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Posts Tagged ‘mystery-murder book’


Bossiney Cove — the central sections of Strangers Meeting takes place in Trembeth Cove, Cornwall

Since coming abroad something of the subterranean disquiet which existed everywhere had affected his imagination and he quite often awoke from dreaming … No Exit, Chapter Two, p 27)
… in the midst of a police raid, a crowd gathers and “an old woman, her head wrapped in a black shaw, drove a derelict donkey-cart across the cobbles and disappeared down an alley … Chapter Six, p 75)

Friends and readers,

This is a coda to my survey of Graham’s pre-Poldark suspense novels: I’ve read two more, and, as I suspected, one can group this man’s novels by chronology rather than genre. Here I relate a group of them to the immediate lead-up to and early phase of World War Two. Beginning in 1939, his books dramatize stories of political murdering where the senselessness, serendipity, and sadistic enjoyment of allowed non-personal (unmotivated) killing becomes the thing the books glimpse or deliberately fully uncover. The protagonist now has to work at keeping him or herself from being murdered as a bye-blow of events. The earlier atmospheric regional books, with their legacies from Agatha Christie, Anne Radcliffe, large country houses or hotels, gothic stories with their autobiographical roots give way to stories which anticipate or resemble Graham Greene or LeCarre: Keys of Chance (1939), No Exit (1940), Night Journey (1941, revised 1966), My Turn Next (1942, reworked as Cameo 1988); later books of this type include Night without Stars (1950), Greek Fire (1957).

The private stories gain in depth of feeling and open melancholy and despair: Ross Poldark (begun 1940, published 1945), The Forgotten Story and Demelza (1946), Take My Life (1947) and thereafter, especially say After the Act (1965). there’s also the kind of book I’d call morally earnest as if he is trying to conjure up some individual morality specific individuals might heroically hold to: I saw this in the first (and maybe only) book he won an award for, The Little Walls (1955). Another turn or transformation comes with Marnie (1960), where ironized alienated and psychologically pathological characters enter his stage, especially true of The Angry Tide (1978 — Mark Adderley), The Walking Stick and Angell, Pearl and Little God (1970). All of this latter group except the historically past ones lend themselves to film noir.

It’s then for me understandable that Graham might be embarrassed by the earlier books and discount them as juvenilia, child-like, perhaps effeminate, giving himself away too and his own inner world, and work to suppress or re-write them, but he was wrong. Again, seeing these as belonging to regional Cornish books rooted in marginalized places helps bring out their thematic and psychological-social themes. The two I read were one of the early type, Strangers Meeting (1939), and one of the World War II type, No Exit (1940). I quite liked both; both are all the stronger for not having been revised or reworked, so there is no distraction.


Original cover for Strangers Meeting

Strangers Meetings is one of thesse revealing or telling pre-World War Two books, just. It has a intricate story-line with lots of intimate details very like the 1930s British murder mysteries or Daphne DuMaurier novels (for the plot go to Profiles One or Discard in the online Winston Graham Reader, and falls into three distinct acts, perhaps the result of its having originally been written as play the year before (Forsaking All Others). As with The Dangerous Pawn (1937), The Giant’s Chair (1938, ruined as Woman in the Mirror, 1975) and The Merciless Ladies (1944, revised 1979), and the first seven Poldark novels, several of the central characters of Strangers Meeting and fleeting characters we get to know less well but are there and count are likable, appealing. We have three couples who come to Cornwall to get away from their ordinary environments; a kindly disabled and ill young man and a factory girl fall in love; a married couple is in effect attacked at their core when the wife’s sister turns up with a amoral corrupt and cold fiance who was the wife’s lover (perhaps even her second husband) years ago and has come to grab the sister’s legacy and blackmail the wife for sex (or money). The atmosphere, the descriptions of the places, the working out of a personally fulfilling ethical outlook by the characters is absorbing, offering a piquant comfort. Piquant because the solution for the married couple is to accidentally kill the fiance (he falls or more probably is pushed off a cliff during an altercation with the husband). The artistic arrangement of the slowly developing relationships and revelations for the reader, the uncovering of the vicious intentions of one character and the anguished past of another, and for me, and how three of the characters (disabled young man, factory girl, husband) emerge as genuinely thoughtful individuals was part of the pleasure of the text.


Jane Wymark as Morwenna escaping (1977 Poldark)


Keven McNally as Drake upon seeing her come to him, finally, suitcase in hand

The value of these books (Dangerous Pawn, Giant’s Chair are two others) is they attempt to present the inward trauma of the isolated person directly — we have mentally retreating and disabled characters; characters whose unconventional conduct their society would reject — sympathized with. One can grasp this when one reads the later revision or re-working which silences or erases these earlier characters, marginalizes them, puts them at a distance. In the Poldarks the one character where this kind of thing is put fully before us is Morwenna (especially Four Swans and Angry Tide); Drake attempts to and finally succeeds in rescuing her; unfortunately after that (their marriage and retreat) she and he are both kept from our view.


Original cover for No Exit

No Exit is a book that anticipates recent crime novels like LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man (2008) and Our Kind of Traitor (2010). Night Journey, which I outlined in my previous blog, is more like Tinker Tailor (1974): a whole world of amoral spies, politicians and just desperate people swirl around the quiet, plain hero who has expertise, insight, some sense of ethics. No Exit is set right around the time of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and the central action takes place the day the Nazis invaded Prague. Our English bridge engineer hero, John Carr, first come to Budapest; he becomes involved when he realizes someone has been murdered in his hotel and has asked him to take a message to someone else. This is the trope of the innocent bystander who takes responsibility and becomes almost against his will a detective, and then a rescuer and finally a co-conspirator with other people become revolutionaries in flight or resistance movements. He moves to Prague where much to his immediate surprise he finds himself in the midst of an invasion, one he becomes aware is happening as he observes the reactions of people all around him to some deeply frightening development say a few streets away.


Nazi Invasion — by the Charles Bridge — Graham’s hero walks by the bridge several times

The word “terror” is appropriate, except that here it’s a matter of people doing the bidding of different Nazi gov’ts and agents of aspiring gov’ts to terrify the vast majority of people by wantonly rounding up and snatching, disappearing (the verb “to disappear” is used in this book), torturing, killing and imprisoning all sorts of people at will. It evokes a justified paranoia. The characters discuss how what is happening is suppression of all individual rights by ruthless minority setting up an aggrandizing state backed up by militarization and a “demented” world. A “dictatorship” in “the modern sense” using “concentration camps” as one tool, religious institutions another. It’s the first of Graham’s books to use the method of the Poldark books: thorough extensive research so Graham recreates for the reader effortlessly — you never feel a card index is thrown at you but what the characters are experiencing as several levels of action coming together by different people and forces in closely related places. You walk the streets of Prague with Carr as the hours go by. One man is murdered; with the unexpected help of two women (one a journalist) he is able to flee with three people and we then get this ordeal of escape by train, car, foot as they move through checkpoints and finally an “eerie snow filled silent forest” (rather like the closing scenes of Grand Illusion they come up a cottage with friendly people who harbor them).

This one is also given a detailed plot exposition at Profiles One or Discard. I disagree with the verdict of the writer: for me the unheroic nature of the protagonist makes the book more powerful (think of Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener) and love the Demelza-like heroine and ordinary mother he returns to at the novel’s close. I find the hero resembles Dwight Enys. The point is he is lucky to live where sanity still has a hold. Richard Morant would have been a perfect John Carr; either Norma Streader or Ruby Bentall, both of whom played Verity Poldark would be fine for Marjorie.


Richard Morant as Dwight Enys — he was pitch perfect in the part; here he is telling Clive Francis as Francis Poldark he has really come to care for his patients and not grow rich off the poor; Francis is all ironic surprise (1975 Poldark,scripted Paul Wheeler)

I can quite see my way to writing about these corpus of work against a backdrop of political as well as aesthetic developments between 1934 and 2003 (the span of Graham’s career). I’d love to know as much about him as I can and will try for a library, but if I lack private letters, there is much autobiography in all his journalism and two-life writing books. I’ve bought a copy of the 1945 original text of Ross Poldark and have a copy of the 1947 original text of Demelza. I’ll be reading them soon.

