example before him, and she got him his first publisher as she did his first job, in the post office. He did not go to university, and identifies as both in insider and outsider

Trollope’s father failed at everything he tried, not because he was stupid or lazy, or not well connected: he was very bad at social life, obstinate and eventually violent and half-mad. He is seen again and again in Trollope’s fiction, beginning with Larry MacDermot in the Macdermots of Ballycloran; Joshua Crawley is a deep seeing of this ravaged man. His parents married late, at first a love match too, but when they went downhill (literally from grand house to nearby farm in a dump) she fled to America, with a French book illustrator, Auguste Hervieu, 4 children in tow. Not including Trollope; he was left behind with said father and Tom, his older brother by right of primogeniture sent to college for a while. He had very ambivalent feelings about his mother – these are part of the background of his animus against controlling worldly women.

Anthony Trollope’s writing career came out (he tells us) out of his compensatory habit of building daydreams, stories in which he was the hero. He escaped to these and they mirrored his inner and outer life again and again. He was academically gifted at school but the social life at a public school for a poor boy who clearly couldn’t afford it was not fun: he just couldn’t hold up his head – very snobbish hierarchical place.  His brother Tom bullied him by whipping him. 

Frances_Trollope_by_Auguste_Hervieu
Frances Trollope by Auguste Hervieu

Fanny Trollope pulled herself out by traveling one might say, and so did Anthony. When Frances escaped with an Hervieu she was hoping to build a new life for herself with the help of a radical political friend, Frances Wright who had set up a idealistic communitarian camp or community which included free slaves. It failed, abysmally. Fanny just had no idea what America was like. She was astonished at the Mississippi; where she thought the rural world would accept her bohemianism it didn’t. She had to turn to her husband for money (he sent some) and head north to try to survive and joined a bazaar in a mall in Cincinnati, inventing a mountebank act for her son, Henry, to act out  She needed to return, and wrote a searing kind of ethnographic account of the US she saw, The Domestic Manners of the Americans, much as the satire of America in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit English people gobbled this put-down up. It’s not so much inaccurate as distorted by Frances’s values – the US had these uppity servants: she saw some things very clearly, like the strong stream of religious  emotionalism in US life and its hypocrisies.

She came back to debt at Julians, the farm house the family had sunk into, and she had to flee creditors or her husband would be put in debtors’ prison (Trollope in his Autobiography remembers driving the carriage with his father in it, the family passing things over a fence to a house next door); so there was a desperate flit. Imprisonment for debt has made something of a comeback in parts of the US lately. They went to Belgium a terrible time, Emily down with TB and dying, father too, and Fanny held the family together by writing in the nighttime into dawn readable radical novels – condition of England like Gaskell’s North and South: Jessie Philips about a girl who has a baby outside marriage and goes to one of these punitive institutions meant for such girls; Michael Armstrong, Factory Boy. She took time out to nag connections she had into giving Anthony a job at the post office at age 19 and left him in London. she was a courageous and gallant women and determined, individual in thought and action. She and Tom eventually moved to Italy where they did make a successful life for themselves: Tom married well.

Moore_Hall_22nd_Aug_2010
Recent photograph (relatively) of one of the large country houses the Anglo-Irish built for themselves: Moore Hall, burnt down by the IRA and then abandoned

How did Anthony life himself up. He suffered bad depression from the time of his early teens until he moved to Ireland. Ireland was not known for cheering people up at the time. But he was freed of being looked down on, of his family, of the disgrace, of the pain and hurt, and of the humiliation of being a low level post office clerk. We will meet some low tax office clerks in The Small House: Johnny Eames is in some ways an idealized version of Trollope himself. Where in London he was despised, in Ireland he was in charge. He was incorruptible and worked hard to de-corrupt the post office, helped set up pillar posts or mailboxes as we call them. He loved the physical life of riding on his hourse as a surveyor. Fox-hunting. He married a woman just that much lower than he not to abuse his image, and began to write himself. It was natural to start with novels set in Ireland and by the end of his career he had written 5 set in Ireland, with the two Phineas Finn Palliser books having an Anglo-Irish Catholic hero. The Irish novels, dark, about colonialism, the famine, were not commercial successes at all, but he was noticed, gained respect through a ten year slog of working 10 hours a day and writing from 4 to 9:30 or so in the morning and in interstices of time while on his job (say when he was traveling on a train).

83BC11MrHardingplays2
Donald Pleasance as Mr Harding, absorbed in his violin (1983 Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater)

What made the change were what one might say a combination of three Barsetshire books. One of the things he was doing was mapping Ireland, he rode all over and saw much misery, much injustice, but he did it so well, he was invited to do this for southwestern England – Devonshire, Dorsetshire. The story he told goes that while walking one evening ijn the beautiful purlieus of Salisbury Cathedral, the story of Mr Harding, The Warden just came to him. This conveniently leaves out the themes of this book: it’s a political satire on church caste systems. Trollope told his friend and first biographer, T.H. Escott more fully that he had been reading in the Times about egregious cases in he church where a man was paid a huge sum for doing nothing, a sinecure; the money was supposed to go to support aging poor people; while another a curate starved on money not enough to live. He was also grated upon by the newspapers way of reporting the Crimea. All three came together: he attacks the Times as the Jupiter, exposes church injustices. The combination of his characters and these themes and the milieu of Barsetshire as you have it provided a success d’estime. The upper class has never wanted its secrets to be revealed, and Trollope was against anonymity which he regarded as allowing for non-accountability; but otherwise perhaps we have especially today in the US to deplore Trollope’s lack of apprciation of a free press (where a man is running for president who makes it clear he will do all he can to censor and take revenge on revelations about himself which are true). The Times was becoming a daily imagined community device. He said he still would have made more breaking stones, but when he went on in effect to repeat the story in a 3 volume Victorianization, Barchester Towers, there was a commercial success. BT has a love story, flamboyant Stanhope characters with scintillating satire: I describe Madeline Neroni (subversive yet crippled), Bertie (anti-work ethic exposes others as cheerful jokes), and the ambitious driven Mr Slope.

Trollope did not immediately write Barsetshire 3: he did not see himself as writing a series, but when he wrote Dr Thorne, he got 700£. Dr Thorne is set in Barsetshire but it has characters in another area: a strong and passionate rather like The Small House at Allington. Dr Thorne is a deeply dramatic about issues of class and status or rank; about a clash of a county hierarchy with new money people; it has a brilliant portrait of a wealthy industrialist banker who had been a cement worker, he’s an alcoholic. The heroine is an illegitimate dowerless girl. The hero, her uncle, a country doctor – like our Dr Crofts in Small House. Trollope seems to favor doctors. (Excursis on medicine in the era in answer to questions). Both Dr Thorne and Small House are about characters off to the side of the main characters of Barsetshire. When Trollope came to collect the novels, he had thoughts not to include The Small House but as we shall see it is so rooted in Barsetshire that he relented. To me it’s interesting he never doubted Dr Thorne belonged.

