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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (the first season)

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Aidan Turner as Ross

[PLEASE NOTE: This news turned out to be false. None of these crucial alterations were done. I’ve kept the blog to show how one should not believe what gossip says is coming in a mini-series; for the argument of what are crucial chanages; and most of all for all the comments readers of the blog, lovers of the book and mini-series wrote. These are very interesting.]

As all those who have been waiting for the second season of Poldark to air know, there has been an unexpected delay in the airing of the second season of Poldark. Usually when a series is a real hit, the producers, channel, film-maker strike while the iron is still hot. The second season of Outlander came before the end of another year, and a third and possibly fourth season have already been announced.

I am among those eager to see the new second season. So late last spring I noticed a column by Debbie Horsfield containing a carefully worded statement (around the time a second season might have ended) that they had decided to present the sexual events of the coming season discreetly. They were going to be suggestive, not graphic. All who have read the books knew a rape was coming and I took this to mean that as in the 1975 Poldark, we would only see the prologue to rape, and then the screen would go dark. She was saying that modern film-making customs would not be followed, and explicit sex scenes would not be developed.

Not that Ross’s rape of Elizabeth would be obliterated altogether.

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Robin Ellis as Ross in the scenes prologue to the rape

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth in the same scenes (1975-76 Poldark)

That is what has been done. A suddenly timid BBC has perhaps pressured the film-makers of the new Poldark series to destroy a central event that makes for a meaningful plot design with a first climax at the end of the 7th book (The Angry Tide) and the final denouement of the whole cycle, at the close of the 12th book (Bella):

The BBC and film-makers say they feel that the modern audience could not accept a rape from a hero. It’s too shocking, rape. Have they not been watching other TV series of late? read any recent contemporary novels?

I wonder how much or if they fought over this. Robin Ellis tells us that in Making Poldark the script-writers and director were in conflict with some of the actors over the way in the 1970s mini-series Ross’s marriage to Demelza was presented as a shot-gun wedding, the result of a pregnancy which she first tried to abort, none of which is in Graham’s books.

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Anghared Rees as Demelza protesting the morning after sex, declaring she wants to leave

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With Ellis as Ross, she struggles to free herself so as to go for her abortion (again 1975 Poldark, wholly invented and unlike the book)

In Graham’s books Ross rebels against hierarchy, rank, status norms to marry a servant in his house because he and she have started to go to bed together, and he feels he is destroying her future unless he stops this before she gets pregnant or marries her. He finds himself comfortable with her, does not want to give her up as a servant, companion, and bed-mate, and is deeply angry against the social order. So defies it. Was this an important change? thereafter the script-makers and director kept faithfully to the books until near the end of Warleggan (Episodoes 14 to 15 in the first season, 1975-76) when they again departed radically, causing problems for the second season two years later (1977-78).

How important is the rape? I’d argue it’s far more important than the initial precipitating cause for Ross and Demelza’s marriage, as nothing else hinged on it. Not so the rape. To put it abstractly, in what ways can a film adaptation depart from a novel in order to erase or betray it? well, it can expunge a crucial plot-event that gives rise to a succession of climactic and centrally thematic fraught consequences in this or later novels, in other words further crucial plot-events. A series of consequences that make for the very ending of novels that are turning points in the novel series. You might say, this would not be easy to do. If A (so we’ll call the final moment in a novel) is the result of B, C, D, and E, and they came as a direct result of F, and F is missing (the rape), what happens to B, C, D, and E? Especially if they are particularly moving and tragic and give the characters acting these events depth and intense interest?

True. events A, B, C, and D will not come until the 3rd season. The results of Ross’s rape of Elizabeth about 2/3s the way through Warleggan (Poldark Novel 4) do not emerge until the birth of Valentine, Ross and Elizabeth’s son in The Black Moon (Poldark Novel 5), i.e, Season 3. The intense jealousy of Warleggan, and his abuse of Elizabeth, and her misery and wretchedness begin only when Warleggan has reason to suspect Valentine is Ross’s much later in The Four Swans (Poldark Novel 6). Indeed the script writer, Debbie Horsfield will not have to trouble herself over the final tragedy in say Episode 8 or 10 since it is only at the close of The Angry Tide (Poldark Novel 7) that desperate to make Warleggan think her present pregnancy is by him and accept Valentine’s his, Elizabeth decides she will make Warleggan believe she tends to give birth early and goes to a doctor for a dangerous concoction of herbs to precipitate early parturition and her own death. Never can tell, there might not be a Season 3.

But if there is (and I hope there will be), how will all this be handled? In Graham’s books Elizabeth was left to deal with it on her own. In the older Poldark mini-series ditto.

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth, this time pregnant by Warleggan, ashamed as she visits a doctor

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The unsympathetic suspicious doctor who supplies the needed abortifacient

If there is a third season, and say, we actually reach a last season, and the 12th and final book of the series, Bella, what will they do with the plangent meaningful tragic close (our hypothetical E)? What guilt could Ross have over how Valentine became twisted and isolated if he did not for all these books and all these years evade his responsibility, refuse to admit to anyone that the boy was his, he was the father who left the boy fatherless? The gut-wrenching nightmares, Valentine’s turn to a pet orangutan (don’t laugh, the last books do justice to characters with disability, and develop an animal rights point of view implicit in the early books), Valentine’s own choice of death or self-destruction?

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A very young David Hemmings and Samantha Egg in the 1970 Walking Stick

Graham has been credited with being an instinctive feminist, and with presenting women in transgressive and iconoclastic roles. Not just in his historical novels, but also his spy thrillers and modern mysteries and a few remarkable novels centering on mental disorder and disability (i.e., Marni (1964, Hitchcock film), The Walking Stick, both of which were filmed, the second brilliantly). I knew much of this was erased in the new first season, including any undermining of male gender stereotypes, but the protest level of feminism had been at least embodied to some extent in Verity’s story as well as Demelza’s. The first season saw the character of Elizabeth, in the original books and series, an insecure and ambitious woman, who found more joy in motherhood than she did understanding or support in her husband Francis; who didn’t care for sex particularly, turned into a pious moral exemplar, whose every thought was to make her husband a good entrepreneur and imitator of his father, Charles and every waking act to nurture her baby.

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Heida Reed as Elizabeth near tears because Francis is not coming up to masculine norms (2015 Poldark)

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Kyle Soller as a moving Francis Poldark in considerable distress because he’s come down in the world as he can’t manage the work ethic (wholly unlike the aristocratic Francis of the books and 1970s series)

Henry James said what a character does is central to how we know a character’s psychology and ethical character. I am wondering now how they will change this character so that she falls into adultery with Ross? If they have an affair, that means sex with some frequency, no? If we are to see a succession of days and nights of sex between Ross and Elizabeth, what does that do to his character? his relationship with Demelza? In the original books and mini-series, the Scots Captain McNeill almost succeeds in seducing Demelza; she backs away at the last moment. Will she “have an affair in turn.” I hope not because she does have a real love romance in The Four Swans that is meaningful: as a young girl she never had a romantic courtship nor a man near her age, respect and courtesy and poetry she yearned for comes her way. No one is expecting Graham’s hero to be as believable as Tolstoy’s Pierre (from War and Peace) I suppose, but the books do contain a real man as protagonist, a complex enough character to interest us. Real men who are not utter villains rape women — this even happens the statistics tell us often. This is an issue that should not be swept under a rug.

In the first season Horsfield boasted that she was closer to the original books than the 1970s mini-series. She’s given that up — or was forced to. Could it be that the BBC read fan sites where people have argued fiercely that Ross could not have raped Elizabeth; or, that Elizabeth is to blame for the night of sex; or anything rather than Graham’s disquieting novel for mature adults. No longer do fans have nowhere to voice their displeasure. They were worried lest sticking to the original books mar their ratings. Recent film studies have shown that further seasons of a series will alter intentions and characters to please on-line fan groups or at least exert considerable pressure (Andrea Schmidt, “The Imaginative Power of Downton Abbey Fan Fiction” in Julie Taddeo and James Leggott’s collection, Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume TV Drama: The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey). So perhaps the BBC was willing to mar their matter and pressured Horsfield to change her stance towards faithfulness. Whether the result will deprive the central heros and heroines of a complexly develping consistent personalities over a long series of books or (if it should come to pass) series of films remains to be seen.

I had been planning to write about the second season without referring to the 1970s mini-series. Now I will compare the two series with the books as I did last year (see my blog and an essay, Poldark Rebooted, 40 Years On). I may even teach the second trilogy of Graham’s books (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, and The Angry Tide, 1973-77) as last and two years ago I taught the first quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan, 1945-53)

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From the cover illustration of the first paperback edition of Graham’s Black Moon

Ellen

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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.