A second point I want to make about Graham here is he seems never to cease revising his work. He didn’t just rewrite and/or revise some of the early books; he may be said to have abridged the original Ross Poldark, he cut down the original Demelza, and made changes in Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan. All his writing life, he was more or less continually tinkering with already printed works, revising this or that sentences or sentences for a new publication. One can disagree on how “private” a man he was. He socialized far more probably than he needed to do to publish, promote and see his books distributed, filmed, and create opportunities and stimulation for himself to write more, but he was not pretending when he presented himself as living long stretches in the solitude of writing and research — and rewriting.

And his texts are beautifully written. The style of conversations and thought are direct, naturalistic, flowing. He loves animals and his favored characters are kind to, fond of, surround themselves with animals. At the close of Strangers Meeting, Peter Crane, our disabled young man, and Sheila, the factory girl from London who will now spend her life in Cornwall rescue a rabbit from a trap, bind its leg and set it free. Sheila is another Demelza-like heroine. This kind of depiction is a symbol or site for expression of vulnerability in the earlier novels and passages in the Poldarks.

It was a small fluffy brown rabbit with a tuft of white tail. It was caught only by one black leg. A nasty wriggling squeamishness grew up inside Sheila, and she wanted to turn and run. Instead she knelt down and looked at the gin.
It was one of those what you press down at one end to open up the other. There was a large spot of blood on the curling front of brakcn underneath it.
The rabbit now stopped screaming and concentrated on giving horrible forward jerks in an attempt to get free. She put a hand on its head, and after a momentary wriggle it lay still with its ears back. She could feel the hard skull under the soft brown fur.
She stroked it a moment, and put her other hand awkwardly round its neck. Then she brought forward her foot and trod upon the far end of the gin. A second later she was standing up with the rabbit wriggling in her arms. It was a most peculiar feeling.
She waited until it went tolerably quiet again, and then lifted to see the damage … Strangers Meeting, Part Three, Chapter Six, pp 307-8)

Graham seems particularly fond of cats, but all animals are treated with sensitivity by his good characters. It’s a mark of Demelza’s intelligence when early on in her relationship with Ross she tells him (in effect) the torturing of roosters for entertainment is deeply perverse, ignores the animals’ true body (they come without the irons) and impulses; very cruel.

Well that’s all for tonight. I’ve had several deeply satisfying days in the Library of Congress working on Winston Graham’s oeuvre and hope to continue and return if I can to this library and others. I’ve a few crime novels to read and have picked out Cornish authors and books Graham cites and clearly knew about as colleagues and aligned works. A work in progress.

Ellen

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Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect series)

I, too, dislike it — Marianne Moore

Friends,

I’ve embarked on a reading journey through an area mostly unfamiliar to me, and Polonius-like, can come up with only the clumsiest of labels: the mystery, detective, suspense, gothic, spy thriller, crime, murder novel. Most of the time even with the most generally admired, about half-way through I grow tired of the formulas, and either give the story up altogether, or skim-read to the end. That’s what happened yesterday when I read for the first time Dashell Hammett’s much-bepraised The Maltese Falcon. Or I get to the end, and think what a good book this has been, until three minutes thought assails me, and I see it for the claptrap anti-feminist thing it is and become seriously annoyed. That’s what happened the other day when I finished Winston Graham’s Merciless Ladies.

I admit I can be hooked by a film serial; especially late-at-night, with a female hero, be drawn intensely in by its mix of ingredients blended into my more favored fare: that’s what happened with the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. I can like the “Golden Age-1930s mold” even with a wholesome male at the center and a sermon at close: my favorite time for watching James Norton in Grantchester was 1 in the morning.


Typical cheap paperback cover illustration for the era …, now published by the New York Review of Books as a worthy book, became a remarkable 1950s movie by Nicholas Ray

But I’m no more fooled than Raymond Chandler in his debunking “The Simple Art of Murder,” or Julian Symons in his truly brilliant and entertaining Bloody Murder: “it is an inferior thing, but a thing with its own particular and unique merits. Nobody condemns Restoration comedy outright because it lacks the profoundity of Jacobean drama” (20), as with most film noir and ghost fiction.

I’ve embarked on this because I’ve embarked on a book on Winston Graham, his Poldark novels and Cornwall (working title). I don’t intend to read every work he ever wrote, or study every film made from said work (some in each kind are dreadful). To understand the man and his genuinely creative books, one cannot ignore 30 odd volumes of suspense set in our contemporary era, a few of which have been much admired, with one famous title (even had an opera made of it last year, i.e., Marnie, and some time ago a very good play by Sean O’Connor). One chapter I’ve told myself.

I’ve been reading these desultorily, out of order for a few years now, depending on what I thought I could stand: The Forgotten Story, written the same year as Ross Poldark, historical Cornish, deeply reflective of the trauma of WW2, Angharad Rees starred in the now wiped out serial; The Walking Stick, with its fine movie with David Hemmings; The Little Walls, won prestigious prize; Angell, Pearl and Little God, despite its godawful title, said to have been considered for a movie with Brando in a leading role. Graham has a number of novels with (to me) unappetizing titles, many first published with embarrassing covers.


I like this 1960s Bodley Head cover illustration of Demelza used on all four of the Bodley Head publications of the first four Poldark books

But now it will be my project, give me some kind of goal for a biographical book of my own, one I think I can do for real, and which is called out for — there is no book on this man whose work is so well known, liked, has made a great deal of money for so many. And I’ve corresponded with his son who for now has no objection. All the reading and love I’ve put into my study of biography and continual reading of literary ones (now there is a genre or book type that when done right I don’t tire of but read on however slowly to the end) — could just emerge in one of my own.

So I’ve begun steadily working through Graham’s early ones in the order they were written, and when revised, cut down, rewritten (several were) even comparing the two texts. And I’ve found myself engaged, e.g., The Giant’s Chair, 1938, became Woman in the Mirror, 1975. Alas (for Graham’s mature judgement of his own work), the earlier version is much better. I’ve heard this said of the first 12% longer version of Ross Poldark. The Giant’s Chair set in 1920s Cornwall, with attention paid to geology, geography, local feel, has an idiosyncratic charm, a traumatized secondary hero, disabled son, unjust death (not by murder), with believable heroine who has Radcliffian adventures, lesbian sexuality, becomes a weak hard-boiled thin bloody murder read, albeit with some stronger lines and passages — and more coherent clarity.

Tomorrow if I can get through the byzantine “security” procedures of the Library of Congress (whose real effect is to curb research, lest the cowardly congress be at risk as they place their iron heels on 90% of us), I shall read the relatively rare 1937 The Dangerous Pawn. It fetches $2000+ on the open market.


Jeremy Brett — the 1980s Sherlock Holmes

For tonight I thought I’d introduce one aspect of this fantastically successful genre, which the reader may not know or not mind being reminded about. (Beyond how necessary it is to find delight and solace in its central detective figure0. How flexible it is all the while keeping its recognizable furniture. It can accommodate so many kinds of stories & materials because one can tell anything to Sherlock. Two weeks ago I watched a remarkable modern-type BBC film adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s real novel of quality, The Woman in White (1860), arguably one of the pattern forms. I remember reading it in two days when I lay sick with flu — 1973 that was, we lived at the top of Manhattan with our dog, Llyr. The Italian Fosco was the origin invention that gave rise to the book of Marion Halcombe, the spinster who I defy anyone not to like. About the subjugation of women. The lady gone mad is not in the attic but wanders from her asylum across moors.

I had thought a genre I am familiar with, have long loved in the dyptich, historical romance, historical fiction, was very far from suspense novels. I was wrong. As in Graham’s oeuvre, characteristics, motifs, character types slide across one another co-terminously. It is not that uncommon to alternate between them. Police procedures can combine with women’s subjective novels, which historical romances are a version of in disguise. The great Breaking Bad belongs to this genre.

And today LeCarre is one of those who have made of them philosophical politically engaged books. I suppose the road was opened for this first by Hammett (1931, The Glass Key is not far off his rewrite-collaboration with Lilian Hellman from stage to film, Watch on the Rhine, 1941). I remember first reading LeCarre’s early, A Small Town in Germany (1968) which I thought was a fable about integrity very like Trollope’s The Warden (a similar retiring male at the center).

Trollope by the way knows the drill. In his parodic dark The Eustace Diamonds he has the de rigueur fuss about key, locked room, weapon (depends for working on some mechanical device), not to omit the importance of the exit/entrance and mappable space. By reverse logic, it stands to reason Trollope had no feel or urge to write historical fiction. He didn’t care what happened at “exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning” fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone.


