Posts Tagged ‘homosexuality’

by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

“But in public who shall express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond out daily vision.”

Dear friends and readers,

I doubt I can convey what a good time we had for the last two or three months on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io reading and talking/writing together on Forster, his Howards End, and the two movies made from it (1993 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala with Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West &c&c; 2018 BBC Lonergan-Hettie Macdonald with Matthew Macfayden, Hayley Atwell, Joseph Quinn, Philippa Coulthard &c&c), a couple of biographies, especially Nicola Beauman, and then (irresistibly it felt) A Room with a View (again two movies, 1985 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala (Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot, again Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis) and a superlative 2007 ITV Andrew Davies (Elaine Cassidy, Timothy and Rafe Spall, Sophie Thompson, Mark Williams&c&c), not to omit talk of Bloomsbury, fluid sexuality, Virginia Woolf as a topic in her own right, the new art and so on and so forth. We were turned into a Forster listserv. We have torn ourselves away at last to turn to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now for December through early February, but we plan a Forster summer in a few months. We’ve got four more novels, and who knows how many movies and great actors ….

He wrote fascinating novels, wonderful novels, smart, complicated funny and very sad. So what can I say about what we said about Howards End that can fit into a blog? a novel filled with ghosts and silences: “I didn’t do wrong, did I?” Mrs Wilcox is said to have asked her husband

Vanessa Redgrave as the first Mrs Wilcox (M-I-J 1993 film)

“Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others—and thus was the death of Wickham Place—the spirit slips before the body perishes. It had decayed in the spring, disintegrating the girls more than they knew, and causing either to accost unfamiliar regions. By September it was a corpse, void of emotion, and scarcely hallowed by the memories of thirty years of happiness — from Howards End

Samuel West in a dream sequence of longing as Leonard Bast (M-I-J 1993 film)

In general a number of people said they found themselves reading this book very differently from the way they had say 30 years ago, and they were noticing elements in Margaret’s marriage to Henry Wilcox and Helen’s full attitude towards Leonard Bast they never noticed before: how condescending both woman can be to Bast; how Margaret marries to have monetary security, on materialistic considerations she ignores her incompatibility with Henry Wilcox who cannot change to the extent she imagines.

Anthony Hopkins as the unreasoning instinctively closed Henry Wilcox (the successful businessman) when Margaret angers him (M-I-J 1993 film)

The Wilcoxes in their turn say they would do anything for their mother, but the one request she makes, that she leave her own house, Howards End to Margaret is looked at as preposterous. All the characters are trapped in unsatisfactory human relationships, if the causes of the dissatisfaction differs for each. This is a novel about the cruelties of class. How Margaret is shocked at Helen not sleeping in her own house, but with (we know) Leonard Bast. She tricks Helen into coming to Howards End. She is presented as having been a mother to her siblings in the 2018 film but not in the book

Hayley Atwell as Margaret (2018 film)

All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don’t fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have; love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be — Margaret to Helen at the close of the book — though she is kind to her aunt

A couple of us defended the perhaps ex-milliner Jackie; she is treated in the novel as ontologically inferior, erased, forgotten.

Rosalind Eleazar as Jacky Bast (2018 film)

How often Forster comes out directly as narrator, how conversations among the characters are multi-dimensional. He projected his love of the English countryside vividly — as when Bast goes on that passionate roaming reverie though an old wood. He read Ruskin and Ruskin’s love of art and proto-socialism are forces in the novel. There is a magic faery tale element about the house. Miss Avery by unpacking the Schlegels things, especially the books, makes the house alive; it was suggested that Helen is a Pre-Raphaelite figure as she sits in its porch waiting to be let in by Margaret. She is deeply human, sensual and comfortable in her skin

Philippa Coulthard as Helen (2018 film)

Margaret is deeply gratified to have Helen with her again, but I note how she tricks Helen into coming into Howards End, and then moves from distrust and alienation and a new almost automatic rejection of Helen to the old bonded feelings and agreement. What enables this is not common grounds in attitudes but common ground in the furniture and books; set up in this house they are enough to bring back the past and begin a re-bonding. I wonder if this is not a wish fulfillment and this intense love of early places and the past (which I’m now reading about in Beauman’s biography) is not a strong delusion or illusion fantasy: “all the time their salvation was lying around them — the past sanctifying the present, the present, with wild heart-throb …. the inner life had paid”

Alex Lawther as the appealing impish, but marginalized Tibby — the character reappears more fully developed, older, articulate in Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View (Lonergan 2018)

We talked of Forster’s homosexuality and why he stopped writing novels so early in life: he was frustrated by having to present heterosexual life and leave so much he valued outside his text, to respect in the text what he felt alienated from. Tyler Tichelaar had written a perceptive blog-essay on this aspect of Forster’s art and life as seen in Maurice. I wrote about Sean O’Connor’s book Straight Acting where he described his and other playwright’s dilemmas as gay men pressured into misrepresenting themselves and what they longed to dramatize in life; I watched the recent film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea by Terence Davies: wrecked and wrecking heterosexual relationships represent a gay man’s take on heterosexual marriage and compromise; he pitiable but at the same time vengeful older lover.

Peppard Cottage used for Howards End in M-I-J 1993 (here it is not photographed in prettying up light) – the house in the novel is Rooksnest which Forster and his mother lived in for many years

Death is an important reality in the novel and outside a reason to live, become your own identity as you make your choices. We talked of how moving home, from one place to another, is akin to the experience of death (though for some it’s liberty at last from stifling hierarchies and militant naturalisms. Judith Cheney quoted Robert Louis Stevenson:

The coach is at the door at last;
The eager children, mounting fast
And kissing hands, in chorus sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

To house and garden, field and lawn,
The meadow-gates we swang upon,
To pump and stable, tree and swing,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

And fare you well for evermore,
O ladder at the hayloft door,
O hayloft where the cobwebs cling,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

Crack goes the whip, and off we go;
The trees and houses smaller grow;
Last, round the woody turn we sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

We don’t know that if Henry Wilcox should predecease Margaret the Wilcoxes will not go to court to get Howards End back.

The room with the view in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhavala film (1985)

We read the earlier book, A Room with a View second. it is shorter and at first it seems simpler — there is no larger critique of colonialism, no debates over socialism, the removals of people from capitalism, but it isn’t simpler. What it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in intensity.

Lucy was suffering from the most grievous wrong which this world has yet discovered: diplomatic advantage had been taken of her sincerity, of her craving for sympathy and love. Such a wrong is not easily forgotten. Never again did she expose herself without due consideration and precaution against rebuff. And such a wrong may react disastrously upon the soul

Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy setting out on her adventure among the art and churches of Florence (M-I-J 1985)

I loved the ancient classical myth in the book too, the use of Italian art, the pastoral, all mixed with the everyday in Pensione Bertolini. We are invited to revel: Lucy is called a Work of Art, and Forster is generalizing out from this incident to make large statements about art, sexuality, and all the ritual events of daily lives. It’s false to say our conflict is passion versus duty; it’s real feeling versus the pretended and hypocritical. Lucy almost misses out on marrying George where her joy is presented as potentially so fulfilling. By contrast to convention, Cecil repeats Tibby’s statement about the work ethic more forcefully: “I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don’t care a straw about, but somehow I’ve not been able to begin.” Diane Reynolds quoted “Lucy’s vehement outburst of hatred towards Mr. Eager’s cold snobbery and ascetism. I found it quite satisfying—and true: We perhaps should hate people who destroy other people by spreading lies:”

The bathing scene (from the 1985 film)

“Now, a clergyman that I do hate,” said she wanting to say something sympathetic, “a clergyman that does have fences, and the most dreadful ones, is Mr. Eager, the English chaplain at Florence. He was truly insincere—not merely the manner unfortunate. He was a snob, and so conceited, and he did say such unkind things.”
“What sort of things?”
“There was an old man at the Bertolini whom he said had murdered his wife.”
“Perhaps he had.”
“Why ‘no’?”
“He was such a nice old man, I’m sure.”
Cecil laughed at her feminine inconsequence.
“Well, I did try to sift the thing. Mr. Eager would never come to the point. He prefers it vague—said the old man had ‘practically’ murdered his wife—had murdered her in the sight of God.”
“Hush, dear!” said Mrs. Honeychurch absently.
“But isn’t it intolerable that a person whom we’re told to imitate should go round spreading slander? It was, I believe, chiefly owing to him that the old man was dropped. People pretended he was vulgar, but he certainly wasn’t that.”