Nor did Thackeray; the break came from the Cornhill. Thackeray was chief editor of this new magazine which was aiming for big success and they wanted a central novel as the piece de resistance, to set them off. He was at the time writing Castle Richmond, about the famine in Ireland, and if English people didn’t want to hear about it, the rest of Europe did, it was published separately around the time of FP and quickly translated into 5 languages. Thackeray told him, my dear Trollope what we want is another of those Barsetshire books. Think of Trollope working for the post office, and writing two novels. One critic said Mr Trollope has taken to having twins. But it was FP that made him, and on the strength of his new income, he moved to just outside London to be part of the literary world at last. 

How sum up Framley Parsonage: very hard, it’s a very rich, more varied book than Small House. Gaskell said she wished Mr Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage forever. She didn’t see why he should ever stop. I’ll come back to that comment. There is a great increase in intimacy of characterization from Dr Thorne which is yet further subtilized in Small House. In PF Trolliope fills his imagined space out, maps carefully for the fist time; it bifurcated so it can be politicized into East and West Barsetshire. The story of Mark Roberts the hero, is the about the problem of how to go about a career, who succeeds and who fails and encompasses parliament, the problem of making ends meet as you spend money to reach that success so debt, how someone can become corrupted, what we might call the price of the ticket – not just in the church, but in ordinary social life where you want to shine, what relationships you desire to have and with whom. It’s most fascinating character becomes Mr Sowerby, brilliant, but weak; in his effort to secure his comfortable life and rise, he loses everything. Another female festive subversive character: Miss Dunstable. It’s about what ambition does to you and we will see that theme in spades not in electoral politics but sexual politics in Adolphus Crosbie.

TrollopesMapBarsetshire
Trollope’s own map of Barsetshire

How do you tell a series: there are recurring characters and it’s set in the same imagined space. Both are important and it is true that we have hardly any glimpse of characters from the previous novels: one important one I put a vignette of on the syllabus. When Adolphus Crosbie leaves the Small House and goes to Courcy Castle, he meets Mr Harding in Barchester cathedrale and they talk. But all the characters in Small House then recur in the last Barsetshire book, The Last Chronicle includes plus most of the characters we’ve had in the four previous. It’s a long book. The imagined continuous space — or imaginary matters. Characters can drift away, move and yet not be lost sight of in the minds of the characters still on stage, sometimes for years, and then be brought back. Central ritual parties are moments of transition, connection, epitomizing and occur throughout.

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

I chose “Parson’s Daughter of Oxney Colne” as it rehearses in little conflicting attitudes of mind towards marriage and the nature of love we are going to find in Small House at Allington.

lamdccaperainbow
Joseph Wright, Landscape with Rainbow (very late 18th century) — Trollope insists on the beauty of Devonshire

What happens in the story? The way you tell it will probably show something of your response – One neutral way of putting it is the story is an exploration of the nature of marriage. We may say we marry for love or because we desire the personally physically (that’s not so common nowadays as the taboo on sex outside marriage for most of us is gone – not all) but that’s not what this story shows – nor will The Small House. What does Captain Broughton want from marriage? Something far more than love and sex. How does he judge Patience as a wife? For me Trollope is leading us to ask, Why is it better to marry? Not necessarily is the idea or in all or some cases? What do we give up if we don’t?

Another way of looking at it, this is a story about the cost of pride, about the cost of holding onto one’s self-esteem, subtle or intangible as Patience’s concept of this reality may seem to someone who can measure such things only by the clothes she gets to wear and furniture she can wander among. And it gets to where the matter gnaws at the heart. Before we condemn the captain as the only person to whom status matters, let us recall Patience refuses the farmer first. But she does not play with him; she does not try to tell him he is inferior and must be grateful to her for marrying him – of course in the convention she would go down, and the Captain thinks he is bringing Patience. To which the aunt, Miss Le Smyrger objects. Note she never married.

May be the words pride and self-esteem may perhaps not be strong enough to convey all of what Patience would have to give up to marry Captain Broughton; she would lose her soul by marrying the man. She would either have to consent to being his slave or try to dominate him by pretending coldness and aloofness for him to marry her. The latter strategy, even if it resulted in marriage, would backfire on her, as Broughton would doubtless take his revenge once they were safely married. Patience, of course, has no intention of becoming either a slave or a slavemaster. She does not want a relationship where one is dominant and the other submits. Is that possible?

Patience refuses to allow herself to be bullied, to be drawn into a relationship in which she would have to act the part of the inferior person, the person who has to be grateful, who has so much to learn about “what counts” and “how to behave” in the world where powerful “connections” may be garnered, meaning how to please, I had almost said cater to people with access to money, positions.

BellowesGeraldineLee1914
George Bellowes (1882-1925), Geraldine Lee (1914) — much later, but the expression on her face seems to me to fit that of the bearing-up guarded Patience at the close of the story

The whole story is in fact a piece of subtle psychology — the psychology of disillusionment and quiet despair. She chooses to stay alone. We delve into the sexual longings of Patience in the most delicate and pictorial manner:

“There she would sit, with the beautiful view down the winding river below her, watching the setting sun, and thinking, thinking, thinking– thinking of something of which she had never spoken. Often would Miss Le Smryger come upon her there, and sometimes would pass her by even without a word; but never–never once did she hdare to ask her of the matter of her thoughts. But she knew the matter well enough. No confession was necessary to inform her that Patience Woolsworthy was in love with John Broughton–ay, in love, to the full and entire loss of her heart” (p 236).

The poignancy of this is contrasted to the “hot” desires the Captain had pressed upon her during his stay:

“On the day before he left Oxney Colne, he had in set terms proposed to the parson’s daughter, and indeed the words, the hot and frequent words, which had previously fallen like sweetest honey into the ears of Patience had made it imperative on him to do so” (p 238).

But let’s look at it from the Captain’s point of view. Trollope offers a very back-handed summing up: he never said the man was not a “brute;” at another point when the Captain seizes Patience’s giving of herself in some way to manipulate her, he has “base thoughts,” a base mind when he thinks of how to manipulate Patience because she is of lower status – so he thinks. Aunt disagrees.