A Nancy Drew introspective cover, as Umberto Eco says at the opening of Il nome della rosa,

Naturalmente, un manoscritto

I have almost written myself into admiring this stuff. As I write myself into wakefulness and a feeling of cheer. Now if only I could find real pleasure in reading it. It can be fun to read about it on the train and watch it obsessively at 1 in the morning.

Ellen

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From Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957)

In terms of sexual politics, however, to borrow Lee’s own phrasing, women are also getting kind of funny about other people telling their stories — Thomas Chatterton Williams, a NYTimes Magazine semi-fluff piece on Spike Lee

Dear friends and readers,

My last was about this past year’s life in reading; this is about this year’s life in and through films and stage-plays, except I doubt I can remember all the films I saw this year. I watch late at night and into the morning hours (that’s how I saw the first season of Grantchester — fascinating for what it mirrors of our culture just now). I probably can’t distinguish those I saw this past year (2017) from last (2016). While books are surely also dream matter, for myself I have to admit no matter how absorbed and intensely engaged I can get, the experience of a movie (especially large screen, in color, up close, with strong appropriate music) is just ontologically visceral. Two of the first books I read when I began to study and write about film were Parker Tyler’s The Hollywood Hallucination, and Magic and Myth of the Movies.


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life (Nicholas Nickleby 2002)

At the same time one must keep hold of the understanding these are unreal ratcheted up works of art which are not imitations of life, but emotion-creating, emotional sharing technological concoctions. I try during daylight waking hours; I don’t vouch for what I let my mind do when I’m in bed falling asleep, nor here tell my movie dreams. Sometimes waking I am coming out of a dream world made up of one of the TV serial dramas I’ve watched; they can make a bigger impact because I live with them over weeks of watching. I wrote about only a few of these: Poldark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outlander (1st season; 2nd & 3rd seasons). I’ve yet to write about the Anna Karenina films (I’m just finishing the book) and The Crown. I was glad when I saw that Elisabeth Moss, Caitriona Balfe and Claire Foy were all nominated for Golden Globes for the best actress in a TV drama series. A 2002 BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Hunnam; Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai, Anna Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Squall, Tim Courtney — oh it had everyone). How important these star presences are. I do (fingers crossed) mean to write on The Crown and Anna Karenina.


Pamola Baeza as Bathseeba (we read Hardy’s Far from the madding Crowd this summer — no it was not one of my favorites)

Favorite individual films this year (excluding HD opera screenings) seen for the first time, in no particular order:

Baldwin: I am not your Negro
Ashgar Farhadi’s Salesman and A Separation
Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (older movies seen on DVDs)
Wadja’s Afterimage
Two Far from the Madding Crowd movies: the 1998 BBC with Nathaniel Parker, Paloma Baeza and Jonathan firth, Natasha Little; 2013 with Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen (the famed 1967 with Julie Christie and Alan Bate is over-rated)
Kedi — the street cats of Istanbul
Lucky
Neruda (post-modern political film, superb)

Favorite Re-seen movies: Last Orders, Barchester Chronicles (perfection), North and South.

This excludes this year’s about eight HD operas, which included a few which were I admit superb precisely because they were films, permitting subtitles, close-ups, great acting. The finest and moving Eugene Onegin; astonishingly intelligent Exterminating Angel

I also took my first course in film, “The History and Aesthetics of” (at the OLLI at AU) a deeply grating experience since every single film we saw (10) and every single one the teacher (retired from teaching in a private high school) mentioned were by a man and about men. There was not one which even focused on a woman. I did tell the professor about this, but it took 2 emails, one of which was a comments on the course type, and weeks before he brought this up. Five men and over ten women in the class and only then did a few women clap and say “hurrah, Ellen.” These women were all aware of this then but none would have spoke up for me; nonetheless, all his lists of famous films carried on being by and about men even after that, no matter what type (French new wave, African-American). Talk about erasure and marginalization, for of course these films had women in them — as sex objects, mothers, nurses, nuisances, victims, not one all term long had any ambition but to be wife or mother. The teacher’s talk about these was very educational, context, close reading of techniques, biographies, remarkably intelligent conversation in the class. My guess is he never watches films by women — though he’s seen some made by men about women and knew of Jeanine Basinger’s great book, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 (he was able to cite her high position at a university, which I could not have done, would not have thought of), which I read with a group of women on Women Writer through the Ages @ Yahoo several years ago.


Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman (1942, Talk of the Town, never got near being mentioned, one of my favorite films of all times; as the wordpress search engine does not go back before 2012 I see I shall have to rewrite that blog)

The teacher’s choices were Modern Times (Chaplin and Paulette Goddard towards the end), Fritz Lang’s M (Peter Lorre, a troubling film made during the Nazi era because its content readily confirms the pathological paranoia towards anyone but white “upright” males), Welles’s Citizen Kane (fascinating but in the experience too jocular, and thus pandering too often), the Hitchcock Rear Window (artistically remarkable but the usual mean voyeurism, also paranoia from the point of view of white males), The Graduate (moronic), Casablanca (at times hilarious and yet at times the intensity of Boghart’s performance carries it), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Stawberries, and Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (all phases of men’s lives). It was a course in male classic films; the male canon of films.

It was a sort of shocking experience. To be amidst a group of people where the existence, outlook, experiences of some 2/3s of them were ignored, distorted, marginalized. It was like being in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Not that I have not had this experience. I taught for 23 years at George Mason University: in no catalogue was my name ever cited, when I left there was nothing recorded about it. But that was long range, done ever so cleverly, indirectly. However it’s such experiences that make African-American films and their political outlook undersandable to me; often there I can guess how they will vote. The highest ratings I ever had as a teacher occurred when my classes were predominantly African-American. One summer, the summer Barack Obama was running to be nominated for president for the Democratic party for the first time I had a class of 11 students for Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences. I had two European-American (white) students in it. I got a 5.10 out of 6, and my only letter of commendation in all the years I was there signed by Rick Davis, then dean of humanities (or some such title).


Tracy Camilla Jones in She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

So a little, however inadequate, and here too women were secondary, basically chorus or scolds, on Do the Right Thing. First the full context I’d give it is bell hooks’s take on She’s Gotta Have It: “Whose Pussy Is This: A Feminist Comment, Hooks described Lee’s protagonist as “ ‘pure pussy,’ that is to say that her ability to perform sexually is the central, defining aspect of her identity.” The film, in Hooks’s view, was contaminated by “the pervasive sense that we have witnessed a woman being disempowered and not a woman coming to power.” See Chatterton’s paragraphs describing this film which is about a promiscuous female who finds herself by finding the right male partner. His great film, said the teacher, is Malcolm X, who in Haley’s rerwrite in acceptable English (readable) of Malcolm’s autobiographical diary notes frequently uses bitch as a synonym for women, though it is reserved especially for white women. It was the English freshman community text for adjuncts to use one term I was teaching at American University (as an adjunct); need I say, I didn’t assign it? You could find a substitute: mine was James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket; now I’d use Ta Nehesi-Coates Between Me and the World.


Closing moments of Do the Right Thing (1989)

Of the group the most contemporary alive films still seemed to me Lee and Bergman’s. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a depiction of the lives of black people seen angrily and harshly (the women berate all the men continually), also allegorical (with Ossie Davies and Ruby Dee as allegorical figures of compassion. Like the others, it’s been written about so much, I can hardy add to the great criticism and studies, my take is Mookie (played by Spike) destroys Sal (Danyl Aiello) the decent white owner’s pizzeria because it’s the only way he can get himself to stop working there. All film long his girlfriend berates him castigatingly for having such a demeaning job (that’s her one function beyond being the mother of his son), but as far as we can see it is all he has been able to persuade anyone to offer him. And the title is ironic as in this situation these people have been coerced into and kept no one can do any right thing at all. So fundamental and sweeping and decades long must be the changes done across the whole country-society to educate everyone together, to allow African-Americans to build self-esteem, make good incomes as a group, be free from incarceration and/death as daily risk.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, also analyzed and described in so many places, gives me a chance to talk about the second of two good plays I saw this year, one by a woman: Private Confessions, Liv Ullmann’s directed play out of Bergman’s script from his movie. The film, Wild Strawberries, is about a tough old physician’s inward journey (depressed, angry, isolated, unaccepting) to face up to the central mistakes he’s made all his life through a series of dreams he has on the way to get a life-time achievement award with his daughter-in-law driving him. It put me in mind of the (by contrast) child-like A Christmas Carol where the old man faced with death and visited by three spirits who show him his past suddenly reforms and retrieves what has gone before. Borg feels his life has been a failure no matter what others see or think. What we see is the almost near impossibility of retrieval. So many he hurt or who hurt him centrally have died or turned away so finally and unforgivingly. We see his son has become a hard mean detached man to protect himself (ironically mirroring his father). Like Do the Right Thing and so many great films (and books) Wild Stawberries is highly autobiographical. Bergman had a harsh cruel hypocritical pastor for a father; he himself had affairs (as did Borg in the film — one of his mistresses functions like the benign ghosts in Dickens’s tale). Bergman is searching to make a meaning in life now that we know there is no god, and the ethical values you once thought could hold sway you now find are a veneer for giving a pretended order to the chaos of reality. My father took me to see this movie when I was about 11; he had identified with the man.