Beauman, Charles Summer and all I read suggested that Forster matured, found such pleasure, liberty, love when he traveled — Italy, Greece, Alexandria, and India, all meant so much, and this book records these feelings. I show but one still of these English in the countryside:

That’s Maggie Smith, Judi Dench as Miss Lavish (makes phony art) and Lucy (1985 M-I-J film)

Mr Emerson and Mr Beebe, but especially Mr Emerson are the two benign knowing genius locii of the book. Mr Emerson (I found Timothy Spall pitch perfect) speaks eloquently of the “holiness of direct desire” and Mr Beebe quietly for whatever is your sexuality — he encourages Lucy to play, everyone to bathe, tries to help Cecil recognize himself. He does not blame Mrs Honeychurch for her dim appreciation of nothing beyond the obvious comforts of living. There is much lightness, pleasant humor. Tyler wrote: “I love how the bathing scene comes about – Freddie just inviting George to bath – the awkwardness of the invitation and the joviality of just spontaneously going to bath, and the joy of the Sacred Lake being large enough to bathe in, only to have it return to normal size soon after. I did not really think there was anything very gay in the bathing scene, even though the film sort of suggests it. They are just being boys and being playful, acting like teenage boys, although it does seem odd they are wrestling and playing ball naked outside the pond. It’s a very strange way to get to know your new neighbors.”

A scene of Charlotte successfully repressing Lucy and persuading her to go home to escape George (1985 M-I-J film)

There is death and it is swift and sudden in this book: the man knifed in the piazza. Davies’s film frames the story with George’s death in WW1 by having Lucy return 20 years later, most of the film a flashback, ending with her going on a picnic with Gino, who had been ostracized and stigmatized on the trip into the countryside by Mr Eager. We are told Mr Emerson died. In much of the book Charlotte Bartlett plays the part of “a corrosive, selfish, and dull personality ” who spoils life for others, represses others with shame, a loving kiss is an insult; but at its close she is presented as alone, poorer, having trouble with her plumbing (no bathing for her) and forgiven: Forster wants us to think she facilitated Lucy and George finally getting together. It’s not quite believable but the 1985 M-I-J movie ends with Maggie Smith as Charlotte reading a letter of the young couple in love and the movie’s last scene of love-making is a flashback from this letter. The book and movies are charitable: as acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, Vyse conveys how much small experiences in art do mean much to him; the character is deeply sensitive and he is hurt by Lucy’s lying but gentlemanly, chivalrous in response. The book is about an awakening.

Elaine Cassidy as Lucy after listening to Mr Emerson’s description of George (2007 Davies film)

I discovered many parallels with Austen (she was his mentor in novels) but also much other influence beyond art. Edward Carpenter, idealistic, socialist gay man (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love by Sheila Rowbotham), Forster’s mother & aunts, his milieu, and that of different circles of artists; as the years went on when he taught, and later years of broadcasting in the BBC. He did not shut down because he stopped writing fiction, and beyond the novels there were numerous unpublished short stories, and published essays and travel writing and biography. Jim liked Forster’s correspondence with the Greek gay poet, Cavafy.

What Beauman does in Morgan is what write up Forster’s deep past and what’s to come from Morgan’s point of view when he grew much older and perhaps after he had written all his novels from the beginning to the end of her book. That’s the curious perspective taken on the incidents of his life and his art examined in more or less chronological order: each incident is retold from how Forster would see it when he became an artist or was a practicing writer.

So for example, in talking of Rooksnest into which Forster and mother moved when he was just 2, she says the way his mother set it up was “to make a statement about how life should be lived” and then connects this to Mrs Wilcox’s love of Howards End. Beauman is soon describing the real place using Forster’s words many years after, e.g. about the hall, “he tells us about “a kitchen when the house was a farm and sad to say had once had an open fireplace with a great chimney but before we came the landlord, Colonel Wilkinson, closed it up put a wretched little grate instead and made the chimney corner into a cupboard.” Says Beauman: “The reader does not visualize the cupboard; instead one gets an image of a difficult landlord.” Then she goes on to give an example of this kind of thinking and feeling in a character’s mind in Forster’s fiction. And so it is built up memory by memory.

Sophie Thompson as Charlotte, pitch perfect) probably modelled on one of Forster’s aunts or his mother (2007 Davies film)

We plan to do it again with two or three of the following four novels: each person can choose which ones he or she would like to read: The Longest Journey, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Passage to India (which I was listening to read aloud in my car by Sam Daster and I am now persuaded is one of the finest shorter novels in the English language) and/or Maurice. And if I live, I’ll teach a course in both OLLIs on the novels of Forster two springs from the one coming (2020).



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Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friends and readers,

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) has occupied a paradoxically at once hagiographic and controversial position in studies of Hitler’s Third Reich, which suggests an audience familiar with his name, life and writing; he is not well-known to people outside Germany, except for the religiously inclined, pacifists, and those who’ve studied the elite German milieus, which supported Hitler as a bulwark against socialism. The reasons for the peculiarity of the way he’s been heroicized and marginalized come from the unwillingness of people to confront painful realities of the past or overturn the continuing male hegemonic structuring of much human experience and stigmatizing of people who don’t conform to simplistic sexual norms. Bonhoeffer’s is one of the (when we are telling truths) ambivalent stories of those who resisted Nazism.

His life history has been kept muted and/or distorted to erase his homosexuality (an important source for aspects of his thought), especially his relationship with Eberhardt Bethge.  Bethge, as the man Bonhoeffer was ineradically in love with, built books intended to mount a difficult barrier to get past. The widely-popular (a surprise best seller of 1953) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, edited by Bethge from unpublished manuscripts, fits squarely into the kind of first edition Donald Reiman (The Study of Modern Manuscripts: Private, Confidential, and Public) describes as a “family book” where the editor acts as an advocate of the writer’s family’s view of this writer, the family itself (Deirdre LeFaye’s edition of Jane Austen’s letters is such a book). In Bethge’s case also to obscure his actual relationship with Bonhoeffer and his own ambitious political and personal choices during Hitler’s regime.

behgebonhoeffer (Medium)
A photograph of Bethge and Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer has not been forgotten because of his extensive original writing (very ethical in bent), the rich, powerful elite group he belonged to (which survived the Hitler era), the positions he achieved in the powerful church structures, and his imprisonment and murder for conspiring against Hitler. He has been useful as a martyr, as a conservative religious hero, an ethical thinker. A corpus of far from disinterested books and essays continue to be written about him.