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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

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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.
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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:”

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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

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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Garrick arrived at Nampara (2015)

Dear friends and readers,

As you doubtless know if you’ve been reading this blog, the new Poldark mini-series is garnering much attention. Among remarkable items of interest suddenly turning up on-line are five texts by him read aloud sensitively, beautifully by two actors. One reason the Poldark novels have not been acceptable to the establishment is that while Graham is alive to this post-modern aspect of his fiction: how you can’t know the past, memory is failing, the universe itself unknowable, much relative, he does not make it central to his historical fiction and mystery larger structures — he mentions it now and again and there is a strong gothic undertow — well this idea and a gothic feel is central to these:

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In Cornwall

Meeting Demelza: a story written late in life where Graham meets his character at last; she tells what still hurts, we feel his ghostly desire: read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqp4r

Ross and Demelza: one of the most powerful and visionary all chapters in Graham, where shortly after they are married, he takes her to an all night pilchard harvest in a brilliantly lit cove — read by Ewan Bailey, from Ross Poldark

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqfx1

Three stories, all three abridged:

The Cornish Farm: set in the 20th century, a couple come to live and work a Cornish farm, a haunting marital suicide tale read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ynmf3

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Click on the drawing to enlarge it

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Other places

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Claude Monet, Vetheuil Winter

At the Chalet Lartrec: One not set in Cornwall but the Swiss Alps in the 1960s where the narrator seeks shelter from a blizzard (I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Lodging for the Night”); another haunting tale of apparent murder. Read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yngnh

The Old Boys: two now grown up boys meet on the grounds of their school, a meditation on how we re-interpret our past, how what for one is now amusement, for another is deep trauma. Read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ymztf

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If you’ve listened through, you’ll have experienced a shared set of themes, moods, character types and peculiar similarities, down to the man who claims to have strangled his wife resembling Mark Daniels (who in the Poldark books does), the throwing of precious things deep down a well.

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Caeria Israel, a painting inspired by Trollope’s “Malachi’s Cove,” set in Cornwall

These feel dark and the snatches chosen are apolitical. The Poldark novels have a strong element of intermittent sunshine and hope and are political, left-liberal, just now in public media beginning to be talked about for the first time. Read this short essay by Stephen Fielding, a professor of political history at Birmingham:

http://nottspolitics.org/2015/03/11/sexing-up-cornwall-but-theres-more-to-poldark-than-good-looks/

Poldark was actually one of the most radical period dramas of its day, reflecting the influence of the novels written by Winston Graham on which it was based. The first Poldark novel was published in 1945, the year Britain elected a Labour government intent on building a more egalitarian society. Graham’s work was shaped by that context.

His villains are the Warleggans, described in the novel as the “new aristocracy”. These financiers-cum-industrialists are the “the people of the future”, monopoly capitalists in all but name, intent on destroying communities to earn a profit, and able to exploit a legal and political system that reflects their interest. Against them stands Poldark, who, as an impoverished squire, gestured to a more classless past in which squire and tenant shared the same economic interests. As Graham wrote in Ross Poldark (1945): “All men were born in the same way: no privilege existed which was not of man’s own contriving” …

Ross Poldark was, then, one of literature’s classic figures on the fringe, a man of noble birth who identifies with the people rather than with his own class.

I wouldn’t call him Robin Hood, rather a combination of the old romance hero of the Gainsborough films (remember Stewart Grainger in the UK, Errol Flynn in the US) and Che Guevara. Robin Ellis captured this latter aspect of the mood of Graham’s hero in this moment in spades:

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Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark — Drawing by Hope James

Ellen

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1968 Pan Books edition

Dear friends and readers,

[A great disappointment today: the first class of Poldark Novels In Context I was cancelled [see comments]. I decided we should forge ahead and begin reading Ross Poldark for next week (see pages schedule for 1st third of Ross Poldark). I also sent my students the lecture notes I had made up — a sort of informal essay on the life of Winston Graham as background for reading the first three Poldark novels. I had asked them to read A Forgotten Story (also published as The Wreck of the Grey Cat) for today too, but it seems some people didn’t realize they must buy it online as a book. So here in a clear readable version for my students (and anyone else interested) is Winston Graham: the writer of the Poldark novels & A Forgotten Story (or class lecture notes 1)]:

As to my lecture notes, please first read the blurb on the syllabus on line. Here is Graham’s Poldark novels in context, life, career, Cornwall, something of his stance towards historical fiction; A Forgotten Story.

Ross Poldark is said to have sold over 5 million copies; it’s been reprinted 27 times. Graham’s books were from 1945 to the 1990 a selection in the American book of the month club. You can find older copies of his books in used booksales in libraries. he is read in France: the first three Poldark novels are available in French translations; all 12 Poldark novels are in print and available in English on the French and Italian equivalents of Amazon. Books rarely sell this way and they are today rarely kept in print unless they are selling.

So why do I call Graham neglected? Until very recently his historical fiction has been ignored by the literary establishment, academics, respectable people. There is no handbook, no companion, he’s not always even mentioned in surveys of 20th century historical fiction. One reason for this has been the fall in respectability of historical fiction in the early 20th century. That’s changing: over the ten weeks I’ll have 4 recent good articles to share with you listed on syllabus) on topics of interest, one by me, Liberty in the Poldark novels, an important theme in the books. These are all recently written. Before that all academic and more intelligent articles about him were about his mysteries. In the 1970s there were brief articles comparing his novels to the mini-series. But nowadays popular books are studied in classrooms and colleges; and then the 2nd film expensive well-done adaptation has been in the works for a couple of years, and the first was a tremendous hit and best-seller in DVD version.

RossPoldarkNewEdition
2015 British edition

You’ll note Warleggan, the fourth novel is part of my blurb. I would be stumbling over my feet if I did not over the course of the next 10 weeks include that in our purview. I originally wanted to go for 4 books but was told that was too much and I admit one should spend 3 weeks on a novel. The first three are however part of a quartet, 4 books which come to feel utterly intertwined once you finish them – all four reflect their era of 1945-53, post WW2, proto-feminist, reacting to this great traumatic war and a renewal of the social contract in the UK and US too – -later 1940s. Graham felt at the end of book 4, he’d done and he did not return to the series for 20 years. Another reason I’ll be telling what happens in that last book and will devote the last half-hour of the course to it, is the way the film adaptations are rightly done, is to bring in material found in Warleggan into the earliest episodes of the films; the new series has done it again.

What happens, as you’ll see as you read, is early on in Ross Poldark we meet Elizabeth Chynoweth whom Ross loved and was engaged to before he joined the British army and went to America; he and she were engaged (which in the era means they probably had some form of sex), and he expected her to wait for him after he returned – from the American revolution, a bit much as after all no one could know when it would end. She didn’t wait partly because he was reported dead. Ross Poldark is the story of a revenant – a man returned like some ghost from the past, to a present utterly unprepared for him, in some ways hostile to his reappearance and needs. Charles Poldark, Ross’s uncle who was the oldest son of the previous generation has taken over property left to Ross by his father, Joshua. His son, by primogeniture, the oldest son of the oldest son, is the heir. We also hear of a character who becomes Ross’s prime enemy and is the villain-protagonist, the contrasting character of all four books to Ross: George Warleggan.

But this pair of characters, even Elizabeth do not dominate Ross Poldark, Francis is paired with Elizabeth, and George Warleggan becomes active in Jeremy Poldark. They were filled out more later, came alive complete with back-stories in Warleggan. In other words Graham’s characters emerge slowly, organically, naturally but to explain to a film audience who do not read the books what is happening at first, the full context, the back story as it were, the adapters right away take material from Warleggan. The first films also made Elizabeth a far more negative character. So I will also tell of these back stories as we go along. I hope you’ll like the books so well you’ll go on to the fourth this summer.

I’ve suggested a wonderful book on Cornwall which I’ll bring in next time – Graham’s Poldark’s Cornwall filled with photos – by Graham telling of his connections with this place If you go to the authorized website, newly revamped you’ll see all the titles of his available mysteries. Other books for Cornwall that are good reads are Daphne DuMaurier’s Enchanted Cornwall and Vanishing Cornwall.

The Forgotten Story is one of his better known mysteries (several got prizes, David Hemmings was in the film adaptation of his powerful Walking Stick), some are rooted in the Spanish civil war, politically relevant. I choose FS because it’s set in Cornwall, has a theme about historical fiction, was written at the same time as Ross Poldark. One might say Graham gave birth to twins. FS is the darker side of RP. Graham is dramatizing some problems when you try to write accurate historical fiction in FS.

Memoirs

Let us turn to Winston Graham’s life: Three perspective can help us through:

One and two: when he began to make a lot of money, the year Marnie was a film sensation in the US (1962, it caused some scandal) in 1962, he said “I am the most successful unknown novelist in England,” and his identification strong with the underdog, with working class people, his experiences growing up a usable past, an area of history where he could present the social contract as he sees it between peoples, different classes, as it’s practised and as it’s betrayed.