Private Confessions (from the production I saw last week, 2017)

The play, Private Confessions, is not listed in the wikipedia entry for Liv Ullmann, probably because she didn’t write it. I saw the play Friday night week last at the Kennedy Center: it was as if Ullmann had plucked out the deep core center of Bergman’s films and we watched in an almost bare stage the sheer internal memories and life, this time, of a woman who found she had married a man she didn’t love; she has an affair with a much younger man, almost leaves the husband (a pastor who is cold in nature), but decides not to. The cast includes her mother and her friend. It was acted with subtlety at the same time conveying hard intense passions. It was superb if filled with much suffering — I can see why Bergman is made fun of. This one without the film apparatus did not come across as allegorical in the way other of his films do. The film’s cast list is the same, though the description on IMDB emphasizes the roles of the priest, husband and lover. As the play the character on stage all the time whose point of view we are is the woman, Anna. The actress was Marte Engebrigtsen. Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents.

The other great play I saw this year took three nights, it came in three parts (like the Norman Conquests), The Gabriels, which I began the year with, last January. (I did see a few stage plays done by N.Va repertoire companies when the friend who has now dropped me drove us to the Fairfax and Arlington community centers they played in.)

So all these are this year’s memories. They help me though my days — dream matter given structures (designs of visions) to experience and and significance contemplate by how they are made and put together in their media. The very best steady me through a kind of perspectival moral compass. Like The Roofmen of this Patricia Fargnoli’s poem:

Over my head, the roofmen are banging shingles into place
and over them the sky shines with a light that is
almost past autumn, and bright as copper foil.

In the end, I will have something to show for their hard labor –
unflappable shingles, dry ceilings, one more measure of things
held safely in a world where safety is impossible.

In another state, a friend tries to keep on living
though his arteries are clogged,
though the operation left a ten-inch scar

and, near his intestines, an aneurysm blossoms
like a deformed flower. His knees and feet
burn with constant pain.

We go on. I don’t know how sometimes.
For a living, I listen eight hours a day to the voices
of the anxious and the sad. I watch their beautiful faces

for some sign that life is more than disaster –
it is always there, the spirit behind the suffering,
the small light that gathers the soul and holds it

beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary light.
I bend toward it and blow gently.
And those hammerers above me bend into the dailiness

of their labor, beneath concentric circles: a roof of sky,
beneath the roof of the universe,
beneath what vaults over it.

And don’t those journeymen
hold a piece of the answer – the way they go on
laying one gray speckled square after another,

nailing each down, firmly, securely.

As I say I know this is illusion and underneath these structures, all around them, shut out sufficiently so as to maintain control in my journey’s spaces are abysses …

Ellen

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Publicity shot for Marnie (Tippi Hedron, Sean Connery)

Friends and readers,

I’ve embarked on a study of Graham’s writing beyond his Poldark and Cornish historical fiction, with a view to perhaps writing a literary biography of this author. While my emphasis will be on the Poldark series (12 novels and a couple of short stories) and Graham’s deep drawing on his 30 years of life in Cornwall, I feel that since the man wrote 27 other books, including stage and screen-plays, a non-fiction history of the Armada as it hit Cornwall in the 16th century, travel writing (about Cornwall), life writing, not to omit scattered pieces in magazines (about gardening, poetry on a cat, about Cornwall from a historical point of view), I ought to look at some of this. I’ve read the travel- and life-writing, a few of the historical novels (set in Manchester where he grew up, Cordelia; Grove of Eagles, Elizabethan Cornwall; The Forgotten Story, set in Cornwall on the sea, 1898; on his art and craft), but am woefully lacking on the mystery-thriller-suspense books. He not only wrote 27 such books, but several were seen as good material for a movie, and two made into films today highly respected: The Walking Stick and Marnie.


Publicity shot for Walking Stick (Samantha Eggar and David Hemmings)

I chose books from his mid-career which won prizes or he has been especially commended for, or I’ve come across essays praising them: The Little Walls (1955); Greek Fire (1957, in the opening recalling Greene’s The Third Man); The Tumbled House (1959, very revealing of Graham for its attack on how privacy of authors is not respected, the son seeking to vindicate his father who turns out to have been plagiarizing); Marnie (1961, in its use of sexual sickness in the character at the center resembling Nabokov’s Lolita and because of those who’ve studied it with subtlety worth reading so one can read these studies); The Walking Stick (1967, deeply about disability). I remember read/skimming Take My Life (1967, novelization of a playscript). I’ve just begun After the Act (1965) because it’s about a man who murders his older wife and then lives intensely to feel guilt for his actions and then find that after all he loves his wife far more truly thad the young woman who has tried to take her place. My last will be Angel, Pearl and Little God (1970, Marlon Brando was among those approached when a movie was in the planning). I probably should push myself to read Strangers Meeting and Night Journey (for the sake of the titles, and what I’ve read about them, but have no copy of the first); and know Graham spent a lot of time on The Green Flash (1986). There are a few interesting looking stories in The Japanese Girl (1971) .

These are not cheerful books. They often end implicitly or explicitly bleakly. Yes unlike today’s blood thrillers, there in attempt in several (The Little Walls, The Tumbled House) to reason an excuse for why the characters take their lives, self-destruct, and to look for a stoic acceptance philosophically, but in final scene after final scene, doubt as to what happened is sown, our chief character is about to be arrested. I can see thoughtful police procedurals made from some of those I’ve now read, with their repeated uses of treachery, or film noir. I’ve watched a couple of embarrassingly dated movies made from his earlier books: Night Without Stars (1950); Fortune is a Woman (1953), mildly film noir


Take My life (the earliest movie made from his books, 1947)

There is a truly excellent study of Marnie by Tony Lee Moral: The Making of Marnie (2005). Moral argues that Hitchcock’s film may be watched as a feminist expose of the way sexuality was then and is today conducted. I can see the film could be interpreted this way much more if the original screenplay (by Evan Hunter) had been used: Hunter wrote a rape scene (the husband rapes the wife — a not uncommon motif in Graham’s books) which condemned Sean Connery’s character in no uncertain terms, but Jay Presson Allen (a woman) professed herself wholly unbothered and also (as is done by some readers of Graham’s novels) said she did not consider what happened a rape! Marnie is terrified, angry, resists, and the curtain is pulled down — these are books meant for middle brow readers – but when the next chapter opens there is no doubt that Marnie hated every minute of what had happened (there is doubt about Elizabeth Poldark and as with the rape scene of the princess daughter in Downton Abbey in the first season’s suggestions that after all Mary wanted this though she said no …)

The fascination of the material is that Evan Hunter, an intelligent sensitive writer of screenplay objected strenuously to the rape and said if Mark rapes Marnie, his character will be so debased and the act so ugly, he can’t come back from it. Given Marnie’s vulnerability to this powerful rich man who can put her in jail and her terror, if Mark loved hre he would abstain. As (my allusion) Randolph Henry Ashe does for Ellen for years in the backstory of A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Evan Hunter wrote a screenplay in which Mark is patient, does not rape Marnie but they begin to understand one another — at least he does her (a father figure is the most charitable interpretation as Mr Knightley is for Emma, Rhett Butler is for Scarlett). It’s a very plausible humane reaction and could be used to justify describe the objections to Ross raping Elizabeth — which are ceaseless even now. Hitchcock wouldn’t listen and simply fired Hunter. Hitchcock justified his use of rape off-tape: he kept all tapes off when he directed some of the scenes And there is this horrifying statement someone remembered: he wanted a close up of the actresses face as “Mark sticks it in her” (in the fiction). This is not the only such statement from Hitchcock.