He’s young man from London who is at first attracted to Patience simply by virtue of their propinquity, and then because she holds out. Austen’s Willoughby is a son of Lovelace, and as such can be dismissed ever so slightly as “shaped,” as not quite what we meet in life. Captain Broughton is someone I have met many times; he is himself unaware that he is attracted to Patience because of the challenge she presents; he only feels bored and then letdown because he has, as he sees himself, bought goods which are not quite serviceable for his ambition, goods which are “inferior” as the world would have it, to what he could have gotten–“that great heiress with whom his name was once before connected.”

I have put it too strongly because Trollope’s close is enigmatic; when we are told the Captain is “now a useful member of Parliament, working on committees three or four days a week with a zeal that is indefatible,” we cannot be sure whether he is not happier with his heiress. What do you make of that “gratified” smile that crosses his face when he thinks of the unmarried Patience in the last line of the story. I took it  the man is glad he didn’t marry her, and glad he that far triumphed over her and glad she did not marry too

Anyone want to argue for compromise? An abstract way of putting it is it’s a clash between what we could call the mercantile and romantic understandings of marriage. Is the primary nature of marriage companionate and emotional, or is marriage an institution by which economic welfare is secured or increased? It looked as though we had in Patience (and note that given name) an example of the romantic point of view, whereas the young man from London emphatically had his eyes on worldly advantage. Worldly advantage, of course, is something the parson’s daughter will not give him, despite Miss Le Smyrger’s intention to make her at least a moderate heiress. Money aside, she brings no useful connections, and lacks the social deftness, the polish that will impress his associates back home. Would she have been unhappy? We must not write a fan fiction and imagine children — we don’t know that she would have had them, she could die.

A final level: the story is a look at the plight of women on the fringe of middle-class life in England, where pride can come at a painful price. Not everyone has a dowry of 30,000 pounds; not everyone has influential relatives, or dwells in an area where plenty of suitable partners are on offer. Patience has the education and self-image of a member of the gentry, who will bring no shame on any family into which she marries. She cannot agree that it would need condescension for a gentleman to have her in marriage. This puts her above the touch of the men in her sparse neighborhood, but she cannot offer much to attract men of her own caste. Her sense of self places her above the station of a neighborhood farmer. And yet, from the viewpoint of the fashionable young man from London, Patience lies as much below him socially as she felt the farmer to be below her. Here lies the central tension in the story, when a social gulf that didn’t exist for her mattered too much for him.

Trollope does cheat or make it easy for us to see Patience left alone. She is an heiress after all; the Captain is punished by his hopes for a legacy going to her. They could make her unhappy. The ending is made easier because her aunt leaves her the fortune the Captain came down to try to wedge from the aunt. In real life the plight of most spinsters was poverty, dependence on others whom you had to please and serve. Yes much is left out: for example, we don’t know the inner life of the Captain’s new marriage, only that in a worldly way it worked. In The Small House, we are going to see that the other choice for the high born and well-connected might turn out even worse.

JohnsingerSergeant
John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), anonymous gentleman (1880s), man about town: is he too dark for Crosbie as later met in The Last Chronicle?

Ellen

Read Full Post »

CrosbiemeetsMrHarding
Vignette for “Mr Crosbie meets an old clergyman on his way to Courcy Castle” (John Everett Millais, Chapter 6 of The Small House at Allington)

A Syllabus

The Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: 6 Wednesdays, 11:50 am to 1:15 pm, Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax
Dates: June 15 – July 20.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

TrollopesMapBarsetshire
Trollope’s own late map of Barsetshire, which indicates where to place Allington (look at top lefthand corner: Allington is between Silverbridge station and Guestwick Village)

Barsetshire 5: Trollope’s Small House at Allington

allington
Geroulds’ map of Allington

We will read The Small House at Allington and Trollope’s short story, “The Parson’s Daughter at Oxney Colne.” Rumor hath it (she isn’t always treacherous) this ripely-mature psychologically subtle novel is still cited when someone asks, “Which Trollope novel should I read first?”, and it’s one that has never fallen out of print. I encourage those who take this course to first watch the 1983 BBC mini-series, Barchester Chronicles and read Dr Thorne (Barsetshire 3) before the course begins. Alas the recent ITV mini-series, Dr Thorne (by Julian Fellowes is poor and Framley Parsonage (Barsetshire 4) has never been filmed. Trollope himself resisted including The Small House in the first publication of the whole Barsetshire series, so an attempt will be made to see the book in the context of his wider oeuvre, and time permits but one great relevant short story of the parson’s daughter (set in Devonshire), will enable us to see its themes more clearly from the different setting. The usual Barsetshire semi-comic resolution in both The Small House and “The Parson’s Daughter” is derailed entirely with the London world so aggressive that the conflicts in failure and price of success for a kind of existence (wealthy, powerful, prestigious) rip apart the earlier fractured pastoral world – for our uncomfortable contemporary consideration. We will also have Millais’s delicately beautiful illustrations to look at. Please have read “The Parson’s Daughter of Oxney Colne” before term begins. 6 weeks.

Required: Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington, ed. Dinah Birch. London: Penguin, 1984. Also excellent intro in previous Oxford SHA, ed. James Kincaid ISBN 0192815520; and essay in back of Everyman SHA, ed. David Skilton (“Trollope and His Critics”) ISBN 9460877944

To view all Millais’s full page illustrations and vignette, go to Project Gutenberg.

Thebull
The bull (Millais, “Lord de Guest at Home,” Ch 22)

For “The Parson’s Daughter of Oxney Colne,” there are on-line etexts:

The Literature Network
From The University of Adelaide collected edition of Trollope

Also recommended “A Journey to Panama”
University of Adelaide collected edition of Trollope

If you’re wanting to read more Trollope, “Parson’s Daughter” and “A Journey to Panama” both are also found in the superb Anthony Trollope: Early Short Stories, ed. notes John Sutherland. NY: Oxford, 1994. ISBN 019282984

Carpetpicking
Lady Alexandria and her mother pick out the carpets as Crosbie watches: “That won’t do” (Millais, “Preparations,” Ch 40)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

June 15: Trollope’s life, career; 1st 4 Barsetshires books; “The Parson’s Daughter.”
June 22: SHA, Chs 1-12: “Squire of Allington” to “Lilian Dale … a Butterfly”
June 29: SHA, Chs 13-24: “Guestwick” to “A Mother & Father-in-law”; read also McMaster on “The Unfortunate Moth.”
July 6: SHA, Chs 25-36: “Adolphus Crosbie spends an Evening at his Club” to “‘See the conquering hero, comes!'”; read also Turner on The Small House & the Cornhill
July 13: SHA, Chs 37-48: “Old Man’s Complaint” to “Nemesis” and “Trollope’s “A Journey to Panama.”
July 20: SHA, Chapters 49-60, “Wedding” to end; read also Gilead on “Trollope’s Orphans.”