A third, from Poldark’s Cornwall is his relationship with this southwestern county. As he says rightly in Poldark’s Cornwall, the idea that historical fiction is disqualified from respect because it’s filled with the presence of an author is rubbish: all great books are. They are lamps and mirrors: lamps filled with the author’s soul, mirrors of the time they are made in.

He was born in 1908 and grew up in Manchester, the city most identified with a huge growth in population and the industrial revolution in England over the later 18th into the early 19th century. In the 19th century a place where working men and women fought hard for reform – including the right to representation. Some of his family members were long lived and he lasted until 2003, still writing. He never did anything but write for a living. He experienced the pre-WW1 world; arguably our modern world emerges from WW1. He was not himself of working class background; by his generation genteel middle middle class, his family grew rich from pharmaceuticals – it began with his grandfather as a grocer and chemist (in the UK that means you own a drugstore).

A central character in Demelza (the 2nd Poldark novel) is Dwight Enys, a doctor, the name that of an old Cornish mining family, his profession growing out of Graham’s identification with quack, amateur, well-meaning and recent so-called scientific medicine. The firm was D. Mawdsley and Co, which eventually manufactured drugs and medicinal compounds. Never grew to be Big Pharma partly because his father died and the kind of business acumen his grandfather had had was no longer there. This is perhaps reflected in the conflicted tragic Francis Poldark. The Manchester era of his life is commemorated in Cornelia, his one historical novel not set in Cornwall but Manchester 19th century. Published 1949, it surprised people by how widely it sold. He became a book-of-the-month club author with it. People are continually surprised by how liked his books are – one of our essays, Nickianne Moody’s is about this.

He was expected to go to Manchester grammar school, but had contracted meningitis at the age of seven and, because of continuing ill health, went instead to a small select Longsight grammar school, which was nearer his home. They lived in a genteel neighborhood, Victoria Park, but of course as a boy he spent time in Manchester proper too. A lot of his time was at home since he was educated mostly at home. He did not go to a British public school (these are private schools for the upper classes), and he did not become part of upper class coteries – so he was an outsider to an establishment which could have bought, written about, pushed his books. he was a sensitive reading boy but very able to make friends.

After his father had had a stroke at the age of fifty-four, the family moved to Perranporth, in Cornwall – it was cheaper. That county, with its isolation and dark overtones, was to provide the setting and inspiration for much of Graham’s writing. He was very close to his mother to whom he dictated his first story at the age of five. She, even when widowed, determined to subsidize him until he succeeded. Like Anthony Trollope it was a long apprenticeship – he was not paid much for his early books, but they got in print and in those days could get reviews. He met and married his wife, Jean, in Cornwall who ran a lodging house which enabled him to keep writing. So imagine a long period of more or less isolated writing for him in his 20s to 30s, reading, then the experience of WW2 which was shattering for all in the UK, and it transformed the feel of his fiction, its nerve. his first financial successes seem to have begun at the close of WW2: Take My Life, The Little Walls, Marnie and The Walking Stick for books set in the present (taking his writing career to the 1960s), all thrillers, psychologically astute, and Ross Poldark with the three further historical books by 1953.

So the first theme: he called himself “the most successful unknown writer in the UK – and US too.” He signed a contract with Hitchcock so his name would not appear on the films adapted– $50,000. He married a local girl; she became lame in one of her legs early on, suffered asthma – so did not connect up – she had a stroke in her early 50s. She carried a walking stick. There is terrific snobbery among academics and the elite in the UK – he didn’t network into these groups; the prestigious prize as a selling tool first emerged in the 1970s. It probably hurt his reputation that he was a book-of-the-month club seller. The Poldark books were seen as regional romances.

A second perspective: individuals he tells life stories of in his autobiography (The Memoirs of a Private Man) are people badly hurt by social, economic, and political arrangements, whom he feels for; as he reveals the history of his family, we see socially and politically active people from the early 19th century on. Again his grandfather. The men in his family were trade unionists part of the Chartist movement, early Labor people. In the first chapter of his autobiography he tells of the house maid in his childhood, Evelyn: her parents had been forced to marry because mother pregnant, father a miner died young from poisonous fumes, mother of malnutrition and peritonitis; she endured a long hard life first as servant and then a seamstress, she did marry, then worked as day cleaning woman, with a single son, later in a vast department store, where the management deprived of her pension late in life because the company was able to prove she had a break in service: “I hope whoever was responsible for that decision rots in hell.” We might say she was the real upstairs-downstairs servant (see Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs), the real clerk in Mr Selfridge. Over the course of his Memoirs we meet people like her as typical and Graham’s hero identifies with the working man; in the first four books, Ross Poldark is a kind of Jacobin – a revolutionary typical of the time 1780s to 90s, our revolutionary era too.

The third; a deep sense of land- and seascape are central to his vision, deep time past,. Graham distinguishes three periods in Cornwall.

First period living in Cornwall with his mother and brother, 1925, so age 15 through the 1930s, the WW2 and the early years of his marriage. This is the era out of which our books comes.

A second era in Cornwall as summer people : Graham had moved his family to southern France for privacy, to escape taxes, but at the end of the year he missed Britain so strongly he moved back to Sussex (near London and as a literary man of letters he needed to be in contact) but spent long summers in Cornwall, bathing, swimming, walking.

The third era is the last return just before and during the films – nostalgia he calls it. In 1969 there was a proposal to film his books; he claims to have re-started the Poldarks well before 1975 when the first super-successful series aired. No one was to know it was be a success; it was ridiculed and derided by the snarky British press who only became silent after a few weeks. Not only love but accuracy; that’s where our course’s themes about early industrial capitalism, smuggling, banking, riots, medicine at the time, women’s position, comes in: he writes on Poldark’s Cornwall “I do not know how near to the truth of life in the 18th century these novels are; all I know is they are as near to the truth as I can make them.” He read extensively in texts written at the time everywhere – not just novels and memoirs, but hard records, chronicles, tax returns, court cases, about prisons.

On the later Poldark novels (5-12):

In 1969 he had been absent from Cornwall for nearly 20 years, and Associated British Pictures proposed to film the four books as a kind of GWTW in Cornwall. There was an extended visit, the film did not come off, but Graham was deeply prompted to return imaginatively, and began The Black Moon – the 5th Poldark book, returning not only to the era, but to these specific characters. He said it was like “breaking some sound barrier,” a gouging struggle to get back, and he did it, and then wrote The Four Swans (Poldark 6) and The Angry Tide (Poldark 7). It’s a trio that mirrors the 1970s, post 1960s, Vietnam, now feminist, more realistic, deeply delving the issues of local politics and patronage, the French revolution’s effect on the British; written between 1973-77. Books 5-7 wee used for the second year of the old Poldark series and I’ve no doubt they would form the basis of a second new season for the new series – 2016.

The success of the mini-series made the BBC hungry to do more but Graham had too much integrity and deep attachment to his characters and themes and would not allow other people’s stories to be formed around them. It took time but eventually he wrote another quartet, 1981-1990: issues of The Stranger from the Sea, Loving Cup, Miller’s Dance, The Twisted Sword are post-colonialism, imperialism; piracy; he dramatizes the peninsula war in Spain and Portugal during the Napoleonic era (a genuine kind of Vietnam); these are anti-war books, the last closely following the battle at Waterloo (The Twisted Sword) and we have disabled characters too. These end with the same sort of depth of nothing is concluded as Warleggan (end of first four) and The Angry Tide (end of next trio).

There was a film adaptation of just Stranger from the Sea, in an American movie-house style – cut the post-colonial politics (so delete Spain and Portugal and an important part of the book), make it just 2 hours. It failed for reasons beyond the gutting of the book’s central themes.

So no attempt was made to film books 9-12. A twelfth Poldark novel did come very late 2003; Bella, a very late child of Ross and Demelza, did finally provide closure; now we have a deeply troubled hero bonding with an orangutan. Animal rights. During these years of 1970s to 2003 he rewrote some of his earlier mystery thrillers, and wrote Poldark’s Cornwall and the autobiography.

He was very lucky in being the second son, born much later than the first, to a woman who had sufficient private income to support them both. She could, however, have been intolerant and bowed not only to the norms then and now, but the ridicule heaped on her son for “doing nothing.” He was fortunate in one relative: his father’s younger sister, an unmarried woman, persuaded him not to leave his ms in the drawer, to type it, and then she bound it lovingly in two boards and it was sent to Ward and Lock (publishers of Trollope volumes in the early 20th century). The writing industry or literary marketplace at the time included many small publishers to whom an author could send manuscripts; if and when, an author was accepted, the contract was simplicity itself. He had actually stockpiled novels (novels he had written and not sent out) and was able to keep up attention to himself by sending along a novel quickly after the first to be published, and one after that. He was reviewed in big dailies and locally. Again his big break began around the time WW2 ended.