I cannot say I like this material however I may get caught up in the psychological conflicts of the characters, and suspenseful scenes (he seems to favor robbery of antiques, archaic jewelry and furniture): the style is “hard-boiled,” totally without poetry (beauty, leisure) of language. As a rule I usually couldn’t care less about working out clues, or who killed whom for what. How can anyone can regard some of the more recent entries which unlike LeCarre do not have a serious political critique? Graham differs in managing to make us care for his characters. but beyond that the whole genres endorses hierarchy, punitive responses to people in desperate trouble with no opportunity to rise and take others with them, admire glamor, celebrity, luxurious hide-away places. Graham uses these but in his finest fictions these fall away.

As Wayne Booth in his Rhetoric of Fiction also argued (long ago), the genre is more than implicitly misogynist: women are unfaithful, deceitful, men exist to conquer them and anything else that gets in their way. Graham (and LeCarre and others) modify this, but when you see a full-blown version of this in Marnie and her terrible sick mother (who either had men just like this when her husband is out fighting a war, or supports herself as a prostitute and gets her own child out of bed to do it, and also strangles a newborn who is born out of wedlock), I am surprised any woman can read this aggressive male material. In the last couple of decades women have been writing it by putting females in the male roles and exposing ugly crimes against women, but the underlying endorsement and even sympathy for the present competitive cruel order remains.

From Lyn Gardner on Sean O’Connor’s close adaptation as a staged play of Marnie: But for all his stylistic flourishes, O’Connor – like Hitchcock before him – never really gets inside either Marnie’s frozen heart or her strange, forced marriage to Mark Rutland, the boss from whom she steals and who then traps her like a wounded animal [as Warleggan traps Elizabeth]. Just as most of the attempts to explain Marnie’s behaviour look ludicrously simplistic to a modern audience — the workings of the subconscious are infinitely more understood than they were 40 years ago – so the failure to explore Rutland’s equally bizarre behaviour and motives in marrying Marnie create a hollow centre … Gardner says Sean O’Connor belongs to kitchen-sink angry young man school

What can I say about this mass of writing. Their strength is in Graham’s gift for psychological complexity of some of the characters; his evocation of a place or milieu; his and the reader’s occasional deep bonding with the vulnerable, powerless, disabled, economically distressed. I have been noting some similarities of themes, character types, uses of a triangular love, with the Poldark books; most can be explained away as a trope of formulaic of generic fiction except for this kind of thing: at the core of several or a crucial incident is marital rape.

Robin Wood made the most interesting remarks (he wrote a book on Hitchcock’s films): Wood says Hitchcock ignores much else in the book and concentrates on sexual and emotional problems of men and women. Marnie’s rape scene, for Wood, offered “one of the purest treatments of sexual intercourse the cinema has given us; pure in its feeling for sexual tenderness. Yet what we see is virtually a rape. To the man it is an expression of tenderness, solicitude, responsibility; to the woman, an experience so desolating that after it she attempts suicide. Our response depends on our being made to share the responses of both characters at once.” A gender faultline all right.

This is not a common theme — the first cited is usually Galsworthy’s Man of Property (Solmes rapes his wife). What to make of it, I’m not sure: the feel in Graham is not voyeuristic misogyny (except in the case of Hitchcock’s famous film of 1965), but an awareness of women’s powerlessness, compassion for some of the raped women (though none submit more than once, and certainly not night after night as with Morwenna in The Four Swans); lack of class status and gender leads characters to be treated or behave in Graham’s books at times like hunted animals.

I also find in Graham an almost obsessive depiction of a husband or wife drawn to love for someone outside their marriage and this might have personal resonances, especially when the deserted character is disabled (he has numbers of disabled characters). In Marnie, the woman who played the crazed (sick) mother, Louise Latham said it was a challenge for her to act because (seeing the “terrible mother” sympathetically which no one else may have) “’it made you wonder why this terrible relationship occurred [between mother and daughter] and what was the cause of all this pain and anger.’ Latham began investigating the role by the coldness, fear and isolation and defensiveness that existed inside Bernice Edgar” (p. 62). Well this coldness, isolation, defensiveness is found in Valentine of the Poldark books, who grows up to become a psychologically cruel man who exploits a sexually vulnerable mentally disabled girl (Bella), but we learn (eventually) is a deeply lonely man who buys himself an orangutan for company, to have as a loving friend:


Photo of an orangutan (empathy for non-human animals seen throughout Graham’s writing)

How has this happened? during Valentine’s childhood his legal father George had been so suspicious Valentine is Ross’s biological son that he withdrew all love (from The Four Swans on) , Elizabeth his mother dies in The Angry Tide. In the 2015 films of the new Poldark, Elizabeth is cold to her baby, Valentine; not so in Graham’s book or first 1977 series — she favors Geoffrey Charles but she does not neglect her baby (script by Alexander Baron). But for years Ross refuses any acknowledgement and this comes to a disastrous final scene in Bella (Poldark 12, the last) where Ross is made to realize his profound error. The hero in Walking Stick is a similarly perverted man taking advantage of a lame girl. Perhaps all this is material comes from an underside of dark thought and feeling of the author’s encouraged by the misogynistic spy-thriller/mystery suspense genre?


This is a touching still from the film

Conversely and in quite a different spirit, some of Graham’s later short stories are touching and sweet: as when in one of his last Graham meets Demelza, or her spirit, and she is still grieving for the loss of Julia and Jeremy.

I blinked. In spite of the moon it was becoming very dark. I looked back, and in place of the house there was only some may trees, a pond, and the bubbling stream.
“It is very dark,” I said to her. “We’ll have to go careful because of the rough ground.”
She did not reply. I looked round and she was not there. Where she had been were waving grasses and some bracken and hart’s-tongue fern.
I was suddenly very lonely. But the pressure of her hand in mine, the pressure of her fingers, was still warm.

On the gathering night
From the faint harmony of an errant dream
I woke and found the moon’s quiet light
Quiet in the gathering night
Echoing its theme.

Then in the early dawn
Sadness was mine and the desire to stay
Lest the rich theme so young new born
Fading in early dawn
Wither away.

Now in the clamorous noon
Nothing is left me but an empty husk
Yet do I wait and hope for soon
Gone is the clamorous noon
Welcome the dusk
— from “Demelza”

An opera might seem a stretch in another direction: Nico Muly’s world premiere of Marnie, as an opera. The talk about the opera does not broach its central issues, only the symptoms and circumstances surrounding them. And the emphasis again on the deceitful woman. Let us remember that it was okay for Trump to be a fraud, but Hillary Clinton could not get past the accusation she is dishonest.


Sasha Cook, said to be the mezzo-soprano for the role at the Metrpolitan opera (2017)

I’m glad I have only two left on my list and will then return to the 12 comparatively sunny Poldark books. However, one must remember that the same man wrote in these two different genres and all the cross-overs in the two kinds of fiction there are to be found.

Ellen

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Cumberbatch in the 1890s costume (and the expression on his face in the contemporary scenes match)

Friends and readers,

Once more on these Sherlocks: my general assessment and a recap have been ably set forth by both my daughters (general assessment by Miss Izzy; perceptive recap by Anibundel). As Izzy says, the scenes were far too short, the lines ludicrously overproduced and action made over-melodramatic as movies and TV too are becoming more and more as a matter of course (or it would be not so oddly abruptly comic) aka script is crude. So far I agree. What interests me in Anibundel is the word “oddest:” “this was quite possibly, the oddest episode of Sherlock I’ve ever seen.”

I explore some of these odd elements in this exhausted reprise/coda of the third season of Sherlock (many months after the previous three, Last Vow, “Camp becomes Sentiment”). I suggest that at heart the series has all along had a gay sensibility, which, because the writers have now used up anything they had really to riff off of the original stories and films, faute de mieux came out very strongly in this coda. Rather like Alice in Wonderland everything else has shrunk or grown impossibly large.

First, as a retrospective on all we’ve had before (from A Study in Pink to The Reichenback Fall) this New Year’s special reduces the dazzling center of all of them to a drive to be super-clever, cleverer than any other costume drama on the block. As I think back I find the first season much better than that, and the second, especially actually having contemporary thematic relevance, though the obsessive repeating scenes of this and thus its overt central theme, hatred, fear, retreat, and paranoia have real purchase on what is displayed as news in public media this past year and enacted by the armies of many states.