Tubingen University Library (where Bonhoeffer studied as a young man)

Diane Reynolds has studied this secondary material, and the extensive primary documents; she interviewed people who knew those who knew Bonhoeffer, visited the places he lived in, and has produced a candid, lucidly written biographical account of the man’s life and his behavior, drawing especially on his letters (the life-blood of biography). She has been preceded by Charles Marsh’s flamboyant biography, which hers is an improvement on because of her scrupulous care not to claim anything for which there is no consistent substantial evidence. Some LGBTQ people may object to her reluctance to concede the probable where the nature of the case cannot provide evidence, such as Bonhoeffer’s sexual activity:  there is evidence for more than one close male relationship and several revealing portraits of male supporters and friends, e.g., Franz Hildebrandt with whom he lived for a time. True acceptance, respect and fulfillment, not to omit safety, for LGBTQ people in society requires adult understanding and acceptance of their active sexual lives; but nothing else is elided over, and she is critical of her subject where criticism is called for. We see a root cause for his reluctant betrayal of his sister and her Jewish husband, and on the other at the same time as he remained loyal to an upper class luxurious community who had supported Hitler: he gave up while in the US an opportunity to escape Germany, the offer of a good position because he couldn’t bear to live apart from Bethge (241-45) or lose his sense of some meaning through belonging with numinous privileged people who shaped important social structures and beliefs in Germany.

Women readers will see how he was willing to support as his patroness the domineering reactionary Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow, who was ceaselessly coercive over her daughters’s lives and engineered the pretense of an affair with her granddaughter, Maria von Wedermeyer. Maria was herself unable to throw off the Nazi training in submissiveness and self-sacrifice until years later. We learn of Bertha Schultz, a brilliant scholar who could only get work as his housekeeper and personal assistant, translated for free for him, and then is dismissed (79-81). He had a friendship with Elizabeth Van Thadden who opened the genuinely anti-Nazi progressive school for girls (Maria attended), had her school taken from her, re-Nazified, and was later imprisoned and beheaded (228-29, 22, 396). He was himself deeply attachment to a number of female relatives: his grandmother, his mother, a life-long close congenial relationship with his sister, Sabine: they go on a walking tour together which may reminded readers of English poetry of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

This is an excellent biography of a man placed in the context of his time and directed to our world today.

Family summer vacation house in Freidrichsbrunn

Reynolds’s book’s historical significance is its irrefutability and portrait of a fallible and quietly courageous highly intelligent man who was pro-active in creating moral schools (for men), who displayed far more integrity than most, and expanded his horizons: a telling time was his sojourn in New York city where he attended a black Abyssian church and experienced a religious rejuvenation and saw “a view [of life] from the bottom looking up” (66). Just about all he did was in the face of discomfort in others (he was not a manly boy). Sometimes it’s mild (from his family) pressure; he had excellent connections and was chosen for high positions, but in these he encountered outright hostility from his own church and the Nazi state it complied with. And at the last imprisonment, interrogation, and towards the end (when his part in a failed plot to kill Hitler was discovered) vicious abuse leading up to his execution.

A clavichord Bonhoeffer and Bethge played on together

A summary with paraphrased and quoted vignettes: Her book is a narrative of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Part One situates the reader in the Bonhoeffer family background, telling of events and people who influenced Bonhoeffer’s grandparents, parents, moves through Bonhoeffer’s siblings and their childhood during World War One and its aftermath. . A characteristic chapter is called “Life Amid the Ruins:” Reynolds shows the family continuing its privileged life against the backdrop of the growing power of the Nazis, all around them desperation, Berlin crumbling, half starved Berliners, and soldiers posted everywhere in the streets, children with rickets. Hitler ominously blaming Jews, and father and uncle saying that the best types of people were killed off, glimpsing the possibility of a sociopath coming to power. But everything they read, the music they played has nothing to do with what’s happening outside; they lived within an idyllic strain in the European culture, divorced from politics. Bonhoeffer refuses to pursue a career in music (the family’s preference), and moves to theological studies. His sister and friends all marry while he evades a proposed bride for him, a third cousin, Elizabeth Zinn. Reynolds makes an astute use of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, where he constructs the image of maleness and femaleness the Nazis projected, one troublingly close to what may be seen today in popular US miliarist movies today. Against this all his life Bonhoeffer had to contend.

Part Two (“Seeking Ground”) while the Nazis begin to seize control (burn books publicly), become violent against Jews (he writes, “literally no one in Germany … can grasp it … major turning point in history:” 7 million unemployed 15 to 20 hungry), he travels (Barcelona, Manhattan, Forest Hills even, Cuba) seeking some meaning, work, relationships, to ground his existence on: he writes a second dissertation, is ordained. Vignettes from this section: “Dietrich [was] vehemently opposed compromise by his church,” sermonized to this effect, but did not go to his sister’s husband’s father’s funeral … here Bonhoeffer writes that Jews are “a problem; they needed to convert;” yet he “writes against persecution of Jews, one must help victims.” May 10, 1933 book burning night. Max Reinhardt fled to LA; Bonhoeffer’s “brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, lawyer, joins party, says keeping job helps undermine the state. Nazis imposed level of regimentation that surprised and made fear grow; 50 concentration camps by 1933 … Hans von Dohnanyi, a friend and relative by marriage [later executed] liked by Hitler so original Jewishness forgiven. German Lutheran church yields to become vitriolically anti-semitic; Catholic Youth Leagues are outlawed, Nazi or nothing. In 1933 Bonhoeffer is turned down for pastorate and in October goes to London, shaken to discover himself in radical opposition to all his friends.

Part Three is called the “Incomparable Year” (1933) and Part Four “Reconfigurations” (taking the reader up to 1938 and Bonhoeffer’s first arrest). In ’33 he met and his relationships with Bethge and Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow flowered. While the Nazis are toting machine guns and beginning their imperial conquests, he opens Finkenwalde, a “confessing” school offering an idyllic community for (male) students by the North Sea. While fighter planes are taking off, he teaches pacificism and joins the world of country landed estates. Until the concentration camps begin to open, he, his friends, associates, his sister seem to think somehow they will be insulated, and carry on their lives. Vignettes: these elite families moves to small houses in Charlottenburg (Marienbad), as good for conspiracy; musical evenings are a cover for politics, people from all walks of life, a refuge too. Karl, his brother, stays on with Nazis as psychiatrist saying he is moderating worst aspects. Bonhoeffer’s grandmother is horrified to see a cousin emigrating – having to take his chances like everyone else in this world. Ruth comes across with money for seminary in Sweden (which Bonhoeffer described as “wonderful years”). Dietrich’s prison writing includes letters to his grandmother – of how he felt for defenseless epileptics. By 1935 his sister Sabine (married to a Jew) begins to understand the terror of Nazism (they come to her door for information), but her brother “would be alive now than 30 years ago.” Bonhoeffer shows a problematic disposition to spend his sister’s money on holidays for himself.

Finkelwalde by the sea: now a Bonhoeffer memorial

Parts Five through Seven (“Cornered”) bring us to the heart of the book (1937/8-43): Reynolds weaves the unfolding of the Nazi barbaric world inside Germany with the lives, work and reaction of Bonhoeffer and many of his friends and associates. The great value of this part of the book are these individual stories and the depiction of intimate life of the semi-protected elite, what emerged in public social life in Nazi Germany at the time, and the punitive patriotic culture of Nazism easily sliding into cruelty to the weak, vulnerable, despised, anyone who dissented. Bonhoeffer seems to have joined the “underground” resistance about 1938; some of his associates compromise, some try to ignore what was happening all around them; others looked simply to survival (insofar as one could as food shortages and bombing had begun). Vignettes: November 1937 27 Finkenwalde seminarians imprisoned; 1938 Dietrich arrested, interrogated, banned from Berlin. He has underground collective pastorates, apprentices in a remote village (with Bethge there, later doing “quite well”) … Dietrich living a nomadic life working on ms’s. Neimoller released and then swept up, disappears; Confessing church fools take an oath of allegiance that Hitler treats with [the] contempt [it deserved].