Next time I’ll talk about his views on historical fiction before embarking on Ross Poldark. For now I’ll suggest that Graham he shows in his autobiography Poldark’s Cornwall and of course his fictions he’s interested in the mystery of the mind, the exploration of motives and deeds that lie rooted in the past and produce the conflicts, doubts, hesitations, and eccentricities of the present, a deep interest in the psychological underpinnings of his characters. His characters are compelling: beset by moral dilemmas, beset by fears, guilts, cover ups, do apparently bizarre things supposedly out of character. Do not do the logical or the rational and as a result often find themselves in complicated and incriminating circumstances that reveal the underpinnings, contradictions, values of the society they live in.

I want to talk about Cornwall’s history as mining place – made up of payable rising ground – tiny originally rural population going back to neolithic era one of the first industrial capitalist places, changed character of world with its creation of mining, trading and later export of mined minerals and techniques. And as a mythic place – Daphne DuMaurier books come out of this. Graham is far more realistic.

He’s also fascinated by how little we can know for sure about the past – paradoxically. Which takes us to The Forgotten Story.

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The Forgotten Story

ForgottenStory
Oxford Bodley Head 1964 edition

The novel is also available as The Wreck of the Grey Cat, published by Doubleday (1958).

It is a complicated story to summarize. Here’s one bare-bones attempt.

Anthony is a young boy (11) whose mother (Charlotte) has died and his father gone to live in Canada, and he is sent to Falmouth to live with his mother’s sister’s husband, Joe Veal, who runs an eatery and drinking tavern. His mother’s sister (Christine) has also died. Anthony is welcomed and treated kindly by his cousin, Patricia Veal Harris, and taken in by Joe and his second wife, Madge, the ex-cook. Most of the novel is seen through Anthony’s point of view, rather like To Kill a Mockingbird. Gradually Anthony discovers Patricia is married and has left her husband, Tom Harris, because she was made to feel alien in Tom’s upper class environment, uncomfortable. One thread of the novel is about Tom’s attempt to persuade Patricia to come back to live with him; she is going out with a sailor Ned Pawlyn. At one point a riot ensued in her father’s drinking tavern, brought on by a fight between these two men. For a second time Patricia testifies truthfully in court: the first occurred before the novel begins: there was a riot and her father wanted to see it blamed on a Dutch sailor; but she says this is not so (and puts her father’s business license at risk), and the second time it was not Tom’s fault (again her father’s lawyers tried to blame the son-in-law in order to deflect attention from the way the tavern itself is managed). Both times she is reviled by various people for not lying; her father dies — he is clearly ill and failing, and she loves him, but he cuts her off with just 500 pounds. Joe Veal was a selfish, mean man; his first act upon meeting Anthony was to take from Anthony all the money Anthony had from his mother. His will is spiteful; he leaves his brother Perry something derisory. Thus ends the first book.

The second is discovery: we learn of a back story behind this front one at the tavern — we gradually suspect that Joe was poisoned to death slowly by Madge (as was Patricia’s mother).We see that no one but Patricia shows any concern or interest in Anthony for real. Tom Harris, in order to persuade Anthony to help him discover the truth of what’s been happening as well as regain Patricia pretends more concern than he feels and enlists Anthony’s help. Anthony discovers a previous will and Madge, a psychologically twisted woman, seeks to see that Anthony dies. Patricia must take a job; it’s almost impossible to find a good paying one, but she manages a teacher in a schoo; that means she must leave Anthony behind. Madge’s accomplice is Joe’s ne’er-do-well brother< Perry, an interesting character, an apparent loser with a conscience – a type in Graham's historical novels. Perry knows her poisoning propensities and she and he concoct a story that Anthony's father wants him to come to Canada; they will take him by boat to Bristol. She hopes Anthony will drown in an "accident." Anthony has very bad dreams in this book; some of them are real things he sees.

The last third, Epilogue, is about the shipwreck itself, the inspiration or beginning of the book in its prologue. It's a powerful rendition of an attempt to save a boat in this Falmouth harbor during a high storm. It is saved, but Perry slips overboard, now terrified of Madge and not willing to keep murdering people. We meet and read what a fictionalized the reporter who wrote the newspaper story said, hear of the coming trial of Madge, and what happens to Tom and Patricia and finally Anthony.

The inspiration for the book comes from a real shipwreck off the coast of Cornwall in 1897 found in a newspaper; Graham loved the tall ships and (as I said about his life), he was a coast guard in WW2 in Cornwall; although Cornwall was not bombed, the sea was fearful place during WW2 (the German planes with bombs came that way). The interest of the book is in the characters, their complicated psychology. the book manifests some obsessions or patterns we see in the Poldark books: At one point Tom Harris rapes Patricia (marital rape), partly out of revenge, partly anger, partly to conquer her.

One theme is the ambiguity of all records. I quote on article on Graham’s mystery novels by Gina MacDonald:

In the prologue to The Forgotten Story Graham describes those who would reconstruct real events from newspaper accounts as “like paleontologists trying to reconstruct an extinct animal,” never certain because of the deceptive nature of appearances, the multiplicity of details that add up to truth but that can also suggest a number of other possibilities. Thus, throughout Graham’s canon, men must deal with the disparity of facts and interpretations, and must wade through seeming truths that are at odds with their instinctive feelings. Invariably they must examine a number of contradictory hypotheses before finding a combination that rings true, and even then they have doubts until the final proof is in

Here are my lecture notes — what I would have said to prompt discussion.

It shows very well some of what’s most admired by people who know this side of his work well and it has themes and moods and devices like those of the Poldark novels – including a marital rape, complicated sexual relationships between people after marriage, Cornwall itself, the sea, a love of older type boats (all gone by the time WW1), of the coast line and cliffs how dangerous – just where Graham spent much of his WW2 – as a coastguard there. Remember the Nazis came over the channel with their bombs nightly, not to Cornwall but the sea was their path.

It falls into three parts the way many of his books do, with prologue as in Ross Poldark,, pp 1-6 (pages from Oxford Bodley Head book). Book 1, pp. 7-122 – the coming of Anthony to the household and it ends on the death (killing we later learn of Joe and reading of the apparent last will of Joe Veal (Chapter 1-16). Book 2, Chs 1-24 – pp 122-97, the unraveling of the story so we begin to understand what has been happening out of sight. Epilogue, pp. 198–224, where it’s not altogether clear what was resolved – we do not know that Mrs Veal was found guilty; she might get off, Anthony does not know he is set to go to Australia. He lies sleeping as the novel closes.

Here’s how it opens, pp 1-2. It’s a questioning of historical fiction itself at the same time as he enacts it. In this brief prologue Graham writes that it was novel written just before the first Poldark (Ross Poldark) and during some dark days in WW2 and he says it reflects the dark state of mind he felt at the public revelations of what the state of the UK had been doing, the concentration camps, the reality of what the war had been. He opens by describing those who would reconstruct real events from newspaper accounts as “like paleontologists trying to reconstruct an extinct animal,” never certain because of the deceptive nature of appearances, the multiplicity of details that add up to truth but that can also suggest a number of other possibilities.

Did they like it? What did you like about it? Was it intriguing? What is dark about it? What is hopeful? Disturbing. What did you think of the way Patricia Veal was treated by the town? About her efforts to find remunerative work and there is none for women of middle class background at all at the time. What did you think about Tom Harris? The class conflicts?

A Forgotten Story is a historical fiction set in Cornwall, centered on Anthony Veal, an orphan boy where we meet marginalized people making a living off an inn on the coast of Cornwall at the turn of the century; how Patricia Harris (nee Veal), the daughter attempts to flee a marriage where she has married above her and finds life constraining and painful.

What’s powerful is how the characters do not fall into preconceived categories of good and bad – except for the murderess and even she is psychoanalysed. The father, Joe, whom the daughter loves and whose death changes the whole world for everyone living with him, is a mean selfish, narrow man who is almost responsible for his own death: he won’t pay a doctor to take care of him and wouldn’t for his wife, the heroine’s mother, Charlotte – had he done so he might have discovered the woman who is the cook, and who he marries as a second wife because it’s easy for him as his housekeeper (like Ross Poldark) poisoned her to death, is poisoning him, and probably poisoned members of her family when she was younger. Madge turns out to be murderess at its center (she has spent a life poisoning people) who has been able to murder Joe Veal partly because he is so secretive and a miser, incapable it seems of loving anyone himself; and now she has taken over the louche cowardly but not totally unredeemable uncle, who had been brought into the plot into order to accomplish it. His great act is to kill himself lest he be dragged into killing more people with the Until near the end of the book it seems as if we are in a more straight historical novel about the psychological social troubles of a set of local people.