But look at what that hatred is embodied in: an abominable bride herself, a dreadful creature, over-made-up, with dripping red lips, who appears to be a riff on one of the more memorable horror movies of the 1930s, sheerly on the basis of the bride’s appearance:

Sherlock-The-Abominable-Bride-Emelia-Ricoletti.

The team outdoes The Bride of Frankenstein, and Natasha O’Keeffe is given a camp opera diva name: Emilia Ricoletti. Remember Have Gun will Travel where Matt’s gun was all phallus? What an enormous one is here.

This is not just an outbreak of male insecurity (alluded to it when people refer to the misogyny run wild of this episode)? This mad image reappears several times, and is matched by Amanda Abbington as Mrs Watson turning up in a bridal outfit as elaborate and detailed and lacy as Diana Spencer’s, only she’s in black and with her head and utterly covered. No eyes to be seen even. Is this an allusion to the Muslim burka? Or is it fear of brides. Or, as in the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book, a send-up of quintessential heterosexual sexual customs?

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Open screen, all dissolving away

Structurally this is a time-traveling film which begins in the past, then fast forwards to now, then reverts, and then fast forward, revert, fast forward with a final revert: at first the 1890s are the reality, and then the 1890s are a dream/nightmare endured by a 21st century Sherlock, then the 1890s erupt again (like some Jekyll), take over for a while, and then suddenly Sherlock awakens, and we are to take this crazed past as dream, only the camera moves so swiftly and blends the time capsules so that when we end in the 1890s the inference is the contemporary age is the dream.

periodtwists
Periods twisting like a mobius strip

Within this moving remit, there are continual self-reflexive remarks about the events we are seeing, those remembered and those to come as written by Dr Watson, who is himself controlled (it seems) by an illustrator who has invented ludicrous hats and mustaches, as well as some inexorable material forcing him to keep Mrs Hudson to the margins of the text. Una Stubbs complains in the form of a caricature of her role in Conan Doyle’s stories:

MrsHudson

Mrs Hudson: And I noticed you’ve published another of your stories, Dr. Watson.
Dr Watson: – Yes, did you enjoy it?
Mrs Hudson – No.
Dr Watson: Oh?
Mrs Hudson: – I never enjoy them.
Dr Watson: – Why not?
Mrs Hudson: Well, I never say anything, do I? According to you, I just show people up the stairs and serve you breakfasts.
Dr Watson: Well, within the narrative, that is, broadly speaking, your function.
Mrs Hudson: My what?!
Dr Watson: Don’t feel singled out, Mrs. Hudson, I’m hardly in the dog one.
Mrs Hudson: “The dog one?” I’m your landlady, not a plot device. Do you mean The Hound Of The Baskervilles? And you make the rooms so drab and dingy.
Dr Watson: Oh, blame it on the illustrator, he’s out of control! I’ve had to grow this moustache just so people will recognise me.

What she could complain about more cogently with respect to this episode and the whole of the third season is this: the inset story is though one dependent on mad femme fatales, with a crazed bride wants to murder her bridegroom and succeeds. None of this has any serious reality. Where there is some is in thee women at the margins of the film and they function as mainstream reassurance: they stand and wait for and on their men. That is the use of Mary Watson (as we all know, Freeman’s partner in real life). The film-makers use the recurring woman characters in this series for reassurance of emotional warmth and continuity, stability — a sop to the mainstream audience oddly out of place. I’ve read the Mary Marston will be killed off if this series ever recurs again. Because the shows don’t care in the least about women

InNormalclothes
One of her piquant gestures

This includes Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) as a woman in the 1890s living as a man, dressed, acting as a man (tranvestite anyone?) in order to have the active male career she was denied in 2015. it’s reassuring to recognize her. Remember how hard she was slapped, anyone? Some women viewers have kept asserting how the women in this Sherlock series are strong. If so, they are hardly ever there, getting 5% of a typical program (an exception was the episode which featured Lindsay Duncan as a Mrs Thatcher type), and continually as mainstream conventional as the males are individually questioning norms of all sorts.

There is also the attempt of Watson humanly to reach Holmes. To reach the depth of gravitas somehow conveyed by Bernard Cumberbatch now and again, and more frequently by Freeman (especially when he’s given lines from Conan Doyle as he is several times). This sort of thing could have been the heart of the story and given it some meaning, especially when because there are some telling stills and a dialogue between Watson and Sherlock at a still central point of the whirling:

Watson: Holmes, against absolutely no opposition whatsoever, I am your closest friend.
Holmes: I concede it.
Watson: I am currently attempting to have a perfectly normal conversation with you.
Holmes: — Please don’t.
Watson: — Why do you need to be alone?
Holmes: If you are referring to romantic entanglement, Watson, which I rather fear you are, as I have often explained before, all emotion is abhorrent to me. It is the grit in a sensitive instrument.
Watson: — The crack in the lens.
Holmes: — The crack in the lens.
Watson: Yes.
Holmes: Well, there you are, you see, I’ve said it all before.
Watson: No, I wrote all that.
Holmes: You’re quoting yourself from The Strand Magazine.
Watson: — Well, exactly.
Holmes: — Those are my words, not yours!
Watson: That is the version of you that I present to the public.
Holmes: The brain without a heart. The calculating machine.
Watson: I write all of that, Holmes, and the readers lap it up. But I do not believe it.
Holmes: Well, I’ve a good mind to write to your editor.
Watson: You are a living, breathing man.
– You’ve lived a life, you have a past.
Holmes: — A what?!
Watson: — Well, you must have had
Holmes: — Had what?
Watson: — You know.
Holmes: — No.
Watson: Experiences.
Holmes: Pass me your revolver, I have a sudden need to use it.
Watson: Damn it, Holmes, you are flesh and blood, you have feelings, you have You must have Impulses.
Holmes: Dear Lord, I have never been so impatient to be attacked by a murderous ghost.
Watson: As your friend, as someone who worries about you. Wwhat made you like this?
Holmes: Oh, Watson Nothing made me. (DOG YELPS) I made me.

Throughawindow (Large)2
In this still it would seem Sherlock is a figment of Watson’s mind

Their words suggest that Gatis and Moffatt have fallen for the shallow view of the Doyle’s hero that he is cold, inhuman, and somehow sick because not sociable. The cant of the last 30 years has been that people only come alive when socializing. So this moment is not developed into anything beyond the literal surface meaning at all. Yet the 1st and 2nd seasons of the series showed they were much more intelligent and aware than that. So they kept this superficial. If you can credit third grade psychology Sherlock is a horrible person, but the world has been filled with all sorts of people who lived and thrived and wrote and created mostly for long periods alone. Thoreau, anyone? Is he disabled? He denies it and this dialogue certainly gives us nothing to suggest he is. If it had been delivered less abruptly, it would have been witty.

The only depth of emotion permitted is fraternal: implicitly if it were allowed (as it was in the 1st and 2nd seasons) between Watson and Sherlock, between Rupert Graves as Lestrade (yes) and Sherlock, affection strong. We have two Mycrofts, and here is the core of this piece, the give-away. The startling reconfiguration of Mark Gatiss as the caring Mycroft in 2015 as the indifferent gross obscenely fat Mycroft of the 1890s. The grotesqueries of his hands, his face, his stomach are insisted on; we watch him eat like some spider and it’s made disgusting, the actor or computer image of Gatiss filmed so as to arouse recoil. I’ve seen this in Sondheim: the grotesque male or female body: made hugely large (as in Sally Potter’s lesbian Orlando out of Virginia Woolf’s book). He matches the bride’s overgrown gun. And he seethes with hatred of Holmes. Gatiss’ hidden nightmare self.

So the scenes with Moriarity seem oddly beside the point, not worked into any of the stories: Andrew Scott like some dead wax figure. The scene beside the falls can be seen as sheer contrast to all the concern (moving into the sentiment of the third season) the other characters display for the alienated Sherlock. Or its another hallucination, matching the crazed murderous bride. All coming out of whose mind? From where? in the third season we met quite a conventional pair of parents for Sherlock (the father played by Cumberbatch’s real actor father) and Gatiss as the caring brother (recurs here).