A revealing element about Bonhoeffer is he continues to write optimistically, perhaps conceiving himself as supporting the spirits of others; a close friend said it was pride that kept him from revealing his anguish, but the letters have a jarring disconnect. His theological writings “encode” (that’s the word Reynolds uses) justifications for homosexual love; his bitterness against Bethge; his misery at the harsh isolated conditions of the prison (he does use the word “horrible” once). But the letters keep his hidden life in a closet.

Reynolds shows how average Germans appear to have felt about the war at this time: we have to remember Germans supported the war, and Bonhoeffer’s activity would have been seen as that of a traitor: So more vignettes: June 17, 1940 France caves. German newsreels exulted. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy quoted. Fair haired young men: “what does it matter if we destroy the world? When it is ours, we’ll build it up again” … Germans are ecstatic at victory over France; foresee short war; Germans torpedo 600 prisoners headed for Canada; meanwhile Bonhoeffer’s sister, Sabine, now in Oxford moves with her husband to one room with 14 trunks. Bethge’s behavior reminds me of the enigmatic amoral characters in LeCarre’s novels: he decides to marry a Bonhoeffer niece, Renate, many years younger than he since he finds himself in “untenable” position. The long sections on the reality of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria are important to read: we see her mother tried to protect her, regards Ruth’s tactics as a nuisance; for Bonhoeffer Maria is cover and unreal wish fulfillment dreams (of what neither he or she wanted). After Stalingrad, Bethge sends Bonhoeffer a picture of Napoleon; a letter remembering a year ago they were together when they shared a hotel room. Reynolds brings in the male couple in another surprising best seller of the era: Santayana’s The last Puritan.

Parts Eight (“Locked in”) through Ten (“Saints”) take us through Bonhoeffer’s years of imprisonment, his murder and the first build-up of hagiography. This was for me the most moving part of the biography. The conditions in which Bonhoeffer lived and eventually (he managed to make friends, his prestige and connections and his family’s money brought him food) even wrote were utterly wretched and dangerous. Reynolds maintains her cool stance towards the letters, pointing out repeatedly the undercurrents of bitterness (towards Bethge), egoism (in his approach to Maria), leaving the reader to feel uncomfortable, askance, compassion or astonishment. Just one vignette from many: Hitler carried a whip, beat his dogs and took disproportionate revenge on those within his reach after the bomb (detonated under a table) failed to kill him. Newspapers presented this as a coup of officers power-hungry … he writes suffering a way to freedom. He looked ill on his daily walk. There seems to have been opportunities for him to escape, but he withdrew with the excuse he didn’t want to endanger others: throughout his life he had what (I’d call) bad dreams of having a devout death which he yearned for, and one explanation for his persistent refusal to escape is a probably half-conscious death-wish.

One can fill out this section with some of the material Bethge published in 1953 (now available in an expanded edition): the book as constructed by Bethge presents a striking contrast to Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce. Readers are not shown which letters were meant to be passed around by his relatives, which private (very few): Bonhoeffer persists in hoping, presenting himself as looking forward to release (his mother was fooled for a long time), comfortable. But there are striking breaks: for example, the narrative of Lance Corporal Berg, where suddenly Bonhoeffer reveals a gift for narrative, powerful drama: we first witness an interrogation which shows us how one need not resort openly to violence, torture, emotional bullying to subdue a prisoner. He shows how prison itself is an excruciating experience because those running it are implicitly bullying all prisoners all the time. A man with his face blown away shows up, and everyone is horrified by the ugliness of the man and they are mostly very kind to him, they feel sorry for him, they respect him for having allowed this to happen to him, but when for a moment he loses it and began to cry and complain, immediately they are hostile. Another man they deride, berate, kick, just shit on because he ‘deserted” — would not obey orders. It includes poems (e.g, Night Voices in Tegel) about his experience of the night in these prisons.

Reynolds shows how Marie distanced herself from the Bonhoeffer society, and tried to tell some truths, but her silence (as well as his sister Sabine’s) implied consent to Bethge and other interested witnesses’ stories. Her upper class strong sense of herself and understanding of how to get along in higher echelons served her well, and she somewhat recovered, even married, became a highly successful businesswomen.

Maria von Wedermeyer

If I have some criticism, it’s that I missed a sense of deep inwardness, which might have come from more analysis and quotation of Bonhoeffer’s ethical and religious treatises. Take the “Prologue: A Reckoning made at New Year 1943, also called “After Ten Years.”

He opens up with a (Samuel) Johnsonian meditation about time. “Time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable.” He writes of people “with no ground under their feet.” Here he recognizes that obedience to others to erase the self comes from cowardice and Germans have been deluded to think they kept their liberty by service to the community. An extraordinary passage about folly: folly is far more dangerous than anger; it’s worse than evil. Again folly there is no defense. No matter what you see the fool carries on. (This reminds me of Trump supporters.) The fool is self-satisfied, it’s easy for him to become aggressive, he’s harder to cope with than a scoundrel. Folly is capable of any evil. He reminded me here of Erasmus’s profound ironic (sardonic) In Praise of Folly. The worst blaspheme is contempt for others. (Again I thought of Trump, his insistent derision of others.) Bonhoeffer insists we must regard others not in terms of what they can do or do do but in the light of what they suffer. That in social life there are laws that cannot be eradicated and are powerful than anything that may claim to dominate them. How reprehensible to sow mistrust, how dangerous, when we should strengthen confidence in the self and others. (I thought of training programs in the US gov’t today where employers are taught to suspect and turn others in.) I liked his definition of quality. To have an experience of nobility, of quality you have to renounce all place-hunting, break with the cult of stars, must look to pleasure in private life as well as have courage to enter public life. Most people only learn wisdom (at all?) from personal experience. This explain insensibility to suffering. Death has become what people live with daily. We must not romanticize it; we do still know too much about the good things in life and that helps. But prolonged insecurity, and destructiveness of prolonged anxiety dissolves attachment to life. Which leads to him asking if people individually or as a group are of any use? He insists an experience of incomparable value is to experience life from below, and if you can’t at least try to see and empathize with those from below: history from below, the outcasts, suspects, maltreated, powerless, oppressed, reviled.

I want to emphasize that Diane Reynolds’s book is an enjoyable book to read. She recreates places, times, idyllic and nightmare experience. The reader who is familiar with 19th century novels will find parallels between characters in Tolstoy and this German milieu (Ruth as kind of Prussian cross between Countess Rostov and Anna Mikhailovna). It belongs to our conversations today about how what happened in Germany between the 1920s and well after the end of WW2 parallels the increase we see today of violence, racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds and intolerance and the complicity of our present (ever self-regarding, enrichening, luxurious) establishment as found in books like Volker Ulrich’s Hitler’s Ascent, 1889-1939. Reading it ought to worry readers right now.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man: about extraordinary rendition in the context of an exaggerated “war on terror” which has led to stark erosions of civil and social liberty — I can see Hoffman playing Bonhoeffer


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First season, 2nd episode: Bates (Brendan Coyle) accosts Thomas (Rob James-Collier)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m now well into Season 4 on this fifth journey of mine through Downton Abbey and have begun to notice a parallel: repeatedly both John Bates and Thomas Barrow are photographed as looking on at others. One or the other of them, sometimes both (separately) are seen on a threshold, from a space across the way, leaning against a wall. Bates’s face looking at Anna with such benign appreciation comes most strongly when he is watching her from afar, doing some act of fairness, dancing, or just sewing.