We do not know this until the very close to story’s end since it is told by a young boy, old enough to understand on a prime level what’s happening and the amorality or morality of a given event. The effect is part of the power: the naif perspective. We have to figure events out. We do see things he does not see. After the riot, Tom Harris rapes Patricia and we experience this from Tom’s point of videw. We see how people do not interest themselves in this boy at all; he is not being sent to school; he is at risk. In the Bristol ship Madge locks Anthony into a room below deck on a sinking ship in order to drown him. The use of a child narrator gives the word its intensity: he is not only innocent, but a good and well-meaning adolescent (aged 11), older than the children of Lee’s story and also (more recently Emma Donoghue’s The Room); nonetheless, the device works to deflect the reader from the central tabooed content in various ways and see what’s happening through normative eyes and a mind continually trying to give an upbeat presentation of events.

I found the sequences towards the end of his dreams very effective – because they are not dreams, the body is really dug up, and because Freudian style they explain to him what is happening, pp 90-91, 102-13. Powerful descriptive abilities, p 190. Powerful analysis of people: Mrs Madge Veal is actually a commonplace woman, not a monster Perry, p 194-195. The scenes in the tavern, the singing (dark songs), the play-acting all attractive (in Demelza a group of players comes to the village).

A Forgotten Story begins with a wreck on the coast of Cornwall, and returns to the scene at the end, resembling DuMaurier’s Cousin Rachel and Trollope’s Eye for an Eye, which both begin in terribly disturbed moments: in all three cases the novel is the explanation in the form of a story. It gives the piece a gothic framing.

VerityandFrancis
Norma Streader as Verity with Clive Francis as Francis Poldark when we first meet them: the expression on her face is appropriate to Patricia’s very often (1975-76 Poldark series)

Beyond the redolent use of Cornwall, I was attracted to the uncle who runs a genially transgressive bar, and to heroine, a type very like say Elinor Dashwood, the well-meaning but self-possessed and vulnerable young woman (played in the mini-series by Angarah Rees), a kind of Verity Poldark.

When Patricia flees her persistent husband, Tom who with a boyfriend, Ned Pawlyn (who later offers to flee to Australia so they can live as man-and-wife without being known), starts the quarrel in the bar which appears to lead to her father’s death, she has no means of supporting herself decently. This is 1898 and the only professions open to a young woman still are wife or teacher. She takes a position as a strict girls’ school — we are in a mild version of Jane Eyre too. The telling gripping incident of the story is a marital rape scene, which I’m coming to see as an obsession, a highly unusual one.

Tom rescues Patricia from the bar quarrel and to assert his rights over her, rapes her. Grahame returns to this unusual motif again and again: arguably Ross Poldark rapes Elizabeth Warleggan (as she is soon to become in Warleggan). In The Four Swans Graham presents Elizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna Chynoweth, coerced into marriage with a man who (in effect) rapes her nightly. Yet Patricia gives testimony on his behalf in a courtroom which reveals her liaison with Ned, she is ostracized and there’s a scene of public humiliation.

The dislike and resentment and discomfort of being with people above you is part of why she wants to stay away from him; he is too powerful for her. Tom Harris does not realize he’s arrogant, he does not realize he is privileged, and cannot see it – she flees this because it makes her feel bad about herself.

All the while she is of course in her heart a virtuous heroine. We are to re-define what we mean by virtuous and it does not mean strict sexual fidelity although in fact Patricia never has sex with another man, a decent merchant marine sailor, but not because it’s forbidden, but because she does not love him enough to go off with him to Australia as a partner, though he would provide an escape from her bad situation once her father dies and spitefully leaves her nothing.

Graham chose to return to the end of the Victorian period to be able to show this paradigm, only Graham de-constructs the framing social circumstances and shows us how unfair they are. Tom Harris no longer has the right to demand Patricia back. In 1891 it had become no longer accepted since a famous court case for a husband to try to wrest his wife back to live with him. But he feels he ought to. The sense in the fiction is that this is wrong. This is at least one place where a woman should have real liberty. She is nagged by her (murderous we find) aunt to return to Tom using the conventional argument, she should. She is shamed by her community when she does not return to him. That this motif is returned to ceaselessly shows its centrality for controlling women in this set of social structures, and that it’s at a great price to her. Another Poldark motif is the courtroom where a character unexpectedly tells the truth out of a stubborn integrity which truth hurts her – in the case Patricia Harris.

The ending shows Tom Harris who has all along been an ambivalent figure (he appears to be exploiting the boy to pressure Patricia) into a hero of integrity. He rescues Antony and brings Patricia back from the school. We discover that Tom has been responsible for her getting her job: he had the connections and respect by his family and position as a lawyer. Unlike Ned, he can take Patricia somewhere as his wife; they can afford to provide a home for Anthony.

But the way he wins her is more interesting than this, or the way it’s presented. The presentation of Patricia’s choice to return to Tom does not mean all is forgiven — and as in Marnie. It’s left ambiguous.

How do they come to this decision. the woman is married to the man and so she obeys the social convention, goes with it. So it’s about family life and convention and how they operate. Tom’s upper class status is what gets her the job in as a school mistress; as a lawyer he has access to the police who then come and dig up Joe’s grave to discover that he was poisoned.

After a while the books all do spin around the same concerns, and for me at least are gripping. I find I can’t put them down easily each time I start one up again. I get intensely emotionally involved.
The Forgotten story is all that happened which does not appear in history and what really mattered – how little can come out in records that matters. We don’t learn what really prompted events in records. Swept under the rug, swept away as the storm which sweeps away Uncle Perry, the uncle who colluded with the aunt, swept away as Uncle Joe, the father whose real vulnerability we are never permitted to delve. Why he married Madge? what happened to Patricia’s mother?

The fiction remains conventional: Graham treats this decision not as a violation of feeling and he presents the woman’s choice with tact and sympathy. It reminds me of Demelza central heroine of the Poldark books who also finds security, peace, respect from the community by doing the conventional thing – the obedient and going for promotion as we’ll see. Angharad Rees played both parts – in both films: Demelza and Patricia. I can see Norma Streader who played Verity in 1975=6 as Patricia too.

The Forgotten Story, has an unhappily apt title, which paradoxically point to one reason it may still be in a collection with Marnie and Greek Fire, as it was made into mini-series in 1983 by then respected actors which appears to have flopped if the complete lack of information in IMDB and on line stills are any indication. Nonetheless, The Forgotten Story, is also one of the few pre-1950s novels, novels before the Poldark series, Graham himself chose to reprint.

It’s one of three the non-Poldark novels put into print before this latest film adaptation of 2015: Winston Graham: Marnie, Greek Fire, and The Forgotten Story. Marnie is a highly unusual psychological study of a disturbed young woman which was travestied by Hitchcock into a film about a hateful mother, controlling husband and thieving woman (it made a lot of money); Greek Fire, very typical for Graham’s generation of writers, a novel about the overthrow of a socialist movement in Greece, 1948.

Ellen

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Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark (1977)

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Aiden Turner as Ross Poldark (2015)

Dear friends and readers,

With the re-airing of the 1975-78 Poldark mini-series, the imminent airing of a new one in March on British TV and in June on PBS, and my own coming course on the Poldark novels I’ve begun rereading Graham’s life-writing, travel books and mysteries. That Graham wrote powerful mystery-thrillers often turned into film noir or Hitchcock type movies shows a vein of emotion that also feeds into the Poldark series.

So, first up among the latter, his Forgotten Story, also set in Cornwall (1898), written just before Ross Poldark, so a historical regional novel as well as mystery.

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Angharad Rees played the role of the heroine of The Forgotten Story (1983, the mini-series apparently wiped out)

I’ve given a thorough account of its relationship to the Poldark novels, Graham’s own repeated treatment of marital rape, and historical fiction; what I did not look into was its relationship to mystery-thrillers as a genre. This probably because until recently I never made any particular effort to view this sub-genre; that changed with watching Prime Suspect, and the recent spate of this genre as matter for film adaptations on PBS as well as my study of the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley (itself a post-text romance as well as mystery, but that belongs on my Austen Reveries blog).

Since I know few people will click onto my previous blog on The Forgotten Story and read it, no matter how many clicks I offer, allow me briefly to discuss The Forgotten Story once again. I hope yet another edition will follow from the success of the coming new Poldark mini-series.

What I’m most impressed by is the opening and closing meditation about the records he used about the actual incident underlying this fiction distort and marginalize and make uncertain precisely what happened — not just deliberately (though that’s part of this) but because not enough real concern is felt for literal truth. The epilogue to another historical novel not Poldarkian, and also set in Cornwall, The Grove of Eagles, shows an unusual display of exasperation at his public: he was attacked for not sticking to literal truth. In fact the attack was a stalking horse for attacking his attack on hierarchy and respect for privilege and rank. As he says at its opening and closing what drew his to the events he chose partly to fictionalize (as above) and dramatize accurately enough with a point of view is that we can’t tell precisely what was the truth. The Poldark novels return to meditations about the nature of historical fiction now and again, though they never become post-modern self-reflexively — another reason he was not “lifted” to the sphere of consideration for prizes like the Booker.