One obvious explanation for the existence of this curious on one level inexplicable travesty of all that went before is money and advertisers. I understand an enormous number of people tuned in to watch in the UK and US and wherever else the show reached. Appointment TV returns. It’s to be rerun on PBS and to be put on their website for 10 days (“only”) starting a week from now. The film-makers themselves invite us to see it this way. They tell us this was a chance to dress the actors up in Edwardian dress. They want to feel they made a crude, abrupt comic soup, ratcheted up by computer techniques, in the background the usual clanging music. Camp.

But if you watch and pay attention, Freeman as Watson has the same longing disquieted look he had in the first season. The key is to relate this to all the grotesque imagery found in many gay works, the gravity with which we are given bizarre camp images. The disability is not to be found in any character of this series. It could be located in the society around them, only the film-makers elected not to allow us to believe in any outside society (the way we do in Conan Doyle and most of the Sherlock films, including the most recent, Mr Holmes). So they are condemned to go ricocheting round and round because their target is closed off.

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A typical expression of Watson not only in this episode but throughout the series, from his first psychiatric session on …

Ellen

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‘What the deuce is it to me?”‘ he interrupted impatiently: ‘you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Mr-Holmes-train.jpog

Dear friends and readers,

Mr Holmes has a couple of obstacles or problems to wide-spread acclaim. It is melancholy. Its themes include how to cope with aging and its losses, death, stigmatized class status (a no-no). For those brought up on the action-adventure of Robert Downey, Jude Law, Michael Strong and Rachel McAdams, it will not answer your expectations; for those still wedded to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (to say too little of the justified paranoia of WW2), it will make fun of the 1943 fanatical adherence to the deerstalker hunting cap and pipe (Holmes goes to a black-and-white simulacrum of such a movie and just cannot sit through it); it lacks the giddy pace and surrealism of the first 2 seasons of the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman Sherlock concoctions; but to say it’s not Holmesian (as the New Yorker guru critic in residence, Anthony Lane means to insinuate) is just not so.

I concede fully that the perspective is post-modern (conventional thought and cant, especially about death and grief be damned), that there is something deliciously Jamesian (Henry) about it. Characters have deeply traumatic encounters on park benches while wearing impeccable hats.

MorahanMcKellen

Hat
Close-up of hat

They fail to understand one another, cannot bear one another’s emotions. It moves slowly, with shots that capture a poetry of stillness and costume drama in its green landscapes, seascapes, the sina qua non steam train rushing serpentine and noisily through. More than twice, though in one climactic instance it matters as someone is (reminding me of a Trollope scene in The Prime Minister) voluntarily smashed to smithereens.

But that it’s not Holmesian is unfair. Once you try to drill down to what could be the psychological or thematic or even political motive or moral explanation of at least two of its flashback and front story plots, you end up with ideas that will not bear any scrutiny. Convention defeats me here: I do not claim to be writing a consistently post-modern blog so allow me to explicate and show at least miminal story consistency.

There are three time frames: the present, 1947, Mr Holmes, aged 93, losing the last vestiges of memory from the past, living on the south coast of England, cared for by a housekeeper (natch) Mrs Munroe (Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (Milo Parker) who turns to Mr Holmes as father figure because his own father died in WW2: a bitter moment of memory has Linney as Mrs Munroe remembering how, like herself, her husband, was corroded by the stigmas of lower class status, and for his efforts to become a pilot in WW2, was blown to bits immediately (his mates, content to be menial mechanics all survived the war).

laura_linney_in_mr-holmes

Miloparker

A story from thirty years ago is painstakingly put together (& dramatized as flashbacks) by Mr Holmes about Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) who had two miscarriages or stillborn children, cannot accept this and whose grief is only moderated by lessons she eventually finds for the glass harp (Frances la Tour, the crook teacher), whose intensity bothers her husband to the point he cuts off her money-supply and refuses to set up stone monuments for the never-developed nor born children. It is not giving away the story to say she plots to kill her husband.

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Holmes (McKellen) remembering (a difficult feat in the this story) Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan)

It’s not true though that there is no sense to this story. The moral is the husband was wrong; he should have allowed his wife to be deluded by the crook teacher — this reminded me of Woody Allen’s frequent defenses of fortune-tellers in many of his movies and there is a fortune-telling scene here.

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The glass harp medium (Frances de la Tour, aka Mrs Western in the 1997 Tom Jones)

Another backstory told through interwoven flashbacks is set in Japan: Holmes has gone to Hiroshima (1946?) to obtain a promised solution of which is said to restore the memory, only to find himself confronted by a Japanese man who accuses Holmes of seducing his father away from him and his mother through the stories of Dr Watson (The Study in Scarlet is the culprit), all the while we know that Holmes now deplores Watson’s fictions a providing false gratifying endings and heroism, with many details so wrong they are embarrassing. Of course this story “falls to pieces in your hands” (as Lane says). Worse, the explanation is reactionary defense of “national” and family secrets, of absurd honor which one sacrifices one’s life for? What Conan Doyle story does not do something like this?

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It is Holmes’s self-imposed mission in the film to retrieve: to retrieve the memory of who his Japanese man was (until near the end Holmes believes the man a liar, coward, and that he never met him — the man just deserted his family); to compensate for how inadequate, insensitive, absurd, selfish was his Jeremy Brett-like behavior to Anne Kelmot (the way this Kelmot thread is dramatized is closely reminiscent of the 1980s BBC Holmes movies), something which depends on memory and rewriting Watson’s story.

Much of this is done through the techniques of filmic epistolarity: voice-over with Holmes writing out new texts to replace Watson’s. Part of the fun of this is withholding. We do not see Mycroft (who explicates the Japanese story) until near the end of the film and it’s John Sessions (for me memorable as Henry Fielding, also in the 1997 Tom Jones); we do not see the bumbling inspector (played by Phil Davis, great in sinister, threatening roles in Dickensian film adaptations, now Jud in Poldark), until near the end. There is fun in recognizing these character actors from other costume dramas quietly semi-parodying the roles.

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Indeed the uplift at the close is the same fantasy Dickens plays upon in A Christmas Carol. We are asked to believe that people can make up for what they did wrong in the past, find a new person like the one you so hurt now to do better by. We do come near searing calamity in the present, brought on by both Mrs Munroe and Mr Holmes. I can’t deny that sometimes people (as characters) are lucky. The film is as Dickensian as it is Jamesian.

Hattie Morahan was once again “emotionally aflame” — Lane talks of her in A Doll’s House in BAM, but she was astonishing in Duchess of Malfi and I still watch her as Elinor refusing solace. I felt bad for Laura Linney(unbeatable in Love Actually, unforgettable in Hyde Park on the Hudson) that she was given the howling role. I found myself crying at the close because I couldn’t believe in the self-reproach and better behavior of our principal trio: Mr Holmes and Mrs Munroe, to say nothing of the maturation of Roger.

If I had anything to object to in this film it was that both Ian McKellen (too many great films and plays to begin to cite) and Laura Linney could have been given much more deeply nuanced moments. She is literally kept behind bars, looking out from windows:

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The film-makers were chary about releasing stills of McKellen showing the ravages of old age in the film, as he falls, eats, puts down stones for those who have gone before him. There was a pandering to the sub-genre of old man-and-hopeful worshipping-boy

OTOH, the beautiful loving feeling at the close of the film was authentic. Doyle’s ever-cool, ever witty, impatient Sherlock is now taking the risk of giving of himself; entering into loving relationships directly. Mr Holmes will leave the property to Mrs Monro and her boy when he dies. We see Mrs Munro and Roger in the garden working together and we see them walk off hand-in-hand too. The boy is now respectful of his mother under an eye of approval by Mr Holmes. He is 94, and we last seem him putting down stones (as Ann Kelmot did) for each of his friends now gone to the earth. He bows before them murmuring a lullaby. McKellen himself is very old now. It is a summer movie because through Jeffrey Hatcher’s marvelous screenplay McKellan as Mr Holmes is believable and comforts you.

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

PoldarkCountry
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.

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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

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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.

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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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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been in the habit of treating the presentations I’ve heard over the last months at the Washington Area Print Group (a subdivision of the Sharp society) in rooms in the Library of Congress on my Sylvia blog (e.g., a talk on Writing with Scissors) as part of a diary, but thought the topic of this talk sufficiently germane to the terrain of this blog as it’s developed (see The Way We Watch TV Now) to warrant summary and commentary here.

Prof Metcalf developed an aspect of his book, the relationship of technology and economics with the kind of narrative that appears on TV. so the burden of his song was: Changes in technology and economics within TV have changed the way TV is made and how we experience it. He delivered his talk entertainingly — accompanied by many many stills.