Bates watching Anna doing the Scottish reel at Christmas

Thomas’s face is endlessly guarded as he watches others flirt, moves to snitch on someone (once in a great while rightly, like the bigoted Nanny West [Di Botcher] in Season 4), and especially when we see him yearning for a moment and twice he crosses an invisible barrier to reach out to another man, and then (in both cases, the Duke of Crowborough [Charlie Cox] and Jimmy Kent [Ed Speleers]), rejected. After he has been openly found out in the second case, and is about to be fired, we have striking scenes, e.g., of him watching Mr Bates looking at the bare cottage he and Anna are fixing up for themselves, of him downright crying in a corner:


Unlike Bates, there is no mainstream other whom Thomas can latch on to, who suits Thomas, and who is an insider. His alliance with Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) is with a pretend insider, which is therefore easily broken (as she has nothing to gain from him). People may not remember that it is Bates who goes out of his way to rescue Thomas from the spiteful and cruel revenge taken on him by Miss Obrien who, when Thomas (foolishly from a prudential standpoint, but as ever jealous of anyone’s gaining some foothold in the family that could possibly threaten him), far from helping Alfred Nugent (Matt Milner) her nephew, brought in to be a footman, lays traps for him.

Let’s look at that incident once more: helped along by the affection Thomas cannot resist showing Jimmy as he helps Jimmy learn to wind clocks and do other Downton chores, Miss Obrien has slowly aroused Jimmy Kent’s suspicions of Thomas’s sexuality, and planted hope in Thomas that Jimmy does like him, and one night, lonely, Thomas braves Jimmy’s room to be thrown out by Jimmy, horrified, filled with repugnance, just as alas, Alfred is entering to ask something. (The men seem to have their own rooms while the maids share rooms.) Thomas is exposed and called “foul” by Mr Carson (Jim Carter), an epithet he does openly repudiate — job or no job. Then when Mr Carson, unexpectedly offers at least to give Thomas a good character, Miss Obrien has no trouble rousing the fears of both footman, that their reputation and livelihood will be threatened if they don’t make sure that they are not suspected of homosexual leaning: they must act revolted, Jimmy must demand that Thomas leave without a character (or he’ll tell the police); Alfred must be made to enact disgust. In the earlier incident where the Duke to have had a liaison with a maid and she had his letters, there would be no case for blackmail. Sin or not, crossing class lines or not, heterosexuals are allowed, homosexuals not.

The larger interest which makes me write about it is that Fellowes is putting before us the same argument that E.M. Forster makes in his Maurice and Henry James through Kate’s father in Wings of the Dove and Simon Raven explictly, powerfully, angrily in his masterpiece first novel, Fielding Grey, that the misery of a life of a gay man is that what is natural ordinary looked upon with kindness, help, admiration on the part of heterosexuals — love, companionship — is a source of blackmail, petty sometimes, harsh often, for homosexuals. A heterosexual can betray a girl, even rape her (this is in Raven) and get away with it (and were it not for Bates, Mr Green would have in the case of Anna [Joanne Froggart]); the ugliest of conduct is not attacked as such, is overlooked; a homosexual man in love is at risk every moment. They live as outsiders.



And this is the center of a key scene which wins Bates to help Thomas though Bates knows full well and lets Thomas know that Thomas has been Bates’s enemy, been spiteful and tried to get Bates fired (by planted clues suggesting Bates a thief when it was Thomas who had been pilfering wine so steadily 2 sets of boxes were missing at an inventory). Bates and Anna have been painting and making their old run-down cottage (in bad shape, not much of a gift if you compare it to the DA) and Bates is standing outside in satisfaction. Out of the dark Thomas comes up and starts to talk of how much he envies Mr Bates despite all that has happened to Bates in his (long prison sentences now twice, the Boer War, crippling) and (implicitly) what might yet occur (over the death of Bates’s first wife). This because everyone is happy for Bates, admires him and Anna for their nest together, do things to help them while (as we know) Carson uses cruel words like “foul” for Thomas’s feelings. It’s in the next juxtaposed scene that Thomas is seen crying by a corner by Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) in her frequent usual role as reconciler, who takes Thomas into her room, and discovers what is happening.

Thomas lives behind a wall is the feel he conveys to Bates, an invisible prison where he is continually at risk if he steps forth.

It’s this that makes Bates identify sufficiently with Thomas — as an outsider, forever at risk, in a society that can just thrown them out. In a remarkable series of moves (that he has to do several shows the generosity of it), Bates talks to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) who expressed sympathy for Thomas and a desire to see him on the yearly cricket team so bad that it seems Grantham is willing to keep Thomas on in a made-up job if only for that talent), then to Mrs Hughes who tells Bates the instigator was Miss Obrien, and finally to Thomas himself, telling Thomas it was Miss Obrien. Is there nothing Thomas knows that could be used here?

Bates’s POV as he asks Thomas to think if he knows anything as a handle for Bates to help him

And of course Thomas knows it was Miss Obrien’s putting a bar of soap near Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) tub that brought on her early miscarriage, thus forever cutting off the hope of a direct male heir.

Mr Bates invites Miss Obrien to the cottage and whispers the word (soap …) in her ear, we see Miss Obrien now desperately convincing Jimmy he’s done enough. Jimmy has been subject to the reprobation of the whole staff including Ivy (Cara Theobold), with whom he flirts:


the worst sin is to try to take someone’s references and character. They will not find another job. So Jimmy (something of a mannequin dummy here) acts.

Thomas’s danger is not yet over. Alfred is also not the smartest brain in the house and he has been made to feel how “sinful” is Thomas (Miss Obrien’s grating reinforcements reinforced this) and has himself called the police. They arrive but luckily Lord Grantham is the first approached, just as he is telling Jimmy how generous it will be of Jimmy to accept Thomas’s continuing presence on the staff and that Jimmy will now be “first” footman (not much gain there for real) — Thomas is all this while playing cricket superlatively – Lord Grantham is told of the police presence and hurries over. The police tell him Alfred Nugent has revealed he was approached by a Mr Barrow. The power of the chief or bright hero of the series is shown: decisively pressured by Grantham, in a few minutes (screen time less than a minute) Alfred is there before the police, saying it was a misunderstanding, and Grantham is (in effect) punishing Alfred by offering the helpful explanation that Alfred was a bit squiffy. Drunk. Alfred takes the rap.


The chief police officer looks at Grantham and says he gets it. They know all this is concocted but there is nothing to be done and they walk off.

Thomas playing well, clapping enthusiastically — unobtrusively

As I have argued, we are given sufficient evidence to convict Bates of the murder of his wife and then to see that there is a strong probability he pushed Mr Green (Nigel Harman) into a bus (as the pattern of his going to London for the day and when he returns, the person has lost his or her life) and yet like Bates enormously, grant him a hero’s place in our hearts, because continually throughout the series not only is Bates himself a victim (crippled, tripped, trapped, as a disabled person at first stigmatized) but he is generous to other outsiders, e.g. Ethel. He stands aside when the others are interrogating Gwen (Rose Leslie) over her typewriter. In this blog I am concerned to bring out that there is a strong positive argument on behalf of homosexuals in the series despite its being presented in such a way that allows for the prejudices of a still bigoted audience. That Thomas is no angel would be approved of by James Baldwin: there was nothing that grated more on Baldwin than protest novels which made society’s victims into saints. They are not because they must in order to survive be collusive.

I noticed that the ends of the first and this third year conclude with some magnanimous deed of Grantham, his opening up in new ways, with Bates just behind him, engineering it (using his abilities to forge, sniff out how a criminal-cardsharp will operate, and pickpocket) — and that is what happens at the close of the fourth season too. In the third season, with a little help from Lord Grantham’s status, it’s his fellow outsider whom Mr Bates saves.

Brendan Coyle discussing his role in the feature to the third season: it’s not over-speaking to say that in this hour-long summary of 2 seasons amid fluff, Coyle contributes the more serious reflections on the dilemmas of the character he plays (See Bates as dark hero, alter ego for Fellowes)


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Carl Haag, The Queen [and Prince] at Balmoral, 1850 (only she loathed blood sports)

The 21st century idealization of this same couple (from 2010 Young Victoria).