LadyJuliaJohnny
Johnny talks to Lady Julia: “She has refused me and it is all over” (Millais, “The Second Visit,” Ch 54)

Suggested outside reading and sources (articles will be sent by attachment) and two films:

Barchester Chronicles. BBC mini-series, 1983. Dr. Gilles. Script Alan Plater. Featuring Donald Pleasance, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman, Susan Hampshire.
Bareham, Tony, ed. The Barsetshire Novels: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1983.
Dr Thorne. ITV mini-series, 2016. Dr.Niall McCormick. Script Julian Fellowes. Featuring Tom Hollander, Stephanie Martini
Gerould, Winifred Gregory and James Thayer. A Guide to Trollope: Index to Characters and Places, Digests of Plots. Princeton UP, 1987.
Gilead, Sarah. “Trollope’s Orphans and ‘the Power of Adequate Performance,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 27:1 (1985):86-105.
McDonald, Susan Peck. Anthony Trollope. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
McMasters, Juliet. “The Unfortunate Moth: The Unifying Theme of The Small House at Allington, Nineteeth Century Fiction, 26:2 (1962):127-44
Overton, Bill. The Unofficial Trollope. NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. New York: New Amsterdam, 1975.
Turner, Mark. “Gendered Issues: Intertextuality and The Small House at Allington in Cornhill Magazine, Victorian Periodicals Review, 26:4 (1993):228-34

FordMadoxBrownHampsteadfrommyWindow
Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), Hampstead from my Window

On-line group readings and blogs:

From my website on Anthony Trollope
A group reading of The Warden
A blog on Barsetshire Towers
Shoverdosing on Barchester Chronicles: the BBC mini-series
Dr Thorne
Julian Fellowes’s Unwitting Dr Thorne: not quite hijacked by the elite
Framley Parsonage
A group reading of The Small House at Allington

DrThorenTomHollander
Tom Hollander as a film Dr Thorne (he is right for the part as written in the book)

Read Full Post »

woolson_books

bookbyher

Dear friends and readers,

A major 19th century woman novelist, travel writer, Woolson depicts the south after the civil war, writes visionary landscape of the great lakes (ice and snow), realistic novels, with (in effect) feminist stance, very enjoyable travel writing. Anne Boyd Rioux has written a fine biography showing what the career of a women of letters in America was like — obstacles many. Woolson moved to Europe. And of course the deep friendship with Henry James. She situates herself among the major women novelists of her generation, knew quite a number of them, translated George Sand, never forgot Jane Eyre. She even liked Anthony Trollope, his autobiography, admired his relentless traveling:

“Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography, yes, I have read it. It gave me such a feeling! Naturally I noticed more especially his way of working. What could he have been made of! What would I not give for the hundredth part of his robust vitality. I never can do anything by lamplight, nothing when I am tired, nothing–it almost seems sometimes–at any time! . . . And here was this great English Trollope hauled out of bed long before daylight every morning for years, writing by lamplight three hours before he began the “regular” work (post office and hunting!) of the day. Well, he was English and therefore had no nerves, fortunate man ….

I have no less than five or six books to recommend (!), or to make this sound less like a task of too many pages, an author you might not have heard of, or only heard of as a rejected mistress of Henry James, now known to have been if not actively homosexual (he probably quietly was), at least as regards heterosexuality celibate: Constance Fenimore Woolson wrote splendid novels, novellas, short stories and travel books in the post-reconstruction era of the US, from her escape sites in Europe, mostly Italy. Over the past couple of months, I’ve read her powerful first novel, Anne (which ought to have a title that gives some sense of its content, e.g, An Internal Exile) in an edition, which included the original touching and expressive illustrations:

woolsonloishinton
The heroine’s aunt, Miss Lois,

woolsonannenalecharacter
A striking minor male character ….

a few remarkable short stories and gothic landscape fantasies, in Castle Nowhere, and her depictions of the bitterness of the defeated southerners, immersed in death, near bankruptcy (those who had been wealthy had been so off the bodies and minds of their slaves), and destructive self-thwarting norms, best read as a group in Rayburn S. Moore’s old-fashioned “masterworks of literature series, For the Major and other Stories, though a couple are reprinted in Rioux’s Miss Grief and Other Stories. Anne Boyd Rioux’s Portrait of a Novelist (the title modeled on Gorra’s) also depicts the norms and prejudices that marginalized and erased American women fiction writers of the 19th century (see her Bluestocking Bulletin). Woolson is a major American voice of the second half of the 19th century. Try her.

Unfortunately, Woolson is best known for either having accidentally died or killed herself at age 54 by falling out a window in Venice, probably (it’s thought) because she was rejected as a romantic partner by Henry James (see Ruth Bernard Yeazell, “In what sense did she love him?”, LRB, 36:9, 8 May 2014). Often this event which Rioux presents carefully is treated as a ridiculous joke because Henry James, so upset at what happened, came to help with her effects, and distressed attempted to drown Woolson’s dresses in the Venice lagoon and they all floated up around him. What happened is a combination of life-long depression, and some serious illness in her early fifties (not uncommon before there was an understanding of various human organs) led to a decline, too much medicine, bad pain, and a half-willed suicide. Woolson is a major character in Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, a psycho-biography of Henry James’s creation of the story of Isabel Archer, and not overlooked altogether by Colm Toibin in The Master. That she has at long last arrived may be seen in a volume of critical essays devoted to her:

Reconstruction.

It’s said though that the shared or mutual hidden or inner lives of James and Woolson is portrayed best by Lyndall Gordon in her biography of Henry James.

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

woolsonmenton

I’m going to differ from most accounts by my emphasis and what I recommend to start with: the travel books, say The Benedicts Abroad (a family effort) or better yet, her own Mentone, Cairo, and Corfu, which, like Anne, comes accompanied by lovely appropriate illustrations:

mentone

It’s a perfect summer book; perhaps you can’t afford to go to the Riveria this year; it’s the closest thing as a read I’ve come across to the once wonderfully evocative Miramax movies of lonely sensitive reading people traveling to some dream place, e.g., A Month by the Lake (Venessa Redgrave and Edward Fox in an H.E. Bates’s short story). A group of variously witty, desperate, amused, and knowledgable (about the undersides of history, geology, biography, tourist sites) have awakening adventures together.