The Forgotten Story is at heart a dark one, the story of a woman who has been murdering her relatives for a long time, gradually poisoning them, a woman it emerges with a twisted psychology of personal anger, spite, revulsion against others who were put off by her ugliness. Graham delves the psychological complexity of all his characters — their pathologies as well as peculiar configurations of socially derived behaviors; he is a proto-feminist in the way he presents his heroine, Patricia Veal, as unable to get a good job and finally returning to live with the (good enough) hero, Tom Harris, because she needs him and taking with her, her cousin, Anthony, the boy at the center of the fiction (though whose consciousness we see most of the action — creating suspense); more controversially, our hero rapes our heroine — it’s slid over and (as in Warleggan) we are led to interpret this rape (if we chose) as one where she gave in and was ever after somehow connected to this man (more than from the sex she had had with him before). We are led on in a kind of terror for her as her world collapses after the death of her father, and then in fear lest she or Anthony slowly die too.

It’s about a certain kind of business too — shipping in the later 1890s, carefully recreated, tavern life in Cornwall and how it functions, but more than that the seascape of Cornwall, its lands and towns — it’s about shipwreck and the dangers of the coast, clearly mirroring Graham’s experience as a coast guard during World War Two. The feel of modernity and the liberal point of view is so unfamiliar to us now we can miss it’s an Edwardian story, Edwardian society, a different group than is usually shown us. I recommend it — melancholy and dark yet with hope because there are a few good enough people (in just the way of his Poldark novels).

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David Tennant as The Escape Artist (much touted, over-rated on PBS this past spring) — see Bloody Murders and Country Houses

Well, the power of Graham’s mystery-thriller and that of some few others I’ve read over the years (Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men left me anxious and tense each time I’d pick it up, and I remember it still), as well as the mystery-detective fiction LeCarre transformed into a serious political genre made me again wonder if this genre had any serious merit. I’d read a fine biography of Dashiell Hammet this summer (by Diana Johnson) as well as his screenplay for Lilian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. My wondering comes from the reality that most of the time I’ve tried to read a detective fiction, I’ve found it boring, myself unable to process the next step in prose, not caring about what happened before the book opened, or offstage. From reading P.D. James’s The Maul and the Pear Tree and this summer Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, I gathered the “fun” I was supposed to be having was to outwit the author and discover the secrets he or she was leaving clues about. The formulaic nature of its competitive puzzle is beyond me as most of the time I can’t get myself to do crossword puzzles nor care which team wins in a game match.

I threw the topic out for discussion on my listservs and tonight Yvette and I discussed some of our favorite Dorothy Sayers’s novels — for these we both love, e.g., Unnatural Death, Strong Poison, Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night. She has recently been rereading Sayers.

On my Women Writers through the Ages listserv @Yahoo, Fran linked in a stimulating essay defending detective and mystery fiction by Raymond Chandler, on Trollope19thCStudies @Yahoo, Tyler suggested the puzzle was the central attraction: the unravelling of the secret plots going on off-stage. Trollope is astute in his mockery of the Wilkie Collins school of detective fiction (The Moonstone with its Sergeant Cuff is sometimes said to be the first detective fiction in English)

The author seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone” (An Autobiography, 1980 Oxford Paperback, p 257).

and Trollope can’t be bothered to see this sort of thing as tremendously significant; doubtless Trollope would laugh at the literal kinds of minute anachronisms found by some readers and viewers, hurled at historical fiction/films to attack them as absurd. Well, this explanation is always there, and often at length at the end of the fiction/film.

I then read P.D. James on why she thought the invented story of Cordelia Gray (not her own) on PBS was so poor: “Cordelia never sees the body; the body murder scene must be detailed centrally, crucial to all detective crime stories is this key scene and it’s best that the detective examine it. That makes the story serious. it’s best that the detective examine the corpse. That makes the story serious.” And Julian Symonds in his excellent concise Bloody Murder on the centrality of crime to the best and recent books in the genre; he says there is sensationalist literature, and some subsets of these feature detection, crime and bloody murder; these he (and Chandler) say are superior to the “Golden Age of Fiction” by women writers (gentlewomen, disdainfully called). (The same kinds of dismissals of women writers of the 1930s in general in comparison to male writers is accounted for by Alison Light as anti-feminism in her Forever England.)

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Sophie Rundle as Lucy making herself the bait for the murderer (“Cracking the Killer Code,” Bletchley Circle, season 1)

First the usual defense is that of Chandler who has an enormous chip on his shoulder) and James (in her Talking of Detective Fiction): that there is no difference between sheer entertainment and great art, and one genre no better than another. Then they drop that as it’s obviously not so as the formulaic and thin nature of so much detective fiction, the reality that so much detective or mystery fiction is poor, yet sells widely. No need to drag in the greatness of tragedy as a genre, of dark comedy, film noir and a host of other genres where when it’s well done, its superb. And the sad truth that these mystery-thrillers are preferred to serious realistic fiction by writers like George Eliot to Anthony Powell and William Styron. Their tenacious popularity may be seen on the US PBS channels: now that they’ve lost Mobil (their big funder for decades) they are going all mystery-thriller because they think that this brings in more eyeballs and thus more advertisers — for that’s what their sponsors are.

Then there are two schools of thought. The first argues that at the core of detective and mystery fiction is this explanation, this puzzle, these minute secrets and deductions to be solved. Chandler makes fun of it, but it is always there, however attenuated or done skillfully. In James’s Death comes to Pemberley it’s done at length and boringly at the end of the book — boring to me. Gosford Park cannot avoid it. Winston Graham has his explanations skillfully woven in, but in the end clarification is needed. It seems to me the tendency of those who talk about the puzzle as central is to downgrade the form.

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Stephen Fry as the detective who does not want to find the murderer so plays incompetent (Altman’s parodic Gosford Park)

The second argues the core is the bloody murder at the center; for Symons the mood is sensationalist and a crime central; Chandler is muddled and has both murder and detection at the center, but the best books rise about the puzzle for something more important, a story of say who has state power. For P.D. James that (to quote myself in my summary of A Time to Be Earnest): there must be an absolute convincing delineation of the body, the death, and how this event occurred and how it has affected all the events and people closely and not so closely concerned with the dead person. In Death Comes to Pemberley the return to the crime scene in the film is obsessive; in the book Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, the magistrate watches Dr McFee thoroughly examine how death occurred and listens to all he says and we really get a sense of the mood the man must’ve had just as he died, of the body as containing this previous person frozen. It made me remember gazing on my father’s dead face and seeing the grim endurance he was meeting death with; Jim, my beloved was trembling all over as it occurred. Death in fact is a defining final experience. Its etched on the corpse. In Bernard Benstock’s essay on James in Twentieth Century Novelist he goes on about her clinical approach to death. While the people writing on LeCarre always talk of his political fables and how we see ruined lives, they don’t neglect the deaths. Symons calls his book, Bloody Murder.

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Denny’s blood skull (Death comes to Pemberley)

I found The Forgotten Story to be serious because its center was death taken very seriously; it sickened the accomplice and he killed himself fleeing from having to do more murders; Susan Hill’s Various Haunts of Men is about a murderer who stalks victims (women); The Bletchley Circle grabs me because its crimes are those characteristically aimed at women, what is done to them before and during death (rape and humiliating physical torture). I’ll give this to Death Comes to Pemberley James also makes the point the death of Denny is senseless, meaningless, ironic. Cancer stories can’t become real until they begin to admit how unpatterned, senseless and meaningless is the disease’s (we feel) malevolence.

Death counts, it matters a lot, shapes our lives utterly each time one happens close to us, obviously to the person dying, and this brings detective, mystery books right into the tragic vein of art … Not Lear but it can partake.

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Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (Sayers’s Strong Poison)

A few last tentative thoughts: Now maybe one of the reasons I’ve not liked mysteries and thrillers and detective stories is I don’t like violence; I usually stay away from films that are violent — Breaking Bad was an exception, but as I think about it each death was presented individually and taken seriously. Still the citing of this brilliant mini-series and Yvette and my talk this evening makes me unsatisfied with this as a full explanation for the core of the genre when serious. What we found we liked in Sayers was the intriguing psychological analysis and examination of people’s social identities as what is the deep explanation for the murder. In another blog I’ll try to deal with Marion Frank’s essay on “The Transformation of a Genre: the Feminist Mystery Genre” (in Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon, ed. Susan Fendler). Are these stories not parables about the relationship of power and justice? Sayers read against the grain exposes her society.