Dear friends and readers,

I get through life by reading wonderful books, and this has been one of them. Anyone interested in the Victorian era (trains, home life, 1851 exhibition), who loves to read intimate life-writings intelligently assessed, who finds Albert the real man fascinating, who wants to have respect for Trollope go up (his book on Palmerston) and of course books on the so-called numinous, rich, powerful (and why they became and stay powerful), a queen too (strong woman), should try this book. Naturally, a blog:

Several weeks ago I told the story of how I came to own a copy of Gillian Gill’s We Two. Izzy and I had gone to a JASNA picnic, and the people there were auctioning off a set of books. Someone there said the film, Young Victoria was based on this book (see Reveries under the Sign of Austen) and the book was excellent; and on my Women Writers through the Ages listserv (@ Yahoo), someone else had written a thoughtful critique of film as centering on a young woman’s humiliation (teaching her a lesson to share power).

Well, I did win a book before this one was chosen and brought it home. I began reading it, and at first found it turgid, too many genealogies and royal life histories of people Victoria and Albert were descended from thrust into the narrative in too small a space quickly, but when I got past the opening section, it became a splendid, originally thought-out informative dual biography of the marriage and all it affected while it went on. I write this blog to say why and recommend reading it.

Chapters 1-12: the book’s first phase:

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, important in the first part of Victoria’s adult career

Sir Robert Peel, became important to Albert in his career and private life too

After summarizing the internecine politics of the sons of George III and their courts, hangers-on and the German court from which the Duchess of Kent came, the book turns to the material of the film, and we get a powerful rendition of the politicking, bullying, and in the end by some of Victoria’s supporters, the desperate corrupt buying off of Conroy (perhaps Victoria’s mother’s lover). Victoria won through by the strength of her personality, because her German uncle and some of her German relatives came over and supported her and she knew of them, and of course her very biological chance position. In addition, there had been and continued to be limits to the tyranny of Conroy and the Duchess of Kent imposed on the girl during her growing-up; they set up a system to control, but not to destroy the princess. By chapter 7 she is ensconced with the governess she managed to hold onto (and who was important in her survival) and is Queen, holding her own with Melbourne and Russell (Melbourne especially) and the first moves have been made to couple her with Albert.

It’s interesting to me how vacuous is the all-encompassing public life of the queen; you might say she is at once there because it’s institutionalized (her power) but everything else is personal and cronyism networks.

Gill’s book becomes very good once Victoria grows up, and marries Albert. She was pushed to marry by her mother and others and was reluctant until she saw and feel in love with Albert. He would be a barrier against the mother she had come to dislike and with good reason.

She got bored with the role of queen pretty quickly, but was close to Melbourne because he knew how to flatter and how to manipulate her.

The chapter on the German princes and Germany in the 19th century is informative, insightful — what a vile sordid bunch they were, we learn of how they had no interest in their particular land or German people, much less the suffering lower class people they ruthlessly exploited: it was aristocratic caste all the way. (This reminds me of bankers today and the way the reactionary press in the US talks of unemployed people and recent legislation (stopping all extensions of benefits) would have pleased this bunch.) Gill tells, for an example from semi-private life of two women whom the Coburg men chose as mistresses and treated abominably. They both wrote memoirs well worth the reading; Paula Panam, Memoires d’une jeune Grecque; and Caroline Bauer, My life on the stage and Theatrical Tours (this is whats’ available in English).

The thing to keep your eye on is Albert, like Victoria, was in rebellion against this. They had common ground here, and in the essential decency of their characters and their intelligence — yes Victoria was intelligent too, but in different areas from Albert. He wanted to escape this petty amoral internecine world where many of the little families were in fact on the edge of bankruptcy. She reveled in the world she was lucky enough to be born to queen.

We know little about Albert’s childhood and young manhood because most papers were destroyed; we would know little about Victoria since her granddaughter destroyed many of her papers, but that Victoria wrote such an amount of life-writing and was so incapable of hiding her real self — or capable of getting herself vividly down on paper.

The bedchamber crisis is fascinating, but it is of course, the author, her voice, and outlook on this pair that makes this book so good.

Albert, 1841 (by Charles Brocky)

Once the marriage is set, Gills tracks back to tell the childhood and young woman-, man-hood of this pair of people. Gill is superb and effective in her description of the home life of Albert growing up — so much better than Francine du Plessix-Grey (Chez Sade which I’ve been reading at the same time and on which I’ll write a separate blog), it’s striking. This despite a paucity of papers. What happened was Albert’s mother had been forced into marrying the father; at first love-making and the birth of two children made the marriage go, but soon the Duke returned to promiscuity, hunting, drinking all night with friends (reminding me of Arthur Huntingdon in Tenant of Wildfell Hall — how these books come together). She found a lover who she escaped with and married. This left the boys to the mercy of the servants and father. Albert was a gifted boy, intelligent and sensitive, much like her who therefore grew up without a mother and in this ancien regime vicious court. So did Sade (grow up without a mother in a vicious court), but Albert reacted against it in decency. It did give him a strong character for that enabled him to survive. He was also valued over his brother because he was so handsome.

Gill makes a subtle and nuanced case for Albert’s being at least bisexual, and suggests Albert and his brother, Ernest, had an intense sexual relationship. Incest and homosexuality are often stigmatized but not here. No girlfriends whatsoever. At the same time Gill shows what a shy, highly intelligent, potentially decent person Albert was, and how he had to be guided into marrying Victoria.

Unlike the film Albert (played by Rupert Friend, Young Victoria) there was no immediate physical attraction by Albert to Victoria at all. After a short while, they saw eye-to-eye in the sense of their values and sensibilities and to Albert England was a breath of fresh air where one could hope to actually do some work that might be of use. He would have been a good professional, but this sort of work (and training for it) was the one thing not allowed this aristocrat. The chapters show Albert’s traveling, schooling — all with Ernest. The break with his older brother was hard and was done by the older male relatives.

The portrait of this aristocratic German community is precisely like that of Donatien de Sade’s in the ancien regime in France and had Albert wanted to, he could have tried (and many did do) some of the same antics (not to extreme). The two communities worked in the same ways, drew power and interacted too.

Victoria was a very strong and determined personality who has now overcome her mother and is close to Melbourne. We see her being a strong force and we know that Albert too likes his own way (as Trollope’s narrator in HKHWR would say — a fourth book), so the clash the movie’s core is about is about to start in Chapter 12: “Victoria plans her marriage”


Although photography was available by the second decade of the marriage, there are remarkably few photos of the royal family because then as now the royal family’s image was strictly controlled: the painting we glimpse is by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

These are fascinating chapters which intersect with Anthony Trollope’s HKHWR, a novel about a struggle for power between a central married pair: one immediate trouble for Victoria and Albert is the norm was that a woman “lost all her independent legal and civil status. .. A married woman’s property [unless upper class family pre-nuptial trusts set up] was her husband’s’. Anything she earned was legally his to do with as he would. She could not buy or sell property or enter into any transaction without his leave.” He could “legally enforce sexual congress. .. physically chastise his wife, sequester .. commit her to a madhouse … the children were his …”

Now Victoria is the great exception — which did make lots of people very uncomfortable and especially Albert.

Albert was at first controlled and distrusted and not given an income of his own, or allowed to have his people around him, but gradually he began to take some power. How? he won Victoria in bed: Gill suggests that he was in reality no innocent as people keep saying; he was experienced as a gay man, especially with his brother. Second, she became pregnant and kept getting pregnant and all these pregnancies and then the children took up her time and energy. Third, it began to be perceived how smart he was, how astute, and well-educated and it was obvious to all Victoria was highly limited in her understanding.

But what’s interesting in these chapters is to watch the two struggle with their unusual positions, him with humiliation and boredom, and her trying to hold onto her power yet give him something. She had learned from her miserable childhood how important it was to hold out against others taking power over you and then bullying you.