Then instead of plunging into a longer novel, read some of her short stories. In the US the fiction writer did not have to produce three-volume tomes for Mudie’s Library, or the Cornhill or other similar venues. You won’t forget “Rodman the Keeper” or For the Major. Rodman is one of Woolson’s many solitary souls, a caretaker for a national cemetery of the union (pro-Northern) dead; like most of the central characters of Woolson’s stories I’ve read, he tries to retreat from society insofar as he can, but is dragged back in by his conscience and need. He comes across an impoverished dying ex-confederate soldier who is not at all reconciled to defeat and nurses this man through his last illness. This is centrally about the devastation of the civil war and the complex hatreds in the aftermath, the beauty of black people’s magnanimity, generosity of feeling, living down south still. Again the illustrations are remarkable:

blogger-image

WoolsonAnne

For the Major is about intensely repressed lives where the gradually emerging white heroine has misrepresented everything about herself for years. There is insight, some degree of self-acceptance and fulfillment by breaking through taboos but no false redemption. Woolson provides the source of the hatred of the south for the north well into the 20th century and even the 21st. I hadn’t thought about how the conquered might feel in a situation: a woman’s apparently non-political fiction gives us the inner life of the impotent rage then turned against black people who since they represented a large percentage of the population would have had to be given real freedom for the region to thrive; the southern characters refuse to stop pretending they are rich aristocrats. They will not admit to having disabled people in their families. They will not permit women to live independent lives apart from marriage (now more or less out of the question as so many had died. There are flaws: while she does depicts black people with real empathy and dignity, she also portrays them as helplessly loyal to their ex-owners as if they cannot make their own lives.

castlenowhere,

The title story of Castle Nowhere reads like a distillation of the opening sequence of Anne. It’s set in a region of Michigan, the islands of the Great Lakes of Michigan, Woolson spent formative years in: like the opening of Anne, it reminded me of Daphnis and Chloe, or Paul et Virginie: an intensely solitary group of people live a quietly ecstatic existence in a dangerously cold, ice, snow and lake place. They succour one another and are deeply fulfilled. Tyler Tichelaar suggests this particular story focuses on a aging male solitary wanderer, but there is also a fairy tale element as the loving heterosexual couple who emerge (as in Anne) end up with a deeply contented life together. It can also recall the 1790s Radcliffe-like gothics, only the “machinery” or furniture is that of the wild landscape and hardships of mid-America. The bleak yet exalted (in Woolson’s curiously postive way of writing gothic) landscape of a spiritual lighthouse existence in St Clair Flats contains the same beauty as Woolf’s novel of creativity and aspiration.

I don’t know if “Miss Grief,” possibly the best-known story by Woolson was first published among her Italian stories; it has been interpreted (like Jupiter Lights, a late novel) as feminist. It is the one story I’ve read that directly concerns her life as a novelist. Like For the Major the narrative voice is that of implied sardonic irony: a fatuous complacent money-making successful male author finds himself besieged by a Miss Crief whose name he hears as Miss Grief. No one will publish her work, but when under intense pressure he begins to read one of her stories, he finds it has passion, strength, sincerity his lacks. Woolson wants us to feel precisely where and when this man is shallow his work is popular. Miss Grief reads aloud precisely the passage from the author’s work that he knows he is most authentic in, and he is riveted by her and her writing. But she will not temper it, will not eliminate half-crazed elements, will not change the plot to be acceptable story so the work can’t be sold. She has a great play but in order to get it performed, she must compromise. (This sounds like her sympathetic account of James’s own theatrical failures.) The story ends melodramatically with her happy death. She has had the fulfillment of his approbation. Some have read the story as about James and Woolson, though it was Edith Wharton who made the huge success, and during her life Woolson made a great deal of money on Anne and was well-known, respected and reviewed (if not favorably by Howells, who, like Hawthorne, seems to have wanted to marginalize women).

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

woolsonannejeannearmande
Another illustration for Anne

Of the longer works I read but two but liked them both. Anne was Woolson’s first long novel, and it’s very strong until near the end when it collapses into melodrama. People have written about her books to place them alongside Henry James; it’s more accurate to see them in the context of other women’s books, women’s writing, and visionary landscapes. The book opens on Mackinak Island in the straits of Mackinac where the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan meet, near the top of Lake Huron. the descriptions of ice, snow, waters are visionary. The story is of a highly intelligent young woman living a semi-solitary (again) impoverished life on a frontier who is willing to sacrifice all to the needs of her desperate family; she finds herself deeply congenial with a young man, Rasta.

boygirlskating
The motif of the boy and girl growing up together in a world of snow and lakes repeats itself

Woolson has affinities with the work of Willa Cather: Woolson is even drawn to ethnic French people. As the novel progresses, Anne is forced to leave the island – for money, for schooling, to grow up — and she gains female mentors along the way. In this and the love affair that Anne flees from to avoid transgressive sex recall Jane Eyre. The first is the loving spinster who lives on the island near her family, Miss Lois, quietly in love with Anne’s half-philandering self-indulgent father; she is taken in by a hard mean aunt but finds friendship with an older generous and sophisticated friend, Helen Lorrington; when later in the book she becomes desperate for employment she is hired and kept going by a French teacher, Jean-Armande. Anne is betrayed by her French half-sister, by the educational system which develops the more shallow aspects of Rasta’s character, and finds the upper class mercenary social life of her rich aunt appalling, unlivable in. This anticipates Ellen Glasgow. In fact except that there are powerful depictions of the civil war (which the book’s time frame crosses), Woolson’s book could fit into he (dismissive) chapter on women writers in Alfred Kazin’s book On Native Grounds. She is not interested in socialism, not a political muck-raker; instead she writes l’ecriture-femme about women’s lives. Anne’s continual flights are from the situations women are put in to push them into narrow schooling, marriage, and motherhood. The men in the book are wastrels, weak, and (alas) all of them at some point in love with Anne, but here the psychology of courtship, the rivalries, are astutely depicted. I believed in the characters.