Again and again people have said they read mysteries and detective stories because they are a comforting escape. I was thinking that this comfort came from what I took to be the usual ending of such stories until recently: the detective discovered who did it, tidied up the world, restored order, and delved out justice. Is it inherently a deeply conservative genre; can a genre be inherently part of a political vision. Gothic has been shown to be radical and questioning and at the same time absolutely upholding traditional and establishment values. The Policeman is the Hero in Foyle’s War. Now I’m not sure real justice was meted out most of the time (especially when the murderer was lower class, of a non-white ethnicity and had good reason for having gone mad), and have decided the use of these terms is unthinking, a kind of hum-and-buzz cant the person uses without examination. In a sense all art is a form of escape, its ordering gives us a sense of meaning and comfort, aesthetic satisfaction. The very real connection of mystery-thrillers with the gothic and in film, film noir, shows its coterminus lien on a genre anything but comforting. That Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) could really have murdered Mr Green and his first wife, and Anna, his loving wife (Joanne Froggart) can believe this and still love him devotedly makes them far more interesting than they would otherwise be …

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Dreaming of a future to come, he tells her he will keep her safe (Downton Abbey 5:5)

Ellen

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Macauley (Mike) Connor (Jimmy Stewart) carrying the drunken Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) back from mid-night time at pool, encountering her nearly divorced husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and soon-to-be-husband, George Kittredge (John Howard) (Philadelphia Story, 1940)

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Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) bullying into bewildered madness the anxiety-ridden Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) (Gaslight, 1944)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been watching, reading about, and contextualizing George Cukor films with other films by him, other films in the same genre over the past week and a half. I’ve read Gavin Lambert’s On Cukor: filled with remarkable stills, photos and interviews of Cukor. He was a brilliant film-maker, really an elegant controller of a camera, a man who could form an archetypal image or picture on film and build a story from this. I especially much enjoyed and laughed at, was moved by his screwball comedy-romance, Philadelphia Story,

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Tracy looking at Dexter’s handmade replica of the boat they had their first loving honeymoon on

and found his psychological gothic, Gaslight, which conforms to the Bluebeard female gothic type, as subtle and grippingly worrying until near its end as Robert Wise’s later heart-terrifying Haunting (1960). No technological gadgetry or overproduction, nothing wildly theatrical, no bodily taboos broken, yet Gaslight similarly gets to the attentive viewer where he or she lives — until its last 20 minutes or so.

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Scenes in quiet greys of gaslight pull the viewer in, symbolic of this haze the husband surrounds the wife with.

I assume the storylines of both are familiar to my readers (if not, see Philadelphia Story; Gaslight). So let me cut to the chase, as with Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, far from agreeing with the book I’m reviewing that the greatness of these films partly stems from the coping with the repressive Hays code, I felt the Hays Code only codified and strengthened some of the troubling aspects of the screwball comedy, and hopelessly enfeebled the conclusion of the gothic.

Philadelphia Story resembles Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (as well as the very early screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, also with Cary Grant, but this time the errant wife is Irene Dunne). Its crucial turning point is a scene of possible sexual intercourse off screen which (as in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) our heroine cannot remember because she was too drunk; sometimes it’s insinuated she and Connor (your brash but literate newspaper man) had full sexual intercourse by poolside, but sometimes not and at the close Connor says there are rules and limits to what a man can do with reference to her drunken state (which is supposed to imply to have had full sexual intercourse would have been a rape, as it was in case of Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker).

In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek we never learn who the man was — the erasure of a specific identity robs the function of an imagined presence so we end up feeling most decent men would never rape a drunken woman (the indecency here is felt in the cowardly man not coming forward at all; he took advantage and fled). But even if we go with Stewart’s sincerely-uttered explanation, Tracy proceeds to apologize: she apologizes to both ex-husband and husband-about-to-be, to Connor, and to her father for giving him a hard time when he was merely having a long-time affair with a Broadway dancer-star. When the father comes home for the wedding (to which Tracy did not invite him), her mother does not seem to have minded either his continued adultery or absence enough to separate herself from him. All all Tracy’s fault: she is told off by Dexter especially for her coldness, for imagining herself a goddess (and thus above all others, she should do like them), for being a spinster (this is a low blow in the film). (Trudy also apologizes to Norval, her father, and whoever else is around.)

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Tracy telling her mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) they will not have her father at the wedding

It didn’t help Philadelphia Story to obscure the central incident; it would have been more effective if we could have known for sure that sexual intercourse happened with the third man or not. I don’t see that making the woman character drunk both times added to my pleasure or promoted anything meaningful for women except that the films accepted women being drunk or not just they accepted men – there was no special angry prejudice against women such as I’ve observed too often. I have discovered that not all screwball or romantic comedies of the 1940s have a heroine apologize or go through a humiliation ritual. Arguably Barbara Stanwyk in The Lady Eve (Sturges) does not; at the close of The Awful Truth Irene Dunne does not apologize, but then Cary Grant is not asked to account for his week away which we know he lied about while Irene Dunne is.

The acting of the principals in The Philadelphia Story overcomes the worst thing about all these screwball comedies done under the Hays Code: a superficiality in the relationship between men and women. By having the characters people who were once married, that endows them with an automatic depth knowledge of one another but nothing we see in most of these gives them any depth of feeling. The lack of honest sexual feeling is central to this. Grant and Hepburn give the pair real emotion by having him insult her for not having enough feeling; Grant and Stewart use the class issues between them (he is supposed lower class, though it turns out of course he really is middle) and he is made an author she reads. But the others I’ve watched, and especially the more recent of the type, Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper never give any sense of feeling over his having a liaison and her love for him remains girlish, sentimental.

The ending of a film matters (no matter how much David Lean famously downplays that). People who want to trivialize, scoff at and use Thelma and Louise as yet another warning lesson for women, use the ending in suicide — for that’s what it is practically speaking. See what happens to women like that. (Thelma and Louise is another movie where one heroine’s experience of rape and the attempted rape of the other is hardly mentioned.) At any rate by the end of Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn as Tracy is parroting all that Cary Grant as Dexter says and is now his obedient grateful wife (Taming of the Shew anyone?). Dexter monitors Tracy’s activities throughout. The relationship between the two is not much different than that between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s 1950s Adam’s Rib.

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There are some continuities between Philadelphia Story and very recent films worth noticing: the lawyer type in all three movies (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Awful Truth, and The Philadelphia Story) resembles Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad; an unscrupulous shyster who we don’t fear because when push comes to shove he’s a coward (not favorable at all). This is probably the way most Americans accept the way lawyers are shown in mass media. It’s utterly inadequate, if it was not tragic (as lawyers are so important) it’s pathetic. Tracy’s uncle ( we are supposed to laugh and find this funny) enjoys pinching Hepburn’s behind – the way the uncle did in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Philadelphia Story have a wry younger sister who speaks a few home truths; again her role reminds me of the vestigial Margaret in Austen’s S&S

It’s said that Cukor made women’s films, he was a woman director in disguise. He once made a film which had no men actors in it, The Women, and I remember it as excellent — feminist and yet with a fashion show because for women looks matter in our world. He himself disliked this label and said it was not true. I’d like to agree with him, and say while he had a number of strong-women actresses play ove and over again in his films, the strongest effectively subversive and comic presence across all the screwball comedies is Cary Grant. He could deliver a line that undercut whatever piety was going, lightly, suggestively, effectively.

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Anthony John, the aging actor (Ronald Colman) and his mistress, Pat Kroll whom he kills (Shelley Winters) (A Double Life, 1947): also a film where the central character seems half-insane

Gaslight is much less a studio product. It’s is based on a play; its script is literate and fine the way Philadelphia story is. But unlike Philadelphia Story until near the end when the Hays code kicks in, it does not fit into preconceived genres in the way most of Cukor films finally do — from Little Women to Lost Horizon, the ending must be uplifting, optimistic, providential. The Double Life, a film noir re-make in modern terms of Othello featuring Ronald Colman which comes closest to Gaslight in its unnerving feel suffers very badly by its redemptive ending. (All these I’ve watched before and rewatched these past couple of weeks.) Cukor could not be the auteur in his films for most of his life: later films, especially when aspects of the story reflected Cukor’s own internal story of himself, say A Star is Born, escaped this stifling.

For Gaslight is not a horror (monster) movie, it’s not a thriller either. Cukor was evolving the modern film gothic (seen best in ghost stories turned into films): psychologically disquieting and suspenseful. Cukor manages to make you fear for the wife who is being closed in, driven, quietly slowly bullied into continual isolation and humiliation, and persuaded she is mad. The sets, the lighting, the quiet dialogues, the use of servants to thwart Paula are all discreetly done, repetitive, crowded. She is crowded out.

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A young Angela Lansbury as a sexy hostile London cockney maid sides with the master and frustrates the old-world courtesy of Paula. The film does capture what a man in charge of a woman can do to her — cultures where the woman is under the control of someone.