Another chapter (14), and Victoria has ceded enormous amounts of power to Albert. Why? Yes the ministers and everyone began to realize how bright and decent Albert really was, but also the pregnancies. It’s they who did her in, and the taking care of all this progeny in their early years. Even a queen can’t escape (for my part I’ve thought Mary Stuart lost out against Elizabeth I because she had lovers).

Victoria did hate being pregnant: “The thing is odious and if all one’s plagues are rewarded only by a nasty girl [sic!], I shall drown it, I think. I will know nothing else but a boy. I never will have a girl.” She had several.

None of this cloying “baby worship” Trollope fervently believes is common to women for Vicky. Her letters and diaries are refreshingly frank. No self-inflicted ritual humiliation here.

It’s not true that Albert was able to take power because he was smarter. In fact he was narrow in a number of central ways, and in fact Victoria was a shrewd judge of people and very sharp about social manners and how they worked and connected to primal selves. She fought successfully to take power and it was her taking it that allowed him to come in. Without her, nothing.

She wrote superbly well: she comes alive in her diaries, but she was unable or inhibited from putting in her diaries the intimate realities she saw and experienced. On top of that papers that mattered about these were destroyed.

Gill’s book is filled with original insight into the relationship of these two people, she really goes into the money and accounts, how they got, what it cost them to live and how they spent it. She understands all about how their households worked; what happened in the nurseries and is on top of the Parliamentary politics too.

At the same time, Victoria’s pregnancies did her in. On top of that that she was a woman. In fact Albert half-despised all women and drove a hard bargain with her: he would behave nicely and kindly and do all she wanted if she submitted to him. Now he was super-competent, a terrific manager and ruthless, and he had the sort of liberal insight (wide) that was appreciated in the era. But he was a cruel and narrow type who was willing to destroy people to get his way: including her faithful governess, Lehzen who was responsible for her growing up with any strength, and managing to wrest her power from her mother. Very cruel: she was ejected and sent back to Germany. Victoria did give her a decent pension, but Albert’s conduct broke her heart. She is not the only one Albert managed to peel away from Victoria and didn’t care what happened to them.

He was German aristocratic left over from the ancien regime.

Albert was (Gill thinks) not centrally heterosexual so one of his tricks was to lock himself in. He would not come out. Victoria would go to the door and say this is the Queen of England. Silence. Time passes. She’d come back and say Albert, this is your wife. Then the door would open. She also understood how much she’d have to struggle everywhere as a woman to keep her power in parliamentary dealings and it was easier to let Albert do it. He did become close with Peel; he was a Peelite Tory, she a Melbourne Whig.

The stories about her and Disreali are mocking denigration, really the usual anti-women talk.

I said Victoria gave in because Albert did lots of good things and made life easy for her too –. Though she hated the endless pregnancies she did know that’s what she was “hired” for. He cataloged the paintings and fixed the indexes in the libraries by hiring the right people. One of the massive things he did was set the royal household in order. It was run like a university with the people who hire someone and fire him or her different from the people who work with him and who he or she serves. In the Victorian era most people lived on the edge of ruin (as we are beginning to experience now) and this kept jobs intact. One set of people also were say responsible for the outside of the windows, and another for the inside. Result: dirty windows because both sides never cleaned at the same time and not at the rate those looking out wanted, but at the rate those who paid them demanded — who were different from those who had hired and could fire them.

Albert ferociously worked to change all this. He did this in several areas and he was not liked.

Those who saw and liked the movie, Young Victoria should read this book. Indeed as I read it I begin to think she is as and maybe more important as an instance fo what happens to a women in power who is successful in part as any Elizabeth I or other icon. More because her ways are still touted today — not well understood either.

One of Gill’s purposes is to correct Strachey who presents Victoria as a shallow stream, is condescending, dismissive, making fun. It’s this idea of Victoria as stupid that Gill refutes utterly. Yes Albert had learning she didn’t, had far more liberal attitudes, and was respected by the parliamentary men as she was not: but all this is familiar to us. It’s anti-woman, anti-feminist. Gill nowhere mentioned Strachey directly, but it’s his withering portrait she demolishes: what he did was take what Victoria wrote as really reflecting her mind and her work and what she did. Much of her real life is left out of these, what was private was destroyed by her granddaughter.

We have another case like so many others in this misrepresentation of her.

A lack is nowhere is Victoria’s reading discussed in any detail by Gill, probably because Victoria didn’t discuss it. She was a busy lady.

It does seem as if Victoria can see how much time the children take when they get older and how they are getting in the way of her being queen too, but there are no remarks about that. If they existed, they were destroyed by the granddaughter.

“The Court of St Albert,” “Finding Friends” and “A Home of Their own”

Osborne House, the Isle of Wight

Josephine and Napoleon have been characterized as two political animals; well, Albert and Victoria were that but they were something much more and that they were beloved is explained as well as aspects of the Victorian world put before us: the effect of trains allowing everyone to go places quickly and the growth of vacations, holidays and how Albert and Victoria first built a beautiful place on the Isle of Wight (Austen’s Fanny Price called it “the island’) and then Balmoral.

Their difficulties in finding friends — very touching. Both so intelligent, with Victoria able to fit in such much more easily and Albert standoffish but the one doing the politics in parliament.
It’s fitting their real friends were their maids and valets who themselves left nothing of the intimate life — all veiled. Albert may have turned “his merry non-judgemental wife into a censorious prude just like himself” but that was for public consumption.

Victoria instinctively did dislike his brother, Ernest — again some hints the two men had been lovers. And the other friends she made and his need of Carl, the Swiss valet whose death left a big gap, and so too Albert’s dog’s death.

We have another case like so many others in this misrepresentation of women, one she did cooperate in partly to please Albert whose ‘war against sin” Gill says was irrational and about himself. We see Albert’s picture near her. It’s a studied pose, set up by her. Jim suggested to me there is something odd about there being so few or no photographs of the royal family from the 1860s on (when Albert was alive). The US civil war begins the era of photography and if we have so few photos, and instead only these mostly very fake (as the queen marveling over Alfred’s many dead birds when she hated blood sports, or other absurdities) and ceremonial paintings. Albert and Victoria didn’t want us seeing into their real private lives or selves. Only very late did she succumb when photography had become ubiquitous and then she presents herself repeatedly as grieving widow retired from life.


The Great Exhibition

John Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston

“The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Lord Palmerston Says No”

“The Greatest Show on Earth” shows Albert in his finest hour: he created an intelligent exhibit to which everyone was invited, and all but those who pride themselves on and live by exclusion came. By train often. It was offered at different prices to accommodate all too, and for stated periods free entrance to the big building itself. There was something for all intellects and tastes too. He could and did work very hard with men like the best aspects of himself: entrepreneurial, scientists, artists, musicians, intellectuals, middle class effective businessmen, professionals.

At the same time he could not make friends with them, and two of his closest associates died: Peel, his ‘second father,’ and Anson, ‘almost like a brother.” In his deepest outlook Albert remained a man of the ancien regime in Germany, and he really thought he could and should run the British government behind its machinery the way the prince-run states in Germany or tzar ran his. He was no republican, or democrat and could not understand why or like Palmerston (first an undersecretary in the foreign office and hen foreign secretary) supported revolutions against his, Albert and Victoria’s relatives in Germany and Russia — as well as Italy, France and other places.

He discovered that machinery — the political establishment was not a front. He was. And Lord Palmerston says No shows our prince at his feeblest, worst, though by the end, when he found he could not dismiss Palmerston and run the government, compromising and again acting decently and working hard to help the effort to win and quickly end the Crimean war, an expensive, bloody and useless event which Albert’s behavior in getting rid of Palmerston had partly helped bring on.