Anneherself
A depiction of Anne towards the end of the novel

Another worthwhile novel is East Angels. It’s about how woman as a woman spends her life hiding her inner self, and has been likened to Turgenev’s novels. She threw a great deal of ambition and adult emotion from within her artist’s life into the book. Rioux suggests the only way this heroine can “maintain her self worth” is to “maintain her self control.” Male critics, espeically Howells panned it (they didn’t believe in this heroine), but a number of reviewers an readers too felt it showed “her remarkable powers of observation,” great art (see Rioux, pp 174-178, 200-202). East Angels sold much better than James’s work at the time, if not as well as Anne, and is in print as an ebook

EastAngels

Rioux’s excellent biography is very good from the angle of revealing what life was like for a woman who might aspire to be a serious writer in the US in the 19th century. I have read a few lives of and some fiction by 19th century American women writers, but and until this book my knowledge of what American women specifically were up against was minimal. Rioux cites Kate Field, the woman Trollope loved who lived as a modern woman writer, traveling, lecturing; the life and work of Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe are part of Rioux’s earlier context — as well as finishing schools for upper class girls. The depiction of the way sacrifice was inculcated, the way motherhood and wife-hood was used to leave no room whatsoever for individual development, what was one of the best schools, which Woolson went to, but how it had no goal for the woman to use her knowledge — all bring home to me that it was much more difficult in the US than the UK to become a woman of letters. No wonder Woolson fled to Europe. While she loved the elite and old Spanish cities of the south and Florida, and dutiful as she was to her mother, and finding deep companionship with her father, Woolson could not get herself to publish a large major adult novel until she went to Europe.

Rioux’s depiction of Woolson’s career as a journalist is again a story of a woman up against exclusionary practices and a demand she not have a mind of her own. In her stories what was wanted was pious moralizing and she resisted that. She was pushed into imitating Alcott for her first novel, The Old Stone House, a children’s novel. She translated Sand’s La Mare au Diable but it was not published! Alas. Someone else had translated it. I wish hers had been published too: She is also a strong reader of George Eliot, admires Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She is a little too earl for Edith Wharton. She tries poetry, but discouraged by others’ responses gives it up with the argument novels are as important.

I found a house, at Florence, on the hill
Of Bellosguardo. ‘Tis a tower that keeps
A post of double-observation o’er
The valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city) straight towards Fiesole
and Mount Morello and the setting sun, —
The Vallombrosan mountains to the right, …
No sun could die, nor yet be born,
unseen by dwellers at my villa: morn and eve
Were magnified before us in the pure
Illimitable space and pause of sky
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh — Woolson told friends in letters to understand how she felt about her home in Florence, read this passage( the 200 year old Villa Bichieri is photographed by Rioux in her book)

She had been responsible for her mother from the time of her father’s death, the loss a sympathetic brother-in-law also makes her sister more broke and dependent: she lived where her mother lived, with her, in elite, old (a Florida city founded in mid-16th century) moving “north” in summer (Asheville, North Carolina). But as she would ever be, she felt (and was) isolated and Rioux says of her she was a solitary author writing columns from afar. Depression was common in her family and her brother killed himself eventually because he could not cope with the demands made on him to live a commercially successful life. She had some great good luck: she had an income from investments her family set up for her; she had connections with the powerful and intelligent in the US and then Europe, especially male critics, diplomats (John Hay), and educated critics, literary friendships with men (Edmund Clarence Stedman). When her mother died, she could afford to go to Europe to cultured cities. She never came back. She found herself there — as did Henry James. Her attitude towards Europe reminded me of my own: as an American who has read so much of British literature, you feel you are nostalgically coming home.

lasthome
Palazzo Semitecolo, the last of Woolson’s homes, this in Venice

This is not the place to attempt to go into the twists and turns of her life nearby, with and apart from Henry James (but communicating by reading one another and letters); suffice to say Florence was central to her, and that at times they lived in the same house together, writing on different floors, in different apartments. Her deafness has been insufficiently emphasized. It began early and became much much worse. Harriet Martineau, far franker than Woolson, said the worst experiences for deaf people were dinner parties. Her work was widely reviewed. She was known to many people, including Margaret Oliphant (who did not stay in Italy, did not like travel). Woolson’s sister and her niece visited and traveled with her. She wrote sensitively of the cruelties she saw in her own nand other cultures. She lived for a time in Oxford too — and found Cheltanham dull. She chose to be alone to work, to think, because she felt unlike many people, but she experienced despair from loneliness too. She and Alice James recognized one another. She eventually became close to an American family living in Italy: Francis Boott, a highly cultured wealth gentleman, his daughter, Lizzie Duvnack, and her husband, lived near her in Bellosguardo. Lizzie’s death was one of the devastating blows late in life that led to Woolson’s own death. She kept up an extensive correspondence with Boott where she revealed more of herself openly than anywhere else (says Rioux). In her last illness, Woolson was often doubled over with pain (diverticulitis? or gripping gut as they called it in the 18th century).

The last chapter on Woolson’s after life is moving, especially her burial in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. I probably have walked by her grave. Jim and I spent over an hour or so in that cemetery one afternoon in August 1994. It is a haven, a beautiful quiet place, if your corpse is going to be buried and you remembered that way, it’s not a bad place to have your grave stone. If I ever get to go there again (unlikely) I will be sure and stand by her gravestone too.

drawingwoolson
A drawing of Woolson by Lizzie Duveneck

Read Full Post »

BessyNicholasMargaret
Margaret (Daniela Denby- Ashby) first making friends with Nicholas (Brendan Coyle) and Bessy Higgins (Anna Maxwell Martin) (Sandy Welch’s 2004 North and South, Part 2)

yet men set me down in their fool’s books as a wise man, an independent character, strong-minded and all that cant — Mr Bell, North and South

Dear friends and readers,

This past spring I taught a course I called “Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South in context.” Although I had spent over a year with a group of friends reading Gaskell’s short stories and a couple of novellas together on Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo, and had before read and responded intensely to Mary Barton, North and South and Wives and Daughters, I’d never really studied a Gaskell text the way I do when I teach it, and experience (as I do at the OLLIs at Mason and AU) true dialogue in a class room give-and-take. I listened to brilliant readings aloud on CD of Cranford, Mary Barton (Juliet Stevenson for Cover-to-cover), North and South itself (Clare Wille for Naxos) and Wives and Daughters. I wish there were a good one available for the Life of Charlotte Bronte. I could not find one. As with Fielding’s Tom Jones the fall before I also assigned some good essays which I’d never read before either, as we went along. I read Felicia Bonaparte’s half-mad biography too — the more I read Gaskell, the more I came to agree with her, to the point that I agreed Molly had in effect killed herself when she decided to follow Roger’s advice and accept and subdue herself to her new stepmother. The result of this immersion: I feel I got closer to Gaskell than I ever did before.

Paradoxically since North and South is a book that is doing so many different things and has a wide range of topics or subject matters, often but not always from the perspective of someone questioning authority, it’s the kind of book that you need a book to write about adequately. This blog is a series of notes towards such chapters.