He began with what TV was and had shots of older TVs in their wooden furniture. In the 1950s TV represented a central threat to the film industry, whose first ploys were teen films, big spectacles and 3-D movies. TV sold its product as one safe for a family in its private living room; the language was that the program was invited into this sanctuary. TV was radio with pictures and sought to reinforce culutral values of the family. In the US its purpose was to provide eyes and ears to watch and to see commercials.

A central writer for US TV at the time was Paul S. Newman who understood the particular format of TV programs meant characters couldn’t undergo transformation over a season as this would be disruptive and defeat the repeated expectation of sameness. He was superb at writing a structure not easy to do: you must produce a segment which moves to a peak at its end, yet at the same time be self-enclosed; you must avoid lulls because at any time the person can switch using the remote. Admittedly this structure does not necessarily make for great art (an understatement).

The BBC developed differently. It was paid for by millions of individuals who had licenses to watch TV, so it was commercial free. Its aims were education, elevation and entertainment. Traditional theater could appear on British TV much more easily; its purse was to question. There developed a tradition of challenging the audience. Programs were not meant to be re-used, re-run. In the US each program was developed with the idea of endless re-use. Total contrast.

The first long-form TV came from PBS and Masterpiece theater, which Metcalf thought unfortunate. He called British costume drama boring for most people, staid. He never mentioned any specifically after that. It was a commercial channel which offered a model others could follow: Hill Street Blues. Male soap operas. (
For myself I love the PBS costume drama format and disagree fundamentally with Metcalf: these have been influential for good art. What is the problem is Metcalf speaks for the male viewer without awareness of this.)

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The cast of Hill Street Blues, all men but two and these women dressed to look like men

People (he should have said “men”) were invited to watch the suffering of men. A typical episode would have the on-going A story (over the arc of the season), within the episode a story which concludes, and 3 other shorter on-going stories (B, C, and D, generally taking 3 episodes). He named a series of male-centered programs — like so many film critics I’ve encountered (many of them men), most of what he then cited was masculinist, not to say (not admitted) misogynist stuff. He also cited Wise Guy, The Fugitive. You need the mythos (the ongoing myth) and free standing episodes within that. Like others he then credited Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective (Michael Gambon) as quietly influential ever after. It used the situation comedy of the hospital ward as developed in British TV. He mentioned The Sopranos. These are versions of instalment publication (began in Victorian era). I suggested that Breaking Bad had departed from this in having one long story with two parallel heroes for 42 episodes. That’s part of what made it powerful and great art.

He also talked of the influence of the “concept album,” where all the music centered on coherent themes. At the same time itunes and downloading enable viewers to select a segment or episode or single song to listen to. We’ve moved back from the album concept to the single. What happened in the CD world (especially MTV) influenced what happened in the mini-series TV and DVD worlds.

What changed this situation? First, the cable companies who offered good and recent movies (“premium”), and in the 1980s in both Hollywood and the UK films were transformed by new ideals, technologies, independence. Prof Metcalf thought the advent of remote control devices next pushed writers into writing segmented TV: the point is to allow switching back and forth. (Which I dislike; once I sit down to watch a program I mean to watch that program until it’s done.) Then the VCR player ($1389) which allowed people to tape say the HBO movie. But this cannot compete with the DVD — which allows the film-makers to market their product divided up into serving sizes. You can curate your own TV. Many people now have a movie screen on their wall for their TV watching so they are imitating a movie experience.

The talk became more original when he began to talk of what the DVD has done to movies. For example, what is the authoritative version of a movie? You can buy Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in a huge box with the hour-long episodes with commentary on, with deleted scenes, with features showing how an episode was made, what were the aims of the film-makers, and an alternative ending. I mentioned that I had bought Michael Winterbottom’s 6 part Trip to Italy to discover that the film-maker had gathered all the deleted scenes and then arranged them thematically to provide another half-hour of programming. A DVD in effect can be seen as providing manuscripts of the programs as well as later polished versions. They are packaged to look like books, to sit on shelves in a bookcase. Prof Metcalf suggested that the DVD which provides the largest amount of programming is what is seen as authoritative. We are paying more attention to screenplays as these are published and we can gather the precise lay out and emotional structure, study dialogue and description, montage. Very gradually both US and UK TV began the practice of hiring stars to shore up long-form stories.

The way we watch TV changed the TV we watch. The mini-series are now manufactured with DVDs and DVD watching in mind.

To some extent the talk degenerated at this point because he and the audience began to talk of favorite mini-series, which (again) were mostly masculinist, most of them produced for commercial TV. This reminded me of how in other places I’ve been women are unwilling to criticize the violence and misogyny of computer games, will let the men take over discussing football — for there were as many women in the audience as men. Implicitly the BBC and PBS took a beating, which brought home to me how many of these sorts of programs are aimed at women or at least have the female audience at least as much in mind. Many of the series were clearly highly violent. Three aggressive looking males on the covers of the DVDs.

But as he talked the BBC and British programming emerged as centrally providing quality to imitate and modify to an American model. He differentiated between mini-series that had a single person controlling the vision, and that still happens in British TV where a single author or at most 3 authors will write the scripts and the script writer become the organizing linchpin of what is done) and one that was the result of a fluid team of people. He also talked of how now that the soap operas has become a province for male suffering, comedy is a place for women to vent and expose issues of concern to them (Sex and the City, Nurse Betty).

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This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze

American TV stopped in the 1950s but British TV continues to present live performances from the theater. The acerbic British TV sitcom may be regarded as dropped into melodrama to produce modern versions of say Sherlock Holmes. Someone mentioned how the rape story in the Downton Abbey fourth season outraged people; Metcalf was interested in how such an incident often covers but 3 episodes.

Some series especially praised and discussed: The Wire, for women and men, The Gilmore Girls (this appears to be a blend of screwball comedy and melodramatic romance, reminding me of Austen films). Clive Owens in Knick, a Steve Sodenberg product: Sodenberg did everything but write the screenplay and act in the series. Metcalf noted that again and again if you watch an individual episode it may seem funny, light, but when you watch the arc of the season, the series comes out as more serious, at times implicitly tragic (or explicitly as Breaking Bad). The good do win or if they go down to defeat we feel for them and there is sensitivity to beauty. These citations did bring out how often a Network or producer will cancel a mini-series that seems to be doing so well, getting so much praise. Why? the audience demographics are too old: they will not buy the products. The show is there for the commercials. The corporations making these are not content with modest or high profits; they want huge ones. (This is the sort of thinking that did in the rentals of books-on-tape and the choices of middle-brow excellent books not best-sellers nor high prestige old classics.) Lost leaders are programs which are made to attract people knowing they will make less money, but gather an audience who will remain loyal to the station for a while.

I enjoyed the talk though recognized the skewed nature of the presentation (of the examples). Afterward when a group of us went over to a restaurant to have dinner together the talk really did stay on the topic, on the TV people watch and how they watch. In this group many watched TV on their computers, as part of Netflix or streaming deals. When it did get down to what people really watched among this group, it was late night viewing (after all work was done and the person could do no more) of less avante garde popular shows. Metcalf said he watches all his viewing on his computer on some special channel where he can reach programs and movies made in a variety of countries across the decades.

What am I watching late at night just now? Ken Taylor’s Jewel in the Crown out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan.

Therapedheroine
Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners the raped heroine

theherotreatedunjustly
Art Malik as Hari Kumar, the deeply betrayed unjustly treated hero – it made his career

CharlesDanceGeraldineJames
Charles Dance and Geraldine James as our traditional white couple

These brilliant 1970s series didn’t make it into Prof Metcalf’s narrative …. This would include the 74 Pallisers (a Simon Raven product) and Poldark (written by several people and it departs a lot in sexual detail and the ending from the books, but directed and produced by the same men) — both ran on US TV in the same year. The book of essays coming out on BBC costume historical drama which includes mine on Andrew Davies’s two adaptations of Trollope novels credits the 1967 Forsyte Saga and its popularity with starting the long decades of making such films, recently fallen off here in the US because of lack of money — so one gets thrillers instead. Downton Abbey has not been enough to re-start the engine for making mini-series from classic books. It is itself not an adaptation after all. The Singing Detective actually belongs to this narrative too.

But it was nonetheless instructive to listen to (Prof Metcalf knows a lot about TV) and I wish I could afford the book.

Ellen

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