Queen Victoria reviewing the troops (this one is supposedly with Duke of Wellington so earlier): an example of how little portraits of the era have to do with the realities of the people acting; here militarism celebrated

Gill’s story of the Queen and Prince’s attempt to get rid of Palmerston and why they could not relies a little on Trollope’s portrait of Palmerston, and at one crux, Gill quotes Trollope to great effect. [Palmerson] took it [life, how the world is set up to work] as it came, resolving to be useful after his kind, and resolving also to be powerful,” and his social and sexual talents keep him afloat in the highest levels of British society. Gill lays bare the power structure of the era, its real sexual mores, and also how the queen in the end had to come out publicly and work in the public arena and how good she was at it. How relieved to when the “shadow life” of endless pregnancies came to an end.

Gill’s portrait of Palmerston’s early career (Irish, a man on the make, not too scrupulous but pro-English, hunting, drinking, and promiscuous sex including an unwise attempted rape on one of the queen’s ladies), his first successes and choice of a lower office in government, finally marriage to the rich and canny Lady Emily, worldly as his, a real partner — bears a striking resemblance, transmuted to Phineas Finn and Madame Max’s slow coming to partnership and later years.

Chapters 23 and 24: hemophilia and French influence

Prince, Queen, and their children by John Jabez Edwin Mayall

If I had been told that hemophilia emerged in the British royal family and then spread to most of the others around Europe (as they so intermarried), I had forgotten, and in any case did not think about what this meant to the private lives of those without genetic knowledge. Chapter 22 is powerful because Gill structures the story of Albert and Victoria’s early years bringing up their children around the reality that he and she did everything they could to deny there was anything wrong with Leopold, all the while wrapping him in cotton so that he did (remarkable) live to 31, marry and have two children himself. She makes a good case for understanding why a couple would lie to others and partly to themselves. It’s not just that women were blamed and the power of the throne threatened; a whole system was based on this cousin intermarriage and exclusionary practices.

At the same time she shows the emotional damage this did to all who were involved — especially the children siblings, including those who married in and themselves had hemophiliac sons. A couple encouraged to marry and this real probability hidden from them. This includes the Tsar whose heir was a hemophiliac.

We see many of the strains in the Coburg marriage, Again Victoria loved Albert devotedly and erotically far more than he did her.

Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie

Chapter 24 is how unexpectedly Albert and Victoria got along very well with Napoleon III and his wife, Eugenia. Everything Albert and Victoria were said to believe themselves against was embodied in this couple and it didn’t matter. The new relationship was catalyst for changing some of the worst aspects of Victoria and Albert’s marriage. It freed her from the puritanism Albert had subjected her to to some extent. Albert had someone to talk to who would understand. And Bertie, the son and heir found Paris a revelation. He was no moralist, no intellectual, and loved social life and sensation, pleasure and found it there. Alas, for Victoria’s oldest daughter, though, Vicki, the visit to Paris did not change things: the door was clanged shut on her quickly, she was disciplined and soon married off.


Edward VII as a boy

Edward VII when king (relatively late in life)

The last years; father and son; Albert’s death

Chapter 25 is called Father and Son, and does justice to Bertie as a person in his own right with valuable qualities, albeit deplored by “mom” and “dad.” How refreshing Gill’s description of Bertie’s temporary Irish mistress (the parents would not let him carry this one at all): “the amiable Miss Clifden, after giving the Prince of Wales some pleasure and comfort he was in great need of, went back to her music hall and her other gentleman, one hopes a little richer” (p. 356).

But it also explicates and lays before us Albert’s close relationship with Vicki (oldest girl), how both he and Victorian nonetheless made some bad decisions about her when young and how her life was spent amid stupid, paranoid, utterly aggrandizing Prussians who would have preferred her to have died in her first childbirth. She was saved by her mother sending a decent doctor for the breech-birth — something she could not admit to; she remained angry the doctor put his hand up her vagina! Vicki had her limitations, a child of Albert in intellect, she nonetheless was close to her mother and they developed a better friendship through incessant letters which Albert, jealous, tried to put a stop too. Alice is not neglected as another girl who loved her father dearly and so an important witness of his loving tender master of the revels role.

Painful the realities of the marriage as it developed. We can see Victoria’s great gift (not acknowledged sufficiently) for writing — for getting her self down on paper. It’s often not appreciated I’ve learnt. How much she and her daughter meant to one another. Albert and Victoria stopped having sex after the last child; he didn’t mind after all and he didn’t want her to die. No one did. It’s after that that the first cracks in the letter open up to show Victoria’s strain and discontent and occasional strong irritation and frustration.

Family politics is subtly and persuasively shown. Albert fraught between Vicki and his wife. And epistolary relationships. The chapter on Albert’s death is used to show us a good deal about Victorian medicine, living conditions, the state of knowledge about germs and diseases.

Albert died of overwork and depression as well as typhoid. It was the middle term that escaped everyone. I appreciated the description of the long dying and also the lack of sentimentality in Gill where she implicitly pointed out how Albert was not so missed as everyone wanted to pretend (and most ungrateful they were in a real sense), not even after a few years by the queen. How as the marriage was a power struggle too (as many are) it was Victoria who proved the stronger. She did not die of the situation. He did not cling to life as she did.

42 is young to die.


Morning in the Highlands, another idealization from the marriage by Carl Haag

The book has flaws. The early part is turgid; Gill is telling too much too quickly. In the latter part she begins to lose perspective and identify too strongly with the royal family as so powerful. She really suggests that has Albert lived one more year, he would have urged his son-in-law to take the throne of Prussia, and of course been listened to (Gill assumes) and liberal democracy might have flourished in the Germanies and no WW1 at all 🙂 and Vicki somehow be responsible for this. Beyond the danger of counter factuals and believing in them, she has lost all sense of how one or two people do not a country make – which she didn’t lose in her chapters on the Exhibition and ironic backlash against Albert directly afterwards or why he lost against Palmerston. She does seem to think an oligarchy really rules a country and perhaps she’s right (alas, we see that in the US right now) — and Trollope agreed in his New Zealander as did Carlyle and many Victorians. But the oligarchy in Prussia made WW1.

It’s natural to begin to identify strongly with your characters. I also found her acknowledgments page grating with upbeat happiness. How she is surrounded by all these loving friends. They give her tours, devotedly help, selflessly. What world does this belong to? Not the one shown in her book, but then acknowledgments have become a genre of ludicrous sycophancy, showing off who you know and cloying sentimentality.

On other hand, her notes are filled with good things, are little essays in themselves. For example on p. 410 under “faced with the mass of evidence,” Gill notes that Strachey did in fact offer a sympathetic portrait of Albert as “a gay man … a brilliant, sensitive intellectual tragically immolated on the altar of his family’s dynastic ambitions and his wife’s predatory sexuality.” Whew. That take Gill corrects: Albert was himself intensely ambitious, did all he could to enact public and social manliness, and Victoria’s sexuality was deeply loving, amorous. Among the ending portraits is of her later life close to John Browne. Here again we find that usual chorus of people determined to deny sex if there’s no explicit evidence. I’m puzzled at why people find others lessened in their eyes if they have sexual intercourse with a beloved or congenial person. But there it is again (We Two, p 381).

This footnote also shows Benson seeing into Albert’s feminine side, and more biographers analyzing what was the truth of Albert’s boy and young manhood. This book should help rehabilitate Victoria as a complicated honest, shrewd and most un-puritan woman, important for power politics of her time.

Gill’s article with her son, Christopher, on Nightingale in the Crimea is uniformly superb: Christopher and Gillian Gill, “Nightingale in Scutari: Her Legacy Examined,” CID [Center for International Health], 205:40 (15 June).


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