To begin with, the book often takes unexpected turns. For example, it opens unexpectedly for a condition of England novel, partly based on the Preston cotton strike and the locks-out. Gaskell first creates lovingly the atmosphere of a sheltered home in an elegant London, where Margaret Hale, our heroine, her sleeping beauty rich cousin, Edith, and the shallow Aunt Shaw, and most of the women around them (it’s a household of women) seem ignorant of the hard realities of life — like the need to make or have access to money to support yourself. We are intent on beautiful shawls and clothes, a coming extravaganza of a wedding, and subtle controlling codes of manners.

When we move to Helstone which our heroine declared was idyllic, we find a pair of parents who hardly share an interest, the father a depressive, anxious, and seeking to throw off his job as a vicar and responsibilities because he has lost his belief in the Anglican system of thought and gov’t, a mother who is incompetent when it comes to anything practical and deeply dissatisfied with her life as affording her no companionship with people like herself; the neighbors around them are desperately poor. When Mr Hale allows his crisis of conscience to become public and insists on moving to the North to an uncertain precarious future as a tutor, what Gaskell emphasizes is how he need not explain himself. What he says goes, no matter how weak a man he is. They repine, but they obey.

BessyHiggins
Bessy in the factory when first seen (North and South, Part 2)

In Milton (Manchester), we meet a strange (unexpected) secondary heroine, a dream-figure alter-ego for Margaret, Bessy Higgins, a desperately poor factory worker, dying of a lung disease, and learn the reason her father, Nicholas, Higgins put Betsy in the factory (where she contracted a fatal lung disease), did not leave her where she was in a household sewing was he worried she would be sexually harassed. The gender ideology and practices throughout limit all the women’s choices. The first thing our heroine did in the early phase of the book is refuse an offer of marriage from Henry Lennox, an intelligent sharp lawyer, sceptical, cold (who comes from that hard world and is clearly successful). She found the wedding otiose, but she finds her friendship with Bessy fulfilling. We see her and her mother’s life-long maid cope together over the course of the rest of the book. Dixon is not invisible; where she sleeps, what she thinks and feels shape the novel too. There’s a servant in Mrs Thornton’s household who affects the action, so too Thornton’s sister who marries a stock speculator whose offer of saving himself from bankruptcy Thornton will refuse. The private worlds of women are also the public worlds of men. but we are not simply given a gendered female world as well as the class, industrial/agricultural, economic and religious worlds and conflicts; at each turn the plot-design is set up to thwart the usual expectations.

In each phase of this early part of the book room is left to dramatize experiences of life that don’t usually come up as important in the conventional plot-design. Gaskell here, and again later concentrates on what it’s like to move from one home or place to another, how traumatic this can be. The family will have to live on a small income and find aplace to live they can be comfortable in and afford. Margaret has bad dreams the night before they go off to Milton: these are partly sexual in nature and show that she refused Henry Lennox out of an inability to face her sensuality and sexuality. Late in the book when so many deaths have occurred as to make Margaret’s place and life in Milton no longer viable, she has a similar hard time moving back to London.

RichardArmitageasThornton
Thornton (Richard Armitage) arguing his side (North and South, Part 2)

Then the book is organized as a series of conversations or debates on ideas that control the character’s behavior and the options their society allows everyone. There is no climax but ideas are debated and we are left to think for ourselves, comparing the ideas the characters have to the dramatic scenes in which the debate occurs and placed nearby. One is about the responsibilities of owners to workmen: these are dialogues about power, about recognizing obligation, about how people regard one another when they are part of groups in conflict. When the book’s romance hero, Mr Thornton, stands up for rigid “political economy” (laissez-faire ideas) and denies he has anything to do with the time allowed his workers when they are not working for him, we see that he is not admitting to his power, but neither he or Margaret, or the workman, Nicholas Higgins, who presents the chartist and burgeoning socialistic point of view of the union, take into account Bessy who we meet in the next chapter. Beyond how ill she is, why she became ill, how she spends her life, there are her religious mystical visions from the Bible which give her what comfort she has. These so irritate Higgins as they are presented as making lived life unimportant, that he produces an atheistic vision of the world, one pessimistic, cynical, grim: how could any good God or rational consciousness have produced this world? The book may be read as a series of tableaux, debates, dialogues, dramatic scenes – or dream thoughts as in the presentation of Bessy, a kind of deep or hidden self for impulses and feelings in Gaskell herself in debate with the scepticism and disillusion of her father, Nicholas.

CanfordSeason1Episode3Letters
Matty (Judi Dench) and Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) read Matty’s brother, Peter’s letters together (Heidi Thomas’s 2007 Cranford Chronicles)

It also drives towards primal scenes that repeat across Gaskell’s oeuvre. For example, the way the theme of injustice in the military, specifically naval world, is brought forward is through primal memeory dream scenes. First, letter-reading — just as in Gaskell’s Cranford where Gaskell’s Matty and her niece, Mary, are enacting Gaskell’s own loss of her brother when he went to sea as a young man. He was the only member of her nuclear family who remained loyal and alive and wrote her letters from far away, encouraging her, a deeply congenial spirit; when he died at sea, the loss was profound. In North and South, Margaret and her mother go over Frederick’s sea-stained letters to introduce why Frederick cannot come home to England ever again. There is another letter scene in he film where Margaret is remembering when they first got news of the mutiny: through her memory’s eye (flashback), we see Mrs Hale frantically tear up the newspaper.

Margaret’s father who himself felt he must buck church authority and lost his position now has to persuade Margaret that Frederick cannot go to court to explain why the men aboard ship mutinied and he deserted (a cruel captain who needled and risked his men’s lives, causing one of them to nearly become crippled, flogged mercilessly for minor infractions): the authorities will support their tyrannical control by never admitting to any wrong. There is no debate here, only another primal scene where Margaret is standing on a train station, attempting to help Frederick flee to London, and they are accosted by an angry embittered man who thinks to turn Frederick in for a ransom. Frederick sees him as insulting Margaret and as drunk, hits him back and the man falls down the steps, hurting himself sufficiently so that he dies soon after. Meanwhile Frederick vanishes into the dark night of the train. The scene at the train station is deep with longing – Gaskell’s dream thoughts well up. No film adaptation of North and South could leave out Frederick, the train scene.