The film’s power is then choked off. In no time at all, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton) who knew the Paula’s aunt and somehow works for Scotland yard (though he has an American accent) is able to track Anton in Anton’s nightly treks up to his own attic to terrify his wife, to reach the wife while Anton is in said attic, convince her, and then easily capture, tie up and take Anton away. Ingrid Bergman as Paula gets to torment Boyer as Anton for a few moments, and holds a knife to his head, but her jeering is lame and her act tame.

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And as the film closes the neighborly like lady (Dame May Whitty) who comforted Ingrid on the train and while she enjoys reading about bloodthirsty people, believes all is fine with the world and police can and so solve everything, is seen coming to visit Ingrid again. Cukor’s little joke?

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In talking of Gaslight, Cukor said that its style came out of its story, a near murder “in a Victorian house.” He meant to make it “claustrophobic” and stir up emotion. He again says he followed the Van Druten script and tried to erase himself. If he had been allowed to take the logic of the story of a woman made a hostage to its conclusion, how great the film would have been.

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I honestly would prefer to like, to revel in these early much-praised films, but I find they grate. I watched as much as I could stand of My Man Godfrey (1936 version). I can see why William Powell stood out: he is a genuinely sardonic presence as a hobo turned into a butler for the amusement of a super-rich family who are presented (naively) as simply frivolous and naive, idle, doing nothing (including not much harm if you don’t ask how the expensive parties with their luxuriously dressed guests got there). I find I can’t take watching the supposedly elegantly mannered somewhat effete matinee idol type men and fat-cat salacious but somehow bullied older men by their fat stupid wives, with the heroines looking adoringly at the hero: I hadn’t realized how much Jean Arthur does just that, much to my surprise — from my favorite 1942 Talk of the Town to Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes to Washington which fits the type except for Jimmy Stewart’s agonized face now and again).

Cukor claimed that what irreparably weakened The Double Life was Colman lacked a sense of the demonic. I find the older films only reach this when they are made in Europe and left to be expressionistic of trauma and cynicism. The Hays Code clamped down on these but nowadays American films often flounder still when it comes to the gothic and are crassly melodramatic, over-produced with much bodily horror (e.g., Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Ironically (or perhaps in character) the US films which have been able to project the darker prevailing ironies and metaphysics of American culture are the gangster to modern melodramatic crime films, from James Cagney’s psychopathic killer in White Heat (unforgettable, his bullying of Virginia Mayo, and his blowing himself upk, “Top of the World, ma”) to last year’s Breaking Bad. Cukor does not seem to have made this kind of film at all. From On Cukor he seems to have been too sensitive (and oddly) too self-effacing a man.

He is said not to be identified or remembered enough because he did not develop a single style you could trace throughout his films. He couldn’t — he had too many constraints. He also wanted to contain a lot, so I chose this photo as capturing that ideal.

cukor (in 1945)

Ellen

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And she to me: ‘There is no greater sorrow
than thinking back upon a happy time
in misery …
One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot — how love had overcome him …
this one, who never shall be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth …’ Dante, Inferno 5, translated Allen Mandelbaum

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Act One: the stage scene as a whole

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Act One: Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) and Paolo (Marcello Giordani) meet: he pretends to be her bethrothed

Dear friends and readers,

The 1984 Pre-Raphaelite picturesque production of Riccardo Zandoni’s Francesca da Rimini (libretto Tito Ricordi) is wonderfully absorbing in its HD Met Opera format (conductor Marco Armiliato; production Pero Faggioni; set designer Ezio Frigerio; costume designer Frana Squarciapino, lighting Gil Wechsler). I had not expected to enjoy it so much. Breaking through the fussily-decorated elaborate Pre-Raphaelite picturesque and early 20th century art deco decor, its core and action are fuelled by primary passion: the coerced marriage of Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) secured by trickery: Paolo (Marcello Giordnai), the youngest handsome brother of the groom allows himself to be presented as the groom); these desperate adulterous lovers driven passionate in the way of Cavalliero Rusticano or Il Pagliaccio; the violent brutish lame murderous anguished husband, Giancioot (Mark Delavan); the even more brutal vengeful one-eyed malacious younger brother, Malatsetino (Robert Brubaker).

It’s the stuff of a verismo tale except occurring among aristocrats of the 13th century, and first turned into literature by Dante who presents the lovers after death in fifth circle of hell,

… a place where every light is muted …
The hellish hurricane , which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence;
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them … (Inferno 5)

“damned because they sinned within the flesh … now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them./There is no hope that ever comforts them — no hope for rest and none for lesser pain.”

The story has a basis in actual events, and before this 1914 opera after a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio whose language came through the modern English subtitles (“The stars are drowned in the sea” Paolo says), the story had been told in many versions, staged, sung, painted mostly (it seems in Pre-Raphaelite style). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1855) tells the spiritual after-death Dante version:

Rossettiblog.

but Alexandre Cabanel (1870) prefers the theatrical murder (reminding me of Wallis’s Death of Chatterton, which is just now hanging at the National Gallery in DC, part of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit):

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What distinguishes this opera is its highly dramatic play with effective vigorous scenes, sung to music said to be a mix of Strauss, Puccini and Debussy: the love duet at the close of the second act which in the required way the lovers are reading of Lancelot, let the book fall and then “read no more” is just sweepingly swayingly lush,

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It ended as swiftly as Cav and Pag; the words were simple and music felt sudden and elemental at the close: the lovers are stabbed to death and the bodies drop on the stairs, with the actors making sure they ended up flung over one another.

It was said the production was revived because Westbrook asked for this, and she sang and acted her part to perfection. She did carry the opera; she was hardly ever not there, and was endlessly singing. She got to wear the loveliest of embroidered costumes. In her interview she insisted the story was not just credible; coerced marriage happens still today. This is a big disingenuous since the motives given the lovers are hopelessly lachrymose and ethical, but the situation is given bite by ferocity of the behavior of the husband and his demented brother. Delvan was powerful, Brubaker memorable, especially when threatening Francesca and then going down below to behead a man in the midst of being tortured and screaming. Jim said Giordani sung weakly; I wished the lines about him had said she loved him for his goodness and kindness, for he’s not handsome, nothing like a Rufus Sewell.

The opera is fleshed out by Water Scott like happening: a comic minstrel opens the piece, offering to serenade Francesca’s ladies with the story of Tristan and Isolde (anticipating the story to come) — we are led to fear for his life because at the hands of these criminal males. Her ladies were characterized enough, her sister (a kind of Dido relationship):

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A supposed battle takes place in Act 2 which is not convincing as the production did not take advantage of modern screen computer techniques at all. It was grotesque, with a gold-layered siege ram set on fire (like something taken from an Aida set). In act three a bloody head is flung about in a pillow case.

Francesca da Rimini
Delavan as Gianciotto in a Walter Scott-like knight-warrior outfit (aware he is a bad guy in the interview he asked our “hostess” what she had in her wallet)

And what a pleasure it was to see a new great grand opera. While I knew the story of course (the opera audience does not practice the inhibiting nonsense of no-spoilers), I had no idea how it would work out as an experience. The surprise element added to my experience.

Any flaws? well, yes. It just took too long between scenes which intervals sometimes seemed much longer than the acts. At one point the camera cut away far too quickly from a genuinely moving scene to Sondar Radvanovksy as “hostess” which her commercial blurb and hype. While we really enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes setting up of the scenery and curtains, and painted flats, there was just too much of it, and it made the production feel as staid as some Victorian drawing-room. I’d love to see a new post-modern kind of production, with maybe a mimed scene of the woman raped by the husband, a far more effectively suggestive violence for the battles, and a mimed-coda added on where we see the lovers in hell. In Claus Guth fashion, it could critique even Dante for punishing those whom life had punished enough.

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Rodin’s The Kiss (1888), said to be originally titled Francesca da Rimini

As to the play itself, there was something funny to see the principles act out the love scene over a book, and wait for the book to drop. Everyone accepted this because it was in Dante. More seriously, while here was the inevitable falsifying of sexual life so that what was the real horror of this situation, marital rape, was obscured from view; as Izzy said, the “lesson” of the play was not that adultery was evil. The lovers are not evil. It was deceit and brutality that were the evils in this opera. So it had no trouble speaking to our time. As Maria Stuarda seems to have not been revived for decades and now is utterly a propos, so Francesca da Rimini, if revived for a diva, seemed to please the audience strongly for its fable and presentation, which (to refer to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit’s comments on my blog), revealed a pseudo-medieval, literary highly sexually liberated (for the men) art fit the pre WW1 world.

Few women in the arts or as patrons have interested themselves in her story. Josephine Bonaparte bought a 19th century painting of the story; Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play was written for Eleanore Duse:

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Eleanore Duse as Francesca da Rimini (1901)

and Olga Gorelli, a 20th century Italian composer wrote some music.
Renata Scotto played the part with Placido Domingo as Paolo, and Cornell MacNeil as Gianciotti in 1984, the production now available as a DVD.

Ellen

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