Athetrainstation
Margaret’s terror as she realizes she and Frederick are seen and are about to be accosted (North and South, Part 3)

For the rest of the novel Gaskell has Margaret brood over this scene ostensibly because she tells a lie to a police magistrate that she was not there and knows nothing about this man to protect Frederick (“strange, wild, miserable feelings”). She is suspected of a sexually clandestine relationship with a strange man by a possessive Thornton who has asked her to marry him — she refused him too. She is deeply attracted to Thornton and intensely regrets that she seems to have lost his respect. Hated by Mrs Thornton, the mother, for having rejected her son at the same time as Mrs Thornton is bitterly possessively jealousy, Mrs Thornton takes the opportunity of supposedly warning her to frame Margaret to her face as possibly unchaste. What an extraordinary way to present the idea give people power and they abuse it – it’s understood how desertion is bad, and discipline needs to be maintained but it should not be disproportionate, not torture (which flogging was). And how vulnerable Frederick is to someone who wants a bribe. We see how vulnerable women are to perpetual sexual suspicion.

DeathofOsborneHamley
Osborne Hamley’s death, Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon) and Molly (Justine Waddell) (Andrew Davies’s 1999 Wives and Daughters, Part 4 of 75 minute episodes)

Everyone who reads Gaskell knows that many of her character die. She once joked the best title for her book (North and South was Dickens’s choice) would be Variations on Death. The characters learn about life through their encounters with death. All the deaths are linked to depression too. Margaret’s mother dies of cancer — brought on by stress; Bessy of her illness and wild dreams; Mr Hale of grief after his wife’s death and a sense that he has lost all occupation and meaning when he begins to lose his pupils; Mr Hale’s mentor, friend, and a third man attracted to Margaret (who Gaskell meant to make an older suitor), Mr Bell of an inexplicable but real depression. Early in the novel we are told Mr Thornton’s father killed himself when he became a bankrupt failure from gambling and alcohol. Shortly after the strike is over, one of the workers, Mr Boucher, kills himself, driven by his wife’s grief over her children’s “clemming” during the strike, and his own despair. Gaskell’s belief that death brings people together, makes their individual humanity plain to one another is shown over and over. I tried to get at some of this material by explicating a few of Gaskell’s epigraphs.

Gaskell quotes from the 4th chapter of Job. “Man that is born of women is of few days and full of trouble.” First half insists that all nature renews itself, but the individual person does not come back. “A tree may sprout again, a flower. Question is where does his “ghost” go? Job wishes to hide himself, everything washes away, ends on how man grieves and mourns. No answer given. She quotes Wordsworth. People tend to remember these things how they want to. Traditional one would be from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (Book 5)

What though the sea with waves continuall
Does eate the earth, it is nor more at all:
Nor is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.

Inmourning
Margaret in mourning (North and South, Part 4)

But Gaskell’s references are to sceptical works. At one point she alludes to Byron’s poem called The Island; or Christian and his comrades. It’s a satire on Pilgrim’s progress and Robinson Crusoe rolled into one. I read aloud the whole of the epigraph for the chapter (33) from the poem by Henry King is one of the most moving poems in the English language I know of where a spouse mourns the death of another. Exequy is a funeral rite or ceremony. There’s a stanza where he says he will soon overtake her and that’s what he lives for

Stay for me there, I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay;
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
Each minute is a short degree,
And every hour a step towards thee.
At night when I betake to rest,
Next morn I rise nearer my west …

I loved the ending of the book. Yes Gaskell was forced to cut and probably would have given us far more of a courtship for Thornton and Margaret. But look at what she didn’t cut, what she took out time to dramatize. There are the debates between Mr Thornton and Mr Bell, with Mr Thornton emerging sympathetically as the person openly taking life seriously. The second is the development of a relationship of respect and friendship (for what else is it) between Thornton and Higgins, however improbable. Gaskell shows how comforting Margaret finds it to be alone, not to have to answer to anyone, she finds herself growing firmer and she can tell herself if only Thornton weren’t so cold and they could be friends, she could live with his not knowing – what she can’t see is he feels he must be cold or he will allow his feelings for her to surface and he’s had enough too. She reads Francois de St Sale, the passage is French is from one of these religious meditative books people, especially women read before their were novels. Disguised as religious exhortations, they are often about coping with depression and seek to help someone all alone, no one to talk to, they had no language with with to discuss depression without blaming someone as having done wrong. She sits on the beach at Cromer looking out at the sea and thinks again. When she returns to London, she refuses to give up all her time to the rituals of shallow social life, and instead becomes a female visitor Gaskell writes: “she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it and she tried to settle that difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.” I daresay for the modern reader the first idea (utterly merged) will get a strong “none,” and the second seem to lack enough sense of pleasure. In one of her letters on the ending of the novel in swift romance, Gaskell suggests that the relationship could easily “go smash,” and has the last words of the novel Margaret’s remembering she will have to deal with Mr Thornton’s mother.

Margaretamngflora
A dream-like moment of Margaret in Helstone (North and South, Part 4)

Lest we read the book too hopefully there is more primal matter: Gaskell also brings us back to Helstone (to show how it’s again changed), also a re-enactment of her childhood brought up in county by her single aunt Lumb and disabled cousin. Gaskell takes out time to tell the story of how Margaret discovers that the neighbor of one woman she visits boiled a living cat until it died in an agon of pain while drowning. Why: the neighbor was afraid her husband would be angry as she gave his clothes to a fortune teller. The story is even worse in this sense: the woman telling it is not indignant and horrified for the cat, no she’s just bothered that it was her cat. Gaskell sees the horror that people are too – what they are capable of. She puts it down to ‘a want of imagination … and therefore of any sympathy with the suffering animal.” When one attributes the vast evils people do or tolerate to a failure of the imagination it seems so mild a thing to say, but this failure is central.

I hope this series of notes on the novel has conveyed something of its nature (the kinds of texts it offers), the sources of its power and content too. I strongly recommend watching Sandy Welch’s film too. North and South is, as are all Gaskell’s texts, deep l’ecriture-femme, whose forms, motivations, and greatness are not well understood. Feminist criticism talks generally about this faultline in books, but hesitates before specific examples. I’ve presented a specific 19th century example which passes muster in the male worlds of publishing and respectable books as a condition of England novel about a series of outwardly objective themes.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Elektra
Klytamnestra (Waltraud Meier) and Elektra (Nina Stemme)

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

StemmeEricOwens

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

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

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

Susan_Neves_as_the_Confidante__Waltraud_Meier_as_Klytaemnestra_and_Nina_Stemme
The confidante is Susan Neves

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

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

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

ElektraChrysothemis

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

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

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

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

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

The Cat

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

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

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

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

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

thewhitecatPangurandthemonk

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

DevereuxNottingham

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

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

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

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

devereux_met

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

Metset

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

figureofskeleton

Garanca

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

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

roberto_devereux_elina_garanca
Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 286 